Creepy People in Deep Texas

Sweet Sixteen

The early 1980s slasher boom really did lead to a whole lot of movies all about special events in a person’s life. Calendar events, holidays, random moments that would mean something to a person. If a producer thought, “you know, school picture day could be stressful, right?” then four months later The Yearbook Picture Day Murders would be in theaters. We can blame Halloween for this, and Black Christmas, as they both proved the viability of slasher flicks around holidays. And then the glut led to more films for every special event until Prom Night in 1980 showed that you didn’t even need a holiday to make the formula work; you could do it for any special event you wanted.

While the formula had proven profitable, and there was a glut of other films all coming along to build on this slasher craze, not every film could be a winner. Some events were better for the slasher formula than others, as proven by 1983’s Sweet Sixteen. This film did come out late in the cycle, with most of the “event slashers” coming out in 1980 and 1981, so already we’re working with a picked over genre with an increasingly tired formula. The film does try to change things up some, with a series of killings focused on men (not the usual female co-eds). But the central premise, a sweet sixteen party to cap the slasher film, does lead to very icky subject matter that, even in 1983, should have been reconsidered.

Specifically, the film focuses on Melissa Morgan (Aleisa Shirley), who moves into rural Texas with her family so her father, Dr. John Morgan (Patrick Macnee), so that he can study native burial sites and dig for artifacts. Melissa, as the film tells us repeatedly, is a young, beautiful woman that every man in town lusts after. She goes to bars, she hangs out with older men, she drinks and smokes. She’s a mature woman, the film seems to tell us. Also, she’s only fifteen. The “Sweet Sixteen” in the film is her upcoming birthday party. Yes, the film is explicitly lusting after a minor. As I said, it gets pretty icky.

This made worse by the fact that the only character that gets naked in the film is, in fact, Melissa. No one else in the film is made into an object of lust, nor lusted after by the camera itself, outside of our fifteen-year-old titular character. And no one in the film seems to think it’s weird that everyone in the movie wants to get with a fifteen year old girl. Sure, her dad does mention she’s fifteen to one guy that comes a’callin’, but that reads more as an overprotective dad than some violation of the town’s ethical mores. All the scuzzy men, and a few not-so-scuzzy ones, wish they could get with her despite her age. Even though the actress playing her was twenty at the time that doesn’t change how creepy this all feels.

In fact, it taints other reactions around the town, making me question just what goes on in this Texas town behind closed doors. The sheriff in town, Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins), has a teenage daughter, Marci (scream queen Dana Kimmell, who also appeared in Friday the 13th Part III), and the two seem very close. Too close, frankly. While the film never shows anything untoward between them, and there’s even a subplot about Marci trying to marry her dad off to a very thirsty, eligible woman, it also reads like she’s testing him, looking to see if he wants someone else or is secretly into his daughter just like she’s into him. As I said, all the sexual politics of this film are skewed all because of a few bad decisions in the planning stage and I couldn’t help but read every single relationship in the film as fucked up. That is not a great place to take the film.

Now, there were ways they could have fixed this, of course. Melissa could still be the subject of the film, and could still be gearing up for her Sweet Sixteen. But if the film wanted to lust after anyone then it should have given her an older sister, or have her befriend a high school senior, or something. And it needed to focus more heavily on the fact that she’s fifteen and that lusting after her is wrong. Also, don’t have her get naked multiple times in the film, guys. That should just be one of those obvious things no one had to say. And yet…

I’m sure some would argue, “it was the 1980s. That was a different time.” But was it? Was it really? I think that’s trying to justify a bad plot line setup by saying “older eras can’t be judged by current standards.” Minors are minors and when we look back at previous ages we judge them by our current standards. Just because brides in Medieval times could be young doesn’t mean we should think that’s okay because, “it was a different time.” You can’t help but see things through the lens of your current world view. The main character is fifteen. That’s a full stop right there for all the rest of the story around her, and the film struggles to ever get past that point.

A better argument is that every time someone lusts after the girl they end up dead. I can get behind that. “She’s fifteen, they’re creepy, so they had to die.” There are two problems with that interpretation, the first of which is that some of the guys that die (or are at least attacked) are close to her age and those should be considered appropriate relationships. A high schooler dating another high schooler is appropriate, at least in comparison to much older men wanting to have sex with this underage girl. The other issue is that the killer wasn’t going after the guys because they were creeping on a fifteen year old girl; they’re doing it through some delusion where they’re saving their own sister, over and over again. It’s weird and very tacked on.

The killer (and spoilers for a forty year old movie) is Melissa’s mother, Joanne Morgan (Susan Strasberg). Except she’s not really Joanne; she’s Joanne’s sister, Tricia. Joanne killed herself in a psychiatric hospital when she was a teen after being molested by her father. Tricia killed the dad, and then assumed Joanne’s identity when her sister died. Then she’s been going around for the last thirty years avenging her sister’s death over and over again. Is any of this hinted at in the film? Not really at all (aside from one off hand comment about how Joanne “looks different all these years later”). It’s a twist made to justify the machinations of the film but it doesn’t really get supported by the plot of the film. And it really doesn’t do anything for Melissa’s character. It just doesn’t work.

I do appreciate that the killer is a woman, a rarity in the slasher genre (outside of the first Friday the 13th), I also appreciate that the victims are all men. These are twists to the formula that work well. What I don’t appreciate is how much time is spent not focusing on Melissa as a character (instead treating her like a sex object), and how little time is given to Joanne so we can learn anything about her or figure out, hey, maybe there’s something shady about her. These characters are shunted to the periphery so that the film can focus on the sheriff, his daughter (who is the true protagonist of the film), and a side plot about the native artifacts (that absolutely goes nowhere in the context of the movie). It is, in short, an absolute mess.

There were ways to make a film about Sweet Sixteen killings work (hell, just look at the more recent Totally Killer, which was also a mess but a far more watchable one). The film needed to be adjusted and shifted to make Melissa more innocent, less an object of lust, and, of course, the protagonist of her own film. The movie needed to get its head out of the gutter about its fifteen-year-old lead character. It needed to be better. Of course it also needed a massive rewrite to fix all its other flaws. Really, it needed to be a different, far better movie. This film is almost unwatchable, but even if (like me) you can sit through some real shit you’re still going to be creeped out by the sexual politics and dynamics of this film. Better, just don’t watch this aged, creepy, artifact of a time that never needed to exist at all.