By Hooker by Crook — The Path to Angel 4: Undercover (1994)

Dave charts the evolution of the real final chapter in the Angel saga with director Richard Schenkman and screenwriter Dode B. Levenson.

Robert Vincent O’Neill was no stranger to the seedy side of celluloid, and began his career cranking out grimy exploitation quickies like The Psycho Lover (1970) and Blood Mania (1970). It was down on the strip, though, where he found his forte, penning the essential Wings Hauser-starring twofer of Vice Squad (1982) and Deadly Force (1983). The former was about a hooker, the latter was about a serial killer – and it was combining these two worlds that would produce the best film of his career, Angel (1984). 

Admittedly, the notion of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl turning tricks on Sunset Boulevard while a necrophile serial killer stalks the neighbourhood might be regarded as somewhat problematic in these more culturally sensitive times. Nevertheless, O’Neill delivers a gritty and captivating slice of street life, and litters it with a delightful cast of kooks that includes Susan Tyrrell, Rory Calhoun, and Dick Shawn in drag. 

With Angel pulling in six times its budget, it’s no surprise that Avenging Angel (1985) arrived the following year, retaining O’Neill as writer-director but casting a new lead – something that’d happen with every subsequent sequel. Advancing the story four years, it fails to capture the desperate realism that was woven through the original, and instead becomes a little cartoonish, especially in regard to the returning Tyrrell and Calhoun. Angel III: The Final Chapter (1988) jumps the shark and moves our titular character to New York, changing her from a budding law student and into a freelance photographer. But what it loses in continuity, it makes up for in sleaze thanks to a backdrop of pornography and trafficking which is handled with aplomb by Tom DeSimone – a veteran of the adult film industry. The Final Chapter was the first of the Angels that didn’t get a theatrical run and, considering its subtitle, there was no expectation for a fourth – not even from the man who’d eventually direct it: 

“I was hired to direct a movie called ‘Assault with a Deadly Weapon’” recalls acclaimed director Richard Schenkman (The Man from Earth (2007)). “However, well into pre-production, [executive producer] Larry Kuppin approached me to say that for ‘some territories’ it might be useful for him to be able to market the film as an Angel sequel. He asked me to shoot alternate versions of a few scenes so that there could be a variant of the movie in which our main character was not just a photographer with a past, but that they were actually the grown-up Angel. I was not nuts for the idea, and I certainly wouldn’t have cast a blonde actress in the lead role. In fact, it was pretty humiliating and I had no intention of putting my name on such a film.”

Indeed, credited to Schenkman’s nom de plume ‘George Axmith’, there is something about ANGEL 4: UNDERCOVER that doesn’t sit quite right, so it’s no surprise to learn that retro-fitting was the order of the day. Aside from the name of the main character, the similarities to O’Neill’s originals are tenuous at best, as forensic photographer Molly Stewart (Darlene Vogel) goes undercover as a groupie called Angel in order to find out who killed her streetwalker friend Paula, who had become part of the entourage for chart-topping heavy metal kids AK47.

However, once you get over the fact it’s been shoe-horned to fit, there’s much to admire in Schenkman’s picture, particularly how it’s set within the music industry of the early ‘90s – something that was researched with eagerness by screenwriter Dode B. Levenson.

“I believe the title on my original draft was Rock n’ Roll Angela title that actually reflects the plot of the film! To prep for the script, I read Frederic Dannen’s book, Hit Men [the controversial portrait of the pop industry], and I also interviewed the late, great Don Waller. Don wrote countless liner notes for Rhino Records and he had forgotten more than I ever knew about the record and music business.”

It’s an interesting spin because as a subplot, we’re treated to Hank (Patrick Kilpatrick), a no-nonsense record company heavy, threatening the DJs at KZEK (where Angel’s boyfriend Joel (Mark De Carlo) works) to ensure that AK47’s records stay in heavy rotation across the station’s airwaves. He’s been sent there by Geoffrey Kagen (Roddy McDowall, sporting a delightful East End accent), the band’s manager who sees huge potential in his star rockers – not least the lead singer Piston Jones (Shane Fraser), who also happens to be Angel’s number one suspect for her mate’s murder. 

For a first-time screenwriter, Levenson’s script works really well — although with Schenkman’s history at MTV (he was an original staffer) he was keen to tweak it, which brought its own set of problems. 

“The script did need a little improvement,remembers Schenkman. “And because I knew a thing or two about the world of music, I did extensive re-writing on the screenplay with Dode. In fact, Dode felt I should receive a credit for the work I did, but his writing partner at the time, Steve Pearl, refused to consider it – which is doubly annoying as he went and put a pseudonym [‘Frank Chance’] on the picture anyway!”

Nevertheless, there’s room for a handful of in-jokes, such as a rental of Tom DeSimone’s Reform School Girls (1986), a Hellraiser (1987) reference (another series executive producer Kuppin was attached to), and a brilliant on-screen gig for Boogeyman (2005) helmer Stephen Kay as an overly sarcastic music video director helplessly trying to control the wayward Piston Jones. Fraser does alright in the rock star’s leather pants, but he veers towards caricature too often, with his inability to button his shirt and delivering lines like a weird hybrid of Richard E. Grant and Martin Kemp in The Krays (1991). He’s someone that the writer and filmmaker struggle to agree on as well.

“I thought he embodied Piston,” nods Levenson. “He was obviously intended to be a British version of Axl Rose, and I thought he went a long way to making that feel authentic.”

“Well, it was my insistence we get a real musician,” sighs Schenkman. “I felt he had charisma, and he certainly had the right look, but honestly – he might not have been the best choice. Bigger name actors not only read for that role, but other roles too. It could not only have been a very different picture if I’d hired one or two of them, but it would loom much larger in infamy!”

Speaking of infamy, Angel 4 would be the sole scored film of Kevin Gilbert.

“I was thrilled I got to hire him. He did an amazing job,” swoons Schenkman over the uber-talented musician. Famed for co-writing the hit album Tuesday Night Music Club for his then-girlfriend Sheryl Crow, Gilbert would be found dead in his apartment from auto-erotic asphyxiation in September 1996. The tabloids deemed it a case of gifted boy artist meets girl artist, mentors her to success, and then gets left in the dust.

“I’m glad you like the movie,” remarks Schenkman. “I’m confused as to why though.”

It’s simple. It’s because it’s symptomatic of virtually every forgotten film from the VHS era:

Angel 4 has the façade of cookie cutter shelf-filler, but scratch beneath the surface and there lies so many stories of dashed ambition, double-crosses, infighting and tragedy, that it gives the movie a new dimension, and justifies the need for a twenty-first century reappraisal.

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