Dead Girls Don’t Tango (1992): A Dance to Forget

A weary Dave is left sighing at a strange footnote in the already peculiar partnership of director John Carr and writer Philip Yordan.

If you’ve a penchant for the peculiar in terms of genre movies then at some point in your life you will have stumbled across the cut-and-shut shockery of Night Train to Terror (1985). Pieced together from three other pictures (Cataclysm (1980), Scream Your Head Off (1981) and Death Wish Club (1984)) and given a fresh wraparound, it’s a disjointed if maddeningly compelling experience. However, two names stand out from this portmanteau of pain: director John Carr and writer Philip Yordan.

Carr was a former private detective who started out in motion pictures by penning the teleplay for the pilot of The Phantom (1961), an unsuccessful attempt to bring Lee Falk’s famous comic strip creation to life. After that he wrote and directed a variety of barely-seen movies that even Carr himself confessed he struggled to find after they were made, most notably a couple with American crooner Troy Cory: The Star Maker (1968) and Buster Ladd (1969). It’s his partnership with Yordan, though, that raises an eyebrow.

Beginning with the allegedly unfinished Scream Your Head Off [1] and continuing through to the unaccounted for Too Bad About Jack (1994), the union of a director whose films barely existed out in the wild and an Oscar winning scripter is a head-scratcher of epic proportions – but then Yordan’s own career could never be described as predictable.

With over one-hundred screenwriting gigs on Yordan’s resume, in his 2009 essay for the Film Noir Foundation Alan K. Rode questioned whether Yordan’s career was the most elaborate ‘front’ in Hollywood history [2]. Yordan, you see, despite his Academy Award for Broken Lance (1954), was often employed as a mask for blacklisted writers, with his actual contributions towards the scripts he’d been credited as writing up for debate. Indeed, in some quarters Yordan was considered a credit-grabber, entering deals with left-wing scribes like Ben Maddow that would see him take acclaim for movies like Man Crazy (1953) and The Naked Jungle (1957).

Chances are San Diego was the common ground between Carr and Yordan. The latter spent much of the ‘80s there, residing in a working-class neighbourhood and dusting down unproduced screenplays that could be repurposed for a modern audience [3]. The Californian county is certainly the focus of DEAD GIRLS DON’T TANGO, with its legendary cinema, La Paloma [4], located in the beachside city of Encinitas, being the heartbeat. It’s here we meet Jack (the cheekbones and chin of newcomer Kevin Lloyd), who’s rolled up to the picture-house of his Aunt Ruth (Toni Covington) in the hope of a bed for a few nights. She’s the closest relative he has since the death of his mother, not that there’s any love lost between the pair (“You drove her to an early grave!”). A strange sort, he has a proclivity for pairing blue jeans with black shoes and making inconsequential utterances like “I don’t sleep much. I walk around at night”. All of which does little to lessen the suspicion that he’s in some way involved with a series of stranglings that have the local community on edge. Hopes of an arrest are pinned on the lesser-spotted duo of Inspector Wilson (Karen Black) and a criminologist known only as Rheinhardt (Joseph Campanella), who are holed up in an office in an undisclosed location for four brief scenes.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Dead Girls Don’t Tango is a mess. Carr, who directs and, in this case, edits as well, shows no capacity for either, with static and unimaginative staging (note how many times a scene is shot on the cinema staircase) and a lack of quality control – especially during a parade sequence which has been shakily filmed on a handheld camera with no consideration for lighting. Yordan’s script, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Edgar Wallace, albeit three decades too late. A motley ensemble – led by two debutants in Lloyd and Christine Burke – appear to be reading their lines at gunpoint, and scenes frequently finish with the most recondite and flat statements (“Music goes round and round. Where it stops, nobody knows”).

It’s the music that tops it all off, though. Composer Ole Georg has clearly been dared to mine his extensive knowledge of the royalty-free stock library and utilise the most ill-fitting cues at his disposable. Therefore, we swing with reckless abandon between jaunty and quirky, with the final third going full-on Riz Ortolani in its quest for giallo-inspired suspense. There’s a Christmas-themed coda too – but at this point I’m still hoping I dreamt it.

Despite its production year listed as 1992, Dead Girls Don’t Tango began shooting in February ’89, and it’ll come as no surprise to know that it didn’t see the light of day until the next millennium, sneaking onto DVD in late 2006 courtesy of Trinity Home Entertainment. By all accounts it seems that this was the final original film to come from Carr but two others followed, both with Yordan as the writer. For what it’s worth, Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars (1992) seems to be another incarnation of Scream Your Head Off with some Marilyn Monroe-themed inserts and some John Phillip Law pick-ups added. And the aforementioned Too Bad About Jack lists Karen Black and Joe Campanella in the cast – and if I was a betting man, I’d put as wager on this M.I.A. oddity containing elements of Dead Girls Don’t Tango.

USA ● 1992 ● Thriller ● 93mins

Kevin Lloyd, Christine Burke, Karen Black, Joseph Campanella ● Dir. John Carr ● Wri. Philip Yordan

[1] Unfinished it may have been, but this horror flick managed to slide its way onto VHS in March ’99 courtesy of Simitar Entertainment.
[2] The Philip Yordan Story by Alan K. Rode, The Film Noir Foundation
[3] One of these became The Unholy (1988). Director Camilo Vila recalled how Yordan originally wrote it in the wake of The Exorcist (1973) but ended up leaving it on a shelf for a decade-and-a-half.
[4] Built in 1927, La Paloma opened in 1928 with an event that had both Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin in attendance.

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