TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT **** USA 2020 Dir: Eric Bloomquist. 73 mins

One of the most memorable horror heroines of the 1980s – and the second greatest horror movie DJ of all time, after Stevie Wayne in THE FOG – Caroline Williams’ Stretch was crucial to providing Tobe Hooper’s subversive THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE PART 2 with a human centre amidst the cartoonish madness. Eric Bloomquist’s short, dynamic picture gives Williams her best role since 1986, and she relishes every minute.

During a Category III hurricane, Williams – about to host her last show after 30 years – is bitten by a bat, resulting in two ominous puncture wounds on her neck. Her sleazy boss (William Youmans) has all too clearly groomed a comely Berkeley grad student (Nicole Kang) to be her younger, more easily manipulated replacement. While enduring the routine sexism and ageism of a business dominated by old white men, Williams takes the chance to unleash her hitherto repressed bile live on air, to both callers and colleagues. Meanwhile, as confirmed by a throwaway pun (“Batshit crazy”), her mental and physical condition declines, progressing from eating used tampons to frenzied violence.

Set to a relentless synth score by Gyom Amphoux (and with loving nods to Wednesday 13 and Murderdolls) this is a biting (arf!) commentary on the plight of women in the workplace. Williams is outstanding, oscillating on a dime between savagely violent, caustically hilarious and just terribly sad in an environment where the best compliment anyone can muster is “You look really hot…like 20 years younger…” Her vicious one-liners (“Go back to your fucking cumdumpster!”) punctuate a timely, embittered satire of routine misogyny.

As the younger, perter replacement literally turns into a monster while Williams’ claims are dismissed as jealousy – “Let’s not make a fuss” – the small cast gradually represent ever more grotesque visions of standard male attitudes to women. Quietly whittling away at a stake, the building’s chummy security guard veers from sincere concern to passive aggressive while Williams is variously patronised, objectified and written off as hysterical. The climax reduces her long career to an extended transition from Shy Young Thing to Vintage Vixen of Radioland while a brilliant vision of a Retirement Party as Hell comes complete with coffins and loaded phrases like “Congratulations on your retirement”.

The horror is visceral and, if vampirism has been used as a potent metaphor for ageing countless times before (notably Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER), seldom has it been handled with such vigour, wit and pathos. Williams’ character is the kind of full-blooded, multi-layered protagonist few other genres would provide for actresses of an age when most opportunities involve moral supporting roles as mothers and grandmothers. “Feels like I’m getting away with something…” she enthuses as reality fractures and her sheer intelligence and spirit triumphs against her grinning, shallow peers.

Review by Steven West


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