Malibu High / High School Hit Girl / Lovely But Deadly /Death in Denim (1979) -***½
It’s been a long time since a movie blindsided me as completely as Malibu High. I don’t mean in terms of quality, but rather in terms of tone— or indeed, in terms of what it was even about in the first place. I hit puberty in the mid-to-late 1980’s, and like many of my age group (or so I would guess), I have certain specific associations with the word “Malibu” in a movie title. Malibu Beach, Malibu Hot Summer, The Malibu Bikini Shop— when I hear “Malibu,” I instinctively think “teen sex comedy.” I think horny lifeguards, corny jokes, pranksters making fools of prudish authority figures, nerds with thick glasses scoring with girls several astronomical units above their station via ostensibly clever subterfuges, and acre upon acre of exposed, suntanned flesh. So that’s what I thought I was getting into with Malibu High. But as the alternate titles all imply in one way or another, that isn’t the sort of movie this is at all. Although still nominally a sexploitation piece, Malibu High would best be thought of as one of the most extreme mutations of the 1970’s neo-noir vogue, crossbred perhaps with the “portrait of a psycho” genre. It’s like a sleazed-up version of a pre-Code gangster film with a hateful, sociopathic high school girl standing in for James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson.
The sociopath in question is eighteen-year-old Kim Bentley (Jill Lansing). Kim’s been having a rough time of late. Her father hanged himself two years ago over the collapsing state of his marriage, and relations between Kim and her mother (Phyllis Benson) have been strained to the snapping point ever since. Her academic performance has been consistently lackluster all throughout high school, but this year she’s in serious danger of flunking literally all her classes. She’s chronically broke, and can’t seem to find anyone who’ll take a chance on hiring her. (To be fair, you wouldn’t hire her, either, once you’d spent fifteen seconds in her company.) And her longtime boyfriend, Kevin (Stuart Taylor), just dumped her to take up with Annette Ingersoll (Tammy Taylor, from Don’t Go Near the Park), daughter of mobbed-up neighborhood fat cat Harry Ingersoll (Robert Gordon). However, any sympathy we might develop for Kim is sure to be strangled in its crib by the aggressively shitty manner in which she takes out her frustrations on her best friend, Lucy (Katie Johnson).
Still, Kim is at least not completely without self-awareness, and she vows to Lucy after a sullen night out at Larry’s Disco that as of tomorrow, she’s going to turn her life around. Yeah… It turns out she has something rather different in mind than what most of us would mean by that statement. True, better grades and gainful employment are part of the plan, but Kim’s strategy for improving her GPA is not to hit the books with renewed diligence, but to seduce her male teachers, putting them into a position from which she can blackmail an “A” out of them. And the job Kim applies for is a gig as a hooker working for Tony (Alex Mann, from I Drink Your Blood and The Diary of Knockers McCalla), the local pot pusher.
The first target of Operation Straight-A Student is Mr. Donaldson (John Grant, of Jill in the Box and Hitch Hike to Hell), Kim’s history teacher. Mr. Donaldson claims not to know what his worst student is talking about when she segues from inquiring about her grades to suggesting a one-on-one meeting at the secluded High Point beach, but the old lout is there to meet her after school just the same. Her physics teacher, Mr. Wyngate (Teenage Graffiti’s James Devney), proves similarly susceptible when she tries the same trick on him a few days later. Meanwhile, Kim’s whoring goes well enough to enable her to buy a car, even though Tony insists on reversing his usual 60-40 split of the proceeds in his favor. (I’m amused by Tony’s rationale for the punitive rate. Kim naturally can’t turn her tricks at home, what with her mom always around, so the extra 20% is officially a rental fee for the use of Tony’s van.) So satisfied is she, in fact, with her success in taking her life in hand that she rebuffs a suggestion from a minor mafioso named Lance (Garth Howard, from Miss Melody Jones) that she ditch Tony and come to work for him instead.
Kim soon regrets the brush-off she gave Lance, however. Like all high-performing workers, she comes to feel in time that she deserves a pay raise— and Tony takes an attitude toward those that would stand him in good stead as a store manager at Wal-Mart should the pimping-and-pushing business ever dry up. This is one case where the Free Market really does perform as advertised, and within days, Kim is raking in 60% of a much more impressive hourly rate as a high-priced call girl for Lance’s mob. Then one day, she turns a trick for an extreme BDSM fetishist, and things go rather badly. No one warned her just what Mr. Mooney (Ken Layton) was into, and when he pulls out his paraphernalia, the situation turns increasingly hostile until Mooney is lying dead in his bedroom. Not to worry, though. Lance likes Kim, and knows she does good work. Besides, his mob has plenty of enemies they can frame for the killing. But the really interesting thing, so far as Lance is concerned, is Kim’s reaction to her own crime. Far from exhibiting any remorse, she keeps talking about the thrill of power it gave her to stab that sadistic asshole, which gives Lance the idea that maybe she’s missed her true criminal calling. Sure, Kim makes a great prostitute, but with an outlook like that, she could make an even better assassin! Okay, Kim says after mulling the idea over for a few days. Why not?
You see what I mean? Not at all what I thought I was getting into. It sneaks up on you, too, in a way that probably wasn’t intended, but works rather brilliantly. My first response upon meeting Kim was, “Jesus… What a horrible bitch! Tell me this isn’t really going to be the protagonist!” She’s pissy towards everyone, she radiates the most galling sense of personal entitlement, and Jill Lansing’s tonelessly sneering delivery of all her dialogue makes you want to strangle her even when she’s theoretically being sympathetic. If Malibu High had been at all the sort of movie it looks like, there would surely be no tolerating her. But as the film wears on, the very factors that initially make Kim so repellant start turning her into a weirdly compelling anti-heroine instead. She remains thoroughly unlikable on every possible level, but for that very reason, she becomes a strange little island of persuasive realism in what is otherwise a schlocky, nit-witted potboiler of the David Friedman school. I even find myself wishing that Lansing had at least a few more movies to her credit.
Otherwise, Malibu High is appealing exclusively for all the things it gets wrong. The film is a veritable feast of substandard acting and moronic dialogue. “Dramatic” scenes are rendered inadvertently hilarious by the clash of overheated script and underplayed performances. Sight gags that seemingly weren’t meant to be sight gags abound, as when we see the line for Kim’s services stretching out for what looks like half a block from Tony’s van, forcing us to wonder how the gathering crowd of punters could fail to attract police attention. Best of all (because worst of all) is a recurring musical cue that’s supposed to signify moments of high emotion at the end of a scene. What kind of high emotion seems not to have mattered. Personal betrayal, moral outrage, bitter irony, sheer stupefaction— the same electronic fanfare is used interchangeably for them all. It isn’t just how the cue in question is used and misused that makes it one of the most memorable things about Malibu High, however. Much more important is the actual sound of the thing. The best description I can manage is to compare it to both the Loser Horn from “The Price Is Right” and the noise that accompanies Pac-Man’s death-throes. I can’t imagine what the filmmakers were thinking, but their lapse of sense in the score helps elevate this movie to a higher and more enjoyable plane of badness than it had already attained.