What Terrors are Unleashed When a Girl Turns Sweet Sixteen?
Melissa Morgan (Aleisa Shirley) is the young and not-so-innocent new girl in town, the beautiful and pouty tart that drives the boys wild with just a look. It’s not by accident, it is by design. If there is one thing Melissa loves, it is attention, and if it takes an evening of flirty looks, tailgate partying, and suppressed teen lust to get it, she’s more than happy to oblige. Unfortunately for the boys she sets her sights on, she’s more tease than sleaze, resulting in severe cases of medical grade blue balls. Even more unfortunate? These boys tend to be brutally murdered shortly thereafter. Is the sweet release of death better than no release at all?
With a likable cast, decent performances, and an interesting (if not fully satisfactory) angle, SWEET 16 has plenty of enjoyable pieces, even if they never quite fit together to make an impressive whole. Definitely worth a watch if you don’t mind sifting through the dirt in order to find a few glimmers.
SWEET 16 is typically lumped in with the slashers that were still burgeoning at the time, but that’s not an entirely accurate assessment. It’s only part slasher, and a fairly watered down one at that. For the most part, it’s a small town whodunnit taking place in the dusty southwest, where cowboy hats and pickup trucks are found in equal measure, and a lonesome tumbleweed could enter the frame at any given moment. Racial tensions between the white man and the Native Americans run high, with the Caucasian folk casting suspicions on anyone belonging to a tribe. At the center of the racial firestorm is rambunctious redneck Billy Franklin (Don Stroud, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR ) and easy scapegoat Jason Longshadow (stuntman and actor Don Shanks, Michael Myers from HALLOWEEN 5 ). Local sheriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins, AMERICAN GRAFFITI , TENTACLES ) tries to keep it all at bay, standing as he is within both of the bloodlines (though you wouldn’t know it to look at him).
Burke seems like an affable enough fellow, but I’m not sure how good he is at his job. He’s rather disinterested when the first boy, Johnny Franklin (Glenn Withrow, THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH [both 1983]), is found murdered, but manages to muster up a little energy by the time football team captain Tommy Jackson is offed. He’s apparently not so convinced of his own detective skills, either, as he seemingly deputizes his teenage children, Marci and Hank, at the drop of a hat and lets them parade around crime scenes with reckless abandon. Hell, they do just as much if not more investigating than their father does!
Marci (Dana Kimmell, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III ) loves a good murder mystery, which we know because she carries around and critiques a novel called…Murder Mystery. Hank (Steve Antin, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN ) is more or less just along for the ride, because what the hell else is there to do in this small town? He was friends with the first victim, Johnny, and both he and Marci are there when his body is found, but neither of them are affected in the least. They just go on to school as if finding the corpse of a classmate is an everyday occurrence—which either says something about the characters or the town, but I’m not sure which.
Because the murder scenes aren’t frequent or explicit, this reliance on friendly teenage detective antics makes some of SWEET 16 feel like a HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES episode from an alternate universe. And this is a perfectly enjoyable scenario, so long as the viewer isn’t expecting a slice-and-dice bloodbath. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were worried that the movie wouldn’t have a hard enough edge, so to pour a little salt into the sugar, they added some completely gratuitous scenes of Melissa parading around in her underwear and taking a (full-frontal) shower.
Gratuitous nudity was the standard for horror films in the 1980s, not the exception that it has become today, and actress Aleisa Shirley was over the age of consent at the time; but when you realize that the character was supposed to be a mere fifteen years old, you can’t help but feel a little lecherous watching the camera lustily caress her flesh.
SWEET 16 was written by Erwin Goldman, whose only other credit appears to be a 1971 episode of the James L. Brooks television show ROOM 222. I guess he had a thing for numbers. Directing duties went to Jim Sotos, and it’s actually surprising that this movie is as restrained as it is, seeing as how he got his start with FORCED ENTRY (1975), an R-rated remake of a rape-centric 1973 pornographic film of the same name. Maybe the martial arts documentary, THE SUPER WEAPON, that he worked on in 1976 somehow tempered him a bit. Regardless, he went onto the teen sex comedy HOT MOVES (1985), PG-13 comedy BEVERLY HILLS BRATS (1989), and television concert film DARLA Z LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS (2011). You can’t say he isn’t diverse.
Our small town Lolita, Aleisa Shirley, also had roles in SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) and the three-part Jackie Collins miniseries HOLLYWOOD WIVES (1985). She has since given up on acting, dedicated her life to God, and become a Pro-Life activist. As for her onscreen parents, Susan Strasberg and Patrick Macnee, I don’t know anything about their politics, but their filmography is much more expansive.
Readers of this site may recall Strasberg from SCREAM OF FEAR (1961), THE TRIP (1967), PSYCH-OUT (1968), THE MANITOU (1978), BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), MAZES AND MONSTERS (1982), and plenty of others. Macnee appeared in INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED (1970), THE HOWLING (1981), and Hulk Hogan’s THUNDER IN PARADISE franchise, but he’s probably most well known for his role as John Steed in TV’s THE AVENGERS from 1961-1969.
Perhaps most important, though, is the songwriter duo of brothers Joel & Mark Wertman, who gave us “Melissa’s Theme”. Yes, many cinematic killers have a musical stinger that signifies their presence, but how many survivors get their own theme song?
Not nearly enough, I can tell you that.
Joel went on to work behind the scenes in the music industry, and worked with such bands as The Goo Goo Dolls and No Doubt, before forming We3Kings Music with Bill and Walter Brandt. Mark married a successful attorney and became a stay at home dad to three children, even authoring a book about his experiences, True Confessions of a Real Mr. Mom, in 2000.
It’s probably safe to say that none of his children turned out like little Melissa Morgan.