in Shocktober

Dressed to Kill (1980)

I remember someone, I think it was Roger Ebert, patron saint of Mildly Pleased, discussing once the idea of star ratings. Specifically, this person was explaining that when critics rate a film, they rate it based solely on its potential. If The Accidental Tourist gets four stars and School of Rock gets four stars, it does not mean they are equally good, but they are both as good as Ebert could have imagined them being. I bring this up because Dressed to Kill is stylish and pulpy, and watching it was easier than Straw Dogs and certainly not an equivalent torment to Salò. But I would never recommend this movie to anyone.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated housewife who uses fantasies to get through being so romantically bored with her husband. One day, after discussing her situation with her therapist (Michael Caine), Kate goes to a museum and starts playing a game of cat and mouse, chasing and being chased by a man there. They leave together and she awakens that night satisfied and goes to leave a note, only to find out that the man had VD and never told her. Horrified, she hurries out of the building, only to remember at the last second that she left her wedding ring. So Kate gets back in the elevator and a blonde woman appears and slices her to death with a straight razor.

This start is the first of many obvious homages director Brian De Palma makes to Hitchcock’s Psycho (Hitch himself called it a “fromage”), to the point where it may be better to call Dressed to Kill a remake. After the murderer escapes, the story shifts its focus to the only witness: a prostitute named Liz (Nancy Allen). Liz picked up the murder weapon, so even though the detective in charge (Hill Street Blues/NYPD Blue detective guy Dennis Franz) doesn’t think she did it, he still says he’ll arrest her in a few days if they can’t find another lead. Bizarrely, she ends up teaming up with Kate’s genius son (Keith Gordon) to solve the case.


It ends up being the case that the blonde woman is actually the therapist played by Michael Caine. The way Dressed to Kill explains it, being trans meant that she had both genders living inside of her, and her male side would not allow her to undergo a gender reassignment operation. So when she becomes aroused, her female side takes over and she murders the object of her attraction. That’s why she killed Kate, because her talking about being bored and horny turned her on too much.


A lot of movies, maybe especially in the horror genre, punch down. People of color, the sexually promiscuous, the mentally ill, the awkward, and the weird are all common victims of the monsters that dominate this type of story. And I’m aware that, as a Psycho homage, Dressed to Kill was probably going this way. However, that character in Psycho is presented as a multiple personality, the fact that one is female doesn’t matter. Moreso, I worry movies like this, whether they intended to be transphobic or not, are dangerously normalizing of bigoted attitudes. This character probably wasn’t meant to stand in for all trans people, but that’s hardly an excuse for purposefully misunderstanding and misrepresenting. Plus, this movie isn’t particularly great to women or people of color either. In this case, Criterion, I think Dressed to Kill should have stayed in the dresser.