Inspired by the events that triggered the New York Post headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” is a tense, claustrophobic black comedy about a group held hostage by a deranged gunman. The come-on title may, unfortunately, deter audiences who might enjoy this intelligent film, and prospects look brighter for video release.
Apart from some establishing street footage that bookends the drama, the film unfolds inside a sleazy bar. Co-producer Peter Koper’s screenplay could equally serve as the basis for a stage production, but thanks to James Bruce’s fluid direction and excellent ensemble performances, pic escapes the theatrical tag.
Late one night, a small group of customers are half-heartedly watching Candy (Jennifer MacDonald) perform a topless dance. They include Lumkin (David Selby), a corporate lawyer with kinky tastes; two loudmouthed kids (Rustam Branaman, Taylor Nichols) out on the town; and Carl (Paul Williams), confined to a wheelchair. A gunman (Raymond Barry) enters the bar with robbery on his mind, but the bartender resists and is shot.
The gunman exerts a certain charm when he’s rational but occasionally slips into a kind of madness; he can’t decide what to do with the five witnesses, who all fear they’ll be killed. The late arrival of Candy’s sexual partner, Letitia (April Grace), adds further tension, and by this time the man is determined to retrieve the bullet from the dead bartender’s head.
Bruce and Koper keep the tension on the boil and convincingly depict the reactions of the victims. With flashes of humor and mounting tension, the film is gripping, although most of the characters aren’t very likable.
The cast does sterling work, with standout perfs from Barry, MacDonald (who plays almost the entire film topless) and Williams. Technical credits are all fine.