There’s more than a little that is problematic about Tobe Hooper’s made for television classic I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990). Not only does the film appropriate Aztec culture in a highly exploitative fashion but it also equates drug addiction with evil and sexual expression with corruption. However, Hooper’s film, based on the Cornell Woolrich story of the same name, isn’t concerned with political correctness. I’m Dangerous Tonight is more of an homage to the kind of stories published by EC Comics, a cinematic tribute to the often bizarre and always macabre pulpy horror stories and films of Hooper’s youth.
The plot of I’m Dangerous Tonight is a familiar one to those who have steeped themselves in the culture of horror fiction and films. A college professor purchases an ancient Aztec altar that was used in human sacrifices which he discovers contains a tomb wherein a magical red shroud is contained. When the timid academic puts on the robe he becomes a homicidal maniac. After his kill spree and suicide, college student Amy (Mädchen Amick) buys the red robe from the professor’s estate sale while she’s shopping for props to impress the guy she likes, Eddie (Corey Parker), who is appearing in a college production of Romeo and Juliet. Despite her suspicions that whoever wears the robe becomes murderous Amy makes the robe into a dress for herself, inadvertently changing the lives of her family and friends forever.
When the mystical garment appears as a robe it signifies little more than Western jingoism. But when the garment is transformed into a sexy red dress it signals the misogynist fear of female liberation. When Amy wears her dress she is sexually uninhibited and self-serving. The film establishes early on that Amy, unwelcome in her aunt’s house, is often saddled with the responsibility of looking after her invalid grandmother. To neglect that responsibility, if only for one evening, is made to seem like the ultimate selfish act. The characters in the film shame Amy, calling her a “slut” and “ungrateful”. This guilt, as well as the guilt of inadvertently causing her grandmother’s death, prompts Amy to swear off the red dress forever.
After an episode where Amy’s cousin (Daisy Hall) wears the dress and goes on a bloody rampage, the same misogynistic morality kicks into high gear in the segment of the film focused on the recovering drug addict and mortuary attendant Wanda Thatcher (Dee Wallace). The response of Amy, her mentor Professor Buchanan (Anthony Perkins) and the investigating police officer Ackman (R. Lee Ermey) is one of panic and paranoia. The notion that a drug addict could have such supernatural power is, for these characters, a nightmare come true.
Tobe Hooper is not bothered by all of this. For him, this is what the good old pulpy horror of his youth was all about. Instead the filmmaker embraces these elements, takes them seriously, and stuffs every frame with dynamic lighting. In Hooper’s hands I’m Dangerous Tonight goes from being a mediocre and mildly offensive horror film to being a rather lurid and sleazy EC Comics story made animate. Hooper, like the red Aztec robe, has that special power to make the ordinary extraordinarily frightening.