The tranquility in a small Texas town is shattered by a series of brutal murders. Sheriff Burke (Bo Hopkins) and his kids (Friday the 13th III’s Dana Kimmell and Last American Virgin’s Steve Antin) have to catch the killer before the town erupts due to racial tension between the rednecks (lead by Don Stroud) and the Indians (lead by Don Shanks, Michael Myers in Halloween V). One common link connecting the victims is they were last seen alive talking to young Melissa (Aleisa Shirley), the new slut in town. Since the town is on edge, Melissa’s mother (Susan Strasberg) invites the entire town to Melissa’s sixteenth birthday party which promises to bring everyone, including the killer, together.
Sweet Sixteen could have easily been one long, dull film if lesser actors were cast in major parts. The interaction between Hopkins, Kimmell, and Antin is great to watch, especially when Kimmell goes all Nancy Drew while trying to solve the murders. Don Shanks plays Jason, a more authentic version of drive-in hero Billy Jack. Shanks uses spin kicks, tackles, elbow drops, and a really big knife to deal out redman’s justice in a white man’s town. Don Stroud gives the film a sense of menace as the town bully and Patrick (The Howling) MacNee lends some acting weight as a doctor excavating an old Indian burial ground. Michael (Graduation Day) Pataki gives his usual sleazy performance as the mayor who is quick to forget about his wife.
Despite the strong performances by a veteran cast, Sweet Sixteen is dragged down by a weak script. Erwin Goldman throws too many subplots at the viewer and never develops the slasher elements. Goldman spends too much time beating a dead horse with the mean whites vs. noble Indians storyline. I’m sure the topic made a great story back in the 70’s, the 1870’s that is, but it really feels out of place in a slasher film about guys getting hacked up by an unknown killer. Soap opera territory is mined as well when Kimmell’s strait-laced character suddenly becomes friends with Shirley’s uber-slut Melissa after the two have a giant bitchfest at a funeral. Melissa’s “I want to be a good girl” antics smack of after school special.
Jim Sotos handles the direction duties fairly well except when it comes to filming the murder scenes. The killer is only represented as a hand with a knife that always attacks in slow motion, no holiday masks or black gloves here, so there is no sense of dread when Sotos uses the killer’s p.o.v. shots. Sotos does a nice job capturing the desert landscape which gives the town a real feeling of isolation. Gary Graver is listed in the credits as 2nd unit director and one suspects he’s the one responsible for some of the more sleazy inserts. Aleisa Shirley has a nude scene right after the viewer learns the Melissa character is only 15. Another tasteless scene gives new meaning to the term “muff diving” as the camera zooms in while Melissa gets dressed for school.
Sometimes a good cast can make any slasher entertaining despite a low body count, meandering storylines that never reach a destination, and a killer that is never fully developed. Fans of songs found lurking at the end of slasher films will want to hear “Melissa’s Theme” or try to track down the soundtrack released by Regency. While a proper DVD is said to be in the works, Sweet Sixteen did get the bootleg DVD treatment through Brentwood under the title “Secrets of Sweet Sixteen” and with a bogus synopsis that makes it sound more like a teen comedy. If you have a vhs copy of Sweet Sixteen, then don’t bother with the Brentwood version as it appears to be lifted from the Vestron tape. Hold out for an official DVD release.