Pretty Melissa Morgan (Aleisha Shirley) is about to turn sixteen. Stuck in a small Texan town where her stern father, archaeologist Dr. John Morgan (Patrick Macnee) is excavating an old Indian burial ground, the lonely teenager goes looking for love in all the wrong places. One night outside a bar Melissa flirts with Native American Jason Longshadow (Don Shanks) who proves in no mood since he only just saved his grandfather Greyfeather (former Cecil B. DeMille stock player Henry Wilcoxon, in his final role) from racist thugs led by local lout Billy Franklin (Don Stroud). So Melissa switches her attention to Billy's kid brother Johnny (Glenn Withrow). They get high then make out but after taking Melissa home, Johnny's pickup truck breaks down in the desert. Whereupon an unseen psycho gorily murders him. The next morning Sheriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins), his son Hank (Steve Antin) and mystery novel-addicted teenage daughter Marci (Dana Kimmell) find Johnny's body. When Dan questions Melissa in front of her mother Joanne (Susan Strasberg) and father, she points to Jason Longshadow as a likely suspect. Having had no trouble with the Native American community before, Dan has his doubts but tensions flare among the local racist rednecks. Meanwhile high school boys flock near Melissa, only to fall prey to the murderous maniac that stalks her every move.
Among the more eccentric entries in the Eighties slasher craze, Sweet Sixteen also ranks among the more ambitious and even endearing films of its type. Producer-director Jim Sotos (real name: Dimitri Sotirakis) adopts a curious, almost non-linear structure. This combined with a string of quirky, semi-improvised performances from a cast of reliable character actors and a heady backdrop of teen psychosexual angst, small town secrets and racial tension, pitch things closer to mid-western neo-noir than hackneyed hack-and-slash antics. Indeed the cinematography by James L. Carter (Gary Graver, who worked with Orson Welles and directed exploitation and hardcore porn films was D.P. on the second unit) evokes some of the same sultry mid-western unease found in Blood Simple (1983). While the plotting is occasionally clumsy with a couple of stilted moments, Erwin Goldman's screenplay is fairly witty and intelligent while Sotos' creative direction (in particular his semi-dreamlike use of lab-created slow-motion shots) weaves a unique atmosphere. Sotos produced and directed numerous music videos and TV commercials through his Las Vegas based production company as well as a handful of features. His other films include Forced Entry (1975), a rape-revenge thriller with Tanya Roberts and Nancy Allen, teen sex comedy Hot Moves (1984) and unremarkable comedy Beverly Hills Brats (1989) pairing a then down-on-his-luck Martin Sheen with Mighty Joe Young star Terry Moore.
Using Melissa's impending sweet sixteen birthday party as a gimmick much the same as Friday the 13th, April Fool's Day or umpteen other slasher films, Goldman's script fixates on the intermingling of sex and death that makes this genre resonate so strongly with a teenage audience. It is a link embodied in the alluring but unsettling figure of Melissa who unwittingly lures boys to their death. Admittedly the 'destructive' nature of young female sexuality is an archaic, frankly misogynistic concept. Yet for all its leering prurience (Sotos clumsily riffs on Brian De Palma's shower scene intro to Carrie (1976) and includes numerous scenes with voluptuous Aleisha Shirley either naked or in skimpy underwear) the film manages to fashion Melissa into a complex character and explore her fractured psyche in an interesting way. Throughout the unfolding story she moves from vindictive to sympathetic and ultimately a tragic, lonely figure. As Marci points out in a later scene, boys objectify Melissa without making any effort to really get to know her. On a separate note it is trifle strange all the guys in school flock to Melissa but pay no attention to Marci when she is clearly just as beautiful.
Sweet Sixteen's great strength stems from an area where most slasher films fail, which is with its well drawn relationships. The film boasts an array of quirky and interesting characters. Particularly well contrasted is the warm rapport between Sheriff Dan and his bright, amiable kids (young Marci talks like a detective and evidently fancies herself a wannabe Nancy Drew) and the frostier interaction between Melissa and her parents. Even a throwaway subplot between Dan and his girlfriend (Sharon Farrell) radiates a sort of quirky warmth. Sam Peckinpah regular Bo Hopkins is compelling as the laconic but uniquely humane cop while The Avengers icon Patrick Macnee commands the screen in an atypical role. The lurid climax pulls several disparate subplots together in an awkward, convoluted fashion but resolves the Scooby-Doo-like murder mystery in satisfactory fashion. The closing image is pretty haunting despite the umpteenth replay of the treacly theme song 'Melissa' performed by Frank Sparks.