DVD Reviews: And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

Home | Index

SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975)

translittler.GIF (807 bytes)
sw.gif (13365 bytes)

Reviewed by Ken Begg of
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension

translittler.GIF (807 bytes)
Interminable Background Detail:

Ah, the ‘70s, the decade that went too far. While exploitation fare tends to be of a fundamentally conservative nature -- as Stephen King noted, the horror genre is as reactionary as a "Republican in a three piece suit" -- during the early part of the decade in-your-face radical politics ruled. Such films blended the hostile social criticism (such as it was) of the ur-‘60s Easy Rider with the cynicism of The Night of the Living Dead. Hence genre films of the period seethed with the brimming violence seemingly promised by the leftist politics of the day. The Revolution was coming, many believed, and filmmakers were glad to jump on the wagon, particularly if it ensured success at the box office. Meanwhile, comparatively larger budgets and people who thought their movies meant something ensured a level of craft unknown to earlier schlockmeisters. And for all their leftwing ardor, such films sported an earthy and distinctly non-PC tone that makes them shocking viewing to this day. Switchblade Sisters, a well-mounted effort with a mix of earthy feminism and Marxist politics, is an exemplar of its time.

Jack Hill, who worked for producers such as Roger Corman and Sam Arkoff before striking out on his own, is one of the most important directors of ‘70s exploitation flicks. Aside from the present film, he directed a number of authentic cult classics in a variety of genres. These include the bizarre Spider Baby, the Pam Grier Blaxploitation epics Coffy and Foxy Brown, archetypical ‘70s sex pic The Swinging Cheerleaders and quintessential Women in Prison (WIP) flicks The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. (More on the WIP genre can be found at http://www.prisonflicks.com.) Hill was a stylish storyteller whose movies delivered the goods while being infused with the radical politics of the time. While their faith in the imminent arrival of the Revolution has dated his films, it also supplies them with a raw power and passion that remains jolting.

Decades later, Switchblade Sisters was brought back into currency by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures. For a brief period, his company re-released select cult films to art house theaters, with distribution handled by mini-major Miramax. These features included Lucio Fulci’s Italian splatter classic The Beyond, the Blaxploitation flick Detroit 9000 and the manic giant ape flick Mighty Peking Man. Apparently this all proved unprofitable, or else someone’s interest drifted, because I don’t think it’s a going concern any longer. Still, The Beyond and Switchblade Sisters were afforded deluxe DVD editions, and Mighty Peking Man came out on disc as well, though in an unfortunately bare boned fashion.

Well, it was a nice idea, anyway.

Our Feature Presentation:

As with most genre films, its strength isn’t in the originality of its elements as how well they are deployed. Lace is the leader of the Dagger Debs, the ass-kicking party girls of the Silver Daggers street gang. Maggie is the foxy new girl in town who ends up joining the crew. Complications ensue when Silver Dagger leader Dominick, with who Lace is passionately in love, falls for Maggie. Patch, a one-eyed member of the Debs, is jealous of Maggie’s new status in the gang and plays Iago to Lace’s Othello. Meanwhile, the Daggers must contend with another street gang headed up by the charmingly monikered Crabs.

That covers the first half of the film and I really don’t want to get too much into the rest of it. Anyone interested should check it out themselves. It’s worth the effort. The film is extremely well produced, and strong in most areas, from the script to the acting to the direction. Let me be clear, here: This isn’t Citizen Kane or anything. Still, it’s definitely the cream of the crop where exploitation flicks are concerned.

How The Disc Looks:

Picture quality is excellent for a low-budget film of the period. The film is presented letterboxed, and looks great.

How The Disc Sounds:

Ditto.

EXTRA, EXTRA:

Boy, this is packed with great stuff.

We start with a wide-ranging selection of trailers and clips from a variety of Jack Hill movies, under the rubric of The Jack Hill Collection. While the quality of the trailers is often less than perfect, their inclusion is a real treat and inspires much respect for the breadth of Hill’s work. Modern filmgoers used to trailers that have "been approved for all audiences," meanwhile, will be surprised by the copious profanity, nudity and violence on display. A nice touch is that some pithy yet informative text pieces introduce each trailer. Trailers are rated based on how well they sell their subject.

  1. First up is the trailer for Hill’s last film, Sorceress. This was a cheesy T&A/Sword and Sorcery flick starring twin blond centerfold subjects Lynette and Leigh Anne Harris. The gimmick was that the sisters, representing the generic escaped children who are fated to become great warriors and bring down the Evil Sorcerer, can feel each other’s pain, ala the Corsican Brothers. This sets up a classic schlock sequence where one twin is deflowered and the other, miles away, wakes to find herself experiencing some mysterious new sensations. Even in the preview, which promises an endearingly cheesy film, you can tell that the twins are rather untalented martial artists. Meanwhile, many of the goofy effect sequences were later used as stock footage in Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. Hill had his named removed from the picture when producer Roger Corman hacked it up. Still, the trailer does its job. I wanted to see the movie again, even though I don’t remember it being very good. B+.
  2. Next up is an entire short subject, The Host, which runs around a half hour. Hill wrote and directed it in 1962, while he was attending UCLA film school. It stars ubiquitous B-Movie actor Sid Haig, who went on to appear in most of Hill’s movies. A moody period Western, Haig plays an American escapee from a Mexican prison who ends up stopping by a secluded village. There a deranged Spaniard keeps trying to shoot him. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman urges Haig to kill the man. In a way the film’s reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. At one point Haig quotes a maxim: "Don’t ever let them push you, because once they get you moving it’s real hard to stop." Hill must have liked the line, because it pops up in Switchblade Sisters as well. According to the notes, Hill attended UCLA with Francis Ford Coppola, and a portion of Apocalypse Now is rumored to be based on this short. (I know people’s eyes are going to pop when I say this, but I’ve never seen Apocalypse Now, so I can’t really comment on how likely this is.) It’s a well-produced piece of work, though hardly great. Still, this is exactly the kind you thing you like to see on a DVD. For that reason I give it an A.
  3. Next is The Swinging Cheerleaders, which later suffered the ignominious fate of being re-released as H.O.T.S 2 (!). Humorously, the same guy who narrated gag trailers like ‘Catholic School Girls in Trouble’ in Kentucky Fried Movie provides the richly voiced narration here. Aside from the copious sex and nudity you’d expect (ah, the days when women had all-natural bodies), we also get the violence and leftwing social commentary characteristic of the times. (See also such Corman flicks as Candy Stripe Nurses.) We are promised "Love! Action! Comedy! And Life!" All of which is accompanied by goofy, vaudeville style musical cues. Given Hill’s work, chances are that much of the film is more seriously intended than the trailer makes out. It looks better than Bring It On, anyway. B.
  4. Coffy stars the fabulous Pam Grier as a chick who’s "Black and Stacked," and out to kill some dealers, probably, I’m guessing, because they were responsible for her brother’s death or the like. It co-stars Sid Haig and Allen Arbus, who played the recurring kindly psychiatrist character on M.A.S.H. Coffy also takes the time to off some Pigs, too, of course. B-.
  5. Foxy Brown is Hill’s second Blaxploitation epic with Grier, co-starring the inevitable Haig and Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas. It’s a much funkier preview, and the bit where Foxy reaches into her Afro and pulls out a gun is one for the ages. She’s "a chick with drive who don’t take no jive." A.
  6. The Big Bird Cage next. Grier and Haig are back along with star Anitra Ford. This was Hill’s less profitable follow-up to The Big Doll House. Chances are, ironically, that the film was hurt by the large amount of other pictures aping his earlier movie. It’s your typical tale of tough (and hot) American broads trapped in a foreign prison hellhole, here, apparently, in the Philippines. Most of the obligatory elements are touched on: Nudity, violence, torture, rape, mud fights, shower scenes, racial conflict between the black and white prisoners, Marxist politics and the inevitable bloody apocalypse that provides the climax. (Oddly, though, no hints of lesbianism.) All for our entertainment. C+, with points deducted for the disgusting use of rape as a selling point.
  7. Next up are extended clips from Hill’s car racing/demolition derby epic Pit Stop. Much to his horror, I’m guessing, this co-starred a dissipated looking Brian Donlevy, best known now for starring in the first two Quatermass movies. Also on hand is (surprise) Sid Haig, as well as a young Ellen Burstyn. Filmed in black and white at a time when exhibitors wanted color, the picture received only a token release. It comes across as being pretty darn good, though. The monochrome photography looks great here. Like many of Hill’s protagonists, Rick, the drag stripping ‘hero’, is a heel. He drives like a crazy man and seduces the young tomboy wife (Burstyn) of race promoter Donlevy. The gimmick at the latter’s facility is that the track is a large figure eight, almost ensuring potentially fatal crashes as drivers approach the join from different directions. The scene where Donlevy offers Rick a job despite his nailing his wife, and Rick takes it, with the wife coming to understand that she means exactly squat to either of them, is surprisingly sophisticated and harsh stuff. Basically a Reader’s Digest version of much of the film, it definitely made me want to see the whole thing. A+.
  8. Following is the trailer for The Big Doll House, perhaps the archetypical WIP flick. This looks, unsurprisingly, quite similar to The Big Bird Cage, although the trailer is even raunchier and does contain the lesbianism oddly missing from the second film’s preview. There’s a dunking-a-head-in-a-toilet scene, just like in Switchblade Sisters. Needless to say, Sid Haig and Pam Grier are on hand. A.
  9. Demented cult classic Spider Baby is next. The film’s fame is honored with the trailer, a clip of the film superimposed with short critical praise for the film (from such sources as the Incredibly Strange Films show) and selected sequences from the movie. Aside from Haig, Lon Chaney (Jr.) and Mantan Moreland (!!) appear here. I haven’t seen the film, but the trailer makes it look like The Addams Family if it were played more genuinely for horror. Not that there isn’t plenty of black humor on display as well. It’s a weird, gory looking romp, with the title character a Lolita-ish type who promises men sex but then hacks them up. (Thus foregoing the normal middle step of the process, where the woman marries the man before slicing him into little pieces.) Chaney is the protector of the bizarre homicidal family members. The trailer is good, the ‘reviews’ thing pretty weak, and the clips quite interesting. All together, the weird tone of the film looks a good twenty years before its time. B.
  10. We end with the Switchblade Sisters trailer. The preview looks great, and oddly, the movie actually lives up to it. Still, a major plot point gets blown, so don’t watch the trailer until you watch the film. A.

Tarantino also provides bookend pieces to watch before and after the film. Here he again lives up to his credentials as Film Geek Extraordinaire, and is as passionate and occasionally annoying as always. These are filmed with a series of wildly changing images matted in behind him, and with the camera shooting him constantly zooming in and out and changing angles. All in all, it’s a good metaphor for his thoughtful but insanely rambling manner of speech.

  1. The short-ish intro features Tarantino hammily acting out some of the script. He then provides some trivia about the film and discusses what makes it work. C.
  2. The ‘Outro’ piece is better. Tarantino is free to go into detail about the film, since we’re supposed to have watched it by now. He discusses how the flick was patterned after Othello, as well as providing background on the people involved with the movie. (Both here and in the commentary, he reveals that Monica Gail’s portrayal of Patch remains his favorite screen performance of Iago.) He also gives a pretty good general rundown on the exploitation picture of the time. A nice insight is how Roger Corman allowed filmmakers to produce a picture with any subtext they wanted, as long as they stayed in the lines of whatever genre they contracted to make. This resulted in a legendary amount of talented young filmmakers coming work for him. Despite his almost mythic cheapness, they were permitted to express themselves much more personally than they would have with other skid row producers. All in all, it’s a pretty interesting presentation, and say what you will, Tarantino knows his stuff. A.

Rounding off the package is a commentary track featuring both Hill and Tarantino. It’s pretty entertaining, and the chattering Tarantino tosses out huge wads of information on almost every aspect of the film. Thus we learn, for example, that the collection agent in the film is played by the director of the exploitation classic Jackson County Jail. Moreover, the fellow who did the credits, which feature the words skittering about in a fashion obviously, uh, inspired by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, went on to direct Wham, Bam, Thank You Spaceman. Meanwhile, the (slightly) overweight member of the Debs, Donut, is played by Kitty Bruce, who’s the daughter of comedian Lenny Bruce. Also interesting is some discussion of recent criticism of the film, based on its lack of adherence to contemporary notions of political correctness. Hill, for his part, mostly listens and reacts to Taratino’s promptings, and seems somewhat bemused (frightened?) to have his work so passionately described by this world-famous filmmaker. B.

In Toto:

Superior film (of its type), great disc. In terms of covering the career of one filmmaker, it might be the best disc I’ve seen yet. It makes you wish that Tarantino had chosen to continue to produce more such efforts. A hallmark for what the DVD presentation of a B-Movie can and should be.