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 Tarantinos 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 Fulcis
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 someones interest drifted, because I dont think
its 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.
As with most genre films, its strength
isnt 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 Maggies new status in the gang
and plays Iago to Laces 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 dont want to get too much into the rest of it. Anyone interested should
check it out themselves. Its 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 isnt Citizen Kane or anything. Still, its 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:
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 Hills 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.
- First up is the trailer for Hills 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 others 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 dont remember it being very good. B+.
- 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
Hills 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
films reminiscent of Shirley Jacksons The Lottery. At one point Haig
quotes a maxim: "Dont ever let them push you, because once they get you moving
its 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
peoples eyes are going to pop when I say this, but Ive never seen Apocalypse
Now, so I cant really comment on how likely this is.) Its 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.
- 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 youd 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 Hills 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.
Coffy stars the fabulous Pam Grier as
a chick whos "Black and Stacked," and out to kill some dealers, probably,
Im guessing, because they were responsible for her brothers 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-.
Foxy Brown is Hills second
Blaxploitation epic with Grier, co-starring the inevitable Haig and Antonio "Huggy
Bear" Fargas. Its a much funkier preview, and the bit where Foxy reaches into
her Afro and pulls out a gun is one for the ages. Shes "a chick with drive who
dont take no jive." A.
The Big Bird Cage next. Grier and Haig
are back along with star Anitra Ford. This was Hills 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. Its 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.
- Next up are extended clips from Hills car
racing/demolition derby epic Pit Stop. Much to his horror, Im 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 Hills 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 latters
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 Readers Digest version of much of the film, it
definitely made me want to see the whole thing. A+.
- 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 films preview. Theres 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.
- Demented cult classic Spider Baby is next. The
films 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 havent seen the film, but the trailer makes it look
like The Addams Family if it were played more genuinely for horror. Not that there
isnt plenty of black humor on display as well. Its 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.
- 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 dont 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, its a good
metaphor for his thoughtful but insanely rambling manner of speech.
- 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.
- The Outro piece is better. Tarantino is free to
go into detail about the film, since were 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 Gails 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, its
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. Its 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
Leones 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, whos 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 Taratinos promptings, and seems somewhat bemused (frightened?) to have his
work so passionately described by this world-famous filmmaker. B.
Superior film (of its type), great disc.
In terms of covering the career of one filmmaker, it might be the best disc Ive 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.