Thursday, May 20, 2010

Switchblade Sisters (1975)

AKA The Jezebels
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Robbie Lee, Monica Gayle, Joanna Nail
Rated R

"If you go, it's gonna end up baaaaddd!"

Jack Hill is an exploitation legend, responsible for some of the most seminal films of the golden grindhouse era, including the loopy black and white shocker Spider Baby (1968), a quartet of Pam Grier flicks, including classics Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), timeless raunch-com The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) and - thanks to well-heeled booster Quentin Tarantino - his most celebrated work, Switchblade Sisters. A culture-defining, genre-hopping film, Hill's girl-gang epic is at once a vivid reflection on America's Nixon-era malaise and a hysterical, operatic alt-universe violent fantasy. With hotpants.

Starring the remarkable Robbie Lee, a baby-faced pipsqueak who growls and grits her way through the role like a 40's era gangster, it's a tragic romance wrapped up in the violent world of LA street gangs. Lee is Lace, leader of the gangster-moll crew The Dagger Debs. The Debs serve as support - sexual, financial, and occasionally, as weapons smugglers - for The Silver Daggers, your standard-issue, leather-jacketed, low-level drugs and prostitution-pushing teenage thugs.

Seeing as the Daggers and the Debs are, across the  board, white and fresh-faced, Hill wisely paints a bleak backstory for Lace.  The film opens with our doomed heroine sharpening her switchblade and then nailing a rat with a bottle of perfume. In the next room, mom's getting her TV repossessed by some fat lout. Hard times. Mom gives up the rent money to keep the television, and the snickering repo man saunters out. Unfortunately for him, he ends up getting in the elevator with the Dagger-Debs, and they rob him and slash his clothes to ribbons.

The assembled Debs head over to the local burger joint to hang out with their men. We meet Daggers' boss Dom (Asher Brauner), Lace's sneering boyfriend, as well as his crew of mostly nameless and faceless brutes. Showing off her considerable muscle, Lace humilities the gang's resident doormat, Donut (Kitty Bruce, daughter of Lenny), when she asks for a cheeseburger. Interestingly, although she's supposed to the gang's token fat chick, Donut isn't even overweight by today's standards.

While chasing away the law-abiding citizens to make room for the gang, Lace messes with a new chick, Maggie (Joanna Nail), which quickly turns into a knife fight between her and Lace's right-hand girl, Patch (Monica Gayle), so named because she wears a bedazzled eyepatch. Lace is impressed with Maggie's attitude and fighting skills, and asks her if she's in a gang. Which seems likely, since she carries a switchblade and has a belt that turns into some kind of ninja weapon. Amazingly, she's a free agent.

Then the cops show up with the slashed repo guy, and they haul everybody to jail. And the girls all end up in juvie. Maggie gets roughed up by the guards, and since Lace has taken a shine to her, the Debs riot and have a pretty awesome fight that ends in one guard getting tossed into a trashcan, and another one getting a plunger in the face.

Maggie gets out first, so Lace asks her to take a letter to her Dom. She does, and he reads it out loud to the Daggers. Everybody laughs. Later that night, Dom shows up at Maggie's place - she also lives in the projects - and makes violent 70's rape-love to her. And then he smacks her mom around, too. Her mom, by the way, was busy banging the super to pay for the rent. Hard times!

Lace and the gang eventually get out and go back to trashing the school. Lace has no idea, at this point, about the forced hanky panky between Dom and Maggie. The school principal, Mr. Weasel, drops in on Dom to let him know that the Daggers' rival gang, led by a dude named Crab, are transferring to their school, and that he'd rather not have a bloody turf war in his classrooms, if that's at all possible. By the way, no one involved is anywhere close to high school age.

Meanwhile, Patch is jealous of Maggie. Although it's never directly stated, she appears to have a girl-boner for Lace. So she tells her what's up about Maggie and Dom's illicit tryst. Lace doesn't believe her, but later on, at the gang's clubhouse, she sees Mag and Dom talking, and starts to wonder if maybe Patch is right.

Still, she likes the new kid, so Lace announces that Maggie's now in the gang. Patch insists that she has an initiation first, and it's a doozy she has to get the medallion from the rival gang's leader, Crabs. Crabs (Chase Newhart) is a political activist who dresses like a Bay City Roller and wears a plastic Nazi medallion. Always up for a challenge Maggie gussies up and visits Crabs at his headquarters. And she does, indeed, get the necklace, by biting his penis and then bursting through a wall. So she's in.

Things turn ugly when Crab and his goons shoot Dom's little brother in a drive-by and then kidnap his girlfriend for a gang-rape. In retaliation, the Daggers and the Debs decide to stage an ambush at the roller rink.

Before that, however, Lace tells Dom she's pregnant. That does not go well. He tells her to "get rid of it". She mulls over her options.

And then everybody heads to the roller rink. This was a couple years before roller boogie fever, so no disco jams, satin shorts, or rainbow suspenders, sadly. But the girls do start beating Crab's guys with chains, so that's pretty cool, and then everybody pulls out guns and shoots each other. And in the melee, Lace gets kicked in the belly, and Dom gets killed.

After the expected period of mourning and rehabilitation, Maggie takes over as leader of the gang after making Dom's second in command, Hook (Don Stark, AKA Bob from That 70's Show) say that he's a chicken. And then his girlfriend Bunny (pretty Janice Karman) further humiliates him with insults about his penis. So that was pretty emasculating.

Then, given their new girl-powered theme, Maggie changes the name of the gang to the Jezebels. Hungry for revenge for the antics at the roller rink, the newly christened femme-fighters hook up with an all-girl black power gang from Maggie's old neighborhood.

The girls all start training in how to shoot an M16 and shout revolutionary slogans. Lace, her power now severely diminished, shows up to make an awesome-but-disingenuous speech. And then, the war is on.

The next day the girls start to riot outside of Crab's headquarters Lace wears some kind of metal Princeess Leia buns. Then the black chicks show up with a tank, and everybody goes bananas. One guy has a sweater with elephants on it, and another guy wears a bowtie. It's all very crazy.

The girls end up slaughtering Crab and most of his gang, but Maggie figures out that Lace tipped him off at roller rink. Back at their clubhouse, Lace and Patch try to convince the other girls it was really Maggie - they even put a cigarette our in her belly button to maker confess - But the other girls don't buy it.

Obviously, given the title of the film, there's only one way to settle this - knife fight!

Part Shakespearian tragedy, part doomed romance, part women in prison potboiler, part blaxploitation flick, part teen melodrama, and part pitch-black comedy, Switchblade Sisters is an unabashed classic of throat-grabbing exploitation cinema. It's no wonder that Quentin Tarantino resurrected the film for a theatrical revival in the mid 1990's, since it's clear that he nabbed a good portion of his aesthetic from this film. From the frequently bizarre dialogue (Chicken ass?), to the loopy costumes (who wears denim cut-offs to a shoot-out?), to Robbie Lee's unforgettable performance, Switchblade Sisters is pure grindhouse gold, the hotpants girl-gang flick to end all hotpants girl-gang flicks. Don't miss it.

- Ken McIntyre


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