Cheap Thrill Double Bill: Girls in Gangs
Welcome to Cheap Thrill Double Bill - a remembrance of trashy films from the heydays of grindhouse culture, spotlighting two titles at a time connected by similar themes and aesthetics.
For the inaugural edition of this column, the films in question are set a decade apart, but revolve around teenage girls in a gang, out to cause mischief in a gloriously twisted and grimy way.
Switchblade Sisters (1975) Dir. Jack Hill
Jack Hill is something of an icon in the exploitation film world - and it’s with his female gang film Switchblade Sisters that he reached the zenith of his abilities as a director.
Switchblade Sisters is a feminist-driven gang movie that is more direct, effective, and progressive in its aims than Hill’s two blaxploitation films of the era, Coffy and Foxy Brown, both led by Pam Grier. It follows the Dagger Debs, a gang of teenage girls led by Lace (Robbie Lee) who form the female equivalent of the domineering all-male gang the Silver Daggers, headed by Lace’s boyfriend Dominic (Asher Brauner). The Daggers are behind a prostitution and drug racket at the local high school, and are feared by many residents in the surrounding area, even the school principal.
The latest initiate to the Debs, Maggie (Joanne Nail), defends Lace in an incident after the two are temporarily placed in juvenile detention. After Maggie gets out and helps Lace relay a message to the Daggers, Dominic shows up at her mother’s apartment without warning and proceeds to force himself on her. While just a teenager, his influence and power in the area is enough that the building’s landlord doesn’t even want to stop him, and Maggie even gives him consent - it’s a dark rendering of a male fantasy, but shows early on that Switchblade Sisters is more than your average piece of sinema.
The Silver Daggers' enemy, the Crabs, move in on their turf, and war is declared. But after a shootout that sees the Daggers go into hiding, the Debs rechristen themselves the Jezebels and make it their duty to finish the job their fellas weren't able to. This film is right in Hill's territory as a director, and he's able to maneuver the script's massive tonal shifts between comedy and hard-edged violence with ease. Yet, what's surprising about Switchblade Sisters is underneath the exploitative exterior, it contains an ingenious revolutionary bend, that is maximized via Hill’s directing prowess which makes it more than your average trash. The primary characters are all teens who have turned to the wrong side of the law as a result of being products of their environment, making their predicament all the more tragic. In fact, it would be more accurate to view the film as a story about warring factions struggling to obtain power, and Hill himself has noted that he based much of the story on Shakespeare’s Othello.
The depiction of violence in the film is done with severity, best realized during the film’s climax in which the Jezebels align themselves with a Maoist sect to take on the Crabs, in a bloody shootout that includes an armour-reinforced Cadillac.
Switchblade Sisters looks like a ridiculous, unintentionally-good film from its cover, but don’t be fooled - it’s an outstanding hallmark of the exploitation genre by virtue of its subtextual features. While the film did not make a serious impression upon release, director Quentin Tarantino helped to give it a new life in 1996 after re-releasing it on its Rolling Thunder DVD label, done in co-operation with Miramax. The release contains an intro and outro with Tarantino, as well as him interviewing Jack Hill with an excessively fanboyish demeanor. It's near-impossible to watch Switchblade Sisters and not see the stylistic influence on Tarantino's later work, but if you're a fan of his and want to see just one of the many films that inspired him from a young age, this is a must-watch.
Savage Streets (1984) Dir. Danny Steinmann
Linda Blair portrays Brenda, a ridiculously rebellious high schooler turned armed vigilante out for justice in Savage Streets, taking aim at a gang of teenage hoodlums who rape her deaf sister and kill her bride-to-be best friend.
In what could be described as a teenage take on Death Wish, Savage Streets has all the essential ingredients of a grindhouse film: sleaze to no end, horrible performances, and a good amount of sex and violence on display. To get a better sense of this film, note that the leader of the villainous gang wears a razor blade as an earring every time he's on screen.
Director Danny Steinmann got his start by making pornography (look out for the gratuitous naked scenes that add literally nothing to the plot), and it really shows. This is a very ghastly, and slimy film, that makes no sense. You’ve got a high school full of students who look 10 years older than they’re supposed to be, and scenes where teachers base entire lessons on oral sex. John Vernon gets a nice little role as the school principal, with some very quotable dialogue (“Go fuck an iceberg”, for one), and its interesting that this makes the third film-collaboration he would have with Blair.
Despite the various cover art images of Linda Blair in a sleak zip-up catsuit, equipped with a crossbow and bear traps, this element of the film doesn’t come into play until the film’s final 15 minutes. It is neat to see her cornering each member of the gang and taking them out one-by-one (even shooting one of them in the dick!), but its another thing to actually feel threatened by her, to which Blair fails spectacularly. And aside from a scene near the beginning where she spots the crossbow in a shop window, we never see her pick up the weapon at any other point or get any sort of practice, we’re just supposed to assume she’s an adept out of convenience. It takes forever to reach this point, despite the film itself running just over 90 minutes, followed by an ending that is so off-tone that it’ll make you question what the hell you just saw.
Savage Streets hits the mark on being a so-bad-its-good kind of experience, though it’s hardly one of the more notable retribution-based films of the decade. There isn’t really any arguments made beyond telling the story of a badass teenager who eventually takes the law into her own hands, and the rampant sexism can’t be overlooked. I imagine that in making this film, Blair felt like she could finally get rid of her good girl image that she had fostered for other roles like the tormented Reagan in The Exorcist or her camp classic Roller Boogie. She would win the Razzie Award for Worst Actress in this movie, and one could definitely argue this is the worst performance to come from someone who was at one point nominated for an Academy Award.
Code Red DVD released the film on Blu-ray in 2016, giving the film a pristine transfer and the best it’s ever looked.