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Switchblade Sisters

by Glenn Erickson Apr 27, 2021

The always-dynamic director Jack Hill goes teen-gang wild with this absolutely crazy take on JD pictures, pitched three octaves higher than normal exploitation drama. All the nasty-rasty thrills are here, from an episode of WIP sadism to brutal misogyny to a gang skirmish fought on a roller skating rink. What began as one of those exploitation cheapies with three women, comes alive with the dynamic Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail and Monica Gayle — even with all the sexist cruelty on view, the no-limits performances feel liberating, energizing. Hill’s gang epic is so stylized, it’s almost a fantasy. With some good interview and analysis extras.


Switchblade Sisters
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date April 27, 2021 / The Jezebels Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail, Monica Gayle, Asher Brauner, Chase Newhart, Marlene Clark, Kitty Bruce, Janice Karman, Don Stark, Don Marino, Helene Nelson, Bill Adler, Paul Lichtman, J.S. Johnson, Kate Murtagh.
Cinematography: Stephen M.Katz
Film Editor: Mort Tubor
Original Music: Medusa
Special Effects: Greg Auer
Written by F.X. Maier story by Maier, Jack Hill, John Prizer
Produced by John Prizer
Directed by
Jack Hill

I’ll bet most fans of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters didn’t discover it until Quentin Tarantino’s revival distribution company Rolling Thunder chose it as one of their first releases in 1996. I only caught up with it on VHS but liked it immediately — it was like nothing I’d seen before. A genuine grindhouse exploitation classic made in the waning days when such films still drew big audiences in urban theaters looking for R-rated triple bill fare, Switchblade apparently did not do did well on its first release, despite having a high reputation.

I think the reason for that was that it was too good for its own market. Jack Hill had just finished a completely trashy formula ‘cheerleaders’ movie that delivered what the grindhouse audience wanted — sexy women, nudity and violence. Switchblade Sisters is pretty strong stuff for content, language and dangerous ideas, but its real graces are things that exploitation audiences don’t need: a great screenplay, excellent acting and taut direction. The raincoat crowd would prefer more T&A, while the mainstream audience would avoid the title like the plague — it sounds like something Travis Bickle would foolishly take Cybill Shepherd to on 42nd Street.

 

Arrow Video not only gives us Jack Hill’s (best?) movie in an excellent-quality scan, disc producer Neil Snowdon has arranged a handsome set of extras that help us fully ingest this grindhouse opus. It’s a good show to explain exactly what in ’70s trash filmmaking so strongly appeals to Quentin Tarantino.

Excited to do a movie about gangs, Jack Hill first insisted on making it about a girl gang, and then had the idea of hanging the central conflict on a flip-flop reading of Othello. It works far, far better than one would expect.

 

Pint-sized hellion Lace (Robbie Lee) runs the vicious girl gang The Dagger Debs. Egged on by the one-eyed Patch (Monica Gayle), Lace roughs up her own members, and likes to pick on the insecure Donut (Kitty Bruce). Lace at first clashes with but then recruits Maggie (Joanne Nail), a newcomer who soon proves to be tougher than any of them, especially when fighting back against the lesbian prison wardmistress, Mom Smackley (Kate Muragh). The problem is that The Dagger Debs are an auxillary of The Silver Daggers, a pack of loutish ingrates that use and discard them and abuse their loyalty. Lace is strongly attached to Dominic (Asher Brauner), the Silver Dagger leader. He rapes Maggie, who stays quiet about the attack; the malicious Patch promotes the notion that Maggie is trying to steal Dominic to goad Lace down a destructive path of revenge.

There’s a weird sisterly solidarity among this group of sociopaths, and when Lace betrays the Daggers to their main rivals The Crabs, an ambush at a roller skating rink finishes with the wrong person being blasted with a shotgun. The rivalry between Dominic and his opposite number Crabs (Chase Newhart) ends up being secondary concern. Patch continues to manipulate Lace to ignite a showdown, but events go in a different direction. With the remaining male gangbangers sulking like cowards, Maggie rallies the girl gang and re-names them The Jezebels to reflect their emancipation from The Silver Daggers. She aligns with another girl gang, the black Marxists led by Muff (Marlene Clark), to wipe out the Crabs in open warfare on the streets.

 

What hardly sounds like a high-powered filmmaking concept IS, thanks to the leadership of Jack Hill and his inspirational direction of a startlingly effective cast. Most of his actors had theatrical experience but hadn’t been asked to carry a full film performance. They’re superb, especially considering the movie’s high camp value — we go in expecting no story and lame dialogue and are instead captivated. Yes, the drama is aimed at an unreal high-genre level of exaggeration, but it works because the performances reach the same giddy pitch of earnest absurdity. The all-male writing team come up with a remarkably pro-female script — the femmes are more effective gangsters than their male counterparts, who are mostly selfish, sexist and outright disgusting.

Leading the charge are the three top-billed female characters. Robbie Lee’s Lace looks truly underaged. She speaks in a baby voice that toughens into a shocking snarl. She sounds like a young Tuesday Weld, or Melanie Griffith’s teenager Delly in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, if Delly were a cold-blooded killer. Lace dresses like a biker chick, with a leather choker and gloves with metal knuckles. When she has a mid-film breakdown, suddenly distraught at her bleak prospects for a romantic, mainstream-domestic future, Ms. Lee has us firmly in Lace’s corner… we sympathize completely with the little psycho. When pulp fantasy is working, real emotions can emerge from a completely artificial construct.   How else could I sit through all those Science Fiction groaners?

 

Joanne Nail’s Maggie is the most physical of the three; when she decides to seduce Crab she makes herself up to look alluring, yet wears the smile of a hungry shark. Maggie has definite authority — she’s the Jezebel with the take-charge attitude, who rebels against the men. She also fights the best. She’s commonly dressed in leather hot pants, high boots and a belt that terminates in six symbolically unsubtle metal balls that hang in front.

Monica Gayle’s sleek, cool Patch handles her ‘Iago’ role with aplomb, pushing Lace this way and that and exulting when her manipulations are effective. We’re not sure of Patch’s exact motivation — does she possibly want Lace for herself, or does she want Lace out of the way?  Patch’s treachery is bad news all around, mostly for the leading male characters. Her costume almost seems modeled on that of Anita Pallenberg in Vadim’s Barbarella — the slim actress looks terrific in black, with an eyepatch decorated with a colorful butterfly.

 

Actresses in movies made at this level often barely know what the story is about, except that they need to be ready to strip down or kick-box at any given moment. Hill gives them real characters to play and guides and modulates their performances, which is why the acting dramatics of Switchblade Sisters is so arresting. There’s also a lot of subtle expression going on between the hyped tough-girl dramatics. We may think some of the situations are silly but the characters never are. Jack Hill aptly calls his approach ‘operatic.’

Jack Hill paces his picture well, delivering some really disturbing content. The trashy ‘girl’s prison’ episode leaps to life when the Dagger Debs rush to defend Maggie, just because they admire her grit. But the two rape scenes are really rough, with very un-P.C. aftermaths. The good-looking but thoroughly loathsome Dominic follows Maggie home the first time he meets her, and forces himself on her even though her mother is in another bedroom. The gang definition of toughness sloughs off this kind of abuse. Maggie is none the less attracted to Dominic afterward — the fact that she hates him makes no difference.

 

The story’s tough context gives us some regulation black militants that carry Mao’s Little Red Book, spout slogans and have converted a ‘fifties sedan into a tank; despite the welcome presence of Marlene Clark there isn’t much imagination at work there. But Hill also has Maggie’s mother routinely pay the rent by having sex with the building super, an ugly setup that helps define the Jezebels’ ugly world view. The rival gang leader Crabs has a racket going in which he takes urban renewal ‘bootstrap’ money under false pretenses, and uses it to finance his drug dealing.

The impressive production makes good use of scattered locations, including a fully functioning roller rink. The location for the Crabs’ phony social services office looks fine, although we’re told that this was one of the final films shot there — it’s a corner of a city street set on the MGM back lot, one that Gene Kelly might have rollerskated on way back in It’s Always Fair Weather. Hill uses it well.

The film’s relative lack of sex and nudity were likely not enough to satisfy the raincoat crowd, and the good fight action is in service of the drama, instead of additional martial arts gore & cruelty. The bottom line is that, like several of Jack Hill’s films, Switchblade Sisters is too sophisticated and good to fit neatly into its intended commercial exploitation slot. As such it pretty much killed off Jack Hill’s independent career, just as the Steven Spielberg era began. But now, taken in as a retro grindhouse spectacle, it comes off as quite an inspired piece of work.

 


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Switchblade Sisters is a stunningly sharp and colorful HD presentation. It’s nice to know that Jack Hill has retained ownership of several of his self-produced films and maintained them well; what we’re seeing here surely looks and sounds better than most theatrical presentations, including Quentin Taranino’s 1996 re-issue. The picture’s smart soundtrack doesn’t rely on shoehorning in various pop cues, as was the trend in the 1970s. Medeusa’s track makes its statement and then backs away.

The extras are simply a lot of fun. Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger’s audio commentary gets to wade in the water of female empowerment — this is one of the few exploitation movies where one can feel that force. It must be much easier to convincingly praise Switchblade Sisters than a ‘liberated’ show like Smashing Time.

Hill’s movie must have gotten a disc push back in 2016, because the newest extras are from that date. We Are The Jezebels is a fun oral history of the show featuring the always friendly Jack Hill; I once got to talk with him for a full hour or so, and he at once impressed me as wholly trustworthy and dependable. Actress Joanne nail provides enthusiastic memories, Chase Newhart tells us about his busy career at the time and Asher Brauner admits he hadn’t a clue what he was doing back then. Other crew people remember that the shoot was exciting and how much they liked Hill. The crewperson who had the firearms license tells a good story about being pulled over by the cops on the way to the set, while transporting a car loaded with restricted machine guns. Also taking part in the making-of discussion is producer John Prizer, who aided and abetted Jack Hill on two films.

Not discussed much are the cameraman Stephen M. Katz, who laid down a fine resume of well-shot movies; Tak Fujimoto, who operated and shot second unit and went on to shoot most of Jonathan Demme’s modern classics; the much-liked visual effects expert Greg Auer, ace editrix Tina Hirsh, who served as script supervisor here; and effects rigger Jor Van Kline, who befriended me on Close Encounters.

As he did on Cisco Pike, Elijah Drenner takes us on a short but nice tour of film locations… when he and Jack Hill pass the location used for the school scene (not far from CineSavant Central) they’re surprised to find that the movie’s traditional brick building was years ago torn down and replaced with an ugly prison-like school.

Johnny Legend briefly interviews Hill, Joanne Nail and Robbie Lee on a rough tape made sometime in the ’90s. It is not the best piece but it does give us the extras’ only glimpse of the interesting Robbie Lee.

Also fun is a rough video recorded at a Grindhouse Festival film series presentation of Switchblade Sisters held at the New Beverly Cinema on January 3, 2007. Jack Hill and Joanne Nail come down for a couple of minutes after the show to answer questions and soak up the audience approval. I’m fairly sure that we see the New Beverly habitué Clu Gulager sitting in the very front row.

A personal sighting in the video is a flash image we see of the man selling tickets in the box office. It’s Sherman Torgan (), who took over an adult theater in 1978, renamed it the New Beverly and ran it until 2007. Sherman was a great friend who provided much career encouragement; when my children were little and I often felt housebound, I’d wander the few blocks to the New Beverly on Saturday nights and talk to both Jim Ursini and Sherman, often for hours.

Sherman Torgan died unexpectedly just six months later — this is his L.A. Times obit. Quentin Tarantino sponsored the Grindhouse Festival featured in the video, and a few years later he took over the New Beverly. There’s a sideways tribute to the theater in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — when the Tate party goes to eat at the El Coyote Cafe, Sharon asks about the movie premiere happening at the ‘dirty movie theater’ two blocks away.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Switchblade Sisters
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New audio commentary by Samm Deighan & Kat Ellinger; We Are The Jezebels, a 2016 documentary with director Jack Hill, producer John Prizer, stars Joanne Nail, Asher Brauner, and Chase Newhart, casting director Geno Havans, production designer B.B. Neel, and stunt coordinator Bob Minor; Gangland: The locations of Switchblade Sisters, (2016) with Jack Hill and Elijah Drenner; Jack Hill and Joanne Nail at the Grindhouse Film Festival, a 2007 New Beverly screening discussion with the director and actor; a 1990s interview by Johnny Legend with Jack Hill, Robbie Lee, and Joanne Nail; ad art gallery, theatrical trailer. Illustrated insert pamphlet with essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Heather Drain.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 22, 2021
(6489swit)
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Here’s Jack Hill on Switchblade Sisters:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.