Monday 2 January 2023

Mubi Monday: Switchblade Sisters (1975)

The second last film from director Jack Hill, not counting his work as a writer, Switchblade Sisters feels like a shining beacon of brilliantly aggressive and confrontational exploitation fare. It is populated by strong and sexy women, potential good times are ruined by men being assholes, and authority figures are unable to find a way to communicate with a new generation that disrespects them at every turn.

Lace (Robbie Lee) is a leader of the Dagger Debs, a girl gang who end up arrested alongside a new girl in the neighbourhood, Maggie (Joanne Nail). Patch (Monica Gayle) takes an instant dislike to Maggie, but Lace thinks she could become a valued member of the gang. Things become complicated when Lace's boyfriend, Dominic (Asher Brauner), takes a liking to Maggie. Patch blames Maggie, but she doesn't know that Dominic raped Maggie because he is so used to being able to just take whatever he wants. Seeds of mistrust are sown, and a plan is hatched to deal with Maggie and restore the status quo of the gang. But it may be impossible to go back to how things once were, especially as Dominic and Hook (Don Stark) draw people into their chaos as they wage a turf war against a rival gang leader, Crabs (Chase Newhart).

The only film credited to writer F. X. Maier, Switchblade Sisters is, first and foremost, a gang film. It shows that lifestyle, for better and for worse, but also shows a few different hierarchies: the one within the female gang, the one within the male gangs, and the way the female gang members seem to be roped into service for the male gang members (sometimes literally). It often feels a bit ridiculous and hugely entertaining, but it also has moments that feel grounded in some kind of grimy reality (albeit one filtered through a filter of adult panic . . . an opening title card could have been placed here to state "it's eight o'clock, do you know where your kids are?"). The gangs are a bit risible, especially when they revert to acting like children having a tantrum, but that also just serves as a reminder that there ARE kids. They're play-acting tough, and some have been doing it long enough already that it's become a way of life for them. Wherever they are at right now, you can sense how they started on their path to full-time gang activity, whether it's peer pressure, problems at home, or just spying the opportunity to get what they want in life with minimal effort.

Hill keeps everything moving along at a decent speed, making more of his budget and resources than many other people would manage. The violence is well-staged, and numerous stunts feel dangerous and just one misjudgement away from going completely out of control, while the cast all get enough screentime to make each one of their characters eventually stand out from the group.

Lee and Nail are the leads, and both do decent work in their roles, but Gayle is excellent alongside both of them, and being named Patch because her character has an eyepatch, makes her arguably the most memorable of the entire cast. Brauner is enjoyably unpleasant, as is Stark, and Newhart is nicely (seemingly) antithetical to them. I could easily mentioned another four or five names here, various gang members who are directly involved with the action, but I don’t want to risk overstuffing a review for a film that is itself expertly crafted into something lean and mean.

Every time I see a new (to me) Jack Hill movie I seem to find myself with a new favourite from his filmography. This is no exception. I would nominate this as one of his very best.


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