I believe I am developing a reputation on this blog for reviewing some really bad movies, or at least lots of B movies. I don’t resent that reputation; indeed, I embrace it.
Seriously, while playing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon” at a Christmas gig Friday night (later in the evening John and I started having fun pulling out some incongruously non-Christmas tunes; I also covered “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place),” and he played John Denver’s “Calypso“), I caught myself thinking, “I really want to go home and watch a movie about a werewolf at Christmastime.”
I did not do that—I ended up watching Hell’s Kitchen (the television series) with my girlfriend while playing Civilization Revolution on the couch. But that random little thought should give some insight into my attitude towards B movies: I love ’em. The wackier the concept, the better!
That said, today’s movie, 1975’s Switchblade Sisters, is not one I will recommend for anyone but the schlockiest lovers of schlock. This film is the textbook definition of an exploitation film, as I gather it’s basically an excuse to portray teenage girls as alluringly violent criminals.
What I found compelling about that film, however, was that the world it portrayed—one in which a gang of girls takes on the established male gangs of a crumbling city—is so sad for the urban blight and desperation depicted. There’s also a fascinating series of gang power struggles that raises the film slightly above its exploitative tone, as newcomer Maggie eventually takes control of the gang, changing their name from the “Dagger Debs” to “The Jezebels.”
Lest you think this flick is an ode to female empowerment—at one point The Jezebels join up with an all-female group of black nationalist Maoists—the central conflict involves the fickle nature of a treacherous, scorned woman. The leader of the Dagger Debs at the start of the film is Lace, a diminutive but fierce girl who is in a relationship with Dominic, the leader of the Silver Daggers, a ruthless and feared gang. Dominic, however, begins to make moves—quite aggressively, to the point of rapine—on Maggie. One of the girls in the gang, Patch (because she wears an eye patch over a missing eye), begins whispering doubts into Lace’s ear as Maggie’s star rises with both Dominic and the other girls in the gang.
Soon, Lace sells out her man—who violently rejects her after she reveals she is pregnant with his child—to a rival gang leader, Crabs, who masquerades as a community organizer and progressive politician, but who uses his organization as a front to push drugs. Patch murders Crabs during a massive street fight before he can reveal that Lace is the traitor, much to Maggie’s chagrin.
There’s a lot of intrigue in a movie that was probably made as an excuse to show half-naked 1970s girls wielding firearms. There’s a great deal of pathos, too: for all of her posturing, Lace is just a young girl in love, foolishly believing her domineering rapist boyfriend will give up his gangland life to raise a family with her. Her complete break with him is realistic and tragic, as it results in not only his death, but also the death of their unborn child.
Maggie also comes from a broken home, in which her mother sleeps with the building superintendent to pay the rent. It’s clear these girls live in a fallen culture, in a world that is the immediate precursor to our own.
I realize that it’s a movie, but to paraphrase my eighth grade English teacher, who taught us that “we read literature to learn about life”: “we watch movies to learn about life.” The 1970s were a pretty sleazy decade, and while there was a lot of cool stuff to come out of those years, it really bore the brunt of the misguided idealism of the 1960s, and the statist, utopian policies of the federal government. We’re now repeating this experiment with similarly disastrous results.
Regardless, not everyone is going to like this film. The actress portraying Lace (Robbie Lee) is, at times, bad. Maybe it’s because her character talks in a baby voice half the time, but her delivery at times is pretty awful. Also, some of the forms of violence portrayed in the film are shocking. It’s not the bloodiest film I’ve seen by far, but the fact that Dominic basically rapes Maggie—and an unborn baby dies—makes Switchblade Sisters hard to stomach at points.