Thursday, December 01, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Switchblade Sisters

Meet the Dagger Debs, a girl-gang who are the de facto consorts of the Silver Daggers, a leather jacketed crew of high-school greasers. The Debs are led – rather implausibly – by Lace (Robbie Lee), a whiny pipsqueak with a lot of attitude but the kind of physicality that would see her defeated by your average Women’s Institute Committee member. Her right hand man woman is Patch (Monica Gayle), so named after her eye-patch, which she wears for no discernible reason other than ‘Switchblade Sisters’ came out a year after Christina Lindberg made the look iconic in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’.

One day the Debs are happily terrorizing people at burger bar when new kid on the block Maggie (Joanne Nail) decides not to take Patch’s shit and effortlessly gets the drop on her. The cops break up the scene and Maggie finds herself in the slammer with a group of potential nemeses. A bull dyke (apologies to my lesbian friends, I’m simply mirroring the unreconstructed stereotypes the film trades in) warden gives Maggie a hard time and, putting their differences aside, the Debs intervene on Maggie’s behalf.

Later, when Maggie is released, she agrees to pass a message to Lace’s boyfriend, Silver Daggers supremo Dominic (Asher Brauner). Yes, folks, we’re watching an exploitation film where the gang leaders are called Lace and Dominic. But fear not – this isn’t the Noel Coward drive-in movie. As is immediately proved by Dominic’s decision that he kind of likes Maggie: he makes an overture by way of forcing his way into her house, forcing himself on her and terrifying her parents. Understandably, Maggie isn’t overly impressed with Dominic; nonetheless, she finds herself inducted into the Debs and part of the fight when Dominic’s high-school supremacy is threatened by the arrival of a new, politically motivated, gang headed by the sartorially-challenged Crabs (Chase Newhart).

Crabs and his boys come off more like a Morris dancing troupe with behavioural problems than an actually badass gang, but then again Dominic and Silver Daggers all look about a decade too old to be in high school, so who’s counting when it comes to verisimilitude? Besides, the real star of the show is director Jack Hill, already an exploitation veteran by the time he shot ‘Switchblade Sisters’, having already chalked up ‘Spider Baby’, ‘The Big Doll House’, ‘The Big Bird Cage’, ‘Coffy’ and ‘Foxy Brown’. Any man who can lay claim to directing not one but two Pam Grier blaxploitation classics is a director worth celebrating.

Hill brings his blaxploitation credentials to the table big stylee after an attack on Crabs’ boys goes tits up, Dominic’s followers are decimated, Lace is injured and Maggie responds to her inherited leadership of the Debs (now renamed The Jezebels) by hooking up with militant Afro-American girl-gang leader Muff (Marlene Clark) and her highly trained and motivated crew. In the film’s best sequence, the girls take it to the streets and royally kick the arse of their male counterparts. Think grindhouse version of ‘Battle of Algiers’ and you’re on the right track.

Hill could direct the hell out of an exploitationer, no question about it. ‘Switchblade Sisters’, with its touch of ‘Othello’ (think Patch as Iago and reverse engineer it from there), its plentiful action set-pieces and its cheerful amorality is never less than entertaining. And there are touches – such as a knife fight played out in balletic silhouette – that demonstrate a cinematic talent as laudable as any of his 1970s peers.

If there’s a criticism to be made it’s that no-one in the cast demonstrates as iconic a presence as Pam Grier in ‘Coffy’ or ‘Foxy Brown’. Lee never really convinces, Nail gives the impression of a girl-next-door trying to be badass, Gayle leaves you thinking she might have been pretty awesome if given more to do than lurk in background scowling, and not only do Crabs and co. more than earn the above insult but the other gentlemen of the cast project so little physical danger that they’d get their arses handed to them on a plate in a straight fight with the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

Still, if it’s trashy fun you’re after, ‘Switchblade Sisters’ definitely entertains.


Erich Kuersten said...

The best one is that hot girl with the platinum blonde/white hair who hangs out in the background. I always picture myself stealing her away and taking her to a better life uptown, but then we're hit by a car on the way up and die, MEPRIS-style!

Neil Fulwood said...

Good call, but I think I'd make the ending to the fantasy a little more Zalman King.

(Don't quote me to my wife on that!)