directed by Jack Hill
starring Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail, Monica Gayle
My first encounter with Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters was at the Florida Film Festival in Orlando when the film was revived by Quentin Tarantino. Being in the pre-Wikipedia 1990s the audience was uncertain if it was a vintage film or a dead on pastiche. The confusion was understandable as Switchblade Sisters hammer numerous exploitation tropes in a single film. You have gangs, women in prison, blackspoitation, rape, teen pregnancy, and even a roller rink shootout.
Switchblade Sisters is Jack Hill’s unlikely reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello to a Los Angeles girl gang. The Dagger Debs, a sister gang to the Diamond Daggers, is run by the cherubic Lace (Robbie Lee) and her one eyed enforcer Patch (Monica Gayle). Into their world comes the new girl, Maggie (Joanne Nail). Maggie and Lace soon find themselves in a power struggle for the leadership of the gang and for the attentions of the Diamond Daggers leader Dom. The Diamond Daggers have beef with the rival Crabs gang with Maggie and the Dagger Debs caught in the middle. In the midst of the violent tensions, Patch stirs the pot pitting Maggie and Lace against each other with tragic consequences. By the time the Dagger Debs have evolved into the Jezebels, they are no longer an auxiliary of a guy’s gang and they are an independent force of their own. They even cross racial barriers and join forces with a black female revolutionary group to aid them in overthrowing both the Diamond Daggers and the Crabs gang.
Whether or not the film is intentionally feminist it is unabashedley pro-female. Switchblade Sisters follows on the girl gang tropes from the 1950s in films like High School Hellcats and The Violent Years, but the secret is Jack Hill. He uses the familiar plot points as a starting line and then runs with them into exciting and unexpected places. He made his entire career with this approach, which sets his films apart from the glut of similar movies being cranked out at the same time, quite willing to push boundaries and subvert tropes, but without sacrificing the gratuitous violence, sex, and mayhem that the audience demanded. Another element of this approach is in the casting. For Switchblade Sisters he cast the girls in the gang with a variety of looks beyond the standard by the numbers “character” types without overtly glamorizing them. They all look tough and are shot and lit without an emphasis on hollywood beauty standards. The Dagger Debs don’t look like fashion models. Even the requisite nudity is markedly less titillating then one would expect from mid-‘70s exploitation. Switchblade Sisters is a great exploitation movie but it also feels like the end of an era. It’s easy, sometimes hokey charm would soon be pushed aside in favor of more sexy, violent, cynical fare.
The new Blu-ray from Arrow boasts a bevy of fun extras including We Are The Jezebels, a great look at the making of Switchblade Sisters with some really terrific stories from cast and crew, especially the frank insights from Jack Hill who is quite a character and a terrific story teller. There is a short piece with Jack Hill revisiting some of the Los Angeles locations used in the movie and even a very old interview from Johnny Legend’s VHS release of the film moderated by Legend, reuniting Hill, with actresses Robbie Lee and Joanne Nail. Most of the material is covered in other features but it is interesting to see how much more sophisticated these sort of things have gotten over time. There’s a booklet with essays from exploitation historians Alexndra Heller-Nicholas and Heather Drain, and a rolicking audio commentary from the Daughters of Darkness podcast Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. Samm and Kat discuss their love for this film and Jack Hill’s career including his Pam Grier starring women in prison (The Big Bird Cage, The Big Doll House) and blaxploitation action films (Coffy, Foxy Brown), the film’s connections to Rainbow Brite and Alvin & the Chipmunks cartoons from the 1980s. They do a great job picking out subtle elements in the film that you aren’t likely to land on a casual viewing. The duo also bemoans the loss of actual femininity in current tough women action films, and the notion that exploitation films should be viewed as fantasy films that exist in their own universes that function by their own rules that may not conform to current society. The ultimate sign of a great audio commentary when everyone is disappointed when the movie is over and the commentary has to end.
Switchblade Sisters is a terrific piece of independent exploitation filmmaking that has become extremely well regarded and influential even if it never managed to find an audience in the theaters. It has had numerous home video releases over the years on various formats and this Blu-ray trumps them all making it a must buy for fans of the film and a perfect blind buy for the uninitiated.