SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES: SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975)
THE JEZEBELS: The Coolest Girl Gang on Earth
Review by Nick Cato
This time I’m doing something slightly different. I didn’t see this one in a theater, but it’s a grindhouse gem. I saw it on VHS when it was re-released by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures in August of 1998.
From the jail-breaking dames in 1955’s SWAMP WOMEN to “The Man-Eaters” in H.G. Lewis’s SHE DEVILS ON WHEELS (1968); from the seldom-seen knife-wielding thieves in the 1973 Japanese cult classic, YASAGURE ANEGO DEN: SOKATSU RINCHI to everyone’s favorites, “The Lizzies,” in 1979’s THE WARRIORS, there’s nothing cooler than a group of pissed off, rebellious ladies out on the streets marking their own turf and making their own rules.
But when it comes to nearly non-stop action, campy violence, and man-battering domination, you can’t get much better than the “Dagger Debs,” the all-girl gang from 1975’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. And unlike the previously mentioned films, The Debs are (for the first half of the film) part of a male gang, the “Silver Daggers.” Sick and tired of being treated like second class (gang) citizens, they create their own clique and before long director Jack Hill —the man who also brought us such classics as SPIDER BABY (1968), THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) and two of Pam Grier’s best films: COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974) —treats the viewer to one of the wildest, craziest, coolest gang films ever made.
Let’s get the silliness out of the way: this is first and foremost and exploitation film, chock full of horrible acting and dialogue. The director packed it with plenty of self-mocking sequences. There’s obese lesbian prison wardens and high school gang members that look way older than 18; there’s chicks fighting over the same goofy-looking guy and a massive shoot-out at a roller skating rink (not to mention an all-black female gang who have a custom-built street tank!). There’s dope-dealing and prostitution in the school bathrooms. Yet despite all this, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is a story of female empowerment. It was released on the tail end of the Vietnam War and shortly after the sexual revolution, yet still portrays the world as anything but friendly to women. Hence the strength when Lace (played by the cute and oh-so 70s-looking Robbie Lee) decides to break away from the boys and sort-of lead her own clique. The film makes an even stronger feminist statement when new member Maggie (played by the even cuter and even more oh-so 70s’ looking Joanne Nail) eventually takes over the group (after their men are wiped out during an ambush) and re-names them “The Jezebels,” now fully separating them from their male co-bangers. It’s not until the last section of the film when The Jezebels join forces with the aforementioned black female gang to take on another rival gang (led by the wonderfully named “Crabs”), that we see total female unity, power, and determination. There’s bits and pieces of this hinted at beforehand, but in the end (before all hell breaks lose and the Jezebels begin to turn on one another), these ladies are not to be messed with.
Again, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is a 70s cult film and an exploitation flick if there ever was one. To some who have seen it, they might be thinking I’m giving the pro-woman message a bit too much credit here. But when you look at how female gangs have been depicted in the cinema, few have the charisma, the drive, or the purpose as The Jezebels.
Adding to SWITCHBLADE SISTERS’ coolness factor are the fashions. The girls are (mostly) seen in leather and lace, with studded boots, bell bottoms, and funky hats. The black gang sport afros that are the epitome of 70s blaxploitation. There’s something to be said for ladies looking this tight and still being able to flick their blades and have gun duels without ever ruining their threads…
I think its Joanne Nail’s character, Maggie, who makes SWITCHBLADE SISTERS work. When she joins the Dagger Debs, she’s dressed (almost) like the star of a 70s roller-disco porno flick in her tight T-shirt and short-shorts. But when she assumes the role of leader, she puts her sarcastic comments behind her and takes things seriously, not afraid to get things done, even if it means taking a life for the cause. She may not have the toughest-looking face, which only makes her that much deadlier.
If you’re one of the unfortunate souls who didn’t grow up in or around the 70s, and can overlook the cheesiness and bad acting, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is an amazingly entertaining film that—thanks to Quentin Taratino’s 1998 re-release on VHS and the later DVD—continues to find new fans every year.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato