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Bait and Switchblade

Charlie's Devils: Girl gangers in the ineffable '70s exploitation film "Switchblade Sisters"

'Switchblade Sisters' is revived to make a new generation cringe at the excesses of the '70s

By Richard von Busack

CULT DIRECTOR Jack Hill's cult is based on two immortal movies: 1964's Spider Baby (a.k.a. The Liver Eaters, a.k.a. The Maddest Story Ever Told) and 1975's Switchblade Sisters (a.k.a. Playgirl Gang, a.k.a. The Jezebels). The latter is newly reissued at the bequest of Señor Tarantino's Rolling Thunder films, although Johnny Legend deserves credit for locating a print of this rare movie, which was exhibited here a few years ago. Capriciously cast and insufficiently futurized, this sprightly tale of a gang of knife-wielding chicks in an L.A. of the future is a one-of-a-kind delight.

In the lead, and worth seeing again and again, is Robbie Lee as Lace, the brains of the Dagger Debs. Lee constantly grits her noticeable teeth to keep from looking freckly, lispy, little and cute, and thus looks less like Little Caesar's wife and more like a rabid chipmunk. As her henchwomen: Donut, played by Lenny Bruce's daughter, Kitty, mercilessly fat-baited ("Squeal! Squeal like a piggy!" Lace demands when Donut whimpers for French fries); the one-eyed Patch (Monica Gayle); and Maggie (Joanne Nail), obviously herself the rightful leader of the gang, forced for the time being to obey Lace's increasingly evil commands.

Never before have the 1970s been presented in such relentless fullness. Switchblade Sisters gives a capsule history of the era's fashions--the bad perms, the polyester and even the appliqué (note an example of the latter long-gone art in the shape of the butterfly on Patch's patch). The ideological struggles of the time are also studied in the drug-running, the early feminism (as reflected in the Dagger Debs' ultimate purging of their male auxiliary and changing their name to the Jezebels) and the emergence of revolutionary consciousness, as the newly named gang joins forces with Muff (Marlene Clark) and her African American Maoist guerrillas.

While Lee's unlikely antiheroine is consistently stimulating (the question "What were they thinking?" just comes back at you again and again), it's Hill's mise en scene that is most rousing. Switchblade Sisters comes out of the gate with Lace hurling a bottle of perfume at a rat. Like the rat, authority flinches throughout the movie in the face of these bad, bad girls. Fast-food clerks ask plaintively to be paid, if it's not too much trouble, the principal of the Debs'/Jezebels' school pleads for peace, and even the formidable Broderick Crawford­like Kate Murtagh ("Large Marge" from Pee-wee's Big Adventure) ends up bleating for mercy in the Ida Lupino role as the sadistic jailer Mom. A spiritual companion piece to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Switchblade Sisters is the greatest movie John Waters never made. It's without Waters' literacy or Meyer's superb editing and lensing, but it possesses an ambiance that, as the tag line for Pussycat has it, "will leave a taste of evil in your mouth."

Switchblade Sisters (1975; R; 89 mins.), directed by Jack Hill, written by Hill, John Prizer and F.X. Maier, photographed by Stephen Katz and starring Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail and Monica Gayle.

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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