Friday, June 1, 2012

Drive-in Theatre: Switchblade Sisters and Thunder Alley

Switchblade Sisters (aka The Jezebels) (1975)

In the opening scene, Lace (Robbie Lee), the tough leader of the Dagger Debs, sharpens her switchblade in her bedroom and then gently dabs cologne on her neck. She's a paradox: she's loyal to her gang members but also bullies them; she's wildly violent but also writes love poems to her boyfriend Dominic, gang leader of the Silver Daggers. Lace has trust issues, but surprisingly befriends a new girl named Maggie (Joanne Nail) who shows spunk during a diner encounter and later in juvenile detention.

Unfortunately, Dominic takes an immediate interest in the pretty Maggie. Patch (who does indeed wear an eye patch) hates Maggie, who has taken her place as Lace's de facto deputy. When Patch keys in on Dominic's smoldering looks toward Maggie, she makes sure that Lace is aware of it. Yes, Switchblade Sisters is a lurid, violent, engrossing gender-reverse variation on Shakespeare's Othello with Lace as the Moor, Dominic as Desdemona, Maggie as Cassio, and Patch as Iago.

Patch turns Lace against Maggie.
Yet, there's more to this cult classic than just an unexpected dose of the Bard. It starts out as a film that exploits women--just as its male characters do--and ends as one that empowers them. The closing scene carries a wallop when one of the bloodied girls growls at a police officer: "You can beat us, chain us, lock us up. But we're gonna be back, understand? And when we do, cop, you better keep your ass off our turf..or we'll blow it off. Ya dig? We're Jezebels, cop."

Switchblade Sisters is a personal favorite of Quentino Tarantino, who re-released it in the 1990s and paid subtle homage to it in Kill Bill. Sadly, neither of the female leads, who are quite good, had meaningful film careers. Robbie Lee--who reminded me of a cross between Kristy McNichol and Tuesday Weld--later supplied some of the voices for the Rainbow Brite cartoon series. Joanne Nail guest-starred in TV series like Harry-O and The Rockford Files.

Thunder Alley (1967)

This poster makes Thunder Alley 
sound much racier than it is!
Fabian stars as Tommy Callahan, an up-and-coming stock car driver who blacks out every time he gets boxed in during a race. When that leads to the death of another driver during the Daytona 500, NASCAR suspends Callahan. The disgraced Callahan ends up working in the Madsen Thrill Circus, which features low-budget auto stunts and staged races. It's not all bad, though--Madsen's tomboy daughter Francie is played by Annette Funicello!

Thunder Alley was a transitional picture for American International Pictures. The preceding year's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini put an end to the profitable Beach Party series. The same year also saw the release of The Wild Angels, which would kick-start a series of violent motorcycle gang films. Thunder Alley lacks the innocence of the Frankie & Annette films, but it's a far cry from Peter Fonda in a black leather jacket! Thus, we get the incongruousness of Annette singing a Guy Hemric-Jerry Styner song in one scene and experiencing a hangover in another.

Diane McBain and Fabian.
While the stock footage of the stock cars holds a certain nostalgia, it's the two female leads --Annette and Diane McBain--that make Thunder Alley watchable. McBain's career got stuck in second gear while she was under contract with Warner Bros. Granted, the studio gave her a couple of juicy parts--the bad girl in Parrish, a lead role in the underrated Claudelle Inglish--but it also buried her in the TV series Surfside 6 as a flighty socialite.

In Thunder Alley, McBain plays Callahan's lover, who thinks his current gig in the thrill circus is "dullsville." She views Callahan solely as an ends in a means (i.e., a celebrity lifestyle). However, that doesn't stop her from threatening Francie when Annette's character expresses her interest in Callahan. At that point, I was hoping for a catfight, but none materialized and I surmised that perhaps Fabian wasn't worth it.

Annette singing her one song.
As for Annette, Thunder Alley was her last theatrical film--except for a cameo in Head with The Monkees--until Back to the Beach in 1987. Some reviewers try to make it sound like Annette played a slightly darker role in Thunder Alley, but that's not so. There is the hangover scene and Warren Berlinger calls her a "track tramp," but she's still the sweet innocent from the Disney and Beach Party movies. And that's just fine with her legion of fans, which includes me.

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