Starring: Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail, and Monica Gayle
Written by: F.X. Maier
Directed by: Jack Hill
Switchblade Sisters is a film that is much better than it should be. On the surface, it’s just one in a long line of exploitation-era films about a gang of street-smart ladies. But it has far more heart and far more substance than a lot of the output of its era. And much of the credit for that goes to director Jack Hill (Foxy Brown). Hill is well known for his contributions to the exploitation genre. But what makes his work stand out from the pack is the likability of the characters in his films.
Synopsis: Switchblade Sisters follows girl gang, The Dagger Debs as they break in Maggie, their newest member. The ladies find themselves faced with internal power struggles, bouts of jealous rage, and battles over turf. The ladies are tough and ruthless, yet not even old enough to vote. Like the tagline says, “Mothers…lock up your sons!”
Switchblade Sisters has taught me a number of valuable lessons, including but not limited to: It’s not healthy not to be in a gang. Plungers can and should be used as weapons. If you have a problem, you should solve it with violence. If you think someone is sleeping with your boyfriend, you need to kill them.
In all seriousness, Switchblade Sisters delivers everything you could want from an exploitation film: There are jail cell brawls, graphic depictions of toilet bowl submersion, and knife fights. And that’s all within the first fifteen minutes. This is truly an action-packed affair and there’s nary a dull moment.
In addition to nonstop action, the film also delivers exceptional characters and standout performances from its leads. Great showings from the key players and likable characters really elevate Switchblade Sisters beyond traditional grindhouse sleaze.
A lot of exploitation films had two-dimensional characters that served as cannon fodder or existed solely to disrobe at every opportunity. But Jack Hill’s films somehow managed to meld gritty, exploitation cinema with sympathetic characters. And this is no exception. Every one of the characters is far more likable than they should be. They are brash and cruel to one another but sympathetic performances and moments of vulnerability make it almost impossible not to invest in their plight.
Future Saturday morning cartoon voice actress Robbie Lee turns in an excellent performance as Lace, the leader of The Dagger Debs. Lee chews up the scenery like it’s sustenance and she hasn’t eaten in a month. But her overacting is endearing and somehow feels authentic to her character. The way she always talks like her jaw is wired shut makes her feel a little like an old Hollywood villain and it works perfectly.
Joanne Nail (The Visitor) who plays newest Dagger Deb, Maggie, perfectly walks the line between street smart and sensitive as she assimilates to her role in the gang. She’s tough as nails but with just a hint of vulnerability.
In addition to great characters, Switchblade Sisters also delivers a strong message of female empowerment. Case in point: The ladies start as an offshoot of a male gang (The Dagger Debs are an extension of The Daggers) and ultimately break out on their own, saying that they are not anyone’s Deb. What follows is a series of events that see the ladies taking charge and fighting back against the men that have oppressed them.
After breaking out on their own, the ladies rename their gang The Jezebels because Jezebel means “an immoral, shameless, impudent woman”. And they revel in the notion of being immoral and impudent. At a time where society pushed women to be homemakers, it’s refreshing to see characters that reject that notion. The film certainly isn’t without problematic elements. But it deserves credit for showcasing strong women at a time where that wasn’t commonplace.
My chief criticism with Switchblade Sisters is that Maggie has no known gang affiliation (other than once dating a man who may have been connected) prior to joining the Dagger Debs, yet she is unbelievably street smart and an expert with a weapon. We have no real context as to why she can handle herself so effectively. Just knowing a bit more about her background would have made her effortless assimilation to gang life more believable. However, that’s a small complaint in an otherwise wholly enjoyable film.
Not surprisingly, this Arrow Blu-ray release contains a bevy of special features. Many of them are pulled from previous releases of the flick. But it’s still nice to have them assembled in one place with a crisp 1080P transfer of the film. The bountiful sampling of featurettes give fans a chance to tap into Jack Hill’s creative process and hear from key players in the flick. Also included is a brand new commentary track from film critics Samm Deighan & Kat Ellinger.
Even though much of the bonus content is ported over from past releases, a lot of it was new to me. So, if you are a Switchblade Sisters enthusiast, there is no reason in the world not to pick up what should now be considered the definitive release of this exploitation gem.
As for the picture and audio quality, the flick looks and sounds amazing. There is still a bit of grit and grain, which is to be expected. But I’ve never seen the film look this good. It’s head and shoulders above the Rolling Thunder DVD release. This is the loving restoration Switchblade Sisters deserved and I am so grateful to Arrow for making it happen.
Switchblade Sisters is exploitation sleaze with likable characters and a strong message of female empowerment.