Color, 1974, 83m.
Directed by Steve Carver
Starring Angie Dickinson, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Susan Sennett, Robbie Lee, Noble Willingham, Dick Miller

Color, 1987, 83m. / Directed by Jim Wynorski / Starring Angie Dickinson, Robert Culp, Danielle Brisebois, Julie McCullough, Jeff Yagher, Bruce Glover
Shout! Factory (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

If ever a movie star was taken for granted, it's gotta be Angie Dickinson. A savvy blend of beauty, smarts, and toughness, she rose to the Hollywood A-list appearing almost exclusively in "guy" movies like Ocean's Eleven (opposite occasional flame Frank Sinatra), Sam Whiskey, the 1964 version of The Killers, and most memorably, Point Blank. Then in 1974 she took her most familiar role on TV as the star of the series Police Woman, an influential show that showcased the first really successful, modern solo female law enforcer. However, that same year she went much further out on a limb with a Big Bad Mama, a Depression-era ode to "hot lead, hot cars, hot damn!" with Angie taking the reins as Wilma McClatchie, a strong-willed widow who doesn't want her two daughters (Ozzie's Girl's Sennett and Switchblade Sisters' Lee) wasting their lives married off to poor farm trash. An unexpected twist of fate hands Wilma control of the family bootlegging operation, with the three ladies packing pistols to hold up banks to finance their business. Along the way Wilma hooks up with two very different men, a fellow robber named Fred (a very boyish Skerritt) and a wandering con man, William Baxter (Shatner, taking a break from the Star Trek cartoon). At first the band of merry thieves gets along well enough, but when you're robbing people blind on America's open roads, your luck has to run out sooner or later.

On paper, Big Bad Mama could have easily been a forgettable quickie. Producer Roger Corman was still in the honeymoon phase of his solo company, New World Productions, after leaving a long tenure American-International Pictures, and here he handed directing chores to Steve Carver, a Corman apprentice fresh off his first feature, the Italian-lensed The Arena. The craze of Depression crime films was also starting to sputter out a bit by this point after the major success of Bonnie and Clyde, with AIP chiming in much earlier with its own imitation, 1970's Bloody Mama. However, Big Bad Mama turned out to be a huge drive-in hit thanks to one very smart move: casting Dickinson in the lead. Her snappy line delivery, enthusiastic action scenes, and surprising nude scenes (which remain incredibly popular with the Mr. Skin crowd) give the film a strong, charismatic core that holds it all together. Carver also proved himself more than up to the task, revealing a respect and affinity for the period setting that also proved him well with his next Corman-produced feature, Capone. Sharp, slick cinematography by Bruce Logan (who went on to Tron, Jackson County Jail, and, uh, Dracula's Dog) keeps the visuals dynamic as well, and the supporting cast features a slew of favorites like Dick Miller, Alice Sweet Alice's Tom Signorelli, a very young Sally Kirkland, The Howling's Noble Willingham, and even a cameo by second unit director Paul Bartel before his big break with Death Race 2000. Surprisingly, the two daughters (including squeaky-clean TV girl Sennett) bare some skin, too, which ensured this would remain a cable favorite well throughout the '80s; however, even beyond the basic exploitation elements, this is a rousing good time and one of Corman's best films from his wild '70s period.

Big Bad Mama first appeared on DVD directly from Corman's New Horizons label in a very unimpressive full frame transfer that ruined the original compositions by removing the original matted framing, exposing huge chunks of bare space on the top and bottom of the frame that threw almost every shot out of whack. It was also taken from a dated master probably going back to the early '80s and didn't look much better than a VHS tape. At least it included a Corman interview with Leonard Maltin (a staple of most of his DVDs during the format's early days) and a trailer. Later Corman struck a deal with Disney that seemed promising at first but quickly turned into an exercise in frustration; mostly old masters were rehashed again, and the title choices were often confounding and wildly overpriced. A special edition of Big Bad Mama (featuring a terrible cover, not to mention artwork from the sequel instead of this film) rehashed the same transfer and dropped the Maltin interview, replacing it with a terrific 15-minute featurette, "Mama Knows Best" (with Dickinson, Carver, Corman, writers Francis Deal and William Norton, and even a briefly seen Shatner), and a somewhat superficial but very entertaining audio commentary with Dickinson and Corman. Fortunately the star remains very proud of the film and seems to have a ball watching it again, enthusing about many of the locations and little thespian touches while taking her more exposed scenes in good stride ("Here's the scene they copied over in all those magazines," she notes during her big moment near the end). Corman mainly sticks to talking about the nuts and bolts of the production (especially giving histories of the frequently recycled vehicles and frugal location scouting), and the two of them seem to get on very well together.

Fortunately the third time really is the charm here, as Shout! Factory's Big Bad Mama edition carries over every extra from both previous versions (commentary, featurette, trailer) along with a much, much, much better widescreen transfer. Sharp, bright, clear, and colorful, it thankfully blows away memories of decades of drab-looking tape masters and restores all of the intended framing to its original intentions. (And don't worry, skin fans, the matting doesn't ruin anything vital.) For some reason the end credits and MPAA card are 1.66:1, but the 1.78:1 framing elsewhere looks fine. The disc also adds a couple of TV spots and, more importantly, a second audio commentary with Carver and Logan (moderated by Walt Olsen) who really dig much deeper into the details of the production ranging from the mechanics of staging multiple action scenes on a tight schedule to navigating a host of big-name actors who have to be shot exactly right.

Also included on this double feature disc is Big Bad Mama II, a film that surprised a lot of fans by coming 13 years after the original. Corman didn't normally do direct sequels to his crime films, but apparently the enduring popularity of the original on HBO was enough to put Dickinson back in the lead again. Completely ignoring the memorable ending of the first film (which would seem to completely negate a sequel in the first place), this basically uses the same formula as Wilma and her daughters strike back at the corrupt real estate crooks using the local banks to foreclose on honest folk like herself. Soon she and the girls are off on another crime spree, and while the cops can't seem to catch up, a dogged reporter named Daryl Pearson (Culp) seems to have no trouble pestering them for a news story after every job and eventually winds up in Wilma's bed (a weird sequence with Dickinson and Culp's body doubles rolling around in red bedsheets). Meanwhile the girls squabble over their newest addition, Jordan (Yagher), the handsome kidnapped son of a corrupt politician (Glover, aka Mr. Wint from Diamonds Are Forever and Grady from the first two Walking Tall films) who's next on Wilma's hit list. Big Bad Mama II certainly has its heart in the right place, and Dickinson as usual is a delight to watch as she rattles off bullets and one-liners like a pro. Unfortunately this time director Jim Wynorski (a still-busy '80s Corman vet who directed films as diverse as Chopping Mall, The Haunting of Morella, and the awesome Hard to Die) seems to be constantly fighting an uphill battle with the period setting, which comes off as half-hearted at best. None of the hairstyles (especially Yagher's) are even remotely accurate to the period, the costumes and sets seem like they were recycled from a nearby TV shoot, the bland synth score seems to be wandering in from a softcore thriller, and the action scenes are flatly directed with actors casually standing around or sauntering in and out of frame. The strangest decision of all is the recasting of the two daughters with Brisebois (another TV good girl from shows like Archie Bunker's Place and Knots Landing) and McCullough (a pretty Playboy model who went on the remake of The Blob and TV's Growing Pains), both of whom seem more like '80s Valley girls who wandered in from the mall than Depression-era farm girls. At least they provide the necessary celebrity T&A here in abundance (including a topless swimming scene that ensured this film's home video immortality), and there's also a peculiar food/bondage fetish scene with the girls and Yagher that tries to outdo the implied threesome sequence from the original. Fans of the original will have to set their expectations much lower here, but for a mindless night's entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Also, the time-leaping twist ending is a lot of fun and arguably the film's high point.

Like the original, Big Bad Mama II was directly released by Corman on DVD in a modest edition using the same dull, full frame master created for cable airings. At least it had a fun commentary track with Wynorski, a well-versed guy who always steps up to the plate for his chat tracks. (Check out his solid work on the tracks for Chopping Mall and, if you can find it, Morella). His good-natured take on the extreme budget and time constrants explains some of the film's corner-cutting in a few key areas. The Shout disc carries over the commentary and trailer (along with a Corman interview with Maltin that appears to be cobbled together with outtakes about the first film) as well as a new nine-minute interview with Glover, who's seated in front of an unsettling sculpture made of metallic baby dolls. He talks about the director and cast in glowing terms and, more importantly, also explains the necessity of being to raise one eyebrow at a time. Also playable as a "Grindhouse Experience" with both features playing back to back along with drive-in promos and bonus Corman trailers like Crazy Mama and Jackson County Jail.