THE DOLL SQUAD
Color, 1973, 91m.
Directed by Ted V. Mikels
Starring Michael Ansara, Francine York, Anthony Eisley, Tura Satana, Sherri Vernon, Leigh Christian, Judy McConnell, John Carter
Color, 1991, 96m.
Directed by Ted V. Mikels
Starring Anne Heywood, Donald Pleasence, Robert Vaughn, Earl Holliman, Carolyn Jones, Ronee Blakley, Dorothy Malone, John Lafayette, Doris Roberts, Jocelyn Brando, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Alpah Video, Image (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), MIA (UK R2 PAL)
One of the most colorful personalities from the heyday of drive-in cinema is undoubtedly Ted V. Mikels, a Las Vegas-based, genre-hopping director/producer/writer/cinematographer who made a killing with films like The Corpse Grinders and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. Unlike some of his fellow budget-impaired peers, he kept his projects within the confines of mainstream commercial taste and avoided any salacious sex scenes or graphic gore. However, his movies are still very, very weird, possessing a lovably off-center personality that's easy to pinpoint right away regardless of genre.
Mikels' first genuine action film, The Doll Squad, came after a three-film horror stint and reunited him with his Astro-Zombies star, the late and much-missed Tura Satana, a statuesque and imposing actress/exotic dancer who achieved cult movie immortality in Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! However, Tura's not the leader of the titular squad; that honor goes to Francine York (The Centerfold Girls) as Sabrina Kincaid, a government agent in charge of recruiting an all-female force of crime fighters. She's called into action again by CIA honcho Victor Connolly (The Naked Kiss' Eisley) and Senator Stockwell (Badlands' Carter) when a nefarious criminal starts blowing up American rockets after takeoff. However, Sabrina's first two recruits get taken out by baddies, which leads her to a female traitor in the senator's office who reveals that the culprit is really Sabrina's former lover, ex-agent Eamon O'Reilly (Ansara), who's now running an evil enterprise off his own little island in South America. Now it's time for Sabrina to bring in her four final dolls: Cat (Vernon), Lavelle (Satana), Sharon (Christian), and Liz (McConnell), whose day jobs range from librarian to stripper. (You only get one guess who plays the latter.) Armed with bikinis, pistols, and exploding liquor, they manage to infiltrate Eamon's headquarters to find out his ultimate evil scheme.
The main claim to fame for The Doll Squad now is Mikels' insistence that the TV series Charlie's Angels ripped him off, though apart from the name "Sabrina" and the idea of having female-oriented action scenes, there isn't really much resemblance to those small screen private eyes. That didn't stop the UK DVD release from cashing in those claims to an outrageous degree, which probably helped move a lot of copies back in the early '00s. Anyway, it's all good, stupid fun if you're in the right frame of mind, and despite the PG rating, it manages to throw in some pretty shocking (albeit weirdly hilarious) bloody gunshot scenes and, of course, a demonstration of Satana's prowess with pasties. York makes for a reasonably engaging heroine (except when she visibly winces while trying to fire a gun), and incredibly, she even kinda-sorta reprised the role in 2010 for Mikels' Astro Zombies: M3 - Cloned. (Satana reunited with her for that one, too, but as a different character.) Along with Girl in Gold Boots, this is easily one of Mikels' best-looking films thanks to some really gaudy production design and more locales than usual, though of course that low budget feel still lingers via the nailed-down camerawork and erratic performances.
Unlike many filmmakers, Mikels has kept the elements for his films in great shape over the years. The Doll Squad has looked very nice since its digital bow from Image in 2001, complete with the trailer and a pretty dry audio commentary in which Mikels basically recaps the action happening on the screen. (This was part of the company's Cult Cinema Collection line which also included several other Mikels' films.) Eventually the rights for this and most of Mikels' other films passed over to Alpha Video, who reissued this as both a standalone and part of a six-film "Ted V. Mikels Signature Collection."
However, all of those options pale in comparison to the Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome, which sports a pretty spectacular HD transfer from the original negative. Apart from the typically ragged stock footage in the opening scene, it looks pin-sharp throughout with every questionable fashion choice and shocking piece of decor rendered in perfect detail. Those wild colors have never looked better, either, putting the cheap, vastly inferior 35mm prints floating around to shame. It's really something else. The DTS-HD mono audio sounds fine, and also included is a new audio commentary with Mikels and American Grindhouse's Elijah Drenner. It's a vast improvement over the old commentary as Mikels skips the play-by-play chat and instead talks about the original idea for the film, finding the actresses, choosing the locations, and using simple determination and resourcefulness to pull of the action scenes and special effects (including some amusing optical explosions during the climax).
Also included on the Blu-ray is another, far more obscure Mikels action film, Mission: Killfast, which still holds the record for the longest production in his filmography. It began shooting in 1982 and was well underway when financing dried up, leaving him to ship the actors and crew back from Vegas and figure out a way to finish it with other means. Nine years later, he managed to bring back three of the actors, wrangle in some new ones, and shoot enough scenes to put it all together into a final story, more or less. Apparently inspired by the success of his women-in-prison effort Ten Violent Women, he also upped the skin quotient considerably with a number of topless scenes thrown in at random intervals. The end result feels more like an Andy Sidaris film in those moments, but the action scenes and oddball moments with serious government agents and villains sitting around scheming in wood-paneled meeting rooms still peg this as a Mikels special in the end. The plot... err, well, what there is of one has to do with some wicked mercenaries who steal some nuclear devices and plan to funnel them off to competing world powers, which forces the government to call in a retired martial arts master, Tiger Yang (a former Golden Harvest actor and familiar face from films like Dragon on Fire and Game of Death II). Women lose their tops, Tiger kicks a few paunchy guys around, and the film takes numerous detours including a deadly modeling stint for Shanti, perhaps the longest running of Mikels' famous "castle ladies," who has become a staple in his films ever since.
Mission: Killfast made it out to VHS but skipped the Image line, instead turning up very briefly on DVD from Media Blasters' Guilty Pleasures and then from Alpha. That transfer looked pretty rough, and the Blu-ray represents a marked improvement in what would prove to be one of Mikels' final projects shot on film (to date). The weird production history means you'll see some inevitable inconsistencies from time to time, with immaculate footage rubbing shoulders with some grittier scenes (especially the action climax at the end). There's probably no way this could look any better, though, and it's such a marked improvement across the board that the entire film becomes much more enjoyable and perhaps even coherent than before.
As for video extras, the disc (which sports reversible cover art showcasing both films) starts off with an eight-minute interview with Mikels consisting of outtakes from the production of American Grindhouse. It's a general overview of his career including his first taste of showbiz (wanting to film magic shows) and his process of concocting an idea and bringing it to fruition. The nine-minute "Mustache Commandos!" features Mikels again for a new talk about Mission: Killfast from its inception, including massive rewrites on a script he acquired to include elements common in men's magazines. It's a fun and really facetiously edited piece (especially the cutaway when Mikels praises the "magnificent music score"), offering some rationale for the bizarre end result that confounded viewers in the early '90s but seems like 100% pure grade Mikels today. Then there's a seven-minute video chat with York, now a blonde, who opines that her strong, obstinate nature was an asset on the film and proved she could play a leader. She seems proud of the end result and talks about working with Satana (including the big bazooka scene) and the positives of fight scenes with women holding their own. It's still hard to believe we're getting Ted Mikels films on Blu-ray now, but with the standard already set this high, the mind boggles at what the future could hold.
Buy from Diabolik DVD
Reviewed on August 31, 2013.