1975, 90 mins. 37 secs.
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Robbie Lee, Joanne Nail, Asher Brauner, Monica Gayle, Chase Newhart, Marlene Clark, Kitty Bruce
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Subkultur (Blu-ray) (Germany R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Buena Vista (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)
An outrageous and stylized entry in the '70s cycle of gang drive-in movies, Switchblade Sisters began life under the title of The Jezebels, a reference to its quasi-feminist girl gang heroines. Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures rescued the film from oblivion over twenty years later in 1996 under its reissue title, where it actually played multiplex theaters and stunned patrons expecting another Pulp Fiction. That reissue was also a major factor in the rediscovery of director Jack Hill, whose relatively small but astounding filmography features a number of wild blaxploitation and women-in-prison classics along with unclassifiable cult oddities like Spider Baby.
A tough high school gang, the Dagger Debs, keeps a tight grip on their turf under the leadership of the disturbingly childlike Lace (Lee). During a small rumble at a hot dog joint the girls meet loner Maggie (Nail), who winds up going into the juvenile slammer with them for a few days. The Dagger Debs save Maggie from the lesbian clutches of the evil warden and decide to make her their newest member. Maggie is released first and delivers a note from Lace to her boyfriend, Dominic (Brauner), who runs the Silver Daggers. He repays Maggie by reading Lace's letter aloud to his boys, following her home, and sexually assaulting her. When Lace gets out, her trusty sidekick, Patch (Gayle), convinces her that Maggie has been sleeping with Dominic, and soon all hell breaks loose.
A veritable feast for drive-in fans, Switchblade Sisters moves so fast that most viewers won't care how little actual nudity or bloodshed there is in the movie. Hill's trademark off-kilter dialogue works especially well in this bizarre alternate universe, where the pre-Grease high school students are pushing 30 and a friendly roller rink can turn into a gun-blazing battlefield. Exploitation vets in particular should watch for an appearance by Ganja and Hess star Marlene Clark as "Muff," the leader of an all-female Black Panther type squad, and Lenny Bruce's daughter, Kitty, even turns up as the memorable Donut. The attempts at social commentary and feminist treatise are laudable if a tad muddled at times due to some narrative inconsistencies, particularly concerning Maggie (whose sexual assault gets brushed off in an odd manner). The action scenes are all a blast, with the final knife-wielding showdown (in expressionistic wall shadows, no less!) a particular standout; special kudos as well to Robbie Lee, whose Lace is one of Hill's most engaging characters. Later the actress reformed and provided cartoon voices for Rainbow Brite and Q-Bert, which just shows you how weird Hollywood can be.
Miramax's early laserdisc special edition of Switchblade Sisters was something of a mixed bag with a colorful but fuzzy letterboxed transfer and, wealth of extras aside, the noticeable absence of the film's trailer. The subsequent DVD incarnation (handled by Buena Vista, a.k.a. Disney) fixes all of these glitches, with the trailer now reinstated ("She's as affectionate as a scorpion with all the loving tenderness of a buzz saw!") along with a gorgeous, razor sharp image that makes the absence of 16:9 enhancement negligible. Tarantino provides an intro and closing statement which have thankfully been relegated to the extras menu; he makes some interesting points, but his hyper delivery and the herky-jerky camerawork render them almost unwatchable. Better is the audio commentary track in which he and Hill pick apart every bit of minutiae involving the film from its inception to release. Also included is a batch of Hill-related extras including his early short film, The Host (featuring regular Sid Haig), and trailers for Coffy, Foxy Brown, Pit Stop, Sorceress, The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and The Swinging Cheerleaders, some with distracting new voiceovers. The Spider Baby section has been expanded to include a newly generated "trailer" along with a film clip and collection of review excerpts.
In 2016, German label Subkultur premiered the film on region-free Blu-ray (with the geographically baffling title Die Bronx Katzen) featuring a gorgeous scan of the film with DTS-HD MA German and English 2.0 mono tracks (with respective subtitle options in both languages as well). commentary by Hill and Tarantino, a German one by Marcus Stiglegger and Kai Naumann, "We're the Jezebels" (39m20s) featurette with Hill, Nail, producer John Prizer, casting director Geno Havens, stunt coordinator Bob Minor, production designer B.B. Beel, actors Asher Brauner and Chase Newhart. Ported over from an early self-distributed VHS release in the early '90s is an archival featurette (7m57s) with Hill, Nail, and Lee, which is pretty superfluous now but nice to have for Lee's involvement. Then Hill and Nail appear at a 2007 Grindhouse Film Festival screening (9m25s) at the NuArt in L.A., followed by a 2012 "Gangland" location featurette (6m55s) with Hill and Elijah Drenner doing some detective work figuring out what happened to a few familiar spots from Glendale to Eagle Rock. The film can also be played in a grindhouse mode featuring German trailers for Target Eagle, Fiona on Fire, The Savage Bees, Way of the Dragon 2, and Riot in a Women's Prison. Five years later, Arrow Video filled the void left by the German release (a limited edition that went out of circulation very, very quickly) with a 2021 Blu-ray edition that sports the same excellent transfer and ports over the major video extras, namely "We're the Jezebels," "Gangland," the '90s featurette, and the Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A. The LPCM 2.0 mono English track is in fine shape and features optional English SDH subtitles, and you also get two trailers (as Switchblade Sisters and The Jezebels), bonus trailers (Spider Baby, Pit Stop, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and The Swinging Cheerleaders), and five separate image galleries (behind the scenes, promo stills, lobby cards, posters, and home video releases). The most substantial new extra here is an audio commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger who juggle analysis of exploitation cinema in general (including its depictions of women and the effects of poverty and drugs), the distinctive merits of Hill's cinema, and the singular joys of this one in particular. (The "yearbook staff" line is a particular keeper!) Along with new cover art by The Twins of Evil, the first pressing also comes with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Heather Drain.
Updated review on April 4, 2021.