“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Director Jack Hill may be best known (at least to horror nerds like me) for his work on Spider Baby or blaxploitation flicks like Coffy and Foxy Brown (both starring Pam Grier), but this girl gang opus isn’t far behind. In fact, Switchblade Sisters was one of the flicks re-released to theaters and on VHS under Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures label, during the brief time when he was given a platform to roll out weirdo cult, foreign, and grindhouse movies with his name blazoned all over them. (Someone please give Guillermo del Toro that same kind of platform already.)
Switchblade Sisters is clearly cast in the mold of a variety of other exploitation film genres, from the “reform school girl” and juvenile delinquency movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, like MST3K mainstays such as Kitten with a Whip and The Violent Years, to the blaxploitation and women-in-prison movies that had made up much of Hill’s filmography up to this point. But like many of Hill’s other pictures, it has more on its mind than merely some cheap thrills.
With a plot lifted from Othello, Switchblade Sisters may spend entirely too much of its narrative energy on the jealous triangle of gang-leader Lace, new-girl Maggie, and Dom, Lace’s repugnant love interest, but its thematic juice is all occupied elsewhere. Even within that framework, it’s really Lace’s right-hand, Patch – sporting one of the most iconic costuming choices in ‘70s cinema – who actually occupies the third point of that triangle, with Dom acting as little more than a MacGuffin.
While the plot may be tied up in the internecine power struggles and personal dynamics of a switchblade-sporting girl gang, however, the film itself has bigger ambitions, albeit ones that never get in the way of delivering on the kinds of grindhouse carnage that you come to a picture like this expecting. There are roller rink fights and blazing gun battles on the dilapidated streets and a car armored up like something out of Mad Max and even a women-in-prison segment. I’m not here to argue that this film is highbrow, or that it doesn’t know precisely what kind of movie it is.
But at the same time, it’s a movie that revels in spitting blood at the power structures and “Nixonian Zeitgeist,” as Hill calls it, in which it was made. Like many of these types of movies – some more than others – Switchblade Sisters carries under its veneer of gleeful depravity a biting condemnation of the system of corruption and exploitation that lies behind every bad action that any of its characters might undertake.
The logline may be “girl gang Othello,” but what keeps us writing about Switchblade Sisters all these years later is that it is equally about the girls of the Dagger Debs-cum-Jezebels learning the power of collective action in the face of a world that is – from the cops to the landlords to the prison wardens to the scuzzy repo guys to their own gang member boyfriends – designed to use them and cast them aside.
There’s a reason, after all, why the Jezebels – after changing their name and kicking all the cowardly men out – go to Muff and her group of Maoist black freedom fighters for help in taking down their rivals. Despite her tragic fall, Lace knew it from the beginning, in her way. “You ain’t with a gang?” she asks incredulously, upon first meeting Maggie during a soda shop confrontation. “People just stomp on you, you don’t have any muscle behind you.”
There’s even a moment, after the introduction of Muff, that rings as particularly significant in our current political moment. When one of the other Jezebels asks Maggie how she and Muff know each other, Maggie replies casually that she “used to go with her brother once, ‘til the cops offed him.”
Nor are the structures of repression only those that exist within the world of the film. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas writes in the booklet that accompanies the Arrow Video Blu, “One of the real pleasures and deep joys of exploitation cinema are these moments when the apparatus is revealed; there’s a knowingness that the best instances of the form render the line between ‘our world’ and the ‘film world’ not just hazy, but downright unstable.”
The very form of Switchblade Sisters is, itself, a type of oppression, a trap in which the characters are caught, every bit as much as they are caught within the socioeconomic pressures of their diegetic lives. Hill simultaneously relishes the trappings of that form, and weaponizes them as means toward more radical politics, just as the Jezebels weaponize their own exploitation into rebellion.
Take, for instance, the film’s most controversial sequence – a rape scene that is deeply uncomfortable for many reasons, and which gets a huge amount of text devoted to it in the booklet that accompanies the Blu. Hill himself has said that the scene is a reference to the 1949 film version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, pointing out that “when the rapist is Gary Cooper, naturally, the audience assumptions might be an issue.”
Even in what is, without a doubt, it’s most problematic moment (a term that Heller-Nicholas mocks in her essay), the film is questioning audience assumptions, or at least trying to, and reminding the viewer of their own complicity in a system that grinds down just about everyone.
Does it always work? Naturally not, this is Switchblade Sisters, after all, not whatever venerated classic movie title you want to put here that, in your mind, always works. Sometimes, the expected flashes of flesh from underage girls, the knife fights, the gun battles, and all the other sleazy paraphernalia are just that. Sometimes they’re more, though, if you’re ready for them to be.
By the time the film reaches its climax, with a maddened Maggie spitting her final speech at the cops with blood in her teeth, it’s obvious that she’s talking about more than just the Jezebels, and more than just women in general. She’s talking about everyone and everything that has been repressed by a corrupt system until it becomes so volatile it has no choice but to explode.
“You can beat us, chain us, lock us up, but we’re gonna be back, understand?”