The Dailies—Jack Hill’s
Switchblade Sisters

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Jack Hill is one of the few true auteurs of Exploitation. He’s the director of numerous classics; Spider Baby, The Big Doll House, Coffy, and Foxy Brown could each be a defining film for its genre. Switchblade Sisters, his second-to-last film and the last released under his name, is the cherry on top of Hill’s lengthy and influential career.

However, that’s not a universal opinion, and the majority of reviewers have completely missed the point. Roger Ebert said, in a review of the re-release from 1996,

The movie is badly acted, written and directed, and while I was watching it I realized that in some unexplained but happy way, the basic level of cinematic talent has improved in the past two decades.

Stephen Holden of the New York Times is even more condescending,

To watch “Switchblade Sisters” is to visit a never-never land of shopworn media images colliding in a tabloid high school of the mind where chippies and soul sisters gather to “off the pigs” and bring power to the people. It is also a place where the only thing that really matters is holding onto your unworthy louse of a boyfriend.

These critics are missing out on the vicarious pleasures and revolutionary ideas of one of the great drive-in movies of the 70s. It has guts and heart, and it’s a smart fusion of Maoist/Feminist politics and All-American street crime. The “bad acting” is Expressionistic and melodramatic and the “bad writing” is a satiric fusion of Doug Sirk and Huey Newton; the “bad directing” needs no explanation—merely an eye appointment for Mr. Ebert. As far as the cliches that Stephen Holden pronounces, the identification point of the film is not the jealousy of Lace, but the girl-power of Maggie. If anything, the film is about giving up “your unworthy louse of a boyfriend” and submitting to the needs of the collective.

Later you even get to hear the Black gang leader quoting from the Little Red Book

Sisters, originally released as The Jezebels, has its origins in Shakespeare’s Othello. I haven’t read that play—yet, but I will say that the film has a very Shakespearean feel, with the gangs as royal courts with kings and queens and the intrigue that goes with them. In the commentary the director talked about trying to evoke a slightly futuristic, post-apocalyptic dystopia—a fantasy. Viewing the film through this lens—without looking for the verisimilitude that so many critics can’t live without—reveals his highly theatrical atmosphere. The garrish costumes and sets, the over-the-top melodrama, and the climactic swordfight all become crucial aesthetic elements of this misinterpreted grindhouse masterpiece.

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