Lethal Ladies

The fourth week of January was big for fans of kick-ass women who literally kick ass. (Note: Dear readers, please take me to task if I ever again compose a sentence that sounds so much like it was written for Ain’t It Cool News.)

On Jan. 20, “Haywire,” with real-life mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano, and “Underworld: Evolution,” with unreal-life vampire warrior Kate Beckinsale, opened in theaters.

Four days later, the Shout! Factory label released “Lethal Ladies Collection 2,” a two-disc triple-feature of 1970s exploitation gold (or perhaps fool’s gold) that is the latest in the company’s ongoing and invaluable “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” initiative.

Characterized by copious nudity and cartoonish violence, the triple feature includes “The Arena” (1974), aka “Naked Warriors,” with Pam Grier as a “Nubian” gladiator in ancient Rome; “Cover Girl Models” (1975); and “Fly Me” (1973), which has been blessed with perhaps the most direct and enticing plot summary in Internet Movie Database history: “Stewardesses battle kung fu killers.”

This second volume of lethal ladies was preceded in October by — what else? — the Shout! Factory’s first “Lethal Ladies Collection,” a superior “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” triple feature that more legitimately deserves the cult “classics” designation than its sequel.

The earlier volume contains the 1974 blaxploitation/martial arts favorite “TNT Jackson” (“She’ll put you in traction!”); “Firecracker” (1981), a remake of “TNT Jackson,” but with more white people; and “Too Hot to Handle” (1977), with bombshell Cheri Caffaro, whose idea of flirtation is to tell a police detective: “Promise if you rape me, you work the case.” (From masterpieces like “Straw Dogs” to grungy grindhouse fare like “I Spit on Your Grave” to more or less mainstream films like the Western comedy “The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday,” a jokey or leering or at best dubious attitude toward rape was one of the least welcome apects of the newly “permissive” cinema of the ’70s.)

Past Corman “Cult Classics” volumes have showcased some really fine or fascinating films (“The Velvet Vampire,” Jonathan Demme’s “Crazy Mama,” Corman’s own “Not of This Earth”), but the “Lethal Ladies” triple-bills don’t contain any really good films. Nonetheless, a few of the movies are great, in terms of goofy entertainment value and crude nonstop ‘B’ movie thrills.

Corman’s input on most of these movies was minimal; generally, he provided some production money, and distributed the films through his New World Pictures company. In fact, these Corman “Lethal Ladies” collections could almost as accurately — if less profitably — be billed as “Cirio H. Santiago’s Cult Classics” or “The Vic Diaz Collection,” volumes one and two: Tireless Filipino exploitation filmmaker Santiago produced and directed four of the six films, and character actor Diaz — sometimes called “the Filipino Peter Lorre” because of his rotund physique and bulging eyes — appers in four. (Diaz often was cast as a creep, as in “The Big Bird Cage,” but in these films he usually plays men of authority and relative sophistication, whether cop or criminal; his “Lethal Ladies” titles include “Firecracker,” “Too Hot to Handle,” “Fly Me” and “Cover Girl Models.”)

Inspired by the success of “blaxploitation” goddess Pam Grier and the martial arts genre, Santiago’s “TNT Jackson” casts former Playboy Playmate Jeannie Bell as Diana “TNT” Jackson, a 24-year-old Harlem native and kung-fu teacher who has been on her own since knifing a grabby sailor at 13.

Bell obviously was hired for her pneumatic assets rather than her fighting prowess: Her large two-toned afro fails to disguise the use of a stunt double during many of the hammy and unconvincing yet irresistible kung-fu battles, which sometimes are undercranked, for an absurd fast-motion effect. (Bell’s choreographed punches aren’t too intimidating, but her long spidery fingers are pretty scary.) In fact, Bell appears to be doubled by a man in many shots, although it’s obvious no stuntman was used during the scene in which Santiago requires TNT to fight topless.

With a script credited to actor Ken Metcalfe (who appears in “TNT Jackson,” “Firecracker,” “Cover Girl Models” and “Fly Me”) and longtime Corman stock company member Dick Miller, “TNT Jackson” finds the title “One Mama Massacre Squad” (to quote the poster) traveling to Hong Kong in search of her missing brother. Apparently, TNT is the most fascinating person in a city of millions, because various important people instantly identify her as a Person of Interest. These include a drug lord’s sexy blond mistress, Eve (Pat Anderson), who confesses to TNT that she’s actually a government agent. “Oh yeah?” scoffs TNT. “And I’m Snow White, suffering from a sunburn.” When Eve tries to recruit her sister from another mister, Miss Diana Jackson scoffs: “Me, TNT, working for the pigs? No chance!”

a poster with punchAnother of Ms. Jackson’s quotable slogns is: “You want it black? You got it black!” That was one line that didn’t make the transition to Santiago’s “Firecracker,” which is essentially “TNT Jackson” for those who want it white: By 1981, the “blaxploitation” genre was dead, so this film casts dynamic blond Jillian Kesner in the lead role.

Surprisingly, the casting is the only area in which this film pales next to its predecessor. In fact, “Firecracker” may even be more enjoyable than “TNT Jackson,” thanks in part to an outrageous sequence in which Kesner progressively loses most of her clothing during a battle with a pair of thugs: The exclamation point occurs when a hoodlum swings a deadly sickle so close to our heroine that it slices open the front of her bra, which falls from her shoulders, exposing her breasts. To make something good even better, this episode is accompanied by a super-cool jazzy rock (Filipino?) rip-off of the instrumental opening section of “Planet Clare” by the B-52’s.

Viewers also may be impressed by the succession of colorful lion jackets worn by co-star Darby Hinton, which make Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket in “Drive” look like it came off the rack at Discount Sammy’s on American Way. (A former child star on TV’s “Daniel Boone,” Hinton is scheduled to return in June to the Memphis Film Festival.)
Tthe “Lethal Ladies Collection” is also the most distinctive, even if it shares Filipino locations with its companions. “Too Hot to Handle” benefits from slick production values and a relatively complicated plot, but it nonetheless is not lacking in the exploitation trifecta of asburdity, violence and nudity — sometimes all three at the same time, as when star Cheri Caffaro’s slow-motion full-frontal striptease is intercut with shots from an apparently authentic cockfight.

“Too Hot to Handle” was conceived by director Don Schain as another vehicle for his wife, Caffaro, at a time when the couple was still riding the surprise smash success of their 1971 sex-and-violence drive-in milestone, the notorious “Ginger.” The movie introduces the blond, tan Caffaro — wearing a pink bikini and a pair of glasses with the letters “FOX” decorating one lens — as the aptly named Samantha Fox, a 27-year-old millionaire and international assassin who only rubs out bad guys (or gals, including a lesbian sex-slaver). Like Vincent Price in “Theater of Blood,” Samantha creates elaborate disguises to insinuate herself into the homes of her victims; in an early scene, she dons a black S&M dominatrix outfit to gain access to a victim who wants to show her his “unique collection of medieval sporting devices.” Later, Samantha wears blackface makeup, more or less, to impersonate a Filipino housemaid and drown a criminal art collector in his Jacuzzi. (Actually, the brown facial coloring isn’t much more extreme than the blue eyeshadow and cherry lipstick that represents Samantha’s “normal” look.)

o Cheri o Cheri o baby…Why drown an assignment rather than stab or shoot him? “It’s much more of a turn-on to watch something die slowly,” Samantha tells the police detective (Aharon IpalĂ©) on her tail er trail er either one applies. (The detective is happy to flirt, banter and sleep with Samantha, even though he’s certain she’s responsible for a string of murders.) Justifying her novel killing methods, she explains: “We abhor anything as commonplace as a gunshot.”

Part of the fascination of “Too Hot to Handle” is its misguided apprehension its own sophistication. The film is quite taken with itself, as well as with its star: Schain seems to have been convinced he was making a sparkling sex-and-crime drama that might be compared with “To Catch a Thief” or “Charade” if not for its low budget. Possibly viewers at the Summer Twin Drive-In didn’t realize they were listening to utter nonsense when Samantha, disguised as an art reporter, show off her preparation as well as her erudition during a discussion of “predynastic Tahitian sand sculptures.” The colorful eye-stinging 1970s fashions add to the comical pretension: As an end credit reveals, “Miss Caffaro’s Wardrobe Designed by Miss Caffaro.”

just a woman on a mission: Caffaro is ‘Too Hot to Handle’

All three movies in this first “Lethal Ladies” volume are presented in anamorphic widescreen editions; print damage is sometimes visible, but they look fine overall. “Too Hot to Handle” features a welcome commentary track from Caffaro (who discusses her entire career) and “American Grindhouse” director Elijah Drenner, but the only other bonuses are wonderful trailers for various “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” offerings, including “Firecracker” (“She’ll mix seduction with destruction!”); 1972’s “The Big Bird Cage” (“Abused by savage degenerates…”); 1976’s “Jackson County Jail” (“Shut that tramp yap of yours!” shouts a guard); and 1972’s as-yet-unreleased-by-Shout! “The Hot Box” (“Caught between a kill-crazed revolutionary and a sex-crazed major!”).

The first volume was accurately titled, but the “Lethal Ladies Collection 2” represents something of a misnomer: Only “The Arena,” the first of the three films, is really about “lethal ladies.” (The “Frequently Partially Nude Ladies Collection” would be a more accurate title.) The overall quality of the movies dropped between the volumes, too. Still, the films have their misbegotten charms, and “The Arena” is probably the eagerly awaited of all six films on both collections.

step into… ‘The Arena’!The first feature directed by Steve Carver, who later that same year did “Big Bad Mama” for New World, “The Arena” was conceived as “‘Spartacus’ with women,” according to Corman, who appears in the 18-minute making-of documentary included on the disc. More practically, the film was developed to reunite Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, the stars of the previous year’s New World hit “Black Mama, White Mama,” and to take advantage of the production resources of Corman’s Italian-based friend, actor-turned-producer Mark Damon, a star of Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum.”

In “The Arena,” Grier and Markov are kidnapped women forced to be sex slaves and then gladiators in ancient Rome. The togaed nobleman who pitches the idea of female warriors might be writing copy for New World Pictures when he enthuses: “Return of the Amazon — fierce barbarian women, mad for blood, pitted against each other in the ultimate test — of the arena!”

Margaret is Bodicia (Latin for bodacious?), a peaceloving druidic priestess in white gossamer robes; meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Grier is the “Nubian” Mamawi, dressed in leopard pelts and dancing with abandon to the beat of the tom-tom. The cruel — but not too cruel, unfortunately — overseer of the abducted femmes is played by beautiful Rosalba Neri, billed as “Sara Bay,” as she was in the American credits of the Corman-distributed “Lady Frankenstein.” The Romans baying for blood in the stands include Neri’s “Frankenstein” co-star, Jess Franco stock company member Paul Muller.

a class picture

Carver is a competent director, but his movies lack the spark and wit and almost subversive aspect of the better New World releases. “The Arena” isn’t the hoot it ought to be, in part because much of the gladiatorial combat is presented with tight, handheld shots that confuse the action even as they cover up the relative unathleticism of some of the actresses. (Shown to be comically incompetent during the training montage early in the film, the slave women somehow outfight legions of professional centurions by the movie’s climax.)

Xena, eat your heart out!

In the DVD’s mini-documentary, Corman makes the case that “The Arena” celebrates the “empowerment of women,” but the proto-Xena adventure seems more opportunistic than purposeful, and it lacks the pseudo-feminist spark of its more provocative and intense predecessors, the New World “women in prison” pictures. Possibly the film isn’t as effective as it ought to be because it’s an amalgam: It’s essentially an Italian film (most of the performers are dubbed), but with an American director and American leads. Still, it’s hard to complain about a movie with a trident-wielding Pam Grier, especially in that halter-sling top; overall, “The Arena” is worth seeing, even if you won’t get out of the movie what Damon got, namely, a wife: He married Markov. (Incidentally, in the mini-doc, Damon reports that while he was making “The Arena” at Rome’s famous CinecittĂ  studios,Fellini was shooting “Amarcord” on an adjacent stage; he says the Italian auteur was a frequent visitor to the Corman set, because “he liked big-chested American women, fighting.”)

back when you didn’t hate going to the airport…The second disc of the “Lethal Ladies Collection 2” set features a pair of fun and complementary if inconsequential movies about trios of sexy friends-colleagues. “Fly Me” is a tale of “cockpit cuties… flying out of the skies and onto your laps,” according to the trailer included on the disc; while “Cover Girl Models” finds the title beauties mixing it up with internatonal spies. Both films were directed by Santiago.

Perhaps inspired by Ursula Andress’ entrance in “Dr. No,” “Fly Me” opens with a shot of a beautiful woman in a white bikini emerging from the surf to retrieve her beach towel, her New Yorker magazine and her copy of “The Sensuous Man.” The woman is Toby (Pat Anderson — remember her from “TNT Jackson”?), late for her first day on the job as a stewardess; catching a cab to the airport, she strips in the back seat to change into her uniform, which naturally causes driver Dick Miller to run off the road.

A sexy klutz, Toby is joined by fellow “cockpit cuties” Andrea (Lenore Kasdorf), the only “lethal lady” in the film (Andrea knows kung fu), and Sherry (Lyllah Torena), who may not be a nymphomaniac but is certainly unchoosy. An unwelcome and annoying companion for both the stewardesses and the audience is Toby’s comic-relief mother (Naomi Stevens), presented as a stereotypically Jewish-accented busybody dedicated to preserving her daughter’s virginity. A Hong Kong white-slavery subplot adds suspense to the sex/comedy, and gives Andrea a chance to display her martial-art flair, in weak action scenes reportedly directed by Jonathan Demme.

i’m surprised there’s not tagline about getting ‘undercover’ with these cover girls… i find it hard to imagine this ad art actually appearing in The Commercial Appeal…

Pat Anderson returns in “Cover Girl Models,” but this time the naive sexy/klutzy “teenybopper” is not named Toby but Mandy, and is played by Tara Strohmeier. She’s the discovery of a horndog photographer (John Kramer) who is on assignment for Ultra, a glossy periodical marketed as “a magazine for the unpossessed woman,” in the words of its editor (the great Mary Woronov, who unfortunately disappears after her one early scene in an office where a poster for “The Arena” joins the Warhol and Lichtenstein prints). The other models on assignment with Mandy in Asia include Claire (Lindsay Bloom), a would-be actress, and Barbara (Anderson), who is chased by spies after some microfilm is sewn into the hem of her red dragon-patterned dress. “Cover Girl Models” is the definition of what a Leondard Maltin book might call a “passable time-waster,” if you have 73 minutes to waste.

All the movies are presented in anamorphic widescreen editions. “The Arena” contains a commentary track with Carver, a trailer and a poster/still gallery, in addition to its making-off documentary; the second disc contains trailers.

from the Memphis Commercial Appeal