Dir. Doris Wishman
I've seen a few grindhouse films, but this one enforces the fact that concepts of political correctness, good taste and conventional strands of filmmaking are jettisoned in their desire to exploit. The fact that these original films have not really been made available over here in the UK - not the irony or throwback of Grindhouse (2007) which plays within modern day attitudes and aesthetics, or those easy to market to this mindset - made viewing this one, despite being very chaste, very shocking in its content. Once I explain the plot, it's up to you whether you'll see the film. A young wife goes out of her flat to dispose of the garbage, only to be raped by the predatory janitor in the corridor stairway and blackmailed by him for more sexual favours. This doesn't last long as she kills him with an ashtray to the head, fleeing to New York to avoid murder charges under a false name, going door to door for places to live. Unfortunately every male she encounters is a sexual predator. Belts hit flesh, and in a film meant to titillate as well as be nasty, the result lingers on these tribulations like a voyeur. This is my first encounter with a "roughie", softcore American b-films with an added domination theme over women, literally, being roughed up. Immediately, this is not something you get around our British waters on DVD, and is something that, unless you've already dived into the muddy waters of exploitation cinema, is still surprising to see even if you've seen some of the most violent and nasty films of now. And what adds to this surprise is how such a film is: a) very chaste baring this lurid content, with no actual nudity baring tease and occasionally female buttocks, and b) is one of the most well know, by title at least, films of a female director.
A cheapie production, nice looking, from the mid-sixties, but the name Doris Wishman holds a lot of significance in the area of American exploitation cinema. The Queen of American Sexploitation in fact, worshipped by John Waters, one of the few women in this morally dubious field to have a large, prolific career, and someone, despite the expectations of the content, was adding her own idiosyncrasies to films like this because she was self taught, produced many of her own films, and likely had the personality to get these films made. (I have only seen this and the infamous A Night to Dismember (1983), but the later showed how determined she was as a person, making a film regardless when most of the original footage shot was destroyed by a disgruntled lab technician even if it meant creating a strange, collaged and post-synched oddity). Bad Girls Go To Hell is the sort of film that would make feminists uncomfortable, and for a male like me who likes exploitation cinema but is concerned with progressive attitudes to feel a moral quandary, regardless of what one thinks of the technical quality of the film. Yet the fact that Wishman, a woman, made this film inherently complicates the issue of what gender is, what "Political correctness" in films is to actual, real life attitudes one may have. It puts a spanner in the arguments, and surprisingly, causes one to ask more serious questions about gender and sexual politics than a morose, serious drama on the subject. Not bad considering, were it not for my concerns in these areas, the film is in the end complete and utter camp, juggling an unbelievably nihilistic view of life, even if it's meant to titillate, with a naive kitsch.
Only over sixty minutes long, shot in stark black and white, its set around cramped rooms and brief glimpses of the streets of New York, against shop windows, taxis, from the ground looking at peoples' feet. Scored to soft jazz, rooms decorated in chique objects and furniture, the layering of a silly, fun film. Were it not for the fact I've only seen my first of the "roughies" in this, that silliness would've been more pronounced from the beginning. As an exploitation film, its narratively simple, fragments tentatively put together actually, the morals against scuzzy thrills, cutting to the chase with its content rather than tease it out. For its low budget, its well made and has a tone to it more realistic than other films in that it feels lived it, and shot in real buildings and exteriors. Editing occasionally becomes very jagged for moments of chaos and nastiness. The dialogue is also post-synched, an eeriness matched by the charmingly wooden acting of some of the cast. The cast itself is far removed for the Barbie dolls and Ken dolls of softcore, women who look like women, real figure, people who'd meet on the street, even compared to now, and men who look grizzled and drink whiskey all night.
If there is a defence for the morality of the film, it's the fact that the men, including married ones, are not seen in a good light for the most part at all, lust filled potential rapists with no redeeming value to them whatsoever. There is a stereotypical predatory lesbian character, but the resolution of that segment has the problem being the protagonist not being able to want to continue the relationship and leaving despite the comfortable living in the room, where love and doing handstands in her underwear claiming she's an acrobat would be how she'd spend her time with the older, body stocking wearing haired woman. If it wasn't for the scenes of undressing that are tantalising, the scuzzy thrills aren't actually sexual, the roughie aspects just sordid. Everything surrounding this content, while not of good taste, is pretty inexplicit and tame compared to the films of now. It's just the roughie content is probably a greater taboo now because of how the complicate history of gender politics have developed over the many decades. The film eventually takes on an (intentional/unintentional?) meaning in that our protagonist, completely innocent, murdering the janitor by accident in self defence, is stuck in a continuing nightmare where no one is on her side. A cyclical one where it continues with no escape. It's an odd mix, this nihilistic tone with very lurid, jarring content that would've been innocuous and naive to anyone else but me who've viewed more of these films and been desensitized. As a film being viewed from a view of abstract cinema, it certainly qualifies. The contrasting tonal differences between it all, mixing the camp with material that would be scorned over, although the contrast is as much the result of me, as a person, being wrapped up in cotton wool from these sleazy genre movies. Distant acting, drifting along the scenes aimlessly as hot jazz plays over the images. A goofiness that is met with a very negative view of humanity that somehow exists in a low budget film like this. It perfectly sums up what an American grindhouse film is as I watch more of them from this era.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/Non): Low
The shock of seeing a film with material that is more controversial now adds a personal effect on it, an oddity, in complete honesty, from a very different time because of how it's made and acts. It's shocking in ideas, but there's not a single bared breast in the film, adding a peculiar paradoxical air to it. The obvious kitsch, the suave furniture choices particularly, adds to this. It's from an era a company, Something Weird, entirely devoted themselves to, the transition between the fifties b-movies to the trangressions of the seventies, trashy cinema on scratched celluloid that yet feels innocent at the same time.
Is there virtue in the film or something to defend? Possibly if one avoids lapsing into hypocrisy. To know the difference between a lurid film and misogyny taking place in real life. Baring in mind the campiness of the whole work. And that a woman who controlled most of her career, in an area few women were involved with, made this film. The result makes it much more complicated morally, fascinating as a cult film. The film as entertainment? Rough, no clear direction in the way it's going, utterly compelling as scrappy exploitation. The Queen of American Sexploitation making an enticing offer to view her other films after this one, and somehow managing to bring out real questions about my social politics rather than an apparently serious work. That's a great way to get further interest in Doris Wishman if any.