Thursday, December 28, 2017


Claudia Jennings was the white Pam Grier. A Playboy Playmate of the Year turned action heroine, she didn't make it out of the Seventies, dying in a 1979 car wreck. She was one of a global generation of female ass-kickers that gave the decade's genre fare an unprecedented quality. Vernon Zimmerman's Unholy Rollers, one of her first starring roles, presents Jennings as a sort of female Kirk Douglas in self-destructive Champion mode. Karen is sick and tired of the dull routine and the obnoxious boss at her grungy cat-food cannery and after a fit of sabotage is angrily unemployed. She finds a new career in roller derby, which in those days wasn't the female-bonding/empowerment ritual it seems to be today. Instead, it was -- if you can imagine this -- a poor man's professional wrestling, with its enigmatic competition (the rules are, of a necessity, explained during the film) taking a back seat to the spectacle of good guys (the L.A. Avengers) and bad guys (the San Diego Demons have an enforcer who prances around in a green mask and cape). It's less rollerball than hockey with regularly scheduled worked fights. Unlike pro wrestling, roller derby has, to my knowledge, never added anyone to the pantheons of celebrity or folklore. That's how low-rent it was in the days of Unholy Rollers, but it's the sort of venue where someone like Karen, beauty marred by belligerent alienation, can become a sort of star. There's an underlying theme of salesmanship and fakery in the picture, little distinction being made between Karen's main job selling -- in the wrestler's sense of the word -- the violence of roller derby and her burgeoning side gig as a local commercial pitchwoman. Fame, such as it is, goes to her head. It also awakens a violent streak in real life. She's effortlessly proficient with firearms and reckless with them, taking potshots at signs while joyriding through the streets of L.A. Like early Kirk Douglas, Karen succumbs to self-immolating rage and self-loathing -- an attempt to be generous to her contemptuous mother is telling -- becoming more trouble to the management than she's worth as she passes the shelf-life of the typical roller-derby star. She finally rolls right off the track, onto the street, and into the path of an oncoming car, as if eager to throw elbows at the whole world. With such a character in the spotlight, one can't help wondering how much "supervising editor" Martin Scorsese may have contributed to this Roger Corman production beyond its conspicuous cutting. Unholy Rollers is a misanthropic, sleazy satire of the desperate ambitions of people on or just below the bottom rungs of fame, and of how easily even they can enthrall the consumer rabble. That doesn't really make it a good movie, though Scorsese helps whip it to a gallop and Jennings impresses as a gorgeous-ugly id monster, but it does make Zimmerman's picture a fascinating artifact of Seventies cinema.

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