Following the release of the original Lethal Ladies Collection (T.N.T. Jackson, Firecracker and Too Hot To Handle) comes another Roger Corman-produced female exploitation triple-bill from Shout! Factory, this time celebrating the groovy cool of The Arena, Fly Me and Cover Girl Models. If there was one thing you could always count on from a mid-1970s Roger Corman title was plenty of nudity, violence and the awesomely lurid tackiness of the poster art. A tagline like "see stewardesses battle kung-fu killers" - from Fly Me - is the kind of rich, tawdry goodness that means everything to exploitation genre geeks, and this two-disc set is all that.
Let's take a look:
The Arena (01h:21m:32s)
Directed by: Steve Carver
This was the debut of B-movie director Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Lone Wolf McQuade), and it remains a solidly directed Corman exploitation quickie, a US/Italian co-production shot in Italy that still holds up well today. Easily the best film in this collection, Corman scored something of a cult coup by reuniting Black Mama, White Mama stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov - here portraying slaves forced to do battle in the titular Roman gladiator facility. I think for most fans of the genre the mere thought of Grier and Markov together is more than enough to give The Arena its long-lasting hip cult status, but the film itself is enjoyable in its campiness, offering up requisite nudity and gladiator fights, all ensconced in a trendsetting "girl power" story.
The beautiful Markov is Bodicia, a blond priestess with a penchant for sheer tops while statuesque Grier portrays Mamawi, a Nubian dancer who is good with a sword. The pair find themselves held captive as slaves (along with Lucretia Love and Marie Louise) in a decadent Roman city. After a number of indecencies - including public bathing and a particularly uncomfortable rape sequence - they find themselves having to square off in the gladiator arena to satisfy the bored populace. That means plenty of sword-swinging goodness, culminating in the eventual "we're not gonna take it" female uprising, which gives The Arena a healthy slathering of appropriate mid-1970s feminism. Grier and Markov are once again excellent together - strong, sexy, intelligent - and this film suffers greatly anytime either of them are not onscreen. The only exception to that would be Sid Lawrence's Priscium, a comically fey Roman who manages to be an absolute scene-stealer, even up against the likes of Markov and Grier. And that, my friends, is no easy task.
Fly Me (01h:12m:15s)
Directed by: Cirio H. Santiago
The first of two Santiago-directed titles in this volume, Fly Me is also the weakest link in this trilogy, and though it is fairly awful it is still fun in its own high camp kind of way. Pat Anderson, Lenore Kasdorf and Lyllah Torena star in this often confusing martial-arts thriller, loaded with unintentionally funny chop-socky fight scenes balanced out by obligatory attractive female nekkidness. Santiago - who made a number of cheap Philippine exploitation flicks - follows the Corman playbook pretty closely, only he is saddled with an overall storyline that is rather nonsensical. Even the presence of Dick Miller and Vic Diaz are just fun blips on an otherwise bumpy flight.
To be fair, Santiago is tasked with intertwining three storylines together, but the truth is no one ever really expects films like this to be all that good, only that they provide the sort of cheesy shenanigans that the genre is built upon. Perhaps these sexy stews aren't quite the "lethal ladies" as seen in The Arena, but that's just a conceptual nitpick on my part. Staging some sloppily choreographed fights scenes, throwing a bunch of martial arts assassins on a plane and familiar elements like the ever popular "white slavery" angle probably sounded good on paper, but what makes a film like Fly Me watchable is the lure of skin, and there's a lot of it here. So there's that, I suppose. This isn't Santiago's crowning achievement by any stretch, but it has a silly, low-rent charm despite the abundant imperfections.
Cover Girl Models (01h:13m:17s)
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
The final entry in this triple feature is another Cirio Santiago entry, the 1975 fashion-world-meets-spy-world flick Cover Girl Models, once again starring the lovely Pat Anderson. She's joined this time by Tara Strohmeier and Lindsay Bloom, and together they're American models accidentally mixed up in the ever reliable exploitation staple of international intrigue. It seems that some top-secret microfilm has been hidden in one of their outfits, and that's the general setup for the sexy mayhem to follow. The tagline promises "the girls with the centerfold spreads", but that's just good old Corman hyperbole, as Santiago cobbles together a very loose story into 73 minutes of vaguely logical movie.
Cover Girl Models isn't great, but it's not a total loss, because any movie with an appearance by Mary Woronov is bound to be okay in my book; ditto for another quick turn by reliable Vic Diaz. Plus, the women are easy on the eyes, they disrobe occasionally, the fight scenes are campy and laughable, and the silliness of the whole thing has just the right amount of mid-1970s drive-in kitsch. As with Fly Me, this one has a big overall quality drop from The Arena, and it's almost unfair to have to be compared to any movie that stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov.
The Arena is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and despite some frequent sprocket holes and assorted vintage print damage the image quality is damn impressive. Colors are bright, fleshtones lifelike and on certain scenes I marveled at the clarity and detail of facial closeups. And in a big shoutout to Shout! this re-assembled full version of the film also includes two "lost" scenes - culled from a fullframe master - that are shown in full-frame aspect ratio, edited into the final cut.
The other two films are shown in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and when compared to The Arena they come up a bit short. Color consistency waffles a bit, and in some instances looks noticeably washed out. Sure, there's the age-related print damage -especially for Fly Me - but I realize that's essentially part of the charm of exploitation titles, if you ask me. Neither Fly Me or Cover Girl Models look as strong as The Arena, but by the same token I wasn't expecting something pristine.
All three films are presented in English language Dolby Digital Mono, and the sound quality is typical for B-tier titles from this period. Voice/dialogue is clear, though there's a overriding flatness throughout that is just unavoidable. Anyone who has ever seen an exploitation film won't find anything problematic with any of these mixes, and for those who haven't expect go in with low expectations and you'll be happy.
For this two-disc set it would appear that The Arena is the undisputed heavyweight, getting its own separate platter. It also has the most substantive extras, including an in-depth commentary from director Steve Carver, inexplicably hosted by WWE Diva/horror host Katrina Leigh Waters. Carver has plenty to say about the making of the film, his work with Corman and no shortage of information about the cast. Also included is the new featurette Into The Arena (18m:09s), which has interviews with Corman, Carver, Markov and producer Mark Damon looking back on the production. Fun stuff, and it ends with a nice reveal concerning two of the participants. The film's theatrical trailer - known here as Gladiator Women - is provided, as well.
Disc two - which houses the other two films - is pretty barebones, in terms of extras, with just a TV spot (:27s) for Fly Me.
This second volume of Roger Corman "Lethal Ladies" titles delivers the drive-in goods, with a trio of mid-1970s exploitation films that provide the expected quota of skin, violence and occasional bad acting. The dynamic duo of Margaret Markov and Pam Grier in The Arena remains the best reason to go out and pick this up.
Recommended for genre fans.