Tame but amusing Filipino "women-in-prison" exploiter. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Limited Edition Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Savage Sisters, the 1974 indie released by American International Pictures, starring Gloria Hendry, Cheri Caffaro, Rosanna Ortiz, John Ashley, Sid Haig, Eddie Garcia, and Vic Diaz. Anyone looking for outright sleaze will be disappointed by this shoulda-been-PG-rated adventure opus...but it moves along quite nicely thanks to legendary Filipino director Eddie Romero, with a spoofy sense of humor that helps make up for all that curiously missing T & A. An original trailer (selling the movie as really kick-ass) is included in this nice-looking transfer.
An unnamed banana republic that everyone swears to God isn't the Philippines, President Marcos. Corrupt General Balthazar (Leopoldo Salcedo) rules this tiny jungle country with an iron fist, and that iron fist is about to grab $1 million U.S. dollars intended as "foreign aid." With the help of ruthless Captain Morales (Eddie Garcia), Balthazar plans on splitting the country with the loot, leaving Morales in charge as a pay-off. Revolutionary leader Ernesto (Dindo Fernando) has other plans for the money: he's going to steal it with the aid of his busty blonde American girlfriend, Jo Turner (Cheri Caffaro) and her cohort, kung fu ass-kicking rebel leader Mai Ling (Rosanna Ortiz). Providing muscle for the operation is shady bandito Malavael (Sid Haig), his sidekick One-Eye (Vic Diaz), and their band of cutthroat pirates. Everything goes pear-shaped, though, when Malavael pulls a double-cross, killing Ernesto and swiping the dough for himself. Jo and Mai are arrested and put in military prison, where stripper-turned-torturer/investigator Sergeant Lynn Jackson (Gloria Hendry) is given the job of finding out where the million smackers are―an assignment she ditches when former boyfriend/sleazebag con artist W.P. Billingsley (John Ashley) convinces her to help him bust out the two women and take the money for themselves.
If you're from my generation, Beach Party stud John Ashley is Filipino filmmaking, curious as that may read. With the constant reruns of his Blood / Beast cheapies during the mid-to-late 1970s on independent and then cable TV channels, those delightfully ramshackle horror outings from director Eddie Romero were about the only opportunity most American kids my age had in seeing something shot in the Philippines by a Filipino (with an American producer and releasing company backing him up, of course). From what I can tell, other than his Associate Producer credit on Coppola's Apocalypse Now (in gratitude for Ashley's logistical expertise in filming on the islands), Savage Sisters was the former AIP matinee idol's last foray in Filipino filmmaking before he went back to the States for an even more lucrative career in television production (The A-Team). I don't know the details of that move, but after watching the enjoyable-but-flat (from a strictly exploitation angle) Savage Sisters, it's possible Ashley saw the writing on the wall not only for Filipino jungle pictures but also the "women in prison" subgenre that had been so successfully re-energized by this foreign production foray.
Still trying to soak up some more of that gravy generated by former alumnus Roger Corman's New World Picture Philippine-shot WIP hits, The Big Doll House (which Ashley executive produced) and The Big Bird Cage, Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures dusted off their own big Filipino WIP hit from Romero/Ashley, 1972's Black Mama, White Mama, tweaking that storyline only slightly to come up Savage Sisters's action-filled plot. I'd be surprised if Savage Sisters didn't make back AIP's investment, where a sweet one-sheet poster (which I have around here somewhere...), some insanely overwrought radio ads, maybe a TV promo in the bigger markets, and some lurid ad copy in the local newspaper movie listings making a hard-sell for Savage Sisters's one week-only engagement, countered any lukewarm word-of-mouth with the guys down at the plant. That being said, it's hard not to be a little disappointed in Savage Sisters's curiously hands-off approach, especially after viewing that trailer that seems to promise so much more skin. I can't imagine Arkoff and company asking for less from Romero in terms of nudity here (by '74, the censors were pretty much asleep), so I'll chalk up Savage Sisters's relatively chaste approach to AIP's distance from Romero and company while shooting on location (maybe it had something to do with dictator President Ferdinand Marcos' censorship crackdown?), and the fact that once the movie was delivered, putting it out there in the drive-ins, second-runs and grindhouses as quickly as possible was probably AIP's first concern.
As for the movie itself, Savage Sisters works better as a comedy than it does as a sexploitation actioner...which probably won't be a good thing for hardcore fans of these subgenres. The old cliché (not always true, either) is that once a genre is thoroughly played out, the spoofs take over, and clearly, Savage Sisters is having fun at the expense of its inspirations. Action scenes are plentiful here, but having fun with them seems more important to director Romero than actually making them exciting. As for character motivation, skip it: any possible reasons for characters doing what they do here are conveyed through exposition shorthand, if at all. For instance, we're told that ex-American socialite Jo is fighting on this island because "her bag was love, his [Ernesto] was revolution," but we're only given one silent 10-second shot of the "couple" walking in the park to convey to us their dangerous love. Placard-board political buzzwords are thrown about here, as well, but Sid Haig's character pretty much sums up Savage Sisters's true feelings about those inconsequential issues: "These two-bit Fidels don't know their *ssholes from their earlobes." Indeed, Savage Sisters virtually ignores any revolutionary themes and sticks to lampooning the military here as embodied by Salcedo (who strips down and has medals even on his undershirt) and Garcia (who's shown to be a whimpering masochist, panting like a little doggie).
Savage Sisters' action scenes were probably cool to a kid back in '74, but there's hardly an exploding gel bag to be seen here for today's jaded market, while the two torture scenes―Jackson's castration of a male prisoner by means of a doorknob and rope ("Things were a little tense, but I think it came off alright,"), and Jo's almost torture by means of a rotary power tool―clash weirdly in their sweaty men's adventure magazine seriousness next to the movie's overall comedic tone. The few instances of martial arts displays by Mai Ling and Jo are okay with their heightened Bondian sound effects...but way, way too brief (Mai Ling knocking out the henchman is hilarious, though), while Romero has some fun with many cartoonish gags that come off well (when wheelchair-bound boat captain Pegleg is blown up on the dock, one bent wheel is the last item to fall to the ground, and when Garcia is run over by the girls―"F*ck him! This ain't no crosswalk!"―there's a tire mark running down his body, just like the Coyote in all those Road Runner toons). Sid Haig hams it up something awful (and awfully funny) as the bandito who screams, "Nincompoops!" at his men, while John Ashley, sporting a sleazy little moustache and sounding curiously like Frankie Avalon at times, filters his schoolyard approximation of jive talk through a hilariously mismatched faux-player/goofball persona ("Billingsley's my name...and hustling is my game."). As for the women here, they're good-looking and they talk tough ("You can squat on your revolution!"), but clingy, sweaty, unbuttoned blouses, or peek-a-boo stripteases with no "boo"-ty, or the girls' incomprehensible plan to all sleep with Ashley to determine his loyalty without so much as a nipple showing (wouldn't the first time convince them all?), aren't going to satisfy the men in the audience who have been programmed to expect gratuitous exploitation in this sort of movie.
It just isn't fair.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.