Unholy Rollers (Vernon Zimmerman, 1972)
Fed up with the daily drudgery — as well as the sexual harassment — that comes with working at the local canning factory, defiant wild child Karen (Claudia Jennings) storms out (leaving some cat food smooshed on her supervisor’s face) and focuses her feisty competitive spirit on becoming a star skater in the increasingly popular world of roller derby, where her obstinate individualism incurs the wrath of both her jealous female team members and the team owner.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Considering it came directly from 70’s exploitation king Roger Corman’s stable – and even if filmmaker Zimmerman would never be celebrated on the level as so many of his fellow Corman-alumni auteurs (though, it should be mentioned, he would go on to write and direct the interesting little cult item Fade to Black in 1980) – as with so many of the best – and even most luridly exploitative – of the Corman films of that time, Unholy Rollers, in its sympathetic and knowing portrait of the struggling underbelly of America (or what would be known as the majority today), is infused with a deep social consciousness and a sense of reckless (yet healthy) rebellion, set against a tough, gritty, dive bar backdrop (an admirable evocation that everything from Hollywood films to the lowest drive-in horror fare seemed capable of capturing at that time), brought to us through an almost cinema verité lens (the Corman folks were nothing if not cinema literate). In other words, with all of its messy construction and laissez faire attitude, I loved it. Just don’t know how I didn’t really know of the film before.
Claudia Jennings, woman with attitude
I’m guessing Unholy Rollers was made to exploit the success of that same year’s much bigger budgeted Raquel Welch vehicle Kansas City Bomber —a film I had heard of, naturally, as it was a big release when I was a kid – and the women’s roller derby phenomena that had tapped the nation’s zeitgeist at the time, and while I still don’t have a clue as to how you play that game (Why do they keep hitting each other into the rails? Where do all those high scores keep coming from? I’m confused… ), it certainly made for some exciting viewing — and even some inspired, youthful experimentation (the kind all those excitable filmmakers in the Corman cabal excelled at); for instance, by having an early go at using ‘changed shutter-speed’ shots, taken from the point of view of a fast moving skater in the middle of a game on the rink (creating an almost immediate sense of urgency, dislocation and intimacy all at once, something it would take cinematic master Spielberg to propel into its greatest effect with that mind-bogglingly terrifying opening ‘storming the beach’ sequence in Saving Private Ryan and, alas, has since become boringly de rigueur, with every lazy modern filmmaker relying on it as a way at pretending inspiration).
With the lurid TMZ-style life story (small town girl gone Playboy pin-up, turned exploitation indie film regular, dying suddenly and tragically at 29 in a LA traffic accident after having recently cleaned up from a heavy trail of bad boyfriends and rampant drug use), and showing up here and there in beloved exploitation fare (brought to us in the delectable flesh, with that eye-opening full nude scifi escape scene from Deathsport coming most vividly to mind… in fact, I never had felt so close to Jennings before… until this film, that is), I knew who the gorgeous Claudia Jennings was… but with her rebellious, uncompromising (she isn’t a particular nice guy in the film) performance carrying the entire film, wow, what a discovery.
From her defiant naked stand in front of the gawking drunken men at the local dive after her jealous teammates have held her down on the pool table and stripped her in an attempt to humiliate her (a Corman approved moment I’m sure… and by me, as well), to the opening scene of her taking on the lecherous manager at her job, and on into the scene of her on the back of her guy’s motorcycle (no helmet, of course), teasing his crotch with his gun before randomly shooting out corporate advertisement signs, Jennings leads one amazing scene after another with the force of her personality. I had an entirely new appreciation for her after watching Rollers. Would have been interesting to see what would have happened if she had stuck around.
Whether done this way on purpose, or a simple accident of filmmakers still not in control of their craft, Rollers (like so many a mid-West or Southern-set Corman indie), casts a wider net than the plight of just our main characters, with the camera not just dictated by the needs and sight of our characters, but constantly roving about independently (doc- and verité-style) onto the authentic, lived-in faces around them, reinforcing the notion that not only is making ends meet and trying to have some place in the world isn’t just Karen’s plight, but everyone’s (including the filmmakers). Whether in a local dive bar, or at the rink, the extras aren’t just there to fill background, but to bring alive a world.
It’s democratic progressive filmmaking at its best, coming from a time where people hadn’t yet been effectively ideologically separated from each other, with the controlling establishment elites having managed over time, through their tool the mainstream media, to divide people into separate identity politic, red/blue camps as a means to distract them from the reality that their true enemy is the very one and the same; ie, the establishment elite (yep, the Man).
In fact, the scene of Jenning’s Karen joyously and subversively shooting out those big business signs, a moment of pure bliss and true defiance (and f-ing super-cool, especially as it’s a woman doing it), would likely be met by today’s uptight ‘Left’ as reckless and dangerous because it has a gun in it. God, movies (and the youth behind them) used to be so much cooler once.