Savage Sisters (1974) ***½
Thus far, we have dealt with Eddie Romero almost solely as a horror filmmaker, in the context of the movies he directed or produced for the Filipino Hemisphere Pictures and their American partners, Independent-International. But the Blood Island pictures and their descendants were by no means the only irons Romero had in the fire, so let’s take a little while now to look at a different side of his career. Romero directed Savage Sisters for Hemisphere and I-I’s most powerful rival, American International Pictures, seemingly as part of an effort by AIP to compete with a different upstart company. Almost immediately after breaking with American International, Roger Corman had launched New World Pictures, and among the most lucrative of the latter studio’s early productions were a string of aggressively sleazy women’s prison movies that redefined what had been up until then a relatively tame and lackluster genre. Most of New World’s women’s prison flicks were shot in the Philippines in order to provide an exotic flavor on a tight budget, and Savage Sisters— like the somewhat earlier Black Mama, White Mama— shows every sign of an attempt by AIP to get a piece of Corman’s action for themselves. But Savage Sisters is also strikingly different from its apparent models, in that it is as much a parody of the New World women’s prison formula as it is a competitor to it. It is also unexpectedly demure by contemporary genre standards, and it is here that we may be seeing Romero’s signature. For while Romero had pushed the limits of sleaze pretty hard in the late 1960’s, his horror films from the 70’s suggest that he either was unwilling to follow his American counterparts beyond those late-60’s limits, or perhaps was oblivious to just how lax standards had become in his primary market overseas. Savage Sisters frequently implies some exceptionally tasteless things, but what it actually shows is a good deal milder than what could be seen even in the Blood Island films.
The light tone is signaled immediately with an introductory speech by big-time con-man W. P. Billingsley (John Ashley, from Black Mamba and The Eye Creatures). As Billingsley explains, the little tropical nation where he makes his home is currently wracked by a power struggle between military dictator General Bathasar (Leopoldo Saledo, from Son of the Aswang and Beast of the Yellow Night) and the revolutionary guerilla army led by Ernesto Gutierrez (Black Mama, White Mama’s Dindo Fernando). Naturally, Gutierrez’s forces are chronically short of funds, but Ernesto has learned of a military convoy transporting a million dollars in US currency from the capital to an army base out in the countryside. In order to capture the cash, Gutierrez has concluded an alliance with the notorious bandit chief Malavael (Sig Haig, of Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told and Galaxy of Terror), who has more experience with roadway heists than pretty much anybody. Meanwhile, in order to make sure the authorities are looking in exactly the wrong place, Gutierrez has sent his apparently American girlfriend, Jo Turner (Cheri Caffaro, from Ginger and Too Hot to Handle), to lead the rebels’ women’s auxiliary in a diversionary raid on an arms depot elsewhere. As for Billingsley’s own role in the forthcoming drama, well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
The success of Gutierrez’s scheme is, shall we say, mixed. Diversions, after all, are no good unless they provoke a major response, and Turner’s team is effectively wiped out. Only Jo herself and one other woman— a native named Mai Ling (Rosanna Ortiz, of Darna vs. the Planet Women and Savage!)— survive, and they are taken prisoner. The head matron at the Third Military District prison (Rita Gomez, from a Night of the Zombies even more obscure than Joel Reed’s) is General Balthasar’s secret mistress, so Jo and Mai Ling are obviously in all sorts of trouble at this point. The women’s sacrifice does at least make things simpler for Ernesto and Malavael out in the jungle, but the bandits betray the revolutionaries once the money is in their hands. Malavael’s men are more thorough than the regular army, too, leaving not a single survivor among either the revolutionaries or the convoy guards. It takes some time for news of the dual massacre to reach the authorities, though, and so Jo and Mai Ling are handed over to Secret Police Captain Lynn Jackson (Gloria Hendry, of Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off) for interrogation; luckily for them, Jackson only has time to get warmed up before Gutierrez’s body is found and identified, rendering any further torture of the prisoners redundant. With Ernesto dead, Jo no longer gives a shit about overthrowing Balthasar, but she promptly swears revenge upon Malavael.
This is where things start to get complicated. Gutierrez may be gone and his rebellion decapitated, but a million dollars American is a lot more money than Balthasar’s regime can afford to let go. With that in mind, the general assigns Captain Morales (Eddie Garcia, from The Woman Hunt and Beast of Blood), his most ambitious subordinate, to track down Malavael and recover the stolen cash. Malavael, meanwhile, has sought out Billingsley to hire him a pilot to fly the bandits out of the country. But when Malavael and his men get a look at the broken-down drunk of a pilot (Bruno Punzalan, from Wonder Women and Brides of Blood) and his broken-down wreck of a plane, they plausibly decide that Billingsley is trying to cheat them, and that makes them just a little upset. The argument devolves into a firefight, and the bandits (now reduced to just Malavael and his top lieutenant, One-Eye [Vic Diaz, of The Blood Drinkers and The Deathhead Virgin]) split with the money. That leaves Billingsley with a dead pilot, a smashed airplane, and a seething vendetta. He and his loyal sidekick, Punjab (Angelo Ventura, from Beyond Atlantis and The Twilight People), hit the road in a gorgeous late-50’s Imperial convertible and take off in pursuit. And because it just so happens that Lynn Jackson is Billingsley’s ex-girlfriend, he has no trouble at all securing assistance. A simple promise to split the million dollars and to give Jo first crack at killing Malavael is all it takes, and before you know it, Jackson is helping her two star captives bust out of prison, with Punjab driving the getaway jeep and Billingsley riding shotgun— or, more to the point, riding Browning M1921. Of course, we know, even if it will take a while for the women to catch on, that Billingsley is almost certainly not to be trusted when there’s this much money on the line.
Those who come to Savage Sisters looking for the usual women’s prison titillation are setting themselves up for a big disappointment. Most conspicuously, there is no proper, unobscured nudity, although all of the female leads routinely dress to show a considerable amount of skin. Cheri Caffaro’s breasts may threaten constantly to escape from their notably haphazard confinement, but her nude scenes are always framed so as to keep everything censorable well out of sight. Similarly, the camera cuts away from Gloria Hendry’s striptease before she finishes taking off her shirt, and her bathtub scene thwarts any serious ogling with a combination of towels and soap suds. Nevertheless, any movie in which one of the heroines is threatened with torture via an electric drum sander inserted into her vagina has surely earned its R-rating, no matter how little of the promised depravity actually ends up onscreen! Savage Sisters can also be wonderfully foul-mouthed, as when a temporarily defeated Billingsley sums up his feelings for Lynn Jackson with this awe-inspiring image: “There was a time when I’d have let you piss in my face just to see where it came from, but now I hope I never see you again.” Then there’s the succession of gleefully crass sight gags related to Pegleg (John Plater), the boat captain Malavael hires to haul him and One-Eye off the island. The Pegleg jokes are all the sort of thing that isn’t funny in the slightest when you describe it, so I’ll limit myself to saying that very few filmmakers today would have the nerve to pursue such totally inappropriate laughs.
The real strength of Savage Sisters, however, lies in the performances of Sid Haig and (rather startlingly) John Ashley. Haig basically sends up the characters he played in all his 70’s sexploitation action films, and he looks like he never had so much fun in his life. Watching him here brought me to the unexpected realization that when Tommy Chong played the psychotic Arab gangster in Things Are Tough All Over, he was almost certainly parodying Sid Haig— at the very least, Haig’s parody of himself in Savage Sisters bears a remarkable resemblance to that later Tommy Chong performance. As for Ashley, he almost seems to be playing the smarmy creep that most of his turn-of-the-60’s teen-idol characters would probably have grown up to be in the real world. He does it with style, too, displaying a sense of comic timing that I never would have guessed he had. It’s a winningly self-deprecatory turn that makes me wish we had gotten a few more years out of Ashley, who quit the movie business shortly after Savage Sisters was released.