The Unholy Rollers (1972) -****
The great thing about exploitation movies is that no trend, no matter how short-lived or culturally insignificant, is safe from them. You expect exploitation movies about rock and roll, drag racing, biker gangs, hippies, drugs, punk rockers, and that sort of thing, but roller derby?!?! Is it really possible that that fad lasted long enough to get sleazy movies made about it? Sure it did. The Unholy Rollers was released by American International Pictures— even if roller derby had faded away after only two weeks, that would have been enough time for Corman’s people to crank out a movie about it. So what does a roller derby exploitation movie look like, you ask? A bit like Showgirls on roller skates, actually, but with one-fifth the budget, five times the fun, and a zany Death Race 2000 sensibility to keep things interesting in between the racing scenes.
Like Showgirls, The Unholy Rollers is about the rise and fall of a girl with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a chip the size of Raymond Burr’s ass on her shoulder. The girl in question is Karen Walker (‘Gator Bait’s Claudia Jennings). When we first meet her, she’s laboring away at the cat food cannery where she works, fending off the crude sexual advances of her foreman, and talking with her friend, Consuela (Roxanna Bonilla Gianinni), about the roller derby match she went to the night before. That asshole foreman takes up just about all her attention, though, and before long, Karen is pelting him with cat food cans, throwing the accelerator switch on the canning machinery to cause chaos throughout the plant, and walking off the job. Her roommate Donna (Candice Roman of The Big Bird Cage) is thrilled to hear that Karen quit, but Donna’ boyfriend, Greg (Alan Vint, from Earthquake and Deadly Tower), is a bit concerned. Donna doesn’t exactly make a lot of money as a stripper, and Greg’s “job” (he’s a stripper of a different kind, stealing parts out of parked cars to sell on the black market), though fairly lucrative, is an undependable source of income to say the least. And Greg, practical guy that he is, wonders how the three of them will be able to keep up with the rent without Karen’s small but steady paychecks.
It’s a valid question, but fortunately, Karen has a plan. Last night at the roller derby, the color commentators announced over the p.a. system that the L.A. Avengers would soon be holding open auditions for new skaters. Karen shows up at the tryouts, and quickly catches the eye of Avengers owner Mr. Stern (Superchick’s Louis Quinn). Stern signs up Karen and two other skaters from the audition, and it looks like the ex-cat food canner has got it made at last.
Karen is quite a skater, and like Stern says, she knows a thing or two about showmanship, but roller derby is a team sport, and Karen is no team player. Right from the beginning, her relationship with the Avengers’ star skater, Mickey Martinez (Betty Anne Rees, from Sugar Hill and Deathmaster), is a strained one. Mickey is a lesbian, and she seems to look at her teammates the way a women’s prison movie alpha-chick regards her fellow inmates. When Karen harshly rebuffs an advance from Mickey in the bar where the Avengers go to hang out after a game, Mickey and the other skaters grab Karen, pin her to the nearest pool table, and strip her. Why, you ask? Mainly because we’re almost half an hour into a movie featuring a Playboy Playmate in the lead role, and we haven’t seen her naked yet. Karen is rescued by Nick (Jay Warela), the nominal captain of the Avengers, and after handing out a tongue-lashing backed with a brandished pool cue to all and sundry, she leaves the bar in Nick’s company. This proves to be the beginning of a tempestuous romance between Karen and Nick, consummated later that first night on the Avengers’ skating track (after a sly little striptease on skates, of course).
But an affair with Nick isn’t the only thing that comes of Karen’s confrontation with Mickey over the pool table. True to her word, Karen doesn’t forget what Mickey did to her, and she sets her sights on Mickey’s position as the Avengers’ star player. She becomes a real hotshot, picking frequent “fights” on the track with members of the Avengers’ nemesis team, the San Diego Demons (the action on the track, of course, is as thoroughly stage-managed as that in any pro wrestling ring), and generally hogging the spotlight. The audience loves Karen, and it is soon clear that Mickey Martinez’s hour in the sun is almost up. Karen’s scoring stats start inching up on Mickey’s. “Go Karen” signs start replacing the traditional “Go Mickey” placards in the bleachers. When Stern starts sending Avengers skaters to endorse shitty products in TV commercials, it’s Karen who gets most of the jobs. Eventually, Mickey’s had enough, and she turns on Karen in the middle of a race— and this is one on-the-track cat fight you can bet is the real thing! But Mickey has underestimated her opponent. When the fists stop flying, Karen is mistress of all she surveys, and Mickey is, at best, mistress of an uncomfortable bed in the nearest hospital.
But you know the old saying about what goes up. Karen has always had an attitude problem, and with her position as the Avengers’ star skater now secured, that attitude problem begins verging on megalomania. And meanwhile, little pieces of her life have started falling off while she isn’t paying attention. First, Donna and Greg move out of the house they have long shared with Karen, heading for the Pacific Northwest to pursue their dream of a motorcycle repair shop/tittie bar, where the customers can amuse themselves by watching topless dancers while the mechanics fix their malfunctioning choppers. But in the back of her mind, even Karen knows that the real reason they’re leaving is that stardom has taken Karen out of their world, and they feel as though they no longer know her. Then Karen discovers that Nick is married, and her increasingly heavy-handed efforts to make him leave his oblivious wife lead to the breakup of their affair instead. What’s more, the other Avengers now resent Karen for putting Mickey in the hospital (sure, rivalry and intrigue are good for ratings, but there is such a thing as overdoing it, you know), and make their displeasure known by jumping her in the parking lot after a race and vandalizing the absurdly customized Dodge Charger that was Karen’s first major purchase with her skating money. Finally, Stern becomes so disgusted with Karen’s increasingly erratic behavior that he hires Beverly Brayton (Charlene Jones, from Avenging Angel and Woman Hunt), a feisty young black girl with an outlook more than a little reminiscent of the newly hired Karen’s, and sets her up to threaten Karen the way Karen once threatened Mickey. In the end, Karen sees that her own unbridled ambition has doomed her career, but there’s enough of the old Karen left in her for one last middle finger grandly extended in the face of the world. Karen Walker, skating star of the L.A. Avengers, goes out in a blaze of glory the likes of which roller derby has never seen before...
I can scarcely begin to communicate how much fun The Unholy Rollers is. From its schlocky premise, to its outrageous sense of humor, to its exuberantly inept execution, it truly is one of the grandest achievements of early-70’s American exploitation. This is one of those rare trash movies that is just as funny when it’s trying to be as it is by accident. That no one in this film can act worth a damn, and that the soundtrack originally recorded came out so bad that only half of it could be used (the rest of the dialogue was looped later, sometimes by different actors than had spoken the lines originally!) is hilarious, but so are the spot-on parodies of 70’s TV commercials, TV and radio sports commentary, and scripted, staged “athletic” contests. There’s even an extremely witty bit before the opening credits that is almost certainly a dig at executive producer Roger Corman. The old man who works at the skating arena as night watchman/janitor/all-purpose bitch-boy is setting up a mangy old record player to play the national anthem before that night’s race, complaining all the while about what a cheapskate his boss, Stern, is. Then, when the time comes to play the anthem, the antique turntable is no match for the equally ancient record’s scratches and warps, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” skips and warbles fitfully along until Stern’s son-in-law finally puts it out of its misery. (Corman gets tweaked again later, when Stern’s skating trainer is briefing the new skaters— Stern, watching from the stands, asks his son-in-law incredulously, “Look how much chalk he’s using! Doesn’t he know chalk costs money?!”) The quick demise of the fad it was designed to exploit has consigned The Unholy Rollers to one of the deeper pits of obscurity (although the resurrection of said fad with the turn of the 21st century may yet undo that), but should you ever find yourself digging in one of those pits for an evening’s entertainment, this film would be one of the more rewarding artifacts to dig for.