The MUTHERS - (1976)
Now while it’s true I have a soft spot in my heart for Filipino cinema in general, and director Cirio Santiago in particular. My affection for his 1976 women in prison (sorta) flick “The MUTHERS” has grown over the years, until this cruddy little grindhouse cheapie has actually become one of my favorite movies.
Jeannie Bell (from Santiago’s “T.N.T. Jackson”) & Rosanne Katon ( Ebony from Santiago’s “Ebony, Ivory & Jade”) play modern day pirates in the South China Sea. Bell is the Cap’t, Katon is the 2nd Lt. and a whole boat full of male Filipinos are the pirate crew. They sort of operate like Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin use to operate back when they were smugglers, with Bell as Modesty and Katon as Willie. Bell learns her little sister got thrown into a Banana Republic women’s prison (Santiago’s female action heroes always get into trouble looking for their damn little sisters, Bell’s “T.N.T. Jackson”, Jillian Kessler’s “Firecracker” and Cat Sassoon’s “Angel Fist”). And then Bell and Katon get themselves thrown into same prison in an effort to find and rescue her.
So why is this cruddy little flick one of my favorite movies? It’s the playful execution of a preposterous story that’s the key to the films charm. A friend once made the observation that if you were to watch three children play act a scene from ”Starsky & Hutch” that they’d seen on TV the night before, say Starsky and Hutch interrogating a prisoner, the children’s level of intensity and commitment to what they were doing would be both more charming and sincere then the same scene played by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. Well both Bell’s and Katon’s performance achieve this kids-at-play quality. They could very well be two little girls playing pirate in their backyard. Add that to the Modesty Blaise meets Pippi Longstocking conception of their characters, and the genuine camaraderie the two women share, maybe only The Little Rascals could of packed more charm into its 88 minutes. Considering how many movies Santiago made, it’s a damn shame he didn’t make one more Bell & Katon pirate adventure.
Katon who was a charmer in all of her drive-in movies (including Jack Hill’s “The Swinging Cheerleaders”), as well being my favorite Afro Sheen Commercial Girl (“Ya’ stopped me, didn’t ya’’?) is even better here as the more wisecracking, constantly bemused member of the team. And unlike Bell, does most of her own fighting in the martial art scenes. Now while she might not be Angela Mao, in the world of sloppy Filipinos Kung Fu fights, she ain’t bad. And her line about costar, Jayne Kennedy’s Serena, “I’ve kissed a lot of ass in my day, but I’ll be dammed before I kiss that bitches ass”, is a guaranteed grindhouse audience chortler. Jeannie Bell (the assumed name that D.I.V.A.S. member “Copperhead ” was living under when “Black Mamba” found her) isn’t quite as in on the joke as her co-star Katon, but her straight self-seriousness pays off in the films second half. Bell, who wasn’t much of a fighter (in both this and “T.N.T Jackson” the petite femme is doubled by a rather tall and obviously male fighter in a ratty afro wig), was, alongside Pam Grier and Brenda Sykes, the most beautiful of the ebony goddesses that graced the genre ( the perfect Jeannie Bell double feature would be “The MUTHERS” paired alongside, not “T.N.T. Jackson” , but Lee Frost’s slightly wonderful “Policewomen”) .
But “The MUTHERS” has two other black female leads. Trina Parks, who was the star of the late great William Witney’s last feature “Darktown Strutters”, as well as the black half of the Bambi & Thumper duo in “Diamonds Are Forever”, plays another prisoner who fills Bell & Katon in on the lay of the land at the prison, and joins them in their escape attempt. Parks proves to be quite a naturalistic actress, and has no problem with the films playfully serious tone. She also has a great bring the house down laugh line that I won’t spoil here. But it’s the too beautiful for words Jayne Kennedy, as the cruel wardens kept concubine, that’s the real surprise, with a performance that’s neither playful nor self-serious but utterly sincere. Miss Kennedy obviously wanted to prove to the world she could act, and in “The MUTHERS” tackles her first lead role with everything she’s got. It’s the best acting performance by an American actor in a Santiago production. The stunning Kennedy might of very well been the real deal, it’s a damn shame she never got more opportunities to find out. She’s also impressive in my other favorite Santiago film “Death Force” (theatrical title) “Fighting Mad” (Continental Home Video title) along side her husband Leon Issac Kennedy and Santiago regular James Iglehart (“Bamboo Gods and Iron Men”). As well as being easily the best thing in her husband’s “Body and Soul” remake of the eighties (admittedly, while not a patch on the original classic, that film is kind of entertaining).
Michael Weldon wrote in his “Psychotronic” review of “The MUTHERS”, “How often do you get to see a film with four beautiful black women in the leads?” Let me close this review with a line director Joe Dante once said about one of his similar favorite movies, Albert Zugsmith’s “Confessions Of An Opium Eater”; “Is it a good film? Well…who know…and what does that mean anyway? But is it a great film? Absolutely, positively unequivocally, yes!”.