Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unholy Rollers (1972)

          A serviceable melodrama set in the world of roller derby, Unholy Rollers is a fairly typical Roger Corman production in that it blends sex, violence, and an underdog antihero. For the most part, the picture avoids outright exploitation elements, so it makes for comparatively guiltless viewing. There’s even a certain scrappy charm to Unholy Rollers, since the cheap production values suit the story about a working-class woman trying to take control of her own destiny. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter much that characterization, dramatic tension, and narrative momentum are lacking—it’s all about the vibe. Claudia Jennings, the lovely former Playboy Playmate of the Year who starred in a handful of ’70s B-movies before dying in a 1979 car accident at the age of 29, plays Karen Walker, a factory worker who quits her job and then seeks employment with a Los Angeles roller-derby team. Ballsy and tough, Karen quickly proves herself a formidable and unpredictable athlete, knocking down competitors with kicks and punches at top speed. Thanks to her good looks, Karen scores a number of endorsement deals even as she competes with the team’s former top player, Mickey (Betty Ann Rees), and watches a new would-be star, Beverly (Charlene Jones), gain traction. The threadbare narrative also includes Karen’s friendship with two buddies from her factory days, as well as her romantic involvement with a married man.
          In lieu of a fully realized storyline, Unholy Rollers has lots of vibrant stuff. Not scenes, mind you, just stuff. Fights on the skate track. A seduction scene at a gun range. A near-rape in a bar. Chaos in a grocery store. Although there’s rarely anything in this movie to engage the mind, there’s usually something to engage the eye. For instance, Jennings’ acting is weak, with her thick Midwestern accent making even her toughest line readings sound slightly comical, but she’s got sex appeal to burn. Additionally, one suspects that Martin Scorsese, credited here as “supervising editor,” had a hand in two of Unholy Rollers’ most appealing tropes—the inclusion of zesty ’50s songs and irreverent stadium-announcer patter on the soundtrack. (The announcers’ voiceover does a lot of the heavy lifting, in terms of conveying story information.) It’s also reasonable to assume that Scorsese designed the zippy editing that drives the sports scenes. As for the film’s director, Vernon Zimmerman built a wildly erratic filmography during his brief career. In addition to this flick, his fictional features include the bizarre Deadhead Miles (1973), for which Terrence Malick shares credit, and the offbeat Fade to Black (1980). Good luck finding a consistent directorial voice while perusing these offerings.

Unholy Rollers: FUNKY

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