In this day and age, there are few surprises. We live in a post-cult and underground world, where even what is considered mainstream never fails to acknowledge, crib from, or rip off outright what was once obscuritana, known only to the hip, the scenester, and those who actually produced the films and music under consideration. While the current iterations cannot fail but to be pale imitations of their more creative and vibrant forbears, the knowledge and awareness of what once was hidden in shadows and discussed in secret corners is undisputedly a matter of public discourse, at least among those who create, review, and are themselves part and parcel of the art form.
We live in a time where fan research and the publication of a number of genre based studies, analyses and filmographies back in the 80’s and 90’s from the likes of RE:Search, St. Martins, Creation Books and Fab Press have given rise to such “boutique” video (and soon DVD) companies as Anchor Bay (and later Blue Underground), Mondo Macabro, Synapse, and Code Red, with literally dozens of pinpoint focused minor players littering the landscape with their excellent, if incomplete runs: Media Blasters, Panik House, Casa Negra, and even the more modernist likes of Zen Pictures/Switchblade Cinema, Alternative Cinema, Interscope and Sub Rosa. The list is lengthy, and I salute each of them (named here or no) for their worthy efforts in the preservation and release of obscure and interesting filmographies from the auteurs of exploitation, cult, and underground film from around the world.
In fact, the explosion was until fairly recently so widespread and vital that it can be said in all accuracy that where the VHS revolution was driven by easy home access to porn (thereby eliminating the need to visit seedy, run down XXX filmhouses, with their sticky floors, seedy clientele and assortment of hookers and junkies on the make working the punters), the DVD revolution was driven by domestic home access to cult film.
Honestly, how many releases and re-releases with noticeable upgrades and additional special features, have you seen “major” “blockbuster” releases get? Certainly nowhere near the number of releases films like Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Zombie, or just about any title Bill Lustig put out through Anchor Bay (and later Blue Underground) got. And this is true not only across format (from VHS to Laserdisc to DVD to Blu Ray), but even within a given format – how many re-releases have the 3 named titles alone received, across several companies, on DVD and later Blu Ray, all by themselves? And now turn around and take a look at the likes of Sophie’s Choice, or just about any much-feted Oscar winner or summer blockbuster film from the dawn of cinema to today. Even long-beloved classics the likes of Red Dust have only just now made their debut – on the degraded format of overpriced, home recording grade DVD-R, yet. Yet the works of Argento, Fulci, Romero, even supposed “hacks” like Mattei and Fragasso have seen numerous re-masters and digital upgrades over a much smaller period of time. Face it, we have now seen, and already lived through, the best it’s going to get.
This is why, getting around to the point of this discussion, the limited edition release of Devil’s Sisters from fledgling startup Reality’s Edge Films is such a surprise. As recently as 2010, a call was put out over the internet to locate a print of this long lost film, and the result is now available on DVD. And a welcome discovery it is.
Back in 1966, after releasing the double bill he is perhaps most known for in Sting of Death / Death Curse of Tartu, Florida exploitation director Bill Grefe was made aware of a recent news story relating to a Mexican white slavery ring, made all the more bizarre by its having been run by two sisters, rather than the usual organized mob types. Inspiration struck, and the script for Devil’s Sisters was born.
Starring a cast of unknowns (chief among them the attractive Sharon Saxon, whose only known role this was), the film itself is something of a surprise, bearing little if anything in common with the rest of Grefe’s output, or for that matter, Florida exploitation of the period in general.
After the advances of boyfriend Antonio cross the line into date rape territory, Teresa (who like much of the female cast is given no surname) winds up applying for a job as a maid at the home of one Rita Alvarado. Unfortunately, cooking and cleaning aren’t exactly the duties Rita has in mind for her. Locked away in what she believes to be a sumptuous palace of a room, she quickly discovers she is now part of Rita’s whorehouse, and is forcibly broken in by the scummy Club Med style hairy chest/gold medallion sporting houseboy Jose Rodriguez.
When this is apparently not enough to break her will, we get an alternately replusive or hilarious (depending on what mood you’re in when viewing it) scene with a disgusting fat slob named Alfredo (who is apparently uncredited in the cast). This fellow saunters into the room, sweaty, shirt untucked, scratching his voluminous belly and gorging himself on a banana (of all things), which he promptly tosses over his shoulder as he moves offscreen towards Teresa and the scene fades to black.
Shortly thereafter, we become reacquainted with Antonio, who has since joined the police, as he re-enters Teresa’s life as a john. Upon discovering his ex working men for a dollar, he makes up for his earlier frustrated conquest, making an overly emotional scene in the process. This brings Teresa to the particular attention of Rita, who fears her (presumed) outside relationship with a member of the force, and this is where the film gets REALLY ugly.
Teresa is given over to the tender loving care of Rita’s even nastier sister Carmen, who runs what effectively is an unofficial prison, before selling her girls into slavery through a rather effete outside party known as “the Englishman”. When one of the girls brains the Englishman with a bottle (the implication being fatally), they are brought out to dig a grave (whether for the Englishman or his impromptu assassin is never quite spelled out). After a failed escape attempt, the assassin is run down by her pursuers in a bit of vehicular homicide.
When obese (and implied lesbian) matron Marta callously sets the girl afire (to make things more gruesome, we discover her to still be alive to suffer through this experience), Teresa plants the business end of a shovel into her gross puss, resulting in her being subjected to the prison’s most feared torture, “the royal marriage bed” (a metal horse the victim is laid across naked, while a roll of barbed wire is wrapped around their body and pulled tight). In a final act of defiance, the remaining fellow prisoners stage a riot, allowing Teresa to escape to town where she tells her sordid tale to the police (including, in an ironic touch, her former beau and client Antonio).
With a grim and grotty feel reminiscent of the more contemplative (and exploitive in the more direct sense of the term) New York City school of early to mid 60’s sexploitation, Devil’s Sisters is far more likely to bring to mind the likes of Joseph P. Mawra’s Olga Films or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s films for Stan Borden than any of Grefe’s own films or those of his fellow Floridians of the period such as Barry Mahon, Doris Wishman or Herschell Gordon Lewis.
While this may come as something of a jarring shift for those familiar with Grefe’s films (or Florida exploitation of the period in general), it also carries the charm of the unexpected – there’s a newness and surprise to the whole affair. It’s also somewhat fortuitous that the film was rediscovered and released in the way (and time) it did; the same film may very well have just languished as yet another entertaining but somewhat par for the course Something Weird double feature DVD a decade hence.
But here, in a special standalone release from a startup, with nothing similar on the market or from the label, it gets the chance it deserves, to be assessed as a Bill Grefe film, rather than just another period sexploiter. And seen amidst the more colorful and bombastic cheese the likes of the William Shatner Impulse, Mako: Jaws of Death or Sting of Death, the sheer melancholy and mournful sleaziness of the whole affair stick out like a sore thumb. By comparison, Devil’s Sisters seems to carry more of a depth and resonance (however surface and illusory) that Grefe’s more day-glo affairs appear to lack in relief when held to the standard and style of this film.
With a minimalist soundtrack of nylon string Spanish guitar (which Grefe notes he was quite unhappy with, but which is actually quite suitable and fits the proceedings to a T) and shot in an atmospheric chiaroscuro of light and shadow, Devil’s Sisters is marred only by some warping of the image for a reel around the hour mark (presumably the film had begun to dry and curl with age and/or improper storage, so the image swirls and weaves in and out of focus for a few minutes) and the loss of a few final minutes of the film. According to a filmed introduction with Grefe, these consisted of a slight overrun above and beyond what fit in the standard 4 reel shipping cannister, and which he feels was therefore not identified and sent along with the bulk of the print from where it was recently located in Germany.
This section is filled by some reproductions of script and storyboard, narrated by Grefe. While hardly the ideal solution, this is a film long since considered lost, and as such, like the occasionally incomplete or damaged prints available on certain Something Weird titles such as Hot Pearl Snatch or The Smut Peddler, it’s far better to have what does exist than to wait indefinitely for the perfect print to appear from out of the sky (a scenario unlikely to happen over 40 years from its original release).
Extras are somewhat sparse, but welcome, as they consist of a commentary with Grefe and a short featurette about Grefe and his films.
Bill Grefe has told me during our Third Eye interview that of all his filmic oeuvre, Devil’s Sisters is the one he is proudest of. When taken in the context of his many entertaining exploiters, that may seem hard to believe, but having seen the film in all its surviving glory, I can understand it.
Highly recommended for fans of Grefe, New York sexploiters (particularly those who appreciate the extra-seedy Stan Borden style, such as the Olga or Flesh films), or fans of WIP films in general.