Sometimes it’s fun to watch movies (especially older, low budget genre movies) when you’re really tired. I’m talking barely keeping your eyes open, oncoming coma-nap tired. You may wonder why that would be a state you’d want to be in, since sleeping through a film is antithetical to the whole movie-going experience (and in fact, a great many experiences, believe it or not). The answer lies in the narrow space between consciousness and unconsciousness. As your lids grow heavy, and the snap of the film’s soundtrack crackles from your television like a siren song, your mind enters a sort of waking dream state, and you feel as if you’re watching the movie from your childhood perspective (at least, that’s the way it works for me). This feeling recalls the lazy Saturday afternoons watching creature double features and martial arts marathons. It is, in my opinion, the closest I will ever come to actual time travel, and the beauty part is, it’s time travel back to the good times in my life (not to say I’ve lived a miserable life, but I prefer the ups to the downs, don’t you?). It’s like a drug that gives you a few minutes of the purest nostalgia, and it never feels false. Granted, it doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes when you watch a film while exhausted all you do is pass out, but when the pieces all fall into place, it’s a marvelous sensation made all the more valuable by its transience. I’ve heard tell that some people like to do the same thing while having sex (under the influence of certain chemicals, since if anything should keep you awake, I’d think it would be a right, good rogering), and while I haven’t undertaken that specific adventure, I can definitely understand its appeal.
Karen (the late, great Claudia Jennings) works in a cat food factory and loves watching her favorite roller derby team, The Avengers (just not at the same time). After walking out on her job, however, she needs some new employment, so she decides to try out for (and obviously manages to get on) her beloved squad. Karen’s personality clashes with everyone around her, and as her star ascends, her life declines.
I think it is interesting to note that Vernon Zimmerman’s Unholy Rollers lists a certain Martin Scorsese as Supervising Editor (something I’m sure most reviews of this film emphasize, and I’m clearly no different). Naturally, Scorsese (to my knowledge) had no hand in the screenwriting process or the actual production of the film, but on some level he would have to have contributed to forming the film during the post-production process (how much, I couldn’t say, so let’s just accept that what I’m saying here is possibly tenuous or even a conceivable flight of fancy). With this in mind, the film is loose in structure, nonlinear. There is a narrative at play, but it doesn’t move from A to B to C. Elements are dropped into the film and then forgotten, and then maybe later on they’ll be reintroduced, and maybe they won’t. This is the same sort of approach to structure that can be observed in films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and even The Wolf of Wall Street. Since 1972 was the same year Scorsese directed Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman and American International Pictures, I think it would be fair to say that there’s an argument to be made about the connections between this film’s approach to its story and that director (though any detailed discussion should likely be reserved for a more thoroughly researched, in-depth investigation than we’ll take here).
It’s this nonlinear style that I would suggest elevates Unholy Rollers slightly above this type of genre fare being produced at this point in history. The film takes chances, and it doesn’t fill in all the blanks for the audience, who then have to either make connections for themselves or accept (or dismiss) what they’re seeing at face value. One of the key moments exemplifying this is when Karen visits her mother (played by the legendary Kathleen Freeman). We know instantly that their relationship is rocky at best, and that Karen is at a point where she is desperate for someone to reach out to (Karen’s mother doesn’t even smile upon seeing her daughter, and would rather wrap her lips around a cigarette than kiss her overeager child). The scene takes a turn when (childhood?) friend Duane (Dennis Redfield) shows up to say hello. One of his arms is crippled, but we’re given no indication of how this happened (In Vietnam? In a car accident? Was Karen involved?). Karen’s mood suddenly changes, and she makes excuses to leave, now realizing that you can’t go home again, literally and figuratively. This is the first and the last time that either of these supporting characters are seen or spoken of at all in the film, but I believe they are participants in the most important moments in it. Not all of the film’s scenes have the impact of this one, but what they do is produce a cumulative effect in delineating Karen’s character and charting the arc of her story (which we can read as the arc of her life), and it does it quite well.
Outside of very rough notions, I have little-to-no direct knowledge of the sport of roller derby. I know (or deduced from a throwaway line of dialogue about the game not being this exciting for thirty-five years) that it has been around since the late Thirties/early Forties, that it involves people skating in a circle, and that one of them scores points while the others throw elbows (massive generalizations, I know). In that way, I used to think of it kind of as NASCAR without the vehicles (and indoors). Color me surprised when Unholy Rollers describes the game as being as flamboyantly spectacle-driven as pro wrestling (something I loved for a few years in my youth). Team managers (coaches?) Horace McKay (John Mitchell) and Angie Striker (Maxine Gates) trot around the infield, gesticulating and yelling, dressed in eye-searing outfits (think: “Classy” Freddie Blassie). Horace regularly enjoys getting the boot in on the opposing players, either personally or through Demons’ (the “bad” team he leads) henchman/mascot Masked Marvin, who bounces around in tights, a cape, and (obviously) a mask. Angie would give Edith Massey a run for her money (perhaps not in the realm of “egg lovin’,” but, y’know…), brandishing a large bullwhip at all times. The players are trained to “sell” hits to the audience (both sitting in the bleachers and watching on television).
But intriguingly, some of the assumedly manufactured animosity makes its way off the track and interweaves itself into the characters’ personal lives. You could argue that the reason Karen finds herself the target of a lot of this is because she is a staunch non-conformist (best displayed by the tattoo she gets and flaunts as her symbol; the idea of a woman with a tattoo being something out of which much is made, which only goes to show just how much times have changed), and the entire metaphor of the film is about the rejection of conformity, no matter the cost (a sort of “die on your feet” analogy). Conversely, you could say that the film champions the idea of conformity, and that Karen’s asshole-ish attitude (this is, after all, a person who fires a gun at random targets while riding down the street on the back of a motorcycle) is what undoes her (a bit more nefarious, but no less legitimate, I think). Either way, I think that this film endeavors to be deeper than its surface elements, and, by and large, it succeeds.
MVT: I was going to give it to the film’s structure and approach to storytelling, because I do think it’s ambitious, but I think I have to give it instead to Jennings (once again). She truly does a marvelous job carrying the weight of the film, and reminds me that her star burnt bright for far too short a time.
Make or Break: The first derby scene is extremely well-done. Combining overlapping dialogue, solid handheld camerawork, and subjective camerawork, the sequence delivers on both the experience of watching a match as well as the experience of being in one.