The first 3 minutes of Bad Girls are a blast of blood and bullets, as three ticked off teen strippers rob their shared workplace for a stuffed duffle bag’s worth of cash and drugs. Ringleader Val (Morgan Shaley Renew), the practical Mitzi (Sanethia Dresch) and the surprisingly sweet natured Carolyn (Shelby Lois Buinn) speed off on stolen wheels, hoping to make it to Mexico with their ill gotten gains. As synths pound away on the soundtrack, the film quickly establishes itself as a punchy piece of breakneck paced, neo-exploitation.
This is director Christopher Bickel’s sophomore effort (following 2017’s festival hit The Theta Girl), and was shot in South Carolina for just $16,000, a large chunk of which went to the cost of repairing the sweet vintage ride that our leading ladies use as their primary getaway car. “Strippers on a crime spree” isn’t the most unique idea for a piece of exploitation cinema, but it can be effectively accomplished with minimal resources. Bad Girls does makes a bigger attempt than most indie genre efforts at building some narrative tension between the bursts of sex and violence.
As the titular trio makes their way to the border, Bickel and co writer Shane Silman show they know what makes this sort of fare work, surrounding our teen terrors with oddball characters that are cartoonishly crass, morally bankrupt, or both. A middle aged lech of a barfly lewdly propositioning them at a roadside spot called the Balled Eagle. A Neo N*zi owner of a combination donut/ammo shop at the outskirts of town. An obnoxious jock trying to coerce his girlfriend into sex before getting his car jacked. For any of this over the top desperado mayhem to read as remotely sympathetic, you’ve got to surround your protagonists with cannon fodder that feel like they (mostly) deserve what’s coming to them.
The law enforcement officers tasked with hunting the girls down aren’t much better. Special Agent Cannon (Mike Amason) is a nasal spray huffing veteran cop who likes to coat his misogyny in Southern fried faux idioms, while his rookie partner Special Agent McMurphy (Dove Dupree) fruitlessly tries to keep the investigation on track. Mostly failing at tamping down Cannon’s obvious hatred of women, he settles for stress eating and a series of colorful suits as he does most of the actual investigative work himself.
The pair are essentially comic relief, and it’s a refreshing change to see a new school homage to vintage trash not feel the need to beat you over the head with their knowledge of the genre. The references are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, for existing exploitation fans who happen to be looking for them. It’s just not treated preciously or as required reading to have fun with the premise.
Cannon and McMurphy’s chemistry apes the bumbling beat cops of everything from Massage Parlor Murders! to Drive-In Massacre. A sweater stealing robbery scene echoes a plot point in the Ed Wood penned The Violent Years. The go-go dancing opening and Val’s preference for black leather driving gloves are directly lifted from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. If you don’t know or care about any of that, Bad Girls doesn’t belabor the point. The audience is spared from winking, on the nose shout outs to last houses on the left or any sharp turns onto an improbably named Russ Meyer Interstate.
Between police ineptitude and a bit of sheer dumb luck, the girls make it across the border to freedom. Success (and a multiple day long bender) has clearly gone to Val’s head, and soon she is making decisions that are reckless even by the standards of the other two girls. First up, she kidnaps the hotel desk clerk (who recognizes the gang from the internet, where they have a fan following as folk heroes) and is convinced to make him something between a human shield and a mascot. Val then decides it’s worth the risk of heading back into the US to kidnap herself and Mitzi’s two favorite rockstars, who are both playing concerts nearby..
The choice to slow down for some character and story development initially feels refreshing. The hard candy color palette, thumping soundtrack, frequently jittery camera work and hallucinogenic montages start to wear slightly thin as the film moves into its back half. It was a smart move to switch gears before the more over the top aesthetic choices have a chance to wear out their welcome.
However, the additional characters don’t really add much to the narrative, the boys essentially just props to drive internal conflict amongst our girl gang. The hotel desk clerk (Jonathan Benton) is written as a really one note nerd archetype, clearly thrilled to finally be a part of something interesting, even if it is likely to kill him. Micah Peroulis and Cleveland Langdale fare better as the world’s most willing kidnapping victims, Zerox Rhodesia and Bard Gainsworth. There’s some fun comedic bits as the sweetly stupid pair of rockers form a burgeoning bromance out of their shared pretensions. Neither seems terribly distressed at being held hostage, merely incredulous at their good luck. A steady supply of praise, sex, and drugs is a much better deal than the lives they’ve left behind.
Val’s increasingly grandiose commitment to burning out before she fades away is dangerous, even if only Mitzi recognizes it as such. Soon Val is insisting on yet another high stakes trip back over the border. This time, she demands they also kidnap Carolyn’s favorite rockstar, Danny Lucifer (an obvious and hilarious analog for a certain short statured, aging rock edgelord/failed film director). The girls can’t really afford to bait the authorities a third time, and Carolyn herself is perfectly happy with the situation as it stands. Val stubbornly insists on heading back north, and where Val goes, the rest of the group reluctantly follows.
Despite enthusiastic performances from all parties concerned (particularly Sanethia Dresch, who lends Mitzi as much nuance as the script allows), the larger emotional beats in middle section of the film don’t translate terribly well. One of the group’s deeper conversations providing the movie’s tagline, an obvious underline to give narrative weight to something the performances don’t quite hit on their own. It feels like the movie is just killing time until its main plot threads inevitably meet, an ill advised slow jam crushing the momentum of the otherwise high energy, punk rock mash up of Bad Girls‘ B movie mix tape.
What separates Bad Girls from other new school exploitation entries is that its grindhouse leanings go beyond superficial stylistic choices to the actual means of production. This sort of DIY passion project filmmaking has all of the fast, cheap and free of permits manic verve of any of the regionally shot entries of the golden era. Fans of the form will find Bad Girls a surprisingly self assured entry that pays dutiful homage to previous generations of delightfully lurid pulp trash while punching above its microscopic price point by a large margin.
Even for those less inclined to be charitable to the inevitable rough edges of a feature film made for the cost of a used car, it’s a tiny miracle that Bad Girls ever managed to crowdfund its way into completing post production. Viewed in that light, the after credits coda exhorting viewers “There is nothing stopping you from making your own movie” is equal parts a punk rock poke at the naysayers and legitimate inspiration.
Wicked Rating – 6.5/10
Director: Christopher Bickel
Writer(s): Christopher Bickel, Shane Silman
Stars: Morgan Shaley Renew, Sanethia Dresch, Shelby Lois Buinn
Release date: February 6th, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Films Colacitta
Run Time: 97 minutes