Swamp-dwelling Cajun cutie Desiree Thibodeau (Claudia Jennings) narrowly escapes a rape attempt by sleazy young Deputy Billy Boy Thomas (Clyde Ventura) who accidentally shoots his hick sidekick, Ben Bracken (Ben Sebastian) in the head. A panic-stricken Billy Boy concocts a lie, telling his daddy Sheriff Joe Bob Thomas (Bill Thurman) and Ben’s fearsome whip-wielding patriarch T.J. Bracken (Sam Gilman) that Desiree was responsible. T.J. coerces the father and son lawmen into forming a lynch mob along with his older boys, Pete (Don Baldwin) and Leroy (Douglas Dirkson) in pursuit of Desiree. But the townies make a big mistake when they harass Desiree’s kid brother and sister. They haven’t reckoned on how formidable the hillbilly hellcat can be when she gets mad.
Aside from being one of the most popular Playboy playmates of the Seventies, the tragically short-lived Claudia Jennings was arguably also among the greatest exploitation film stars of all time. Leggy, voluptuous and graced with a disarmingly sweet smile, Jennings may have looked like a wet dream come to life but she was also a formidable action heroine. In drive-in classics from Unholy Rollers (1972) to The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1977), Jennings might give the boys an eyeful but could convincingly kick their asses if they got out of line. She cuts quite a figure wearing cut-off denim short-shorts here in Gator Bait, her second exploitation outing with husband and wife directing team Ferd Sebastian and Beverly Sebastian following proto-slasher The Single Girls (1974). The Sebastians had an eclectic exploitation career. They debuted with Red, White and Blue (1971) a documentary detailing the court hearings of President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Obscenity, thereafter contributing such Southern-fried trash epics as Flash and Firecat (1976), crime thriller Delta Fox (1979) and wacky horror opus Rocktober Blood (1984) before bowing out with raucous biker flick Running Cool (1993). Ferd handled the cinematography and brings an earthy yet avant-garde quality to Gator Bait that makes it a virtual tone poem. Meanwhile, Beverly penned the screenplay that despite a meagre plot strikes a strident feminist note counterbalancing the more traditional exploitative elements.
The film undeniably falls back on the usual hick Southern clichés peddled by the Los Angeles-based film industry and draws the Cajun people as a small step away from Neanderthal savagery. For example, Pete is introduced trying to rape his own sister while Leroy got himself castrated years before whilst attempting to molest Desiree, though he clearly hasn’t learned his lesson. Tweaking the familiar grindhouse scenario of an outsider wronged by the crooked establishment, the Sebastians pit a lone gutsy action gal against an oppressive patriarchal society. Of course that might be over-stressing the case. After another exploitation regular: Janit Baldwin, star of Ruby (1978) and Humongous (1982), bares all in the role of Desiree’s winsome kid sister who endures the genre requisite harrowing gang-rape-cum-murder the second half of the film settles into a series of stalk and chase sequences and action scenes that while exciting in parts are also repetitive. The Sebastians also indulge in a fair amount of padding with swamp footage as characters cruise around in speedboats while Lee Darin sings the evocative theme song, “Desiree.”
Nevertheless, on some level Gator Bait plays like an intriguing feminist precursor to First Blood (1982) pitting a band of prejudiced lawmen and trigger-happy bigots against a semi-feral, wilderness savvy heroine who picks them off with improvised homemade weapons. Fourteen years later the Sebastians delivered a sequel: Gator Bait II: Cajun Justice (1988) starring Jan Mackenzie, although for true exploitation connoisseurs there is no finer sight than Claudia Jennings blasting a shotgun in denim hot-pants. Dang, girl.