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  Unholy Rollers, The Demolition Derby
Year: 1972
Director: Vernon Zimmerman
Stars: Claudia Jennings, Louis Quinn, Betty Anne Rees, Roberta Collins, Alan Vint, Candice Roman, Jay Varela, Charlene Jones, Joe E. Tata, Maxine Gates, Kathleen Freeman, John Harmon, Karl Rizzo, Mike Miller, John Steadman, John Mitchell, Victor Argo
Genre: Drama, ActionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The roller derby is where Karen Walker (Claudia Jennings) likes to visit of an evening after a hard day at the cat food cannery, but one day at work she has had enough of her supervisor pawing her and making suggestive comments, so being the fiery redhead she is she puts the production line out of action by speeding up the machinery and storms out. But what can she do now? When she returns home to her two flatmates, interrupting their sexual hijinks, she thinks she has an idea, and realises it's time she got her skates on - literally, to join the derby.

Maybe Karen Wheeler would have been a better character name, but The Unholy Rollers was the cash-in movie A.I.P. asked producer Roger Corman to make for them to exploit the anticipated success of the Raquel Welch vehicle on the same subject, Kansas City Bomber. While that underperformed, this angry little item, directed by the usually quirkier Vernon Zimmerman, did pretty well, and served to consolidate Claudia Jennings' position as the drive-in queen of the nineteen-seventies, not that there were not plenty of actresses jostling for that title, but she managed to give her fans what they wanted, namely plenty of action and the guarantee the Playboy Centerfold would doff her togs.

She didn't do nudity in every movie she was in, however, but her fans were loyal enough to support her anyway, and as the decade changed to the eighties without her - she died in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel early one morning in 1979 - we can only wonder where her career would have gone as she grew older. She may have ended up much as another popular B-movie actress of the era, this one usually in support, might have done, as her co-star here Roberta Collins found the work drying up and she retired, much as many of her era did, only re-emerging into the consciousness when their obituaries were published: Roberta died of an overdose around twenty years after her last appearance.

So you can see how the nostalgia works like The Unholy Rollers create is inextricably linked to the poignant sense of loss, not a quality that was present in these cheap, down and dirty flicks when they were first released. But if you had no particular affection for the era, was there anything to interest you here? Actually, Jennings was such a force of nature as the ferocious Karen that she could impress the casual viewer as much as the dedicated aficionado, especially in sequences where she took to the rink and began battering her way to stardom in the field, though it was hard not to note we only ever see two teams competing, thanks to the corner cutting of the budget. Claudia made up for that by making every action scene count, throwing herself into the punches and tumbles with gusto.

It was interesting that Karen was represented as so formidable that nobody can truly satisfy her, not letting her down exactly, more standing aside because to tussle with her volcanic temperament was less than desirable. The part we see with her mother (Kathleen Freeman, a cult comic actress from many a Jerry Lewis movie) is very telling, as she can barely bring herself to be even slightly affectionate to her daughter, merely tolerating her yet stopping short of telling her to leave. But Karen has no use for your pity, and her casual boyfriend Nick (Jay Varela) may still harbour feelings for her even when she realises he's married, but really she has to stand alone against a hostile world. Martin Scorsese was the editor on this, adding a dynamism to the bits where the cast are flinging each other about which matched Jennings' approach - the scene where she is stripped to her knickers by her so-called teammates is arresting because it shows the actress at her most redoubtable by her participation, and the finale as she goes Godzilla was open-ended and haunting. Music by Kendall Schmidt.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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