Monday 10 December 2012

The Doll Squad (1973)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Michael Ansara, Francine York and Anthony Eisley

Tura Satana got to be ahead of the curve a couple of times in her career. Our Man Flint dealt with man-made global warming in 1966. Here, Ted V Mikels starts The Doll Squad with the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1973. Well, it's really the launch of a rocket called Star-Flight XII but it does seem rather prophetic, especially as it lifts off from Cape Kennedy. The difference here is that the disintegration is deliberate, as a mysterious voice tells Senator Stockwell, head of the Defense Committee, right after launch but before the explosion. Fortunately, he has an IBM System 360 just down the corridor, with punchcards and coloured buttons and the ability to decide from next to no information which department should attack a particular problem. This time, the teleprinter suggests the Doll Squad as the most capable to investigate, under the leadership of SO-1 Sabrina Kincaid. This is Our Man Flint all over again, but with chicks kicking ass.

As you can imagine, the Doll Squad is a squad of dolls. In case, you don't grasp the concept from the name or the action that unfolds in lurid negative colours behind the credits, the tagline should do the trick. 'They're beautiful!' it reads. 'They're dangerous! They're deadly!' Really, that in itself is enough to warrant a viewing of The Doll Squad, but it proves to be pretty capable too. Sure, it's obviously not shot with a huge budget, the quarter of a million dollars Mikels claims to have spent on it certainly not all going on the production itself. It looks a lot better than The Corpse Grinders, made a year earlier, and it goes back to what Mikels did best, showcasing strong women. There's a lot more consistency than in The Astro-Zombies: all the characters, whether male or female, seem capable and decisive, the light feels appropriate and the changes of scenery are believable. The soundtrack is dated but appropriate. It all feels like an Andy Sidaris film without boobs.

Obviously the concept is completely ludicrous. The president allows Stockwell two weeks to make an investigation before he shuts down the Star-Flight XII program, but the senator believes, on the word of a computer, that it's more than enough for Kincaid to assemble a team, all of whom have day jobs, then track down and take down the mysterious villain. Sure, whatever you say, senator. Yet, ludicrous or not, it's also exploitation genius. No wonder Tarantino borrowed the concept to unleash a Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill. It really isn't a stretch to believe that Aaron Spelling borrowed it too when he created Charlie's Angels three years later, especially as he was invited to the film's premiƩre, but Mikels was never going to win his lawsuit. While they share a lead agent named Sabrina, the Sabrina here is more like Charlie. The jeeps, boats, bikinis and flares seem consistent but instead of three angels there are eight dolls and lots of death.
Nowadays, there would be a different teaser poster released for each of the girls, not to mention their own action figure if the film succeeded, so they deserve to be introduced individually. Most obvious by far is Francine York as Sabrina, clearly a better actor than the men who hire her. She was also more experienced, with numerous credits going back to 1961 in film and 1959 on TV. Still acting today at the age of 74, her last picture thus far is another for Mikels, Astro Zombies: M3 - Cloned, reprising this role. York had both connections and talent but sadly they somehow didn't translate to anything major on screen. Her lead roles were in lesser genre films like Wild Ones on Wheels or Space Probe Taurus, but she could only glimpse the big time in small parts or uncredited slots in vehicles for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis or Marlon Brando. I should track down some of her lead roles because she's very watchable here, for both her looks and her talent.

The girls on her team are a little more varied. The first two are quickly disposed of, so get little to do. They're Carol and Cherisse, a martial arts instructor and a scientist played by Carol Terry and Bret Zeller, though I'm not sure which is which. Judy McConnell, a former Miss Pennsylvania best known for her ten year run on Santa Barbara, is Elizabeth White, a librarian and psychiatrist. Tura Satana plays an exotic dancer, of course, exotically named Lavelle Sumara, but she's an expert in electronics too. She looks younger here than in The Astro-Zombies, though this came five years later. Leigh Christian is an Olympic swimmer called Sharon O'Connor. That leaves Jean London as a mystery girl called Kim Luval on her first doll mission, who's quickly kidnapped from an undercover gig in a carnival to be switched out with the villain's girlfriend, and Cat, played by one of Mikels's key castle women, Sherri Vernon, who also did the hair, make up and some editing.
These girls are pretty capable, for the most part, at least the ones who don't get themselves killed or kidnapped before they can do anything. They all look great, in costumes that either show a lot of skin or are tight enough to amply highlight what we can't see. They get matching jumpsuits too, with white lines to highlight their delightful profiles from the side, proving yet again that style and subterfuge are not incompatible in the world of exploitation film. Quite a few of these girls could have joined the Angels, Sherri Vernon acquitting herself particularly well. They do benefit from one of the most outrageous plot conveniences in film history though. They know who the villain of the piece is because it's Sabrina's old boyfriend, a former colleague gone mad called Eamon O'Reilly. She recognises his voice on the message he sent to the Senator and confirms her suspicions in the computer room twenty minutes in. How's that for a shortcut to the usual investigation plot?

Given that O'Reilly is mad, it may be understandable that he doesn't seem to grasp concepts like using a fake name or disguising his voice. He's also played by Michael Ansara, whose authoritative voice is one of his most powerful attributes and surely a key reason why Mikels hired him. He nails the role, looking and sounding exactly as he should, even when given inane dialogue to work with. 'I never make mistakes,' he intones, while outlining his secret plan to take over the world to the assassin sent to kill him. Ansara nearly makes us believe O'Reilly, but not quite. Christopher Lee couldn't have done it either; it's just that out there. Everything so far has tied to his need to obtain microfilm detailing America's ballistic missile plans, but then we discover that his maniacal plan has nothing to do with ballistic missiles in the slightest. This whole thing is constructed on utterly fake foundations that fall away the moment we ask our first question about consistency.
Mikels did well here nonetheless, delivering everything he aimed for. It runs along at a reasonable pace, never dragging and with something thrown in to distract us every time it might: a death scene, a bikini scene or one of the bizarre explosions that seem to be special effects on the film itself. Much has been mentioned of the various gun battles all being shot at night, a single night at that because Mikels could only get hold of one machine gun, so he handed it round to each actor he felt should use it, all during one long twelve hour shoot. Yet all that looks fine to me, if perhaps a little dark, while the explosions certainly needed work. Everything else technical looks fine, with Mikels's castle ably serving as the villain's island headquarters. You can't argue at the cost when shooting in your own home. It's edited much better than The Astro-Zombies, lit like The Corpse Grinders should have been and it all feels like a coherent, if flawed, piece of work.

The biggest flaw is with the script. Mikels often has scripts sitting around for years until he can get the funding to shoot them, but this one feels like it was written on the fly, like it was always going to be about ballistic missiles, only to be changed when Mikels couldn't figure out how to make that work. After all, if he could only get one machine gun, he wasn't likely to get hold of anything that looked remotely like a ballistic missile. The admirable build up sadly means that the various dolls in the Doll Squad get little to do. They each get their moments in the spotlight but not much more. While Tura Satana gets to take down a few enemies, it just isn't enough and she doesn't get to use any martial arts either. All the girls would have benefitted from a hand to hand combat scene or six and there's no reason why O'Reilly couldn't have had five times the guards, even if he had to have the same actors play them over and over again. More action is never a bad thing.

Yet they do enough for this to easily be seen as a feminist film. The male authority figures here, Senator Stockwell and Sabrina's boss, Victor Connelly, are capable men, unlike their equivalents in The Astro-Zombies, but generally men here are villains. There's only one girl in O'Reilly's operation and she's completely useless. Basically, the good guys here are girls and the bad guys are guys. It can't get more telling than the scene where O'Reilly explains the details of his plan to a crowded room of foreign agents, all of whom are male, while Sabrina surreptitiously listens to everything in her form fitting jumpsuit with its profile defining white line. How can this scene be read if not that the world is about to be destroyed by men but there's a good looking girl ready to save it? It's only a shame that Mikels couldn't get a sequel in place soon after, if only to give Tura Satana something worthy to work with. As it was, she vanished from the screen for almost thirty years.

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