The Unholy Rollers (1972), directed by Vernon Zimmerman.
aka Leader of the Pack
Written by Howard R. Cohen and Vernon Zimmerman.
Starring Claudia Jennings, Louis Quinn and Betty Anne Rees.
When I interviewed the esteemed Producer/Director Roger Corman for Claudia Jennings’ biography, he said Unholy Rollers was his favorite of the four films Claudia appeared in for him. As Claudia’s breakthrough film, Unholy Rollers established the character she would be identified with until her death. Beautiful, fearless and ruthless, Karen Walker epitomized the Hollywood Bitch Goddess that many thought represented Claudia’s true nature.
The film is noteworthy because it marked Claudia’s debut as a major B movie actress. She would show her ability to carry a movie on her back and show a wide range of emotions, beyond what many actresses were capable of in similar films.
The film also established Claudia as an actress who could do her own stunts and would try anything in front of a camera. She endured a lot of bumps and bruises during the filming, but never complained.
That the film was on the receiving end of so much abuse is too bad, because this is an admittedly flawed but brilliant feminist/anarchist movie, and Claudia’s performance is excellent, especially when you consider she was only 23 at the time. Her movements when she has no dialogue show her strong stage background, and her facial expressions are spot on. The film is also a satire of entertainment in America, with darts thrown at the commercialism of our society for good measure. However, the film also shows in unflinching detail the cruel, casual sexual and physical abuse of women rampant in society. Claudia gives a brave and realistic performance as Karen Walker, the protagonist who doesn’t take shit from anyone.
One can also view the film as the struggle of an individual against society’s pressure to conform. Everyone in the movie, her boss, her teammates, and even her friends keep telling Claudia to “stick to the game plan.” Perhaps this is where Claudia and her character, Karen Walker, are similar. Claudia did things her own way, even if that meant sacrificing the opportunity to access better roles.
Many professional roller derby skaters were hired for the cast and really let the young starlet have it during filming, cutting her no slack for being a movie star.
Claudia’s boyfriend at the time, Bobby Hart, was the musical director. Unholy Rollers rates high on the exploitation-meter, no doubt. There is simulated sex and a lot of nudity, plus more than a few scenes of Claudia getting the crap beat out of her. There is no gore or messy violence, but some sleazy sexual harassment scenes let you know this isn’t a Disney film.
Some cast notes: Alan Vint, who plays the boyfriend of Claudia’s roommate, was the brother of Jesse Vint, a noted Corman veteran. Jesse and Claudia would become lovers on the set of Deathsport, and carried on a brief affair.
The film opens with Karen Walker (Claudia Jennings) working in a cat food factory, chatting with her friend Consuelo (Roxanna Bonilla). Her supervisor walks up to her angrily, asking why she went over his head to ask for a raise. During this conversation, he’s continually groping Karen, who pushes him away. He tells Karen to come to his office to discuss the “raise,” and grabs a handful of her ass as he walks away. Karen has had it up to here with all this crap and cat food, and pulls a classic Lucy maneuver à la the “efficiency expert” episode. She flips the can-filling line speed to “way too fast,” and the unsealed cans start whizzing off the end of the conveyor track like Frisbees, dumping a pile of unappetizing goo on the factory floor.
Now unemployed, Karen comes home to her stripper roommate Donna (Candice Roman) and her car thief boyfriend Greg (Alan Vint) doing the nasty, explicitly and with a lot of animation. They sit down and Karen tells them she’s out of work. Then she and Donna, in one of the best scenes in the movie, go grocery shopping.
After loading up their basket full of goodies, they go to the first available open checkout line. However, the clerk puts the little chain across the aisle and tells them she’s now on break. The ladies are justifiably miffed, and when a supervisor comes over to see what the ruckus is, all hell breaks loose. The supervisor tells Donna and Karen that it’s time for the clerk’s break and they should move to the next available aisle. This doesn’t sit well with Karen, who spies an impossibly huge display of canned goods, which she proceeds to destroy. In the commotion, the girls and the groceries escape.
This scene is also significant for bringing together some of the larger themes of the film. The images of objects and people falling is a constant one, starting with the cat food cans in the beginning, the roller derby skaters crashing onto the rink, and on to the last scene, where Karen is knocked to the pavement. I believe one can interpret this as the need for the individual to rise when oppressed, and at the same time, bring down the system by resorting to pure anarchy. There is also the political message. The ruling class does not only oppress individuals; the proletariat is often suppressed by other individuals (i.e., the checkout clerk) to the benefit of neither. Of course, it follows logically that the ruling class, for its own benefit, sets individuals in opposition against each other.
Karen sees that the local roller derby team, the Los Angeles Avengers, is holding try-outs. Attracted by the money and promise of quick fame, she does well and makes the team. The team’s manager explains the basics of the game to Claudia: “hitting, kicking, fighting and jamming.” He also points out the most advantageous points for their placement in the arena to incite the fans and to be seen on television. The most important rule, however, is “Always go with the game plan.” It has an Orwellian Nineteen Eighty-Fourish scent to it that grows stronger throughout the movie.
The next scene is a creepy one where Karen has her physical examination. The doctor’s office is properly dingy and dark, accented by a full rocks glass on the examination table. The look on Claudia’s face when she sniffs the glass is priceless. After Karen disrobes, the doctor starts to feel her up and Karen protests:
Karen: “Hey, where are your instruments?”
Doctor: “Young woman, the human hand is the most efficient instrument ever devised.”
Karen: “Are you a real doctor?”
Doctor: “I pursued my studies at not one, but three medical schools.”
Just as the doctor is about to get serious, they are interrupted by the team’s star, Mickey (Betty Anne Rees), looking strung out and asking for some more pills. Karen takes the opportunity to put her clothes back on and split after asking if she is healthy enough to play.
In Karen’s first game, she makes a good first impression by showing up the other team and drawing attention to herself. This delights the owner, Mr. Stern, who wants Karen to replace Mickey as the team’s star. Stern also likes her “showmanship,” which, he keeps telling his hapless son-in-law, is the secret of success in roller derby.
The editing and action sequences of the actual contest are flawless. The camera catches every kick, elbow and fall as if it were a ballet on roller skates. The stunt scenes are seamlessly woven into the action, so it’s impossible to tell where the actor ends and the double begins. The cuts between the infield, the fans and the skaters on the track all morph into a rhythmic display of cinematography and editing.
In the locker room after the game, Karen is hazed by the other skaters, who tell her “You got a uniform, but you ain’t part of the team.” Of course, their biggest quarrel with Karen is that “She didn’t follow the game plan,” Karen is defiant, but agrees to go with the rest of the team to their favorite bar.
It becomes apparent after a short while the rest of the team isn’t there to make nice with Karen unless she changes her attitude. Not bloody likely! She’s approached by Mickey, who is not only the star but the alpha dyke as well. When Karen rebuffs her advances, the team grabs Karen and spread-eagles her on a pool table. They proceed to strip and humiliate her, but Karen bounces up naked and calls everyone a bunch of bad names.
One of the male skaters, Nick (Jay Varela), comforts her, gets her clothes back and offers her a ride home on his motorcycle. They hop on and Karen notices Nick has a gun holstered on his bike. She proceeds to grab it, and for some reason, starts shooting at every landmark and building in L.A., including a Randy’s Donuts. You’d think she’d attract a lot of police with that stunt. I suppose that’s just par for the course in L.A.
The pair decides to go to the rink and get some extra practice time in. Karen proceeds to beat the living crapski out of Nick on each circuit, leaving him to wonder what kind of nut he just picked up.
It turns out to be part of Karen’s mating ritual, as she soon begins a sexy striptease on roller skates, leaving a trail of garments for Nick to follow. The photography during this sequence is particularly good, as the camera’s movements and the faces of the skaters build up to an erotic climax—literally. The last shot inside the arena is Nick and Karen in a naked embrace on the infield with their skates on. Hey, it could happen!
The next morning, Donna and Greg pick up Nick and Karen from the arena. They spend the day in blissful pursuit of good ol’ American activities—ping pong, miniature golf and…tattoos. However, Karen is the only one up for ink, and gets a skate with wings and “Avengers” needled on her forearm. I thought Claudia’s facial expressions as she gets the tat extraordinary, as in a few seconds she goes from pain and defiance to bewilderment and sadness.
The team travels by bus to San Diego to meet their hated rivals, the San Diego Demons. I guess it’s their only rival, since that’s the only other squad they square off against. During the ride, Nick introduces his wife Tina to Karen, who’s only a little sarcastic in the exchange of pleasantries.
Eventually, Karen supplants Mickey as team star. She starts endorsing products on television, buys a nice house, and goes car shopping with her friend from the cat food factory, Consuelo, who insists that the automobile must have “Chrome. Lots of chrome.”
This descent into commercialism and consumerism puts off her friends Greg and Donna. Despite Karen’s efforts to convince them otherwise, they move to Oregon to open a striptease auto repair shop. Yes, you read that correctly. The fact that Karen has now embraced materialism shows that she has forgotten her days as the proletarian hero. She has now set up a conflict where two mutually exclusive desires exist. Karen can’t be the rebel and the wealthy symbol of the ruling class simultaneously.
Nick takes Karen to a shooting range to teach her how to handle a firearm safely. He goes through all the proper procedures (well, it would be nice if they were wearing ear protection, but this is the movies), then hands the gun to Karen, who out-shoots him. Then she points the gun at his nose and taunts him about his wife. Of course, this makes both of them horny as hell, etc…
Eventually, Karen starts running out of friends. The owner is sick of her ad libs (instead of following the game plan), her teammates hate her because she’s a selfish showoff, and even Nick is getting tired of her antics. Of course, none of this phases Karen, who could give a rat’s butt what anyone else thinks.
One night, it does bother Karen when Mickey and one of the hated Demons gang up on her and literally kick the stuffing out of the poor lass while she is pinned against the rail. Mickey is fired and joins the Demons, which makes Karen the undisputed number one star.
After the game, Nick feels Karen is threatening his manhood, and when Karen suggests he doesn’t have any, he gives her a vicious slap to the face. Karen, true to her nature, simply says “You even hit like a girl,” and rightfully kicks him in the family jewels. This is a very ugly scene in a movie that’s full of them, and the exchange is beautifully acted.
At the next derby, with Mickey skating for the Demons, things get heated and it seems mayhem will break out at any second. The crowd is frothing at its collective mouth, and the teams are getting down and dirty on the track. At one juncture, Mickey and Karen get tangled up, and a one-on-one match race is declared. The two ladies take their positions, and Karen immediately starts whaling on Mickey, who goes over the railing and gets knocked out cold. This does not improve the mood of the crowd or the teams, and Stern decides he needs to bring another skater –Beverly (Charlene Jones)—up to the Avengers to take over for Karen when the time comes that she inevitably cracks.
Afterwards, the rest of the Avengers ambush Karen, rip the antenna off new her car, give it a good long scratch with a switchblade, and proceed to beat the daylights out her. Karen reacts as every other person would. She hops in her car and proceeds to mow down trash cans, hobo fires, stacks of oil cans and everything else that is piled high. Of course, none of this attracts any attention from the local constabulary. They were probably still looking for the crazy lady on the motorcycle firing a gun at a giant donut.
Before the next match, Stark barges in on a topless Karen and gives her an ultimatum: Either “follow the game plan” or get fired. Karen is not impressed and tells him to knock the next time he enters a room. Touché! Things do not improve for our girl on the track, unfortunately. As she prepares to jam around, Beverly steals her helmet and becomes the de facto new number one star. Karen starts to skate faster and faster when suddenly she goes berserk, as in an all-time roller derby wobbly. She not only beats up all the players on the other team, but her own as well. She dumps over the benches in the infield, smacking around anyone who comes within elbow-shot.
Then, in a spectacular inspiration, she skates outside the arena and starts whaling on patrons, pedestrians and anyone who gets in her way. Karen, definitely not going by the game plan, skates into the street and starts taking on automobiles. Yes, you read it correctly: She starts beating up cars. Unfortunately, one of the vehicles doesn’t see her until the last moment and smacks into her. We wait with bated breath to see if it’s the end of Karen; then, in an ambiguous ending, she rises to her feet—uh, I mean, skates—and lifts her tattooed forearm in a gesture of defiance. The End.
Of course, the audience wants to believe Karen is not seriously hurt—just a flesh wound and all that. That’s not really the point, though, because, the fact that she stood up and was unrepentant means more than if she eventually died. Karen gives us the ultimate reaction of the individual—and, specifically, a woman—to a world where the rules are set in opposition to her pursuit of happiness.
Overall, Unholy Rollers is an outstanding B-movie. It has all the female nudity, foul language, and roller derby sequences you could ask for. I frankly thought it superior to Kansas City Bomber, which only had its much bigger budget and Raquel Welch’s much bigger hair, to recommend it. (Oh, and a very young Jodie Foster, too.)
Claudia’s character is not bad; she is strong and confident, and therein lies the difference. She was born into a marginalized section of society; therefore, she knows no other way to behave. She suffers sexual harassment at every turn, and the one man she thinks she can trust turns out to be married. You’d be pissed, too. Her generous side is shown when she tries to give the mother who rejected her some money (an excellent cameo by veteran Kathleen Freeman). She also gives money to her roommate’s boyfriend when the pair moves to Oregon.
It is a great performance, probably the best of the early portion of her career. Claudia, showing a good range of emotion, is funny, sexy, skillful in the skating sequences and quite believable when she goes off her nutter.
Martin Scorsese, one of Roger Corman’s earliest discoveries, supervised the first rate editing. The picture overall is superior to Rollerball and Kansas City Bomber despite having a miniscule budget. Unholy Rollers is not weighed down by fluff and instead opts for brutal realism that sets it above the other two star filled, lavish productions.
Going back to the theme of consumerism I noted earlier, there is a constant barrage of commercials spoken by the arena announcers during each match. It is worth your time to listen to them, as many are hysterically funny.
To show their appreciation and friendship, the roller derby professionals in the film gave Claudia a bronzed skate, used in the movie. She remained friendly with many of them for the rest of her life.
Unholy Rollers is a superior film, with directing, acting, and cinematography that belie its humble origins as a B-movie; however, more than any other of her films, this was Claudia’s movie. Although she would give fine performances in some later projects such as The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Unholy Rollers comes closest to showing Claudia was a potential, legitimate A-list leading lady.
This review was taken with permission from Claudia Jennings: An Authorized Biography, written by Eric Karell. Copyright 2018, Midnight Marquee Press.