Movies like The Unholy Rollers are the reason I’m glad boutique labels exist. Sure, Criterion and Masters of Cinema take care of the classics and also release cool esoteric stuff, for which they have my eternal gratitude. But bless places like Shout! Factory for digging through the archives and boxing together some deep cuts and forgotten oddities. The Unholy Rollers was on one such release, packed together with three other films (including the death-by-snoo-snoo jam Invasion of the Bee Girls and the 80s punk girls vs. zombies snoozer Vicious Lips). It’s an American International production, so you know ahead of time that the story is thread-bare and that there’ll be a decent amount of gratuitous nudity. But dig a little deeper and it becomes a compelling little film about female agency and the need to kill one’s idols.
The film stars ex-Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings as Karen Walker, a factory girl-turned-roller derby star. At first, it feels as if the film frames Karen’s desire to become a roller girl as a way to channel her more vicious, destructive impulses. Ultimately, though, this ends up being a red herring; Karen causes friction wherever she may go. Teammates, lovers, and innocent bystanders all rub Karen the wrong way. The resulting feuds between her and the teammates gives the film what little narrative drive it has, but the plot here is mostly an excuse for breasts, carnage, and off-colour jokes.
Despite its paper-thin plotting and casual isms, the film is viscerally engaging thanks to its remarkable action photography. The roller-derby scene cross-cut between shots from the rink’s infield to action shots from the track. These shots have a distinctly different feel than the rest of the movie, as if someone strapped 16mm cameras to a Steadycam rig and spliced it in with the regular footage. The result is a dynamic, vibrant sense of rhythm that visually conveys the thrill of being on the track. Also of note is the stunt work; there are countless unbroken shots of people skating, spilling, tripping, wiping out, or otherwise giving full physical performances, from Jennings on down.
Speaking of Jennings, it is important to note that while her character is impulsive and violent right from the very beginning of the film, she is never punished for it. The Unholy Rollers is one of the few instances I can think of a film where a woman is afforded the luxury of indulging her id without reprimand. At the beginning, this can be mistaken for a kind of half-baked feminism that a lot of exploitation films espoused, but it develops over the course of the film into self-actualization through recklessness. Karen doesn’t take any shit from anybody, and why the hell should she?
The Unholy Rollers was likely conceived as a cash-in on the roller derby craze, but by accident or design, writer Howard R. Cohen manages to smuggle in a bit of commentary on sports idolatry and the gnarled cults of personality it can create. Mostly, it’s a fun, fast-paced piece of classic B-movie cinema that benefits from both solid craft and a breezy, free-wheeling unpretentiousness. It’s the kind of movie that forgotten genre-movie box sets were invented for.
The Unholy Rollers is available on DVD from Amazon.
Directed by Vernon Zimmerman; written by Howard R. Cohen; starring Claudia Jennings, Louis Quinn, Betty Anne Rees, Roberta Collins, and Alan Vint; 88 minutes.