Director: Steve Carver
Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Riding on the winning formula of the exploits of a criminal mother and her equally unscrupulous children, producer Roger Corman (long disassociated from American International Pictures, and now head of his own independent company, New World) pretty much reinvented the depression era thrills of BLOODY MAMA with BIG BAD MAMA. Casting a 40-something year-old Angie Dickinson proved to the max how sexy middle age could be, and her frequent nude scenes in the film made this an instant cult hit shortly before she grounded newfound mainstream popularity in her own TV series, "Police Woman."

Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) terminates the wedding of daughter Polly (Robbie Lee), hitting the road with her and her other daughter, Billie Jean (Susan Sennett). In the excitement, Wilma’s man “Uncle” Barney (Noble Willingham) is shot to death, after which the trio of women take over his bootlegging operation. Soon, they take to robbing any establishment with heavy amounts of cash laying around, always moving from one town to the next. During an attempted bank robbery, they encounter Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) a handsome crook performing an armed hold-up at the same time. Diller becomes Wilma’s lover and partner in crime, as they continue on a spree of robberies. A day at the racetracks leads to a chance meeting with William J. Baxter (William Shatner), a small-time Kentuckian con man who charms his way into Wilma’s bedroom. Now a quintet of gun-toting outlaws, their ultimate goal is to kidnap millionaires Jane Kingston (Joan Prather) for a cool $1 million in cash.

BIG BAD MAMA is a prime example of what New World Pictures' agenda was: to manufacture pure escapism for drive-in screens. The screenplay allows for sharp dialogue, comic moments, pancake-stacked sex and violence, with several hints of human sentiment to make the characters more appealing, and director Steve Carver delivers a tight 84 minutes that’s high on action and exploitation, and it always remains convincingly faithful to its 1930s era setting, despite it being a low budget Corman film. Angie Dickinson was the perfect choice for the role, being mature enough to have teen daughter, but far from looking like an over-the-hill mom. She has never been sexier and eats up the role with total gusto. What brings the film to another level of notoriety is Angie’s frequent (and sometimes full frontal) nude scenes, as she was still an “A” star now appearing in a questionable “B” picture, but it turned out to be a good career choice, and something she can be proud of, at least for its entertainment value and subsequent popularity.

Fresh from big films like MASH and FUZZ, Tom Skerritt’s appearance here most likely befuddled critics that saw him as an actor on the rise career-wise. Viewers used to him from TV shows like “Cheers” and “Picket Fences” will be surprised to see him not only sharing a love seen with Angie, but an implied threesome with her supposedly under-aged daughters. As the child-like but promiscuous young girls, Susan Sennett had already done exploitation films like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and the sitcom “Ozzie’s Girls”, and Robbie Lee would star in Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS the following year. In the original Psychotronic book, Michael Weldon wrote about this film that “William Shatner, who in his non-Star Trek roles always seemed like Captain Kirk caught in a time warp,” and that pretty much sums it up. Shatner is a lot of fun though, and his hammy Southern inflection and passionate love scene with Angie make this essential viewing for any Shatner addict. Along for the fun in smaller roles are Dick Miller as a determined but bumbling federal agent, Royal Dano as an aged reverend, William O'Connell as a slimy preacher and an unbilled Paul Bartel as a tuxedoed hold-up victim. A brunette Sally Kirkland is in it just long enough to peel her dress off, and Joan Prather (of “Eight is Enough” fame) also goes topless. She would star with both Shatner and Skerritt in THE DEVIL’S RAIN the following year.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment has re-released BIG BAD MAMA on DVD as a special edition, using the same full frame transfer from the previous New Concorde disc. The transfer is passable, with decent colors and fleshtones, with some debris and grain present. The open matte is very awkward, and the film would look even more polished if presented in its proper 1.85:1 framing, albeit with anamorphic enhancement. The mono audio is passable but has its share of hiss and distortion problems. At the end of the film, a video generated credit makes mention of Leonard Maltin’s onscreen interview with Corman, but it’s not present anywhere in this edition.

Supplements include an excellent 15-minute featurette titled “Mama Knows Best: A Retrospective.” It includes interviews with director Carver, producer Corman, star Dickinson, screenwriters Francis Doel and William Norton, and most surprisingly (since it’s not mentioned on the back cover) William Shatner. The featurette covers how the film was conceived, the casting of Dickinson, as well as some behind-the-scenes stuff (such as the fact that a vintage car was repainted a few times over to pass off as several automobiles on camera). Shatner tells an amusing anecdote about how Dickinson became gradually open to allowing extra crew members on the set during their love scene, while she still seems a tad uncomfortable about her nudity, but still comes off as great sport and oud of the film. Carver reveals such things as the film being made for under half a million dollars in just 20 days, and that Jerry Garcia (of The Grateful Dead) performed most of the banjo music heard on the soundtrack! It would have been great if Carver was along on the commentary, but at least Corman and Dickinson are present. They seem to be having a ball re-watching the film together, and although at times they are simply making comments about what’s on the screen and there are a some moments of dead silence, they still share a few good on-the-set stories and technical aspects. When Angie comments about her first nude seen being hard to watch, Roger jokingly remarks, “not for me.” When Corman identifies Paul Bartel on screen, he also reveals that he was the second unit director! The original trailer is also included. It should be noted that publicity photos from the 1987 sequel, BIG BAD MAMA II, are found in sections of the menu, as well as on the DVD’s cover! (George R. Reis)