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 landed newfound mainstream popularity in her own TV series, "Police Woman."
Wilma McClatchie (Angie 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 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 millionaire's daughter, 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 the 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. Aside from a few questionable hairdos, the film 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 daughters, 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 what's considered a “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 movie guide, 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 (who was also the second unit director) 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.
BIG BAD MAMA was previously released on DVD by New Concorde and more recently by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and both discs used the same tired full frame transfer. Shout! Factory now presents the film remastered in an anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer and the improvement is very noticeable. This presentation has much stronger colors and sharper detail, and even though there’s some dirt and debris present, the image is very clean overall. The mono English audio is also improved, presenting a cleaner track than what was found on the previous releases.
Supplements include an excellent 15-minute featurette (originally on the Buena Vista release) titled “Mama Knows Best: A Retrospective.” It includes interviews with director Carver, producer Corman, star Dickinson, screenwriters Francis Doel and William Norton and 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 a great sport and is proud 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! Corman and Dickinson are present on an audio commentary that’s also a carry-over from the Buena Vista release. 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 some moments of dead silence, they still share a few good on-the-set stories. When Angie comments about her first nude seen being hard to watch, Roger jokingly remarks, “not for me.” A new audio commentary features director Carver and director of photography Bruce Logan, and it’s well moderated by Walt Olsen. Mainly thanks to Carver’s precise recollections, everything under the sun is discussed from the shooting of Angie’s “tasteful” nude scenes, to the cast and crew, the stunts, locations and much more. Carver also remarks that there was a bit of animosity between Shatner and Skerritt, on screen and off. The brief “Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman” segment dates all the way back to the New Concorde DVD release, and the original trailer, TV spots and a generous still gallery are also included.
Crooked politician Morgan Crawford (Bruce Glover, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER) has the husband of Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) shot to death after her family unit is threatened by eviction. Out for vengeance, Wilma takes her two lovely blond daughters, Billie Jean (a very grown-up Danielle Brisebois from “All in the Family”/”Archie Bunker’s Place”) and Polly (Playboy model Julie McCullough), for a bank-robbing crime spree. As part of their exploits, the gun-toting trio crashes the campaign fundraiser for Crawford (who is running for governor), robs the place, and kidnap his son Jordan (Jeff Yagher) for good measure. The opposite of his slimy pop, Jordan easily settles in to the refugee crime family, especially when he spends evenings making love to the child-like yet alluring Billie Jean (who likes to conceal sticks of dynamite in her Raggedy Ann doll). Mama Wilma becomes romantically involved with an ambitious news journalist (the late great Robert Culp) who wants to tell her story to the media, and at the same time acts as a sort of protector. The kidnapping tables are later turned, and mama and her girls have to shoot it out with the feds, using the crumbling house they were tossed out of as a fortress.
Made almost 15 years after the original, BIG BAD MAMA II is more of a remake than a sequel, especially considering the climatic events of the first film and the fact that the character's daughters are still the same age and played by different actresses. Though inferior to the first film, this one at least delivers what made it a late-night cable TV favorite, with plenty of car chases, brawls, catfights, bloody gunplay and of course, nudity, all convincingly set during the depression era. Considerably older (but still looking very much the part), Dickinson didn’t do any new nude scenes, but you will spot a recognizable glimpse when scenes from the original are shown during a montage (which also throws in clips from THE LADY IN RED). Angie’s love scene with Robert Culp is supplemented by much younger body doubles, so blatantly obvious that it’s comical. The memorable celebrity skin stuff is left to Brisebois and McCullough, who do a topless bit of outdoor swimming that screams for one to put the pause/slow mo button to good use.
Previously released by New Concorde on DVD, BIG BAD MAMA II had only been seen on the format in a full frame transfer which looked to be the same used for cable TV airings (and this film played a lot on cable back in the day!). Shout! Factory finally presents it anamorphic and widescreen (1.78:1) looking better than ever. Colors are stable and detail is fairly sharp, and even though the film suffers from occasional grain, it still looks mighty fine. The mono English audio track also comes off well with no noticeable flaws.
Director Jim Wynorski is on hand for a commentary which has been carried over from the decade-old New Concorde DVD release. Wynorski is alone for the track, but is always on target and a lot of fun to listen to, talking about building various sets (including a house that was to be destroyed and a elaborate county fair) on a budget-restrained endeavor overlooked by Corman, as well as taking advantage of already-built sets from another film (EXTREME PREJUDICE) and that Linda Shayne (his co-writer on SCREWBALLS, who also has a bit part here as a bank teller) was the second unit director, pointing out the scenes she helmed. Among many other tidbits, Wynorski reveals that 1980s cult actress Monique Gabrielle was Angie’s body double! Another “Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman” pertaining to this film appears to be recycled and re-edited banter, but actor Bruce Glover is on hand for a new video interview (9:50), discussing how he got into acting and his experience on BIG BAD MAMA II, which by all accounts was a very happy one. A photo gallery and the original trailer round out the extras for the film, and you can view both of them together as a “grindhouse experience” double feature which incorporates trailers from other related titles in the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” DVD series. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS