Thursday, November 18, 2010

Culture Shock 11.18.10: 'Pretty Maids All in a Row' does exploitation with some class

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" may be a major-studio film with a high-class pedigree, but it has a lot in common with the low-budget, independently produced exploitation movies that populated drive-ins in the 1970s.

Released by MGM in 1971, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is helmed by French director Roger Vadim, who blessed the world with Brigitte Bardot in his 1956 film, "... And God Created Woman" and hit the heights of pop art in 1968 with "Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda.

The screenplay for "Pretty Maids" comes courtesy of Gene Roddenberry — yes, "Star Trek's" Gene Roddenberry — who is also the film's producer. And the music is by "Mission Impossible" composer Lalo Schifrin.

And I haven't even gotten to the cast yet. It's an all-star affair headlined by Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson and Telly Savalas.

But for all of its star power, "Pretty Maids All in a Row" is an exploitation movie — a glossy, strange and darkly comic exploitation movie, but an exploitation movie nonetheless, which is a major part of its charm.

Despite having fallen into near obscurity in the decades since its release, "Pretty Maids" is back and available on DVD from Warner Archive at

High school guidance counselor/football coach "Tiger" McDrew has it all: a perfect family, a winning football team and the affections of every female in the student body. Student bodies, indeed.

His No. 1 student, the unfortunately named Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), however, is another case. It seems Ponce gets just a little bit too excited — if you know what I mean — whenever he is around any of the campus' attractive co-eds, which, by the way, is all of them. And he gets way too excited around the sexy new substitute teacher, Betty Smith (Dickinson).

So, like any concerned guidance counselor, Tiger decides to help Ponce with his problem. Tiger's solution: have Betty give Ponce a little after-school "tutoring" — if you know what I mean.

Yes, there's enough inappropriate student/teacher sex going on at this high school to keep Maury Povich busy for an entire season.

And as if that weren't scandalous enough, there's also the little matter of the female students who keep turning up dead, much to the chagrin of the principal (Roddy McDowall).

As the murders mount, state police Capt. Sam Surcher (Savalas in a pre-"Kojak" cop role) narrows down his list of suspects, and Tiger is at the top of it.

Is Tiger really guilty, or does he just seem really guilty? Of murder, I mean. Obviously, he's guilty of other stuff — if you know what I mean.

Also, keep a lookout for a few unexpected faces, including James Doohan (Scotty from "Star Trek") and JoAnna Cameron, future star of the Saturday-morning adventure series "Isis," as one of Tiger's pretty maids.

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" is a funny, clever black comedy with some truly great dialog, like when one student reminds the other football players that they never have practice after a murder.

It is also a rare example in the 1970s of a studio film beating the low-budget filmmakers to the punch. It predates other films about illicit student/teacher relationships like 1974's "The Teacher," with former "Dennis the Menace" child star Jay North as the lucky student, and 1978's "Coach," a Quentin Tarantino favorite starring Cathy Lee Crosby ("That's Incredible") and Michael Biehn ("Terminator").

"Pretty Maids All in a Row" has been lost in Hollywood's film vault for too long, and it's great to have it back.

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