Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: 'Sheba, Baby' (1975)

For years, I've been mildly fascinated with the career of Mr. William Girdler. Girdler is mostly remembered as a low budget rip-off artist. His “Grizzly” is “Jaws” but with a bear. Both “Abby” and “The Manitou” blatantly copied “The Exorcist.” Girdler's movies are bad but in an endearing way, frequently getting unintentional laughs out of the audience. There was also an occasional artistry or interesting element under Girdler's low budget shenanigans, suggesting he had some talent. If his life hadn't been prematurely ended by a helicopter crash, Girdler probably would've made a genuinely good film some day. Among the various blaxploitation flicks the director would make is the peculiarly punctuated “'Sheba, Baby.'” Pam Grier's third starring role for A.I.P., the film is frequently overshadowed by her earlier credits for the company.

Sheba Shayne is a private detective in the city of Chicago. She travels back to her childhood home town of Louisville, Kentucky after hearing her father has been brutalized by attackers. She reconnects with an old lover there while her father urges her not to investigate why he was attacked. She doesn't listen. As Sheba begins to sniff around, she discovers local gangsters desire her father's property. Digging deeper, Sheba uncovers the white businessmen behind the criminal intimidation. Shayne's going to have to employ all her skills if she hopes to get out of this one.

“'Sheba, Baby'” revolves around the same moral that “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” featured. I repeat: Do not fuck with Pam Grier. Unlike Coffy or Foxy, who were untrained vigilantes, Sheba Shayne is a former cop and a current P.I. Her ass-kicking skills are more refined. When a group of racist enforcers step into her dad's business with shotguns, Sheba blows them away with her hand cannon. She tracks down potential leads at a train yard, leaping onto the guy's back. My favorite moment of ass-kickery has Sheba threatening to shove a thug's face into a car wash's hot wax dispenser. By this point in her career, Pam Grier can project  a sense of self-determined toughness in her sleep. She brings the same level of can-do endurance but sweet vulnerability to this part that she did to countless others.

“Sheba, Baby” is actually a PG movie, meaning it doesn't feature the nudity and sleaze that was present in Grier's films for Jack Hill. (There's a love scene, though Pam keeps her glorious body covered throughout it.) Despite the rating, the movie's violence is surprisingly graphic. Aside from the bloody gunshots, Sheba also blows up a car. An especially memorable sequence has Pam chasing the bad guys through a county fair. The scene concludes on the track of a roller coaster, Sheba's victim nearly escaping decapitation. As has become standard by this point, Pam Grier also gets into a cat fight. While aboard a yacht, she sprinkles some cigarette ash on a white woman's shoulders. Though not nearly as memorable as the throwdowns in “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” this one is still pretty entertaining.

Sadly, that cat fight proves to be the last really exciting scene in the movie. Afterwards, Pam sneaks onto the bad guy's yacht and gets captured a few times. It's at this point that “'Sheba, Baby'” hits a pacing bump that it never recovers from. There are far too many moments of Shayne talking to the villain and trying to sneak out. Or lingering shots devoted to her tensely considering her options. These scenes give us Pam Grier in a skin-tight wet suit, a jet ski chase, and an exploding speedboat. Yet these moments are easily the most boring in the whole film. How do you screw that up?

Of the quartet of crime films Pam starred in for A.I.P., “'Sheba, Baby'” is clearly the weakest. Truthfully, this one can't help but stand in the shadows of the superior films Grier previously made. Sheba ultimately isn't as memorable as Coffy or Foxy. The film doesn't function as smoothly. The plot isn't as interesting. William Girdler could make an entertaining exploitation movie but, when restrained by a PG rating, couldn't embrace a seedy side as amusing as Jack Hill's. Despite these flaws, Tarantino would specifically draw from this film when making “Jackie Brown,” so I suppose it has at least one big fan. [6/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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