“Rebekah Herzberg has been living in Southeast Texas the majority of her life but has traveled to countries all over the world, including Israel where her parents do their work. Since she was a little girl, she has been exposed to cameras in her parents studio which is where her love for the camera began. Rebekah has been involved with ballet, jazz, tap, and acrobats since she was 2-years-old. In addition to dancing, she has stayed active in modeling and eventually worked her way up into the Indie horror scene after working on a couple of student films. Her film titles include; PRINCESS, STAY WITH ME, THE GOOD FRIEND, AND CIRCUS OF THE DEAD.
Rebekah was a host for Texas Frightmare Weekend in 2011 and continues to frequent conventions all over the US. She’s also the horror judge for the local Lagniappe Film & Music Festival based out of Beaumont, Tx and a Women in Horror Month Ambassador.
In her downtime Rebekah is the VHS Vixen for Wicked Channel and True Crime Writer for Dreamin’ Demon. Collecting VHS is a passion for Rebekah and she currently owns 2, 000 horror films on VHS. Roller derby is another passion of hers with “Jewn Cleaver” being her nickname.”*
Girl Gangs on Film by Rebekah Herzberg
It’s about time one of us from the pack strokes our keyboard long enough to show girl gangs on film the appreciation they deserve. The final girl and blond floozy typically remain imprinted in a hefty percentage of viewer’s minds along with the charismatic and powerful duo but what about the gang? In the late 1990’s an author named Beverly Zalcock seemingly poured her heart and soul into the novel titled, “Renegade Sisters: Girl Gangs on Film,” which focuses on strong female characters in the background. Unfortunately, I could not find any legitimate information on the author Zalcock but after researching its publisher, “Creation Books,” I found that the head honcho of this publication was a fraud and his writer’s never received a dime for their hard work.
These girl gangs are filled with several colorful characters molded after their own repression and abuse with no choice but to fight against injustice.
My love for girl gangs on film began when I was fifteen with one of many viewings of The Switchblade Sisters which would become myfavorite. The Dagger Debs belonged to The Silver Daggers much like The Pink Ladies belonged to The T-Birds in Grease only The Debs were a more brutal force to be reckoned with. The Pink Ladies wouldn’t be caught dead with a switchblade, let alone a machine gun. After their enemy has infiltrated their turf, The Daggers brawl at a skating rink with heavy machinery and it doesn’t end in The Daggers favor. The newest member of The Dagger Debs, Maggie, has had enough of the gutless wonders holding the ladies back. It’s time for a strong woman to take matters into her own hands and what a better way to start than renaming your gang with, “The Jezebels.” The girls stand together and kick the men out of their headquarters. Naturally, girls cannot always get along. There will always be jealousy and spats inside the circle leading to unfavorable endings. Regardless, the girls merge with the female African-American gang who have also been fighting against the war on drugs and injustice in the streets. Switchblade Sisters is a combination of sub-genres; Girl Gangs, Blacksploitation, and Women in Prison. This is what we call Hybrid genres.
The women in prison films seem to be one of the most popular sub-genres out there. Each of these films carries the same regurgitated formula; The wicked warden, The warden’s henchwoman, and the large Marge dyke sadistically tormenting the prisoners. The new girl on the cell blocks who typically plays the lead. Then there’s the leader of the bullying prison gang who often times joins forces with the rest of the inmates. Sub-genres like Nunsploitation and Nazisploitation intertwine with this sub-genre. In that case, you will see some of the most pornographic and sadistic scenes depicted on film. It always begins with the group strip search, fights between inmates when they’re not beaten and humiliated by the guards. When the girls misbehave they are thrown into solitary after being sprayed by a fire hose. The Nazisploitation prison films tend to be a little more sadistic. In films like The Beast in Heat, the female warden creates a swinish half man, half beast that rapes the Jewish prisoners before ripping their vagina apart and eating it. They’re strung upside down and tied down for the rats to feast on. I love Nazisploitation but The Beast in Heat pales in comparison to greats like Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.
Though women in prison films were distributed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, they were all black and white and tame. It wasn’t until Jess Franco’s 99 Women in the late 60’s came along and succeeded in the box office. Many of the 70’s women in prison films were banned and some remain banned. It’s apparent that the majority of these films were rendered to fulfill the male fantasy. These films had little to do with REAL prison life.
American’s wanted to cash in on the success of this sub-genre so they churned out films like Terminal Island, Terminal Island was directed by a woman who comes from the New World Nurse sub-genre, Stephanie Rothman. Rothman was a feminist with ambitions to market her own film that centers on the myths of male fantasy. Exploitation targets the male fantasy. Women are disrobed, raped, and beaten. While I enjoy the women in prison and most exploitation films, it’s clear that feminism is used to fulfill the male fantasy. These women are also still dependant on men which I find a little misogynistic. Women in Cages, Chained Heat, Red Heat, Human Experiments, The Hot Box, and Reform School Girls soon joined the crowd. USA Up All Night use to air women in prison films almost every weekend. One of the more memorable girl gang groups that emerged was the gang from Reform School Girls. The film featured ‘teens’ in their late twenties and thirties. Plasmatics front woman, Wendy O. Williams, led the group. Williams often ran around half naked and a bar with her tongue wagging around. RSG is the prime example of ridiculous WIP films that feature girls running around behind bars wearing nothing but lingerie you see in Victoria Secret catalogues. Williams is what I’d like to call Butter Face. She had an immaculate body with every right to show it off but her acting chops and decaying face were lacking. Her lackeys were far more attractive but nowhere near as tough. Darcy DeMoss made a name for herself in the 80’s with films like; Gimme and F, Jason Lives, Return to Horror High, Can’t Buy Me Love, For Keeps, and Teen Witch under her belt. Sassy Tiffany Healm also appeared in one of the Friday the 13th sequels as Violet. Though her career was short lived, she still appeared in an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares. Sybil Danning starred as the wicked warden but for Danning fans, her screen time is limited.
Another tasty sub-genre that we all know and love is Women on Wheels. The outlaw biker films began with men behind the wheel, naturally. The Wild One (1953) became successful with Marlon Brandon starring. The sub-genre was popularized by the drive-in crowds, like most exploitation film. Then it evolved into hybrid genres. Many actors gained notoriety from these films like Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bruce Dern. The real life biker gangs inevitably became celebrities overnight. However, it was a different story for the ladies behind wheels. In 1965, Russ Meyer introduced us to thrill seekers Lori Williams, Tura Satana, Susan Bernard, and Haji in Fast, Pussycat. Kill Kill. The film faded into obscurity before becoming a cult classic and one of John Waters’ favorite films. Herschell Gordon-Lewis would also cash into this hybrid with She-Devils on Wheels in 1968 starring Betty Connell, Nancy Lee Noble, and Christie Wagner. In She-Devils on Wheels we follow an all-girl motorcycle gang titled ‘The Maneaters’ that terrorizes a small town and battles with the all-male gang. This hybrid flew all the way to the late 80’s with Chopper Chicks in Zombietown with Billy Bob Thorton. It didn’t stop there. This isn’t a dying breed as Grindhouse-esque chopper chicks are still breaking waves in the Indie circuit today.
Girl gangs in Sci-Fi dates back to the 1950’s with classic like The Mesa of Lost Women, She-Demons, and Queen of Outer Space. The 1960’s and 70’s churned out more sexually explicit comedies like When Dinosaurs Ruled the World.
Moving onto the shameful sisterhood, Nunsploitation is another category that bares all and doesn’t hold back with the sexual abuse and violence. Hammer’s To the Devil – A Daughter focused on one woman, Nastassja Kinski. Films like Killer Nun and Alucarda focused on the deadly duo. Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils (1971) raised hairs which lead to its banning in the UK. Regardless, The Devil’s picked up a few awards and is known as one of Ken Russell’s best films. The nuns raping Christ are Vanessa Redgrave, Judith Paris, Catherine Willmer, Iza Teller, Imogen Claire, Doremy Vernon, and Selina Gilbert. The Devil’s is based on a true story recounting bizarre events that date back to France, 1634. Though it’s highly graphic, The Devil’s has nothing on Flavia, The Heretic where a persecuted nun seeks to destroy her coven with an army of Muslims. Starring as Flavia and the Sisters are Florinda Bolkan, Maria Casares, Raika Juri, and Jill Pratt. Bolkan can be seen in several exploitation films and Lucio Fulci had a fondness for the actress as he used her in his films A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling. To me, Flavia is one of the more sadistic Nunsploitation films around. While it tries to sell the idea of a woman’s freedom, it’s still overshadowed by the beheadings, castration, skinning, and torture. 1981’s The Other Hell where nuns become possessed by the Devil and fornication is all they can think about.
With Nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, and WIP out of the way, lets dig into the girl gangs in horror starting with slumber parties and sororities. Black Christmas birthed the idea of the killer being inside the house making crank calls and murdering the girls behind closed doors. Of all the female characters in horror, Black Christmas takes the cake with the pro-abortionist Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet,) obnoxious and outspoken drunk Margot Kidder (The Amityville Horror, Superman,) nerdy Andrea Martin (Cannibal Girls,) and cellophane Queen Lynne Griffin (Curtains.) Unfortunately, the sorority sub-genre was short lived. Black Christmas was followed up with The House on Sorority Row, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Sorority House Massacre, and Sorority House Massacre 2. High School slumber parties got a slice as well with the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy starring; Robin Stille (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama,) Michelle Michaels (Death Wish 4,) Crystal Bernard (Wings,) Heidi Kozak (Society and Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood,) Juliette Cummins (Psycho 3 and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning,) and my personal favorite Maria Ford (Stripped to Kill 2, Stripteaser, and Alien Terminator.) Though the SPM trilogy clearly targeted the male audience, they were all directed and written by women which makes your viewing all the more interesting. The ‘Massacre’ films collided with films like Halloween, Carrie, Prom Night, Slaughter High, Return to Horror High, Graduation Day, Suspiria, Satan’s Cheerleaders, Cheerleader Camp, and Sleepaway Camp which brings us to the female happy campers. I could spend hours breaking down our favorite actresses from high school and college horror films but there are so many, I can only mention the greats!
Now I know we have moved away from actual girl ‘gangs’ in film but for me this does apply to the supporting actresses in the ‘in crowd.’ The camp slashers began with the Friday the 13th films where we have the usual final girl, harlot, and easy going nerd. These types of films do not have a feminist message per-say but it’s all in harmless fun. Many men and women debated on the idea of misogynists behind slasher films where women are forced to degrade themselves. Though there are some vital points, I whole-heartedly disagree with this notion. If you take a closer look at these slashers, the female overcomes and beats the bad guy in the end. Sometimes she does need a man to protect her but in Friday the 13th, Adrienne King acts alone and this was before Jason was reborn as a grown man. Her opponent was a woman. Now of all the camp girl groups I have to side with the Sleepaway Camp trilogy as my favorite, ignoring the fourth and fifth installment completely. The first introduces us to bitchy and slutty characters Judy (Karen Fields,) Meg (Katherine Kamhi,) and Susie (Susan Glaze.) This nasty group of girls had nothing on the second batch though. The unhappy campers in the sequel are pot smoking, fornicating misfits. The head of the bitch gang is Ally played by Valerie Hartman. Hartman’s career as an actress was short lived but I’m sure fans will never forget her compromising position on top of what looked to be an underage male, five years under. Sex and drugs became such a disappointment for psychotic Angela Baker. Twins Brooke and Jodi were on her chopping list as she finds them baked out of their skulls. They’re both brutally murdered in front of each other as they burn to death. Much isn’t known about the twins Carol Chambers and Amy Fields who are not real life twins. Campers Mare, Demi, and Lea share the same bunk but fail to make it out safely. Unfortunately, Kendall Bean, Julie Murphy, and Carol Chambers didn’t have much of an acting career as well.The third installment is a disappointing one with actors Tracy Griffith, Kim Wall, Kashina Kessler, and Jill Terashita.
The 80’s also provided us with several powerful female groups like the girls in Future Kill, The Warriors, Stripped to Kill, Out of the Dark, and Savage Streets. Savage Streets is a classic example of rebel teenagers out for blood when one of their sisters is raped and another is viciously killed. Though Linda Blair acts alone, the girls are the heart of the design. Every girl gang has to have a name, right? In this case, they’re The Satins and their enemies cleverly titled The Scars. The Satins members are Brenda (Linda Hamilton,) Rachel, Francine, Stevie, and Marla. The film speaks out to repressed women who are strong enough to fight back but with the shower brawling scene and the random scene with Linda Blair brooding in a bath tub, one has to question the motives behind director Danny Steinmann.
The 90’s failed to show us powerful women as a group until The Craft exploded on the scene with a tale of four powerful witches; Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle. The Craft had such a powerful influence on adolescent girls in the 90’s, witch craft became more and more popular in public schools. I want to say at least 70% of adolescent females at that time wanted to be Nancy or Sarah. The Craft follows a new Catholic student with the ability to move objects with her mind, by witchcraft. She joins forces with three outcasts to cast spells on those who have wronged the girls. The Craft stars Robin Tunney (End of Days and Empire Records,) Fairuza Balk (The Worst Witch and The Island of Dr. Moreau,) Neve Campbell (Scream trilogy,) and Rachel True (Embrace the Vampire.) The 2000’s have brought a new batch of strong female characters that will be reserved for a continuation of this piece.
If this article feels all over the place, that’s because it’s hard to piece together all the sub-genres and mash them together. This is a topic best reserved for a novel much like Renegade Sisters. Postfeminism and contemporary teen horror films, rape and revenge films, and everything in between provide us with such strong characters – Whether they’re exploiting women or making a statement, they still remain dear to our hearts.
*Bio Courtesy of Rebekah Herzberg