Posted by Richard Harland Smith on December 28, 2012
If the phrase “found after forty years” doesn’t excite you to your very marrow-meat, then stop reading now because we are no longer friends, you and I. All the rest… faaallll innn! This first stand-alone DVD release from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures brings back into the light a long-lost curio from Florida-based writer-director-producer William Grefé, the renegade regional filmmaker who brought us STING OF DEATH (1965), DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (1966) — an inarguable link in the chain of Dead Teenagers horror movies that paved the way for HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) — the WILLARD (1971) with snakes extravaganza STANLEY (1972), IMPULSE (1974) starring a wildly flailing William Shatner half a decade past the cancellation of STAR TREK, and MAKO: JAWS OF DEATH (1976), the charms of which are perfectly telegraphed in that title. My appreciation for Bill Grefé is not the least bit ironic. I don’t lump him into that “so bad it’s good” categorization coined by my wretched hipster generation — actually, I don’t do that to anyone — but rather take on his films face-first. I remember watching MAKO: JAWS OF DEATH on TV when I was a kid and being slack-jawed at what seemed to me to be not a weird tale of the love between a man and his shark but the window offered into the private life of adults and their booze-fueled behavior. Though they certainly were, Grefé’s movies never looked low budget to me… they just looked like life, captured not on the studio back lot or on expensive location in New York, Paris, Tokyo, or London but rather with a backdrop of strip malls, cocktail lounges, and vaguely menacing stretches of scrub pine. They looked like home.
A little history: with the success of STING OF DEATH and DEATH CURSE OF TARTU on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits, Grefé’s backer Joe Fink wanted more, the better to pack his chain of movie theaters. Rushing into production, Grefé called upon associate John Nicholas to adapt for the screen a true crime story that still lingered in the collective consciousness of Americans living in the southern and western states, though the events had transpired well south of the border. In Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1964, three sisters (dubbed by the locals “las poquianchis,” or the prostitutes, and by the Mexican press corps as “Las hermanas diabolicas,” a.k.a. the Devil’s sisters) went to trial for the crimes of sequestering young women for the purposes of prostitution, for drugging and beating their captives into submission, and for torturing and killing them for the offenses of disobedience, of displeasing the customers, of losing their looks (an occupational hazard due to mistreatment and malnourishment), of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, or of getting pregnant. The sisters’ rural whorehouse in San Francisco del Rincon, a concentration camp-style pied a terror that they called Loma del Angel but which drew the nickname “Bordello of Blood,” was raided by the local police, who turned up nearly a hundred bodies buried throughout the sprawling property. The sisters were eventually sentenced to forty years in prison apiece. Two of the three died in prison — one killed by workmen who accidentally dropped a bucket of cement on her head and the other of natural causes, her body devoured by rats before the turnkeys made the grisly discovery. The third and youngest sister was eventually released into general population, dying in the 1990s. As late as 2002, skeletal remains of the many victims of the Devil’s Sisters were still being unearthed. Blogger E. C. Perez’s account of the case can be (and should be) read here. Another cinematic adaptation of these horrific true events, Felipe Cazals’ LAS POQUIANCHIS, was released in Mexico in 1976 and can be found in its entirety on YouTube, albeit in Spanish only. I also recommend Cazal’s equally true-to-life and equally harrowing CANOA from that same year..,. but that’s another story.
Okay, back to William Grefé. Shooting in inexpensive black and white and relying on rural Florida (specifically the town of Davie, carved out of the Everglades at the turn of the 20th Century and known for many years for its ranches and western feel; it was for a time the home of a cowboy theme park, Pioneer City) to sub for central Mexico, Grefé and his crew banged out a feature length account of these events in only ten days. If it seems a fool’s errand on Grefé’s part to even attempt something so ambitious given his general lack of wherewithal, it bears mentioning that he profited immensely from the Cuban diaspora that landed, largely in Florida, with the ouster of Cuban president Battista in January 1959 and Fidel Castro’s Soviet-backed Communist takeover. (Velia Martinez, who plays the more sadistic of the sisters here and appears on the cover of the Ballyhoo DVD, had contributed a small role to the Havana-shot Errol Flynn vehicle THE BIG BOODLE in 1957.) A generally more artful filmmaker than he has ever gotten credit for being, Grefé maximizes his production value by playing the true crime tale up close, by keeping his setups tight, personal, claustrophobic. Though the film unravels somewhat leisurely as brothel survivor Teresa (Sharon Saxon) recounts her tale of terror at the hands of the Devil’s Sisters, the film’s second and third acts become an endurance test as Teresa and her fellow sex slaves are brutalized and even murdered to satisfy the sexual inclinations of the local men and various elected officials. In the film’s standout scene, one of the girls (Nora Alonzo) makes a desperate run from her captors, only to be run down by pickup truck and dumped into a shallow grave, where she is — while still exhibiting signs of life — doused with gasoline and set on fire as an example to the others. Coming almost an hour into a film in which violence has been sporadic and to this point mild to moderate, this grim setpiece dials up the tension all the way and THE DEVIL’S SISTERS maintains that level of horror straight through to the finish.
Some perspective is in order. Though women being held captive and menaced by all manner of villains is a conceit far older than cinema, 1966 was a bit early for this level of extreme (implied) violence in American films. One thinks of the brutality visited upon Arlene Francis by Bela Lugosi in Universal’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) but the Production Code that kicked in around 1936 put paid to more specific forms of violence, particularly those of a sexual nature, sanitizing Hollywood product for the next thirty years. As grindhouse maven Chris Poggiali points out in his excellent liner notes, black and white was often used by filmmakers beyond the standardization of Eastmancolor to put over unpalatable material – think the Holocaust scenes of Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER (1964), the shotgun murders of Richard Brooks’ IN COLD BLOOD (1967), and the cannibal assaults of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) to see how neatly THE DEVIL’S SISTERS fits this categorization. Watching Nora Alonzo run for her life down a dirt road in the dark put me in the mind of Cloris Leachman’s brief, unforgettable bit in Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), whose torture scene is so much demure than what goes on here) and subsequent scenes of flight and agony anticipate moments in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974). No, THE DEVIL’S SISTERS is not remotely a horror film, but it achieves a pulse of true emotional horror by keeping its violence personal to the victims, allowing us to dread, to flinch, and to recoil as they do, to feel every blow, every lash, every corporal insult. Nothing the villainous sisters do is remotely Satanic in a ritualistic sense and where THE DEVIL’S SISTERS really scores is in how it shows these horrors to be institutionalized, acculturated, permitted, and even sanctioned by a Catholic country and its leaders, whose sense of hardwired propriety allows them to shrug off the torture of so-called fallen women as a hell of their own making. Sadly, THE DEVIL’S SISTERS is as timely today as the time at which it was made, and perhaps even more so, with the potential triple digit body count of the missing maquiadores in the border factory town Ciudad Juarez.
Okay, here’s where it gets a little weird. Seventy-odd minutes into THE DEVIL’S SISTERS, as protagonist Teresa makes her own desperate scramble for sanctuary and is chased through the swamps by one of the sisters’ hulking hirelings, the viewer becomes aware of what sounds like a film projector, that distinctive playing-cards-in-the-spokes whirring that should be familiar to anyone old enough to remember high school A/V club. Suddenly, a blotch of blood-orange appears to the periphery and the image begins to burn!
The image literally melts away before the viewer’s eyes and then stepping into the frame…
… is Bill Grefé, who explains that while most of the elements for THE DEVIL’S SISTERS – unseen in any format for over forty years — were recently rediscovered, the climactic 8 minutes are still M.O.A. Offering apologies but boundless and infectious enthusiasm, Grefé outlines the ending he shot, employing cutaways to the shooting script, to production stills…
… and contemporary storyboards that provide a satisfying sense of how the film ended in the cinemas.
I came to my viewing of THE DEVIL’S SISTERS knowing nothing of this caveat and I have to tell you my enjoyment and appreciation of the feature remained undiminished by the missing coda. It’s entirely within the character of Bill Grefé to tell you the story himself, in a big and exciting way (lacking the budget for squibs, he used real bullets during the shootout that brings the film to its conclusion) and I’m able to give Ballyhoo Motion Pictures’ DVD my full recommendation. Packaged with the feature, and in addition to Chris Poggiali’s useful historical essay, are a feature length director’s audio commentary, a 9m making-of featurette, a stills gallery of 16 images, and a 12s radio trailer for the 1968 K. Gordon Murray re-release (as SISTERS OF THE DEVIL). This is an impressive solo debut for Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, who have produced some splendid supplemental materials for such DVD releases as TWINS OF EVIL, DARK STAR, Grefé’s STANLEY and the recent HAMMER HOUSE OF HORRORS collection, as well as an important bit of recovery work shining daylight on yet another beguiling exploitation gem that spent far too many years between the cracks.
Click here to order your copy of THE DEVIL’S SISTERS!
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