William Shatner. Five syllables (I’ve counted them) that have kept me going through a week of Roger Corman DVDs seemingly designed to test my mental fortitude. One’s been terrible, The Unborn, which, like the sun, is best not to look directly at. Another, slightly less terrible, the straight-to-bargain-bin, karate-teaching private detective film Blackbelt, while the other has been the great-by-comparison-but-actually-still-not-that-good The Big Bird Cage.
So, knowing that Shatner has been waiting at the end of all of that is reassuring. Especially when it re-teams him with Corman, the two having first worked together on 1962’s The Intruder. A searing portrait of racism and bigotry in a small Southern town, it showcases one of Shatner’s most impressive performances as the stranger who comes to town intent on stoking up hatred. Forty-eight years on, he still hasn’t topped it. Although Airplane II: The Sequel comes very close.
But Big Bad Mama pulls a bit of a fast one in having Shatner take top billing. He doesn’t show up until the halfway mark, making this a film best enjoyed not necessarily by Shatner aficionados, but by those who like low budget 70s crime caper road movies. Which is to say it’s good, but not Shatner good.
Mixing the harsh violence of Bonnie And Clyde with the knockabout comedy of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and throwing in some added nudity for good measure, it makes for a diverting 81 minutes.
With Angie Dickinson in the lead, it’s also got a real movie star at its centre. She makes for a great Big Bad Mama, although she’s more bad than she is big, dragging her two wild daughters on a crime spree across Texas in 1932, but looking very good doing it. She swears a lot, kills anyone who gets in her way, and readily shacks up with Tom Skerritt’s rowdy bank robber after hijacking his swag.
The film latches on to this heady mix of attractive nude women, violence and chase sequences and doesn’t let go, repeating it over and over for the first 40 minutes. It’s more broken record than proper story, quickly losing its appeal despite the escalating body count and decreased clothing.
With Shatner’s arrival, however, Big Bad Mama breaks away from this enforced loop and actually becomes more enjoyable. Shatner, a well-to-do Southern conman, loves Mama. But so does Skerritt, who’s caught the eye of Mama’s daughter Billy Jean. And then gets the other daughter pregnant. While Mama jumps between the beds of Shatner and Skerritt. And the odd hostage isn’t left out either.
Tongue-in-cheek is the order of the day here. How else can you take a scene that has Shatner ravishing a naked Dickinson as enthusiastically as a man who’s suddenly found water after a week in the desert? Or another that has one daughter enjoying a bed with Skerritt, and then fetching her sister to join them because she’s feeling left out.
Taken on these not-too-serious merits, Mama is a great ride. Shatner is particularly good, Southern accent and all.
After spending the last few decades playing either himself or a parody of himself, it provides a welcome reminder that he can be a great character actor when called upon. Dickinson, too, makes the most of her role, embracing the silliness but also a deeper emotional note of a woman trying to protect her children. Even while they’re sleeping with her boyfriend.
Dick Miller, a Corman regular in the 50s and 60s, even pops up. It’s a film filled with minor pleasures, which together add up to a satisfying whole. hatner just makes it that little bit nicer.
You know the Roger Corman score by now. Just the film, with nothing on it.
The Film:The Disc:
Big Bad Mama is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.