She Devils is a tale like many others told of rebel gangs on motorbikes causing trouble in a small town with their petty crime and their drinking, fighting, and fucking. But this time the traditional gender roles have been flipped. Many later films have done the same but this is arguably the first. Filmed and released in 1968 this story pre-dates attempts by Hollywood to tackle themes of female rebelliousness such the loathsome Thelma and Louise. One of the many reasons why She Devils is truly original.
The Man Eaters are an all-girl biker gang who won’t take any crap from a man, even if he does have a uniform and a badge. He’s still just a hunk of meat to be chewed up and spat out. This gang, of course, has its leader and lesser rivals struggling for power. But ‘Queenie’ (Betty Connell) rules her gang with a swinging belt chain and when it comes off, you know someone is about to get whipped into line. Tensions caused by gang rivalry are defused by racing one another on a disused landing strip. The winner has first pick of the ‘stud line’, a bunch of male groupies who hang around the Man-Eaters ‘club house’, waiting and hoping to be picked from the line-up by anyone but the big and tough Man-Eater, ‘Whitey’. Once the girls have chosen their play-thing for the night, the scene quickly becomes a hilarious fully-clothed orgy. People writhe around the floor uncontrollably and occasionally somebody will remove a t-shirt. We are treated to several of these orgy scenes, but what’s important about them is that you feel the sense of fun and playful innocence that runs throughout. Even though unconvincingly, these men are being dominated and used, then cast aside.
Being in a gang is all about fitting in, so when one of the girls stands out from the pack, inevitably there’s trouble. And when she breaks the gang’s code and picks the same guy from the stud-line for several nights, Queenie’s discipline comes swiftly and in cruel fashion. She is punished for having feelings for a man, beyond the purely carnal and is forced to drag the skin off her ‘sweetheart’ by tying him to the back of her motor bike then drive around their regular racing circuit. This torture scene is brutal, but mild in comparison to the decapitation of Joe-Boy, leader of a rival gang of guys who just can’t stand to see a bunch of chicks doing what they want, and getting away with it.
A turf war over the racing strip soon takes place and the car-racing men confront the man eaters with their macho posturing, only to be violently beaten then humiliated, stacked-up Abu Ghraib style, and finally urinated on. The guys later take their revenge through the kidnap and torture of the Man-Eaters’ mascot and youngest member, Honeypot. But the Man-Eaters will have the last laugh. What is uniquely refreshing about this film for it’s time – the girls don’t face retribution for their actions which is typically the case for girls who are promiscuous and break the rules – the righteous payback just doesn’t happen.
Although most exploitation and genre films are dominated by themes and images from the blatantly sexist to the downright misogynistic, that cannot be said about the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The slow and spreading influence of this film is undeniable. It was groundbreaking for many reasons. Whether it’s the (sometimes convincing) portrayal of women dominating men, or the depiction of sado-machoism long before it was used to sell perfume and handbags. This film and the kinky fetishism of Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussy Cat, Kill Kill certainly inspired a new way women were to be represented on film. In some later exploitation films, particularly in the blacksploitation genre, chicks who were tough, sexy, streetwise, and damn well knew all men were scum, were a new but rare kind of hero. This is arguably the film that started it all.