Whenever a modern-day filmmaker attempts to “recreate” a dormant film genre, the question of “why” inevitably hangs over the entire proceedings. Even reconstructions as pedigreed as Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven ultimately have to defend the value of fastidiously replicating a moribund cinematic style or type of story against those who (sometimes justifiably) view the entire enterprise as one of cinephilic masturbation. Without altering its formal and narrative characteristics, can the simulation of an older genre be of value to anyone besides those who enjoyed/fetishized it in the first place?
It’s a worthwhile question, though the answer would be a resounding “no” if the only case study were Bitch Slap, Rick Jacobson’s wearisome throwback to such B-movie classics as Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Jacobson and co-screenwriter Eric Gruendemann aren’t quite as slavishly faithful to their source material as, say, Haynes was to the Douglas Sirk melodramas that inspired Far from Heaven. The film’s sledgehammer aesthetic and flashback-riddled script reflect more modern—and, in their own way, more dubious—cinematic origins than Meyer’s boobs-and-bullets exploitation flicks. Still, Bitch Slap seemingly remains most interested in rekindling the disreputable pleasures of ‘60s-era B movies, copying everything from the overcooked patter that flies between its three scantily clad female protagonists to the bone-crunching climatic catfights.
But Jacobson misreads those earlier works when he fills Bitch Slap with leering elongated wet T-shirt water fights and bed-thumping lesbian sex scenes. It’s not that Meyer & Co. weren’t interested in, shall we say, highlighting the female form. The best of these movies, however, did so in a way that balanced prurience with a deranged sincerity and lightness of touch, pushing the male fantasies at their core in enjoyably crazy directions. In contrast, Bitch Slap‘s groping close-ups and girl-on-girl acrobatics have all the zing of a Skinemax throwaway. Jacobson may think that a few split-screens qualify these scenes as tongue-in-cheek homage, but these feeble flourishes only underline how disconnected Bitch Slap feels from true B-move delights.
If the film’s half-baked salaciousness feels merely risible, its slapdash screenplay and cheapo look make it something that its generic forbearers rarely were: boring. The film drops us in media res into the desert, where we find naïve stripper Trixie (Julia Voth) surrounded by exploding gas cans and wondering aloud how it all came to this. We cut to earlier that day, when Julia, along with mysterious Hel (Erin Cummings) and crazed Camero (America Olivo), attempted to get scummy criminal Gage (Michael Hurst) to tell them where a large stash of diamonds has been buried. Through further flashbacks, we piece together the scheme’s background, which quickly devolves into a series of double and triple crosses. Like almost everything in Bitch Slap, these narrative curlicues come wrapped in several layers of protective ironic quotations. The effect is a kind of smart-alecky distance from the material, inviting us to laugh at the genre rather than exploring what made it appealing in the first place. But this goes old pretty quick, leaving us to slog through a needlessly-protracted denouement that reveals the secrets to a plot we’ve been trained to dismiss as a campy joke. And while it feels disingenuous to complain too much about the presumably low-budget Bitch Slap‘s crummy-looking CGI backdrops, one senses the same anything-goes tolerance of mediocrity that can be felt in the script: that a B-movie retread can look crappy because, hey, didn’t they all?
No, they didn’t, and it makes one wonder why Jacobson and Co. felt the need to dip into a cinematic tradition of which they seem to hold a relatively condescending view. The sole bright spots come from the lead actresses, who do their best to sell the screenplay’s failed bitch-tastic dialogue (references to same-sex lovemaking as “bashing gash” gives you a sense of the film’s overall comedic tone). Olivo, in particular, has some nicely demented moments once her pill-popping Camero flies off the deep end, channeling some of the nutso energy of Tura Satana in Faster, Pussycat! But such stray moments cannot save a project either unable or unwilling to embrace the live-wire essence of the genre it claims to be channeling.