Kitten with a Whip is one of the creamiest B-movie teensploitation tricks, but, like practically all others of its ilk, deep down in its calculated, studio-affiliated heart, it hates teenagers’ guts. With a vehemence that would make the Cecil B. DeMille who pulled the walls of the Red Sea down on the Pharoah’s army suggest mediation, director Douglas Heyes sets up Ann-Margret (fresh off of bopping to Bye Bye Birdie and frugging to Viva Las Vegas) to tear her claws into the role of Jody, a two-faced blond lynx who busts out of juvie and dens up in a random suburban abode. And tear into the role she does, especially when she finds out the house she’s squatting in belongs to David Stratton (John Forsythe), a spineless Senate hopeful whose sensible, G-O-Pretty wife just happens to be out of town for the weekend. Putting the squeeze on the poor sap (but not before tricking him into sympathizing with her plight), Ann-Margaret’s Jody spits jailbait quips, slips into his wife’s fine washables, bats her bedroom eyelashes, and ferally informs him she has no intentions of being thrown back out into the alley. The more Stratton struggles against his good-times interloper, the deeper he digs himself into a hole. It isn’t two stalled phone calls to the authorities before Jody’s worked out an entire rape scenario to blackmail him into compliance. And then she calls her hepcat crew out to the scene.
Like The Beatniks, Hot Rods to Hell, The Violent Years, The Delinquents, and even later, bloodier incarnations like Class of 1984, Kitten with a Whip is an exercise in reverse-ageist vampirism, wherein the youth and vitality of its cast is drawn and then turned around and used against them. This might be the most spectacularly self-defeating flick in the whole wild bunch, since a still notably green Ann-Margaret is only too willing to degrade herself, lashing out at every juicy moment of tension with eye-rolling, tongue-lashing hysteria. Her contralto is out of control, her hips refuse to be confined to one axis of movement, her hair shifts with her violent temper like a sea anemone.
Ann-Margaret’s performance is like a rambunctious asterisk to Susan Sontag’s essay published the same year, a collection of thesis statements so notorious I needn’t name it in this context. But ultimately Ann-Margaret is betrayed by her writer-director and the genre she thought she could use as her own ill-tempered playground, specifically because both are so baldly antipathetic toward the full bloom of youth. (The movie’s best and most sarcastic line goes to a mod philosophy dropout who, after being slashed with a razor blade, sneers “I’m dying in a rush.”) Robbed of even the cut-rate nobility that the purest, most naïve camp can usually claim, Kitten with a Whip is a sleeper cell, feigning juvenile delinquency when it’s really a sop to the squares who can’t trust anyone who feels “so shiny good about you.”
Kitten with a Whip will play at the Anthology Film Archives on February 4, introduced by John Waters. For more information, click here.