Gator Bait

I try not to bring the real world on here too often, after all it's a blog for film and film, by definition, is a form of escapism but to celebrate my wonderful Christmas present from my better half (a beautiful Rosewood banjo) and the ten week class that accompanied it I'll be tipping my hat to Hixploitation cinema until the semester is over.  First up Claudia Jennings, who we lost far too soon...

Certificate: 18
Running time: 88 mins
Director: Beverly Sebastian, Ferd Sebastian
Starring:  Claudia Jennings, Bill Thurman, Tracy Sebastian
Genre: Action, Thriller, Hixploitation
Format: DVD
Country: USA

Husband and wife combo Beverly and Ferd Sebastian have clocked up some eleven films together as co-directors, sadly none since 1993 and with Ferd now being a minister it’s unlikely there’ll be a twelfth.  The most iconic being the 1974 Hixploitation Gator Bait starring Claudia Jennings.

Desiree Thibodeau (Jennings) provides for her sister and brother by poaching alligators from the swamp.  On one fateful day Deputy Billy (Clyde Ventura) and Ben lay in wait in the hope of catching her red handed and, with being faced with arrest and prosecution, providing them with some sexual release.  When Desiree puts up a fight Billy accidentally kills his friend.  Faced with dealing with his Sherriff Dad (Thurman) and Ben’s blood thirsty family he points the finger of blame at Desiree and in doing so makes her family a target.

Having cast Claudia Jennings in The Single Girls the decisions of the Sebastians to team up with her again in Gator Bait is a stroke of absolute genius.  Jennings always had a look that in the urban sprawl would seem unquantifiable but in the Louisiana swamp it becomes apparent what it is.  Jennings has a physicality that almost doesn’t belong to a woman of her beauty, it’s extremely animalistic and is necessary for the role.  Jennings has a lot of film to carry and it’s to her credit that she’s not only able to demand the same amount of on screen menace that the ten men combined who are hunting her but she actually has the presence of action stars twice her size.  Bill Thurman (as Sherriff Joe Bob) is great, he has the authoritative manner of a man who handles the wild redneck dogs that are the Bracken clan on a daily basis and though it goes unsaid he clearly deals with their misdemeanours the 'small town way'.  Leroy Bracken (Douglas Dirkson), for example, is a complete psychopath.  If it’s not apparent when he attempts to rape his own sister it highlighted and underlined during a delicately handled scene involving the Bracken brothers and Julie Thibodeau (Janit Baldwin).  Having endured a couple of sexual assaults by the brothers it’s Leroy’s turn who opts for the shotgun over his own member.  It’s to the credit of the directors that it’s handled sensitively and without any possible glorification.  There have been a few issues with glorified rape in Exploitation but the sensibilities of the Sebastians allow the audience to traverse the difficult narrative terrain.  Sam Gilman is arguably the finest piece of casting the film has.  As T.J (the Father of the Bracken boys) he has the toughest task cinematically as he needs to be the antagonist in the sense that he’s hunting Desiree yet at the same time he is the only man that can keep them (his sons) on a leash as his word is law and the Sherriff is little more than a way of legitimising their actions.  He also needs to be a match for Desiree in order to construct enough tension to propel the story forward.  This is something he has in abundance and is equally as animalistic as Jennings, though in different ways.  His large untamed red beard not only gives him the physical appearance of a beast but also is a representation of his character.  He too is self styled, untamed and wild.

The film is actually rather striking to watch, the Sebastians use the naturalistic surroundings of the swamp to sculpt the look of their film.  The use of reflective light on the water, the shadows and tree coverage all work towards creating the idea of catching someone out of the corner of your eye, something which the Bracken’s would no doubt experience throughout their hunt for Desiree.  The use of flares in the film is extremely intelligent and a lot more advanced than most people give Exploitation cinema credit for.  It goes without saying that the score is brilliant, it’s obvious that I love it as it’s heavy on banjo which is a must for Hixploitation and as a lifelong fan of the instrument it makes a real and deep emotional connection with me.

The story is a wonderfully simple one which is delivered extremely affectively and uses every second of tension it crafts.  The most remarkable thing about Gator Bait is the lasting impression it has made on cinema that it hasn’t been credited for.  It actually has a lot to say about sexual violence, prejudice and the stereotypical idea of the incestuous Southerners.  Visually and narratively there’s several large similarities between Gator Bait and First Blood¸ which would come out some eight years later and cement Sylvester Stallone’s position as one of the biggest action heroes to emerge out of Hollywood.  It’s been almost forty years since the film was made and it still has all of the emotional strength, tension and complexity it was made with.  A reminder, if you needed one, not to annoy the yocals in Gator country.


Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

This looks pretty sweet. I haven't done any Hixploitation in a while.

John Baxter said...

Yeah man it's excellent, there's some great Hixploitation out there.

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