UNHOLY ROLLERS 1972
Directed by Vernon Zimmerman Written by Howard Cohen and Vernon Zimmerman Cinematography by Mike Shea
Claudia had made appearances in several less than noteworthy films up to this Roger Corman produced Cult Classic. This was to be the first picture where she would be asked to carry the film based on her beauty, physical ability and acting. She had to audition for the role, and won Corman over with her ability to improvise scenes. As Corman told me later, she got the part for 50% the way she looked in the uniform and 50% for her acting.
Unholy Rollers is a subversive little gem, as it takes aim at sexual harassment, the class struggle, and shows us how the sub-proletariat live, away from the comfortable suburban life of the middle class.
The narrative follows the literal and figurative rise and fall of Karen Walker, from a worker in a canning factory to Roller Derby Queen. Many critics wrote that Claudia played the role of a tough, take no shit from nobody, tough broad with astounding accuracy and flair. I saw her performance as something else entirely; a woman whose family abandoned her, one that is sexually harassed by men and women, and has no resources except her own ambitions and courage.
Karen is working at a canning factory, and when we first see her, the supervisor is bitching out the hapless woman because she went above his lecherous head for a raise. He then grabs a handful of her ass as he walks away, telling her they discuss her raise in private, later. As revenge, Karen set the conveyor belt to "real frigging fast" and pretty soon, cans and cat food are flying all over the place. Karen quits and goes looking for alternative employment.
She spies an ad for the local Roller Derby team, The Avengers, and is hired. The owner explains the rules to her, emphasing that being a team player and conforming are the most important things. That night, Karen, breaks the rules, by showing up her teammates and showing off herself. This delights the fans and the team's owner but pisses off the rest of the squad. And what a team. Exploitation queens such as Roberta Collins and Betty Anne Rees (who plays Karen's rival Mickey) make up a bi-sexual, drug addled group of bad-asses who start hassling Claudia ASAP.
After being stripped and assaulted on a pool table in an appropriately sleazy bar after a game, Karen is rescued by one of the male skaters, Nick (Jay Varela). They ride around on his motorcycle, shoot guns and make love on the infield of the roller derby rink. Typical first date.
Later, Karen discovers Nick is married, which doesn't deter her from sleeping with him.
Wealth and fame come Karen's way as she becomes theAvengers most popular star. However, the higher her star ascends, the more Karen alienates her friends, teammates and owner. When a new player is brought in to give Karen her comeuppance, our Roller Derby Queen inches closer to the edge.
In the climatic scene that ends the film, Karen takes on everyone- the opposing team,her team, spectators, and when the action spills out of the arena, pedestrians also feel her wrath.
Some interesting production notes, the crisp editing and exciting cuts of the Roller Derby action was supervied by none other than Martin Scorcese. Claudia did most of her skating and stunts, setting her up to be the preeminent Action star of the 70s in such films as 'Gator Bait, Truck Stop Women, Sisters of Death, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase and Deathsport. Claudia's boyfriend at the time, Bobby Hart, was the film's music supervisor.
When production wrapped the Roller Derby professionals Corma hired to star in the film thought so much of Claudia, that they presented her with a set of bronzed roller skates .
The overall professionalism of the movie, the excellent cast of B and exploitation pros, and the social commentary set Unholy Rollers apart from most drive-in fare. There is an important scene when Karen, after she's hit the big time, tries to reconcile with her mother (played by the always great, Kathleen Freeman). Her gesture is rejected by mom and Karen drives away heartbroken, showing us perhaps Karen is not as tough a cookie as we think.