The Wynorski Project
Big Bad Mama II
In last week’s review I described the strange disappointment I felt when I discovered I actually enjoyed the experience of watching Jim Wynorski’s first two films, since the whole purpose of this project is to eventually justify my ultimately negative views of his work. Watching Big Bad Mama II, it became clear that this happy-goodtime-peace train was about to be derailed, but having spent a couple of hours thinking about the film, I have to admit that as flawed as it is—and it’s flawed to the point of being terrible—its failure is ultimately not Wynorski’s fault.
The truth is that even a much more innately talented and gifted filmmaker than he would likely not have been able to overcome the simple truth that this is a film that has no good reason to exist.
Though I was only 12 when this sequel was made, I can state with some certainty that there wasn’t a clamoring cry for the story of Big Bad Mama’s Wilma McClatchie to continue on in further adventures. In fact, if anyone discussed that film at all, it was only to reference Angie Dickinson’s full frontal nude scene, which everyone seemed to agree was the only reason the movie had been successful when it first came out in 1974.
This was significant because in the intervening 13 years, Dickinson had done what every other person who was 43 in 1974 did: She turned 56. While still attractive enough to be one of your parents’ hotter friends, her naked years had passed her by, robbing the sequel of the original’s only true raison d’etre.
That and there was the somewhat inescapable fact that at the end of the first movie, Wilma was pretty clearly dead.
But, despite these two very good reasons not to make BBMII, Roger Corman had what he thought was an equally good reason to get the sucker on film as soon as he could:
In the same way he would later capitalize on the public’s desire for dinosaur-amok movies by getting Carnosaur into video stores while Jurassic Park was still in theaters, Corman clearly hoped that he could ride a possible wave of depression era gangster pictures by quickly making a sequel to one of his genre-appropriate older hits. It would simply be up to whomever he assigned to make the picture to deal with the two major handicaps described above.
Obviously, our man Wynorski got the gig and he solved the no-naked-Dickinson problem by casting two really hot blondes as her daughters and removing their clothes instead. The dead protagonist problem, though, was a harder nut to crack, so he chose a far less elegant solution to get past it—he ignored the ending of the first movie and didn’t even attempt to explain what had happened or how the now living Wilma had managed to age more than a decade in just the two years that separated the plots of the two movies.
One solution Wynorski might have explored would have been to simply remake the original and pass it off as a sequel, but the film he ended up making has much more in common with another Corman Mama picture, Crazy Mama, than anything else. In this 1975 Jonathan Demme movie (which I reviewed here for Flick Attack), the child who would grow up to become Cloris Leachman watches as her father is brutally gunned down by corrupt sheriffs sent to evict her family from their land at the behest of a greedy banker who enjoys the mayhem from the comfort of his expensive car.
BBMII begins with Dickinson’s very much alive Wilma witnessing the murder of her husband at the hands of corrupt sheriffs sent to evict her family from their land at the behest of a greedy banker who enjoys the mayhem while standing in front of his expensive car.
From there the similarities between the two films are more coincidental than explicit, but the opening scenes are so similar it’s hard to assume the second wasn’t directly inspired by the first.
After the death of her husband (who managed to completely avoid being in the first movie) Wilma enlists her two buxom blond daughters in a life of crime, robbing banks with the ultimate goal of destroying the banker-cum-governor-wannabe responsible for making her a widow. Along the way she meets up with an ambitious reporter (Robert Culp) who hopes to turn her into a national sensation, and kidnaps the handsome son of her nemesis, who promptly falls in love with her youngest daughter. Blood is shed, breasts are bared, stuff explodes and there are happy endings for everyone who deserves one.
Made for $1.2 million, BBMII had a generous budget for an 80s Corman movie, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough to properly mount a period gangster movie. Yet, despite this, the film’s most glaring anachronism isn’t anything we see onscreen, but the entire film itself. While depression era gangster pictures were a mainstay of 70s drive-in exploitation cinema, fueled by the popular and critical success of the previous decade’s Bonnie and Clyde, by 1987 they were no longer relevant in an age of slasher movies, sword and sorcery adventures, erotic thrillers and sci-fi Alien and Road Warrior rip-offs.
This is further acerbated by the film’s cinematography, which lacks the grainy quality that made the 70s depression films seem so authentic despite their budgetary constraints. Given all of this, BBMII might have actually benefited from Wynorski’s traditional irreverence, but with the exception of a few lines of dialogue here and there, he plays the film uncharacteristically straight.
In past reviews I’ve suggested that one sign of a filmmaker’s indifference towards their script can be seen in their strange refusal to deviate from it even when doing so causes more problems than it fixes. In BBMII we see an example of this in the form of the love scene between Dickinson and Culp’s characters. It’s a scene that not only serves no important narrative purpose (save Corman’s formula mandated bare skin quota), but also completely derails the movie by forcing us to accept that the 56 year-old actress and 57 year-old actor somehow magically look like pornstars when shot from the neck down. It’s the kind of avoidable mistake that can only be made out of apathy rather than by accident.
That said, the film isn’t a complete disaster. While Dickinson is ultimately too mannered to deliver a satisfying performance, Culp is great and makes you wish the film had been about him instead. Bruce (Father of Crispin) Glover also proves to be a compelling villain, bringing a certain oily charisma to his sociopathic banker character. Best of all, though, are the two performances by Danielle Brisebois and Julie McCullough as Wilma’s voluptuous young daughters (“They haven’t grown up,” she complains at one point in the film, “they’ve grown out.”).
While neither is terribly convincing in their roles (they’re both far too healthy looking to properly sell “child of the depression”), together they manage to fill the film with what little joy it possesses. McCullough, who is best-remembered today for being fired from her recurring role on the family sitcom Growing Pains when her conservative born-again Christian co-star/love interest, Kirk Cameron, found out about her Playboy past and accused the show’s producers of being pornographers for casting her, has an undeniably appealing presence that has far more to do with her natural sunny-ness than her performing abilities. Brisebois, a former child actress from Archie Bunker’s Place, on the other hand is a little more grounded and earthy as the older sister, but she also brings far more heart to the role than the script deserves.
Still, they alone cannot rescue BBMII from the cold hard truth that it was a sequel no one asked for in an exploitation genre that was no longer relevant made by a director who clearly wasn’t invested in its potential success. Those are nearly impossible hurdles to overcome and the film doesn’t even come close to trying.
Best remembered as a strange footnote for all involved, Big Bad Mama II marks the first failure documented by The Wynorski Project. I suspect there will be many more to come.