Is ‘Bitch Slap’ empowerment or exploitation?


Following the year-end onslaught of high-class commercial releases and ritzy awards-competitive films, it is easy to feel the need for something basic, less rigorous and more freewheeling -- a cinematic sorbet, as it were, a palate-cleanser along the lines of the retro-exploitation homage “Bitch Slap.”

Directed by Rick Jacobson, who co-wrote the script with Eric Gruendemann (with both credited as producers), “Bitch Slap” opens Friday at the Nuart in Los Angeles as well as in New York City, San Francisco and on video-on-demand.

Three women (played by Erin Cummings, America Olivo and Julia Voth), each with a distinct personality and the wardrobe to match, find themselves in a remote desert hideaway with a male hostage who is to disclose the location of a cache of extremely valuable diamonds. As various intrigues and entanglements are revealed and a series of flashbacks unravel the convoluted back story that put them all there, the women fight one another and assorted arriving interlopers.

Fists are thrown, bullets fly, blood is spilled, skirts are torn, and it all goes down with an affectionate in-on-the-joke wink signaled right from the opening credits, which feature movie clips including Joan Crawford and Pam Grier, and from such exploitation classics as “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and “They Call Her One Eye.”

“The germ of the idea was all about knowing it had to be low budget, and all these things started falling into place,” explained Jacobson of the genesis of “Bitch Slap” while adding that he and Gruendemann are among the film’s investors as well.

“It was born out of the need to be an easy sell,” he said, “an absolute home run. And that means just making a list: beautiful women, action, explosions, limited locations, no nights, not a big cast. And we just filled in these things, and out of that came three girls go off to the desert with a guy in the trunk looking for something and get in a lot of trouble.”

“We also wanted to have fun, and we wanted to make a movie we wanted to see,” Gruendemann added.

When it comes to rowdy, crowd-pleasing films, Jacobson and Gruendemann know their stuff. “Bitch Slap” is the 15th feature directed by Jacobson, who started his career making films for legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman. Gruendemann once worked for genre producer Charles Band before moving on to work with director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert in a variety of production roles. Jacobson and Gruendemann met when they were both working on the television series “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

The pair’s experience in low-budget filmmaking gets a digital-age tweak in their decision to shoot “Bitch Slap” in essentially two locations -- one a real-life desert locale, the other a green-screen soundstage that allowed them to create a series of exotic destinations, including snow-capped mountain tops and a busy Las Vegas street, in postproduction.

“We had a big appetite for what we wanted,” said Gruendemann of the decision to work with digital environments as in “Sin City” or “300.” “We realized we could do hyper-real stuff and accept the outrageousness of the situation.”

As for what all of this cost them, they allow that it is more than $1 million and less than $10 million, or as Gruendemann puts it, “less than ‘Avatar’ and more than ‘Avatar’s’ craft services budget. We think.”

To serve as fight choreographer and stunt coordinator, Jacobson and Gruendemann turned to Zoë Bell. Known to many audiences for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” Bell had also previously worked as a stunt double on “Xena,” where she met Jacobson and Gruendemann.

Bell is also credited in “Bitch Slap” as “Everyone’s Double” (alongside Sabine Varnes with the credit “Everyone Else’s Double”), and with the way certain shots are edited together, Bell is actually seen fighting herself.

“I think Zoë adds a level of brassiness to the film,” said actress Cummings, “and was able to incorporate things in the fight scenes that a man would just never think of or would certainly not have the guts to do. When she says, ‘grab her [ breast] and then punch her in the face,’ you’re not sure a dude would think of that.”

Everyone involved in the movie is quick to declare it a female empowerment story -- Jacobson and Gruendemann both have daughters, after all -- despite (or perhaps because of) the gratuitous women-only water fight, glamorized female-on-female sex scenes, stripping, stilettos and bountifully heaving cleavage. In practically the same breath, Jacobson declares the R-rated “Bitch Slap” a “girl-power film” while extolling that it features “the greatest chick fight in cinema history.”

“We wanted to sort of play with the audience,” said Gruendemann. “Are you watching an empowerment film or are you just watching a straight exploitation film? You be the judge.”

The film has nevertheless had support from perhaps unlikely corners. The same month that Olivo appeared on the cover of Playboy to promote the film, “Bitch Slap” was also featured on the cover of the magazine Lesbian News.

But that may all be over-thinking it. At its core, “Bitch Slap” is meant to be harmless, high-spirited fun. As Jacobson noted, “This is two guys looking across the table at each other and saying, ‘Let’s make our own . . . movie.’ ”