Before the nature of modern film distribution crowded out the regional independents, there were filmmakers who built entire careers directing independent films in their own home states. William Grefe is a strong example: working primarily in Florida, he cranked out an array of drive-in staples in a variety of genres. The Devil’s Sisters comes from early in his career direct and shows he was already comfortable with delivering the exploitative goods necessary for a regional film career in the pre-Sundance era.
The film’s plotline, derived from a real news story, is set in Mexico with Davie, Florida substituted (fairly effectively) for its south of the border locales. The local police are called into a village where an exhausted, battered young woman named Teresa (Sharon Saxon) waits for them. Local cop Antonio (Fred Pinero) dismisses her as a prostitute but the defensive townfolk insist he and his superiors hear her tale of woe. It is revealed that Antonio was once her boyfriend and when he got too aggressive with her, she fled to the city looking for work.
Unfortunately, Teresa descends from the frying pan into the fire. She is forced into to prostitution by manipulative madam Rita (Anita Crystal) and her rape-happy henchmen. When Rita finds out that Antonio – who happens to be a customer – knows who Teresa is, she is shipped off to a farm of “lost women” run by Rita’s sister, Carmen (Velia Martinez). All the women there are treated like animals with only death or slavery in their future. The only way out is an escape but any desperate attempt will involve suffering on both sides.
Despite working under the constraints of pre-ratings code film censorship, The Devil’s Sisters still manages to pack a sleazy wallop. The script, penned by Grefe with John Nicholas, wastes no time in rolling out the story’s sordid elements and continues upping the ante, culminating in a third act that is brutal as it is tense. It’s also careful to seed the storyline with details that will please exploitation buff, like the horse stable-style accommodations the lost women stay in and a torture known as the “royal marriage bed.”
As director, Grefe invests the film with a straightforward sense of mise en scene that pushes the melodrama to the fore and makes effective use of black-and-white photography to achieve a noirish effect. The performances are probably the weakest link here – virtually all the bit roles get either wooden or hammy performances – but Martinez and Crystal make an effective evil-sister duo and Saxon digs into her character’s ever-increasing level of suffering with gusto.
The overall effect The Devil’s Sisters achieves is like an early ’60s roughie crossed with a particularly overheated telenovela – and if that description piques your interest, you’re very likely to enjoy it. Grefe would go onto bigger, splashier exploitation hits in the ’70s like Stanley and Mako: The Jaws Of Death but his work here shows he knew how to make an economical, effective b-movie without the resources of a major studio.