TOO HOT TO HANDLE: A Final Bow For A Ruling Couple Of The Grindhouse
Knowing the films of Cheri Caffaro and her director Don Schain is the kind of thing that separates the veterans from the newcomers in the world of exploitation film. This onetime wife/husband duo rocked the b-movie world during the first half of the 1970’s with a string of films built around the character of Ginger, a tough broad who used her smarts and her body to solve kinky cases. These films had a distinctive blend of smut, kink and violence that played like a men’s paperback novel brought to life and they made an exploitation icon out of the memorably uninhibited Caffaro.
Ginger was retired after 1973’s Girls Are For Loving and Caffaro and Schain would be out of the eroticized adventure flick business by the decade’s end. However, they had one last sexy superwoman left to spring on the exploitation movie crowd. This creation went by the name of Samantha Fox and her lone cinematic vehicle, Too Hot To Handle, is a worthy finale to the Caffaro/Schain schlock dynasty.
Caffaro is quite Ginger-esque as Fox, an independently wealthy woman who works as a hitwoman in Manila. A deliciously sleazy opening scene introduces us to her methods: like a black widow, she seduces her pray and then bumps them off during their most vulnerable moment. Without getting into too many spoilers, this opening setpiece involves a torture chamber, a fittingly kinky murder method and a slinky black leather dress designed by Caffaro herself (she designed all her costumes here). It’s 1970’s sleaze heaven, right down to the funky, lounge-with-synths music cues.
After that breathless opener, the plot kicks in: Fox gets her latest assignment, which involves three local gangsters who control different aspects of local crime. She starts working her way through her target list using various disguises and exotic methods of murder but things get complicated when local detective Domingo (Aharon Ipale) becomes suspicious of her. Of course, they fall into bed together and things get even trickier. She tries to stay one step ahead of her ever-more-suspicious lover as her targets get tougher to take down — and along the way, we learn why she got in the assassination business.
Too Hot To Handle is essentially the female James Bond movie that the Ginger series was working its way toward. It’s brash and colorful, with an “adult comic book” vibe to it. The Philippines was a great place for filmmakers to stretch a dollar so Schain really gets his money’s worth here: the film is full of country clubs, mansions and yachts that make an idyllic backdrop for the sex and violence. Its 1970’s vintage manifests itself in all sorts of superfly costumes, especially on Caffaro, and also a great spy movie-meets-blaxsploitation score by lounge/soundtrack cult fave Hugo Montenegro.
Schain further ups the comic book theatrics by using kitschy murder methods (one scene involves a beauty secret turned lethal) and deploying the split-screens that he uses so much in his other films — one multi-character car chase actually splits the screen into four mini-screens. He overreaches in places — Caffaro’s stabs at kung-fu could have used stronger choreography and one makeup-intensive disguise will inspire smirks — but his over-the-top excitement towards his material wins the day. He’s also not afraid to go for extremes that would make other directors blush: perhaps the best moment in this vein is a sex scene that’s intercut with a cockfight, with Caffaro shouting “Yes! Yes!” in both settings!
Finally, the actors approach it with the right sense of fun. Caffaro runs the show, breathlessly purring most of her lines in a come-hither tone. She looks like she’s having fun at all times, whether beating someone up or furiously grooving on a dance floor. She’s a perfect embodiment of drive-in feminism, which probably explains why this film got picked up for release by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Ipale plays it fairly straight as the cop hero, coming off kind of a like a Israeli version of George Hamilton. Elsewhere, the various villains camp it up with glee, especially John Van Dreelen as English closet-freak from the opening sequence. Fans of The Big Bird Cage will be happy to see its gay-guard duo, Vic Diaz and Subas Herrero, popping up here.
The one downside of Too Hot To Handle is that it was the only cinematic adventure for Samantha Fox (a pseudo-cliffhanger finish hints that Schain and company were ready to make more). It’s a shame that Caffaro never got to play this role again but she went out on a high note with this film. No one ever did “spying and sexing” the way she did.