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.

Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]

Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]

Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]      Female karate cham­pi­on Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) goes to the Philippines to look for her sis­ter who has dis­ap­peared. She stum­bles upon a drug cartel and a tour­na­ment of no-holds-barred fights to the death in the action-packed Firecracker. Directed by gen­re spe­cial­ist Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson) and costar­ring Vic Diaz (The Big Bird Cage) and Darby Hilton (Malibu Express).“They call me TNT,” mar­tial arts expert Diana Jackson (Jeanne Bell) announces upon her arrival in Hong Kong to look for her miss­ing broth­er. From there, she heads smack into what is known as the city’s worst area, a no-man’s-land that is a haven for drug deal­ers, thieves and killers. TNT does not know that her broth­er has been bru­tal­ly mur­dered by Charlie (Stan Shaw), an American who has set­tled in Hong Kong and is bent on inch­ing his way to the top of the city’s drug-smug­gling trade. But he has no idea what he’s up again­st when he tan­gles with dyna­mite in TNT Jackson!Contract killer Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro) accepts a mis­sion to kill a group of gang­sters in the Philippines, but prob­lems arise when she falls for the Manila detec­tive inves­ti­gat­ing the mur­ders. Director Don Schain, who was mar­ried to Caffaro, direct­ed her in sev­er­al films pri­or to Too Hot To Handle, includ­ing Ginger, Girls Are For Loving and The Abductors.