On this date in 1965, Doris Wishman’s B-movie classic, Bad Girls Go to Hell, premiered in Fresno, California. Far from being a heartwarming Christmas story, Bad Girls is a drama of predators and prey in the big city. Testing the limits of good and bad taste, Wishman’s 65-minute feature observes the struggles of Meg Kelton (played by Gigi Darlene), a Boston housewife who is sexually assaulted by a neighbor in her apartment building. After killing her rapist during the fight to free herself, Meg runs off to New York, where she continues to be targeted by both men and women. Besides directing and producing this “roughie” (so named for the blend of violent and sexual content), Wishman also wrote the film.
In a 1986 interview with Andrea Juno for Incredibly Strange Films, when asked what Women’s Lib meant to her, Wishman stated that “women are coming into their own – if they can do a man’s job, I feel they should be paid for what they can do. But I don’t always think they can do a man’s job. But then, by the same token, a man can’t always do a woman’s job, so it sort of equalizes.” Wishman did not consider herself a feminist, and one can argue that Bad Girls Go to Hell does not tell a pro-feminism story, but Doris Wishman’s tenacity to succeed in her chosen career, a field dominated by men (many of whom worked with bigger budgets), inspires me every day. Furthermore, when Andrea Juno asked Doris Wishman if she liked her own films, Wishman replied: “Yes, otherwise I don’t make them. I have to think they’re marvelous, great, and wonderful, otherwise I don’t get involved. Of course they may not always turn out that way, but I have to feel that. It’s a challenge, it’s exciting, and I enjoy what I’m doing, and that’s very important.”
As in all of Wishman’s movies, she lingers on shots of feet and legs, one of her trademark tendencies. (Noted fetishist Quentin Tarantino has nothing on Doris for this particular interest.) She also makes good use of Central Park, which seems to have been her favorite place to film, apart from the neighborhood where she lived in Queens.
Two of the most iconic performers associated with Wishman’s mid-to-late-60s films are twin sisters Darlene and Dawn Bennett (Bad Girls’ star, Gigi Darlene, chose the last part of her stage name as a tribute to friend Darlene Bennett; the “Gigi” was in honor of the Vincente Minnelli-directed musical). Both twins appear in Bad Girls, but Dawn, who is not credited in the film’s cast list for some reason, has the bigger role as Della, a lesbian character who rents a room in her NYC apartment to Meg. Like many of the women who populate Wishman’s films from this era, Dawn Bennett’s closet includes lacy underthings, including catsuits.
I wish I knew what ever happened to the Bennett sisters, but finding out anything about them – even whether Darlene and Dawn Bennett were their real names – has been impossible so far. If anyone could help me out, that would be excellent!
Interior design is another noteworthy element of Doris Wishman’s cinematic style. Between the mid-60s and the 1980s, most (if not all) of her films involved scenes shot in her Queens apartment. However kitschy the decor may be, it’s all Doris’s doing.
Then, of course, there is the question of how Meg (who goes by the pseudonym “Ellen Green” when she comes to New York) deals with the troubles she faces. What’s a girl to do when she must constantly fend off unwanted, violent advances? Where can she go and avoid being groped and attacked by sleazy employers and landlords? Throughout the film, C. Davis Smith’s B&W cinematography lights Meg’s moments of uncertainty and turmoil to great (if occasionally disturbing) effect.
As Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen wrote about Bad Girls Go to Hell in June 2015: “All the Doris Wishman black and white films are like photo essays of another forever-lost time and place. The high contrast interiors, the shots of walking feet, the disembodied dialogue. Watching a Doris film is like turning page after page of an imaginary Diane Arbus book documenting the struggles of a young woman in the world of plaid-suited, cigar smoking, completely disgusting men. This is my favorite of her films, and a good place to start.”