I’ve come to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as my childhood “bad” movie training wheels. It’s a crutch I no longer need to enjoy my Z-grade schlock, thanks to years of training under the tutelage of the show. As much as I appreciate that schlocky schooling, it often bums me out that the show has become an unavoidable authority on many of the public domain B-pictures they’ve covered, to the point where if you google the picture most immediate results will be jokes the sarcastic robots made about it. The early Roger Corman directorial effort Swamp Women (also known as Cruel Swamp and, on MST3k, Swamp Diamonds) is one such picture, which is unfortunate because I find the movie interesting enough on its own terms to not need the distraction of MST3k’s commentary diluting it. It’s a difficult position to defend, though, since Swamp Women hits so many of my personal obsessions as a trash-gobbling movie nerd. A cheapo Roger Corman crime picture about cop-hating “bad girls” misbehaving in Louisiana swamps, Swamp Women hits about as close to home as possible to my specific cinematic interests without including drag, witchcraft, pro wrestling, or outer space. The film is far from a knockout, but it is very much my thing. It’s easy to see how someone who’s not a New Orleans-based trash hound could need a little extra help from MST3k to make its basic premise enticing, but those days are long behind me.
An undercover police woman conspires with a prison warden to infiltrate a locked-up girl gang. The plan is to trick the girls into exposing their stash of stolen diamonds. She helps the hardened criminals stage a jail break (with only performative resistance from the warden) and, in return, they allow her to tag along in recovering the diamonds from their deep swamp hiding pace. Along the way they capture an innocent couple touring the Louisiana wilderness, reducing the cast to five women and one tied-up man – an indication of the level of sleaze that persists throughout. Swamp Women is incredibly faithful to its “bad girls” crime template, entirely obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a genre that would be later perfected in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. What it lacks in narrative innovation, though, it more than makes up for in how perfectly cool its central girl gang comes across onscreen. When they first break out of jail they have two immediate concerns: regret that they didn’t get a chance to shoot back at the cops and how soon they’ll be able to find “something decent to wear and some lipstick.” They look incredible even as they pick fights & trudge through the gator-infested swamp, sporting perfectly coiffed hair, razor sharp Joan Crawford eyebrows, and gigantic knives holstered in tight blue jeans. There’s nothing the film can manage to stage plot-wise that can match the pleasure of hanging out with these badass women, something that’s practically admitted aloud in an absurdly long sequence where they get drunk to brunch jazz and convert their tight jeans to cutoff hot pants with their comically large knives. Corman only barely pretends that out interests & sympathies aren’t supposed to lie with these degenerate women, but with the undercover cop who’s there to take them down. Why bother?
Because Swamp Women is so genre-faithful, its most distinguishing characteristic is its choice of locale, something even heavily referenced in its (unenthused) contemporary reviews. This was only Corman’s fifth directorial effort (in his second year of filmmaking, because he’s a beast), so he was still at a stage in his career when he was personally traveling the country selling his films directly to distributors. Around this time, New Orleans had just opened its first drive-in movie theaters, the owners of which were also interested in getting into film production. Corman gladly took their money, filming Swamp Women on location in Louisiana (and thanking New Orleans mayor deLesseps Morrison in the credits for the city’s cooperation). Because it was a Corman production, the actors were required to perform their own stunts in the actual Louisiana swamp, putting themselves in danger of the same gators & snakes the movie itself uses as thrilling threats to its misbehaving girl gag. I’m sure it was a miserable shoot, but the gator footage & moss-decorated trees really do make for a more interesting backdrop than a sound stage or urban environment ever could have (even if the live gators and their intended victims never do share a single frame). In my favorite example of the film padding its own runtime, Corman also opens this 70min feature with roughly ten minutes of touristy, people-watching Mardi Gras footage. Playing documentarian, Corman captures the 1950s Krewe of Rex rolling down Canal Street (in color!), followed by masked revelers—all looking exactly the same as they would in the 2010s (except with maybe fewer outright racist costumes, which are featured front & center here). Even if the movie’s bad-girls-gone-worse plot holds little interest for you, the footage of 1950s Louisiana might be enough to make the film worthwhile.
With or without the MST3k commentary, I cannot issue an open recommendation for Swamp Women, an exceedingly minor trifle of a picture. I can only report that I was personally charmed by its depictions of cop-hating “bad girls” on a swampy crime spree and fascinated by its inadvertently documentarian record of a 1950s Louisiana. Maybe this is the exact kind of minor pleasure that deserves to be remembered only through the MST3k lens, but I personally found enough to enjoy in the film on its own to not need the sarcastic robots to hold my hand through it. Other schlock-hungry reprobates with any personal affinity with Corman and/or New Orleans have a chance of feeling the same.