While Ted V. Mikels is best known for his horror movies, he seemed most inspired when making action flicks, of which 1973 film The Doll Squad is the best – a low rent and often ludicrous effort that nevertheless is consistently entertaining and impressive. It’s easy to scoff at Mikels’ claim that the film was ripped off by Charlie’s Angels, but he might have a point – not only do the film and the TV series share a character name – Sabrina, not exactly the most common name out there – but also a basic premise, and there were probably not too many other films about teams of tough secret agent chicks being made at the time (the film would, arguably, also inspire later movies Hustler Squad and Hell Squad).
The Doll Squad are a group of female undercover operatives, led by Sabrina Kincaid (Francine York), who are called in by Victor Connelly (Anthony Eisley) when a US senator is being sent threats by an unknown terrorist, who wants access to secret microfilm. Sabrina and her team, which includes Tura Satana, soon find themselves under attack – a couple of members of the Squad are killed off early on in surprisingly brutal and gory attacks, and Sabrina herself only manages to escape by burning sleazy Herb Robbins’ face in a restaurant. It turns out that the terrorist is ex-CIA spy (and former lover of Sabrina) Eamon O’Reilly (Michael Ansara), now holed up on a remote island with an army of henchmen, leading to the Dolls launching a needlessly complicated mission to infiltrate and capture him. This inevitably fails, and the women are soon held captive as O’Reilly outlines his mission to release bubonic plague infected rats across the world – presumably to then extort money for the cure, though his plan frankly seems a little vague. But you can’t keep the Doll Squad down for long, and soon enough they have escaped and are blasting his rather inefficient if enthusiastic army to bits.
It would be easy to sneer at this film. It’s crudely shot, has pretty poor production values, terrible special effects (the explosions are incredibly shoddy opticals) and a plot that barely stands up to the mildest scrutiny – the contrivances, the giant holes in the story, the unexplained motivations and the thinly developed characters really should be the death of the film. That they are not says a lot about Mikels’ ability to entertain with very little. His enthusiasm, not to mention his sheer nerve, makes this a lot of fun, as the story defies you to find fault, and – when you do – simply shrugs its shoulders and carries on regardless. The early part of the film is perhaps a little sluggish, but throws in enough incident to keep you paying attention, while the finale is as action-packed as anything you could hope to see. You watch this and wonder just how good an action movie he could’ve made with Hollywood time and money.
Interestingly, the film is pretty progressive when it comes to female equality, at least by 1973 exploitation standards. No one seems to bat an eyelid when a team of women are suggested as the people to tackle the dangerous terrorist, and even though one character is a burlesque dancer and the girls spend a portion of the film in small bikinis, there’s no attempt to make them seem ‘sexy’ – these scenes are shot in a non-lecherous, matter-of-fact manner, without even a leering male to hint at lascivious thoughts. This might be exploitation cinema, but it’s not the female characters who are being exploited.
Interestingly, while Mikels avoids the sex, he certainly piles on the violence. An early killing, with a Doll being shot point-blank in the head, actually made me double-take at the graphic nature of the scene, and unlike the later Angels, these women have no problem with killing – the final shoot out is bloody and brutal, and at one point, a couple of men are despatched by being given explosives-laden Vodka and then… well, exploding.
Low budget movies like this are often let down by the acting, but here the performances are mostly decent. York is good in the lead, while Ansara is a smooth, entertaining villain. The Doll Squad themselves are all solid, though Satana is not really given enough to do until late in the film – as the kick-ass star of Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, you really want to see her kicking the crap out of a lot more people than happens here. But this is the only movie she got to beat guys up outside of her Russ Meyer work – a pity because she ought to have been an action movie regular.
Of course, The Doll Squad looks crude – this new release is a good quality transfer, but I doubt this movie ever looked exactly pristine. But you know what? Who cares? The fact remains that this is solid, no-nonsense, unpretentious entertainment. It’s one of the unsung greats of early Seventies exploitation cinema, and if you enjoy the likes of Foxy Brown or Ginger, you’ll probably eat this up.