Sheba, Baby Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Sheba Shayne (Pam Grier) is a private eye based in Chicago, who is called back to her hometown to stop the local mob boss (D'Urville Martin) from moving in on her father's loan business. Aided by her father's partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker), Sheba finds out that the violent thugs aren't going go away without a fight. Car bombs, gun fights and boat chases ensue whilst armed with her curves, street smarts and a .44, Sheba is in for a bloodbath! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Following her earliest turns in various Women in Prison (WIP) movies for writer/director Jack Hill – The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) – producer Roger Corman and American International Pictures cast former studio receptionist Pam Grier as the feminine staple of the studio’s blaxploitation pictures. She made appearances in Eddie Romero’s Island of Dr. Moreau rip-off The Twilight People (as Ayesa – The Panther Woman, 1973) and Steve Carver & Joe D'Amato’s gladiator version of the WIP formula, The Arena (1974), but the meat and potatoes of her early career were vengeance-driven crime flicks. This highly influential era of her career only lasted three years and four movies – Hill’s Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), William Girdler’s Sheba, Baby (1975), and Arthur Marks’ Friday Foster (1975). She also co-headlined Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama (1973) and Fred Williamson in Marks’ Bucktown (1975) around the same time, before moving on to supporting roles in bigger movies. She continued on this route until Quentin Tarantino finally gave her another starring role in Jackie Brown (1997).
Sheba, Baby was probably the weakest of the bunch, in part because it is the least gregarious. It’s lacking the grim, rough exploitation of Jack Hill’s movies and doesn’t have the garish comic strip pop of Friday Foster. However, it is arguably the closest to a standard-issue crime drama and a relatively mainstream-friendly distillation of the story model that followed Grier throughout her AIP movies. Grier’s performance is a more refined version of the similar roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown, but, again, it’s missing that rough, unpredictable edge. The filmmakers assume the audience is already aware of her reputation in those films and sort of treat it as a joke. At the very least, the other characters are aware of her reputation and treat her like an unstoppable badass, even though nothing in the film’s story has verified that fact. It’s fun to watch a movie where adult men fear her on sight and, unusually for a blaxploitation film of the era, even the white cops respect her. Unfortunately, all of this instant fear and respect has the side effect of painting the film’s bad guys as a bunch of inept and clumsy fraidy cats. Not that her physical prowess is in question – to the contrary, she has rarely been more adept during an action sequence, but Pam Grier deserves a better class of antagonist.
Girdler was mostly known for his low budget horror movies, like the pre-Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Ed Gein-inspired Three on a Meathook (1972) and The Manitou (1978), which is about a tumor that comes to life and exacts revenge on the ancestors of white people that committed genocide against Native Americans. He also made a super trashy blaxploitation rip-off of The Exorcist called Abby in 1974, but had the most success with a pair of nature-run-amuck movies called Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977). Sheba, Baby is a bit outside of his comfort zone, so he defaults to doing his best impression of Jack Hill. I suppose he and producer/co-writer David Sheldon are already mimicking the man’s screenplays that they might as well go the whole nine. It’s a valiant enough effort (the foot-chase through the fair is fantastically staged) that misses the mark in terms of Hill’s sense of pacing and pure exploitation. Girdler doesn’t seem to be very good with actors either, because everyone but Grier and co-star Austin Stoker (who you may remember from the original Assault on Precinct 13 and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) performs subpar. Even the otherwise dependable D'Urville Martin is uncharacteristically stiff. I’m sure the screenplay’s by-the-numbers dialogue didn’t help.
This is Arrow’s second Pam Grier classic Blu-ray release, following their UK-exclusive Foxy Brown collection and they will be releasing both Coffy (UK-exclusive) and Black Mama, White Mama. This new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was scanned from a new 35mm InterPositive, itself made from the original 35mm DME printmaster mag. Previously, Sheba, Baby was released on anamorphic, R1 DVD via MGM as part of their Soul Cinema line and also appeared in 1080i HD on television. There are similarities between those transfers (likely from the same scan) and this one, but there are also big advantages to Arrow’s transfer, especially in terms of clarity and natural grain structure. The older releases are slightly warmer with softer edges and a slight DNR sheen. Details are tight, despite the occasionally overwhelming darkness (like many AIP blaxploitation flicks, Sheba, Baby was shot on the quick and many shots were stolen without the appropriate lighting rigs in place), and patterns are relatively complex, even when grain frequency kicks up. Generally speaking, even the minor wear and tear is in keeping with what you’d expect from the film the day it was released. I even suspect that the handful of scenes that appear washed out are the result of sunlight in the lens, rather than digital mastering mistakes or print condition. I do suspect that the cooled colors go against what 1975 audiences saw, especially within the slightly blued white levels. Otherwise, colors are natural, consistent, and poppy when necessary (specifically reds and pinks).
The original mono soundtrack was scanned and remastered alongside the video and is presented in uncompressed 1.0 LPCM audio. This track meets the standards of similar releases, including some pretty notable issues with muffled dialogue, tinny effects, and a generally crowded tone during actiony moments. The music does come off pretty well, though, including substantial elemental separation and high volume moments that aren’t distorted or hissy. Monk Higgins and Alex Brown’s soundtrack isn’t quite up to the impossible standards of James Brown’s Black Caesar or Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, but it sure is smooth. The action and suspense themes are outshined by the groovy traveling cues between more important scenes. And the main theme, sung by Barbara Mason and written by Roderick Rancifer & Cloteal Cleveland, is almost as good as Friday Foster’s title track.
Commentary with producer/co-screenwriter David Sheldon, moderated by critic Nathaniel Thompson – Thompson offers context and history on the film while also basically interviewing Sheldon about his career and time on Sheba, Baby]. As a producer, Sheldon has a lot to offer in regards to the film’s financial struggles and pre-production story. He also verifies my assumptions when it comes to AIP brass more or less telling him and Girdler to make a follow-up to Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Commentary with Patty Breen of William Girdler’s fansite – Breen’s ‘expert track’ is buoyant, well-researched, and neatly structured. Outside of reveling in her personal affection for Sheba, Baby (as well as Girdler’s other films), she offers up loads of factoids and critical notes. I especially appreciated her mention of the screenplay’s lack of content and its effect on the actors.
Sheldon: Baby (15:20, HD) – This new interview with Sheldon expands a bit on the commentary track and includes further information about his work outside of team-ups with Girdler.
Pam Grier: The AIP Years (11:50, HD) – A look at Grier’s early AIP career with film historian Chris Poggiali. Poggiali focuses mostly on Coffy, Scream Blacula, Scream, Sheba, Baby, Bucktown, and Friday Foster. This featurette includes clips from the trailers of the pertinent films.
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