Civil Rights Exploitation

I have ambivalent feelings about Girl on a Chain Gang from schlock master Jerry Gross. The film’s heart is primarily in the right place but wild caricatures and hammy acting firmly mark it as low-budget fodder for its target audience. Gross dabbled in just about everything over his wide-ranging career. This directorial debut from 1966 is a mildly sleazy exploitation thriller with a socially conscious heart. William Watson, Ron Charles and Julie Ange star in the harrowing tale which delivers on its suggestive title.

Three well-educated Northerners travel to the segregated South and pass through the small town of Carson’s Landing. The rural Southern town is Mayberry from hell as the town’s racist and wildly corrupt police officers make the trio’s lives miserable. Jean Rollins (Julie Ange) and her two companions, including one African-American male, are visiting the South on a voter registration drive serving the civil rights movement.

Girl on a Chain Gang is a byproduct of its time and place in history, sensationalizing real events for exploitation purposes

Their lives will never be the same after getting entangled in the devices of Sheriff Sonny Lew (William Watson), a violently corrupt police officer who abuses his authority every step of the way. Making a mockery of the legal system, a sham trial ultimately lands Jean on a chain gang.

The dramatic, gritty tale serves up sexual violence and over-the-top caricatures of its Southern antagonists. Possibly based on the real story of three civil rights workers who were murdered by crooked police in Mississippi, Gross isn’t much interested in humanizing the small town. Girl on a Chain Gang goes for the jugular with clearly delineated characters and shocking twists.

Girl on a Chain Gang is a byproduct of its time and place in history, sensationalizing real events for exploitation purposes. It’s a cheap thriller about a serious subject matter, intended for drive-in theaters up North. Actually filmed in New York, Gross churns out an odd but mostly compelling thriller about bigotry even if the sleazy undertone diminishes its thematic impact.

Video

The low-budget exploitation thriller receives a stable, consistently decent 1.37:1 presentation from satisfactory film elements. The transfer is film-like, preserving the black-and-white cinematography’s solid contrast and fair shadow delineation. There’s excellent clarity in the 1080p video with no obvious processing. The Film Detective does a fine job here but keep your expectations in check.

Definition is on the soft side but rather crisp for this kind of fare. There are running vertical scratches in spots and minor frame jumps. Detail levels are erratic, largely endemic to the soft-focus source material and noir-like shadows. A decidedly less impressive source is used for Jean’s pivotal speech at her trial. The main feature runs 95 minutes on a BD-50. The AVC encode sufficiently handles the moderate grain structure.

Girl On A Chain Gang’s picture quality isn’t a revelation but looks great considering its pedigree. Clearly a cut above DVD quality, the black-and-white shocker hasn’t looked this good since its early days playing at theaters.

Audio

Lossy 2.0 DTS audio captures the limited monaural soundtrack’s modest fidelity and minor problems. Dialogue is generally clean and intelligible. The recording is muffled and brassy. Hiss doesn’t quite reach intolerable levels but it’s heavily present in select scenes.

Optional English and Spanish subtitles play in a white font.

Extras

This special edition from The Film Detective label includes a 14-page booklet and a promotional “certificate of jury service” insert. The Blu-ray is coded for all regions. Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird Video provides a new essay on the film, “Girl On A Chain Gang: Race, Rednecks and Civil Rights” in the booklet.

Audio Commentary – Author and film historian Jennifer Churchill serves up a fairly limited and reactionary discussion of the film. She’s been better before at offering cogent insights on other commentaries for The Film Detective but this one is a dud. Skip this chat.

It’s All in the Title: Exploiting Jerry Gross (13:16 in HD) – Author Chris Poggiali of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures discusses the schlock producer’s early beginnings and a capsule summary of Girl On A Chain Gang’s interesting history in this essential featurette.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Girl on a Chain Gang
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras

Movie

The exploitation thriller set in the segregated South of the 1960s plays much differently with audiences today than it did upon release in 1966.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 49 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray: