Though many female filmmakers have found a home in the world of indie, low budget and arthouse cinema, far fewer have laid down roots in the vintage exploitation field. Apart from notable exceptions like Unsung Auteurs Stephanie Rothman and Katt Shea Ruben, and industry pioneers like Doris Wishman and Ida Lupino, the world of exploitation cinema has been one long lorded over by men, all of which makes the little known Barbara Peeters even more essential. Alongside greats like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and many, many, many more (including the aforementioned Stephanie Rothman and Katt Shea Ruben), Barbara Peeters was mentored and given a major leg-up by legendary low budget producer Roger Corman. And like those other filmmakers, the famed myth-maker proved to be both a positive and negative force on Peeters’ career. While the five feature films of Barbara Peeters are hardly works of high art (and are all the better for it!), they are energetic, entertaining, imaginatively made, and ground-breaking entries in the much maligned exploitation arena.
Born and raised in Iowa, Barbara Peeters was always interested in theatre and drama, and moved to California in the late 1960s to chase her dream of working in the performing arts. Peeters took acting classes at The Pasadena Playhouse, and in 1967, acted in and co-wrote (with her classmate Byron Predka) the sordid, sex filled X-rated women-in-prison film, Caged Desires, which was eventually released in 1970. The story of a sixteen-year-old newbie who prompts a violent power play between two older, more powerful inmates, this nasty little skin flick put Peeters on the radar of actor/producer/director Richard Compton, who gave the aspiring director various jobs on his low budget productions, with Peeters in the costume department for 1969’s The Fabulous Bastard From Chicago, in the cast for 1969’s The Gun Runners, and on script supervision duties for 1970’s Angels Die Hard.
Creatively backed by Compton, and at the behest of an Israeli financial backer, Peeters made her co-directorial debut (with cinematographer Jack Deerson) in 1970 with Dark Side Of Tomorrow (aka Just The Two Of Us), a no-budget softcore porn flick about two housewives who get hot and heavy – with a wide variety of consequences – while their husbands are away on a hunting trip. Hardly an auspicious debut, Peeters’ real breakout directorial effort came with her blazing 1971 actioner Bury Me An Angel. Initially titled The Hunt, this gritty, grimy, violent ball-tearer stars statuesque six-footer Dixie Peabody (who had appeared briefly in Angels Die Hard) as shotgun-toting female biker Dag, who hits the road for revenge when her brother is killed. A craftily constructed vengeance-trail action thriller, The Hunt was picked up by Roger Corman for his New World Pictures outfit, and promptly (very coolly but somewhat nefariously) retitled Bury Me An Angel, to click with the company’s other biker flicks.
Unquestionably Barbara Peeters’ signature work, Bury Me An Angel is a rare legitimate feminist-themed biker flick (unless you want to stoop and credit the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ She-Devils On Wheels) on which the writer/director showed incredible promise. [Side-note: Quentin Tarantino “borrowed” the film poster’s “roaring rampage of revenge” tagline for his own Kill Bill movies.] Suitably impressed, Corman hired Peeters, and put her to work on a whole host of his films, where the multi-tasker performed a variety of roles, including production manager and second unit director. She also directed the 1975 sex comedy Summer School Teachers for Corman. The sexy, raunchy tale of three young women from the Midwest who head to California to become teachers, the film hedges closely to Corman’s very popular and similarly themed and constructed Nurses series of films.
Guiltily entertaining, Summer School Teachers is a sex and T&A fest, but Peeters does manage to inject a little feminist messaging into proceedings, as she also did more forcefully with 1978’s highly engaging Starhops. Co-written by Stephanie Rothman (who was initially slated to direct), this very genial comedy (which was originally rated PG, but had nudity and language grafted on to please the drive-in crowd) follows three roller-skating waitresses who unite to save a failing drive-in from the avaricious clutches of a greedy developer. It’s fun, cheeky flick, and effectively shows a different side to Barbara Peeters as a director.
Though Bury Me An Angel is unarguably Peeters’ best flick, her most famous effort is probably 1980’s notorious horror “opus” Humanoids From The Deep. A nasty bottom-feeder, the film is about a small town terrorised by aquatic monsters that kill the men and rape the women. The decidedly unpleasant inter-species sex, however, was solely the work of producer Roger Corman, who felt the film needed more sex and violence. He went behind Peeters’ back and had a second unit director film the monster sex scenes, and then crow-barred them into the film without the director’s knowledge, also removing some of the dialogue and character-based scenes crafted by Peeters. The director wanted her name removed from the film, but Corman would only allow that if Peeters personally paid the cost of changing the credits. She refused, and Humanoids From The Deep remains something of a blight on the director’s resume. “The dollar in fine art means a lot to Roger, and the future of his children, and the size of his house, and the quality of his furniture, means more than his word,” Peeters said of her one-time backer and eventual betrayer in 2010.
Sadly, Humanoids From The Deep still stands as Barbara Peeters’ final big screen credit, with the gifted and creative filmmaker moving permanently into the world of television, where she would direct episodes of great 1980s shows like The Powers Of Matthew Star, The Renegades (remember that Patrick Swayze street-gang-turn-police-operatives show?), Matt Houston, Remington Steele and Cagney & Lacey. Deserving of far more praise and recognition for her feminist-themed exploitation flicks, Barbara Peeters had a true gift for making fascinating low budget wonders.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.