Aspiring businesswoman Katie (Cara Burgess) inherits a massage parlour-cum-brothel from her Uncle Leo (George Skaff), a pimp who got caught trying to blackmail the mafia and was gunned down by mob boss Carlo (Henry Brandon). Determined to re-open the business as a legitimate massage parlour, Katie takes on two friends as partners: sassy secretary Liz (Judith Brown) and accident-prone actress Mo (Rosalind Miles), whom we first glimpse filming a commercial for “Madonna Vaginal Spray” (a gag with a different set of connotations, these days). After some initial misunderstandings with men over what services they do offer, the nimble-fingered ladies soon rake in big bucks. Unfortunately, this does not go unnoticed by Carlo who wants a piece of the action. Reluctant mob lawyer Frank Spinelli (Vince Cannon) tries to get them back in the game, but ends up falling for Katie instead. Meanwhile, dorky cop Buckner (Wade Crosby) sets out to entrap the ladies in a police sting and murderous Carlo is still on the prowl.
Penned by Gil Lasky, a grindhouse stalwart with Blood and Lace (1971), Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974) and The Night God Screamed (1971) on his resumé, The Manhandlers is an eccentric exploitation stew combining soft-core sex, sitcom silliness and B-movie brutality. It is a strange mix for sure, with the faux feminist subtext and tongue in cheek tone occasionally overshadowed by the odd scene of unpalatably straight sadism as when Carlo’s hulking henchman crushes a hooker to death or batters the rather sweet heroines. For modern feminists the familiar Seventies sexploitation message (take charge of your sexuality and happiness will follow) might sound dubious at best but the plot genuinely does have the heroines take charge and get their men to open up emotionally, leading to happier lives. It also results in a troika of soft-core love scenes set to saccharine Seventies soul ballads, while director Lee Madden indulges in artsy editing and optical effects.
Despite dubious sexual politics the film actually has a fair amount going for it, not least some genuinely likeable characters. As played by the charmingly well-spoken Cara Burgess, Katie emerges an engagingly gutsy, forthright and idealistic heroine while Frank proves a surprisingly sweet-natured and conflicted love interest. Rather than jump into bed, these two lovers first go out on a tandem bike ride! Meanwhile Mo bonds with Elliot (Peter Fitzsimmons), a hopelessly repressed client who insists on keeping his clothes on for the massage, over their mutual failure to conform to African-American stereotypes (he’s scrawny and sucks at sports while she can neither sing nor dance). Gradually, Elliot loses his inhibitions and wins Mo’s affections (“My god, breasts!”). Lastly, lovely exploitation staple Judith Brown lands the film’s strangest sub-plot, posing nude for her body-painting artist boyfriend Gavin (Tom McDonald) who is oddly indifferent to her charms. Gavin’s eventual explanation for why he repeatedly rebuffs her sexual advances (“You know the problem with you sexually liberated chicks? You take all the fun out of the chase!”) encapsulates the confused attitude, something that extends to the finale wherein the mafia turn out to be - hey! - a bunch of stand-up guys after all. It is disappointing that for all the faux feminist posturing, the film resorts to having a bunch of brutal men (and mobsters at that) clean up the mess when really the girls should have been the ones that took a stand.