BluRay/DVD Reviews

WOMEN IN PRISON TRIPLE FEATURE

By • Jul 16th, 2009 •

Share This:

The Women in Prison genre rarely delivers on its premise, often as depraved as the female prisoners it exploits. Locking a group of women in an iron cage, letting them fight, shower and make-out is a concept so easy to exploit that rarely do filmmakers attempt to transcend its shallowest attributes. As the back over of this new collection states, we get to “celebrate the joys of gratuitous shower scenes, cat-fights, and sweaty, scantily clad women making out in jungles,” and not much more.

The genre, or some form of it, supposedly started in 1929 with PRISONERS, directed by William A. Seiter (unfortunately this work is very hard to find) and THE GODLESS GIRL by the greatest exploitation director of all time, Cecil B. DeMille. Like many of DeMille’s films, THE GODLESS GIRL uses a moralistic story to excuse his outrageous imagery. In the 1930s the WIP film took shape as women’s melodramas that accommodated the period’s strong leading ladies. 1933 alone featured LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT with Barbara Stanwyck, LADIES OF THE BIG HOUSE with Sylvia Sidney, and the experimental THE SIN OF NORA MORAN. These were never serious competitors to the male prison films. Men have been romanticized for years as rebels and wild ones while the violent woman remains a concept hard to swallow in a non-exploitive form. There is no female equivalent to William Keighly’s EACH DAWN I DIE (1939), Michael Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932) or Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE (1947).

In 1950, John Cromwell directed CAGED, possibly the best WIP film ever made (and Eleanor Parker’s first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress). CAGED combined the melodramatic elements with a subtly sexier front. Cromwell perfected the stereotypes of inmates and guards as they were used in the years to come, portraying them with humanity rather than over-the-top caricatures. CAGED had a perfect balance of melodrama and camp. The formula was emulated in many films throughout the decade, such as WOMEN’S PRISON (1955), a mediocre affair starring the great Ida Lupino, and various drive-in productions from the minds of American International Pictures and Roger Corman.

Eleanor Parker in John Cromwell's CAGED, 1950.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, sexual mores loosened up so much that the WIP film dropped the melodrama in favor of shock value. The advantage of exploitation cinema, especially during those two decades of turmoil in the industry, was the discovery of new talents and techniques that innovated and pushed the boundaries of cinema. Roger Corman notes in his introduction to the anthology, The Cult Film Reader: “What attracts me about these type of movies is that they can be more experimental and more daring than the big budget studio films, which are often constrained by narrow economic interests, business dictates and ideological agendas.” Without that creativity, exploitation often doesn’t stand the test of time.

There are many exceptions. Excellent films such as Jess Franco’s 99 WOMEN (1969), Jonathan Demme’s CAGED HEAT (1974), Jack Hill’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) & THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), the Japanese FEMALE CONVICT: SCORPION series and more. But the general stigma on the genre overshadows any other depiction of female prison life on film, keeping it purely a male experience. A fair share of films and television shows that featured women in prison have come out, yet a female SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION remains to be seen. The closest to a great WIP picture in the past three decades were the jail scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997).

The 3 films featured on the new DVD collection from Shock-O-Rama don’t raise the bar. They are presented in poor full-frame video quality that makes judging their cinematic qualities a little unfair. The booklet included with the set features well-researched, well-written, insightful liner-notes. They make an interesting read. If you are not looking for much other than gratuitous nudity, and don’t mind the grittiness of a worn-out VHS tape, you will have a good time.

THE HOT BOX (1972) is actually not a WIP film. A group of American nurses on a tropical island are kidnapped by revolutionaries who force them to help set up a clinic. Joe Viola directed THE HOT BOX from a script co-written by Jonathan Demme, who also produced it for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Viola does a good job setting the tone and mood of the film. Still, the later WIP films from Corman had better scripts and stronger female protagonists in the shape of Pam Grier and Erica Gavin. Margaret Markov stars as one of the nurses. She proved her potential in the following year’s BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA.

WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 7 (1973) tries to combine the WIP and crime genres. It satisfies neither. The film drags on despite the presence of the lovely Anita Strindberg, who turned out fine performances for directors such as Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi. It is the least entertaining of the three on this set.

In ESCAPE FROM HELL (1980) the inmates of a jungle prison camp are repeatedly tortured. They eventually attempt an escape with the help of the prison doctor. Eduoardo Mulargia (aka Edward G. Muller) directed this Italian WIP. ESCAPE FROM HELL indulges in more sex scenes than the other entries, but they are as violent, aggressive and unappealing as the rest of the film. Mulargia previously directed a few decent Spaghetti Westerns, including VIVA DJANGO and CJAMANGO. His past in the westerns may have helped lure Anthony Steffen to appear as the doctor in ESCAPE FROM HELL. Steffen (who was born in Brazil) was one of the most prolific Italian Western heroes, the closest in look and expression to Eastwood’s Stranger. As the drunken doctor, Steffen stumbles around the prison in frustration throughout most of the film. He isn’t to blame, for he would surely rather be toting his gun, heading west.

Tagged as: , , ,
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)