Combing this sub-genre is reciprocal to flogging a dead horse but all the compliments on my first article for Geek Juice, Reform School Girls, had me convinced that it was necessary to follow up with my love for the sub-genre. The exploitation genre didn’t exactly give birth to the Women in Prison sub-genre, Hold Your Man being the first. Honeys in the slammer caters to men. They’re written, directed, and produced by men to fulfill other men’s desires. The girl on girl mayhem supplies an abundance of lesbian sex, merciless guards, psychological torture, experimental torture, and graphic shower scenes. These aphrodisiac adventures appear to showcase beauty and violence but we would be lying to ourselves if we said they didn’t exploit women. The sad reality is that I actually LOVE these movies. What does that say about me? Though most of these films are man-made, they still triumph in manifesting the discrepancies and dilemmas in structures of femininity. Hold Your Man was co-written by a woman, Anita Loos and starring beloved Scream Queen, Jean Harlow. The film didn’t feature anything close to the sadistic tortures that the 70’s era provided with films like Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, Love Camp 7, and The Big Bird Cage. The 1973 film Terminal Island was directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman. Under Roger Corman’s wing, she took a feminist approach. There are good and bad examples focusing on babes behind bars and long before I was ever a fan of Orange is the New Black I obsessed over each and every one. For the life, of me I cannot figure out how there are so many of these floating around. There are also additional hybrid-genres; Jungle WIP, Nazi WIP, WIP in space, and Holocaust WIP. Regardless of hybridding, they all echo the following elements:
An innocent girl is thrown into the slammer or a reform school that is run by an evil warden, often times a lesbian warden. Among daily activities there are strip searches, prostitution rings, unfair punishment that’s typically by a fire hose or hanging upside down by a rope, hard labor, and lots and lots of girl-on-girl love making. This is all wrapped up with an uprising escape sequence.
As mentioned above, it’s a toxic brew of innocent women, sadistic male wardens or a sadistic female lesbian warden, and there’s the supporting cast with bad girls who are out for blood with the fresh meat. Typically, there’s a sympathizer for the newcomer. Then we have the white gangs against the blacks because… Racism.
Linda Blair, Sybil Danning, Brigette Nielsen, Roberta Collins, Ajita Wilson, Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay, Margaret Markov, Tim Kincaid, and Pam Grier.
Jonathan Demme, Jess Franco, Paul Nicholas, Bruno Mattei, Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Tom DeSimone, Edoardo Mulargia, and Sergio Garrone.
You’re probably expecting a typical grab bag here but I’d like to dig into those hidden titles that are not often explored but favorites will be mixed in so I’m hoping this will be a favorable hodgepodge.
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion 1972: This selection satisfies all the needs of the genre. Starring Meiko Kaji, Nami Matsushima is a young woman who is raped by a yakuza gang as she is set up and betrayed by her lover Sugimi (Natsuyagi Isao) the crooked detective. A revenge fueled Matsushima fails at her attempts to kill Sugimi on the steps of the Tokyo Metro Police headquarters and she’s thrown into a prison run by a bunch of dogs in heat. Due to all the secrets Matsushima has on Sugimi, her life is at risk as the Japanese mafia plans for her accidental death. A dangerous female tied into the mob is thrown in the prison with her to keep her quiet but our Scorpion is determined to slaughter her enemies.
Ask around, this is one of the best WIP films out there. The reason being, it’s written, acted, and directed as a story, not as an exercise in gratuitous brisk vitality. It develops as a narrative, not as a set of action sequences. There is a cartoonish tone with blues and a blood red sky and a nightmarish tone when another inmate tries to stab her in the showers. The rape club scene has popping colors that remind me of the works of Mario Bava. This is what separates Female Prisoner #701 from the other WIP films. It’s art versus trash. This was Shunya Ito’s directorial debut and he nailed it. Fun fact! Meiko Kaji isn’t only responsible for bringing Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner #701 to life. She is also a singer. Her worked was an obvious influence on Quentin Tarantino for the first Kill Bill with O-Ren Ishii’s death and her beautiful tune The Flower of Carnage playing. A woman of many talents.
Nightmare in Badham County 1976: The cover reminds me of a typical 80’s sleaze straight to video but this was straight out of the 70s with low grade quality. It’s not a favorable addition to this sub-genre but there are a lot of fucked up moments that are likely to make the viewer feel uneasy. This era was also notorious for the gritty feel that makes these movies feel almost like snuff footage. The low down is basic with two college girls who breakdown in the ‘middle of nowhere’ You know, the usual! The local sheriff is no help and he arranges for them to be thrown into prison on bullshit charges thanks to his cousin who is the judge. Okay, as a Southern I can attest that hick towns don’t always have all family members in authority. They really don’t. Moving on, some of the things these poor girls endure are downright atrocious but it’s like spending Summer camp with Tony Perkis compared to the WIP Nazi movies. Its timing is sporadic with an emphasis on our leading lady’s elemental vulnerabilities as women facing male hostility and the ubiquitous sexism and bigotry that’s recycled to rationalize the abuse. Chuck Connors was a hoot as the sleazy sheriff. This was made for TV so it’s actually pretty tame considering the subject matter but thanks to the foreign market, scenes with nudity were added. Not your typical exploitation. Said to be based on a true story. The storyline was written by Jo Heims. If you have not heard of her, look her up now. She’s long gone but her work is not forgotten.
Human Experiments 1979: An intriguing blend of psychological torture and WIP where a singer (I wouldn’t call her a singer and she is in fact tone deaf because that performance was pretty embarrassing) has been thrown into prison for a mass murder that she did not commit. The doctor on the premises takes his job to the next level by brainwashing his victims and experimental torture. Our lead gal Linda Haynes is a considerably fair actress with John Travolta’s sister Ellen by her side and Geoffrey Lewis (RIP) as the mad doctor. The acting and directing really does fair well. This movie managed to slip through the cracks likely due to it earning a spot on the infamous banned list. Video Nasties FTW! Its time on the UK list was short lived but it still has yet to be released since. Where this film fails to impress lays in the hands of the writing by director Gregory Goodell. It could have used some polishing. This is unfortunate because it had potential. In the right hands, it could use a remake. No, Blumhouse. You stay away.
Chained Heat 1983: My personal favorite! When I first met Linda Blair I didn’t immediately clutch onto, “OMG The Exorcist!” No, no. Everyone says her career went to shit and maybe it did but I am a HUGE fan of her WIP films (there are 4 I think?) Roller Boogie, Hell House, and mother fucking Savage Streets as well. Onto the synopsis, Blair portrays Carol who is convicted of manslaughter after a hit-and-run but she gets a light 18-month sentence with the full on WIP works. Sybil Danning is the leader of the white gang and she has the hots for Blair but is rejected in the shower. Carol’s prison experience then becomes a living hell like most of these films and John Vernon graces the screen with his presence as the wicked warden. This warden has his own private Jacuzzi in his office (LOL) where he allows the girls to join in with a buffet of drugs then he films the sex sessions. This is a particularly bloody WIP film with lots and lots of nudity. Director Paul Nicholas is also responsible for Boarding School and The Naked Cage. It was a bold move for the producers to release this at the same time of Return of the Jedi. Seriously, you will never see that happen in today’s market. We are no longer provided with the filth I so anxiously crave. Variety, this world needs variety and box offices today show little promise. Bring drive-in theaters back from the dead!
Chained Heat 2 1993: Good lord, look at that dreadful title. Chained Heat is up there with the best that WIP has to offer with Linda Blair and Sybil Danning staring but let’s move on to the shitty sequel Because Brigette Nielson! There isn’t much to discuss plot wise because it’s the same regurgitated buffet as the others. A really attractive female is wrongly thrown into a Slavic prison run by Nielsen. It’s a panty fetish galore! Nielson has a whip, power suits, and a pet cougar. This is easily the most fashionable WIP film that features a trans convict named Bobo (David Buonantony) who designs all of their clothes because machine guns and khaki mini skirts go hand in hand. This is only possible due to the illegal drug and prostitution business Nielson has going on. The acting is deplorable but they aren’t given a well written script with lines like, “I hate junkies. Especially, the innocent ones.”
Escape From Hellhole 1983: It’s the Indonesian’s turn now. They give us a mac daddy pimp by the name of Uncle MG who collects virgins and allows the ugly women to marry him or he throws them in his jail house. There’s an odd dungeon disco scene and the pacing may lose your interest as it’s mostly dialogue and they ignore the exploitative tropes; gratuitous nudity, lesbian wardens, or an obligatory shower scene. These items are not a necessity to the genre but the lack of quality in the script writing department makes it fall flat onto its face and fade away forever into the oblivion. There are the usual hosings, whipping, breakouts, and cat fights and our protagonist eventually bites of Uncle MG’s tongue. The dubbing is dreadful but that’s to be expected. The sound effects were an embarrassment. These films require a quickened tempo but this was a thorough time waster instead. Boo Wendy, Boo.
Destroyer 1988: One of those film-within-a-films that are so few and far in between. Not your typical WIP film and more on the horror side. Though, my copy says “Action-Thriller” on the side. This is a downright roid-raged 80s horror cheese which is usually what I love but not even Anthony Perkins could save this movie. The jackhammer is barely even used in the film. This is false advertising! The shower fight scene is there. There is a solid cast; Deborah Foreman and Clayton Riddle. The late NFL steroid user Lyle Alzado plays our antagonist who is sent to the electric chair for raping and killing women along with men and children. He survives the chair and escapes as a riot ensues… Or did he? 18 months later, he terrorizes a women in prison film production called Death House Dolls which is being directed by Anthony Perkins. So was he just hanging out at the prison all this time? The film really isn’t that good but it’s also not the worst thanks to exploding eye balls, decapitated heads are found in a copy machine, a guy being torched on a toilet, and another guy is drilled to death. The effects were decent. Still, easily forgettable.
Born Innocent 1974: You had me at The Runaway’s Born to Be Bad. Great soundtrack. Not quite as great as Reform School Girls. Here we have another WIP Blair film with this being her first and only a year after her Exorcist fame. In Born Innocent, she gives probably one of her best performances. It was a made for TV film where a teenager escapes from her abusive father lands in a reform school. Blair is violated with a plunger stick in one scene which infamously traumatized that generation’s youth. In fact, the scene was taken out because a group of young girls attempted this on an eight-year-old girl. With that being said, this is a dynamic and devastating characterization of a smart and benevolent girl’s emotional destruction with no support from the institution nor family. Blair was robbed by the Emmys. She didn’t even get a nomination for her phenomenal performance.
Jailbird Rock 1988: Flashdance meets prison, basically. I’m on the fence with this addition that’s sheer what-the-fuckery. But as a dancer it’s sacrilegious for me not to like it. I mean, I love musicals. I love exploitation. I love female nudity. I love violence. Now I get all of those things combined? Happy Hanukkah to me. Sadly, not many people know this movie even exists because it’s quite terrible. Much like Grease 2, it’s a guilty pleasure. Not many people even know there’s a Grease 2 which needs to be changed because the film is a musical about sexism. But we are not here to talk about Grease 2. Jailbird Rock centers around a young dancer played by Robin Antin who is sent to prison after shooting her step father who has been beating her mother. (Sometimes I think Sucker Punch was inspired by this and other WIP films.) While in prison, her and her fellow inmates set up a performing arts show which is just a cover for an attempt to escape. I don’t know much about the director, Phillip Schuman, who doesn’t have a lengthy credit list. He was also a documentary film maker and this was his last feature film before his death in 1994. Robin Antin is one of the most respected dance choreographers in the world. She is responsible for the choreography in several popular films AND she appears as a dancer in some of my favorites; Gimme an F, Girls Just Want to Have Fun (OMG – Girlish squeal!) and Lambada along with being in a Freddy’s Nightmares episode. The dance sequences are good enough to compare with Heavenly Bodies and Staying Alive. That being said, I don’t know what the hell this dance on the volley ball court is called but it’s pretty spastic and cringe worthy…
Any who, the story and acting are so ineptly ridiculous that what emerges is a novelty piece with nowhere to go. The script is just horrible with one-liners like, “Get your dick outta my face before you gotta pull it out of your ass with a crowbar bitch.” Also, they like to remind the audience every five minutes that our lead is a dancer. As soon as she arrives at the prison she gets a welcoming, “The dancer is here!” Followed by, “Did you get lost on your way to dance class?” Then again when she is checking in with the warden, “I understand you’re a dancer.” Heaven forbid I ever go to prison.