“Follow the rules and nobody gets hurt”

The Art and Style of Women-in-Prison Films

  1. The title Frequently, this has two parts, reflecting the genre: one to do with prison, the other to do with women. Particularly traditional are C-words: Chained, Caged, Captive, Confined, anything to do with sex or violence, such as Heat, Fury, Inferno, Fear, Passion, and plurals of the female sex i.e. Women, Babes, Bimbos, Totty or Stewardesses. In the box to the right are some classics.
  2. The sleeve. Lure the customer in with lurid artwork – if they stop to actually read the text, you’ve lost the battle. Include as much flesh as you can, even if you have to fake it in some way. Juicy blood-red is a nice colour, and it goes without saying that an 18 certificate is a must.
  3. The tag-line. Often follows a set formula:
    Terrified. Tortured. Humiliated.
    Imprisoned. Abused. Afraid.
    Innocent. Incarcerated. Insatiable.

    Get. The. Picture? Read down, diagonally or across: it’s the basic concept which is important, rather than any actual meaning.
  4. The heroine is innocent: framed, or taking the rap for her man maybe, but you rarely hear, “It’s a fair cop, guv”. And no matter the crime, there is absolutely no chance of a fine, probation, or a suspended sentence.
  5. The soap. Jail is unpleasant: there’s no such thing as an open prison, they’re all hell-holes. But, no matter the conditions, hygiene is paramount, and rigorously enforced. Inmates shower frequently, paying special attention to soaping their breasts.
  6. The location. The above two components are why so many movies are set abroad, where miscarriages of justice occur all the time; it could never happen here, of course. However, note that “here” is relative, naturally depending on where you are: American WiPs favour the Far East, Europeans like South America, and a recent entry in the Japanese Female Scorpion series was set in California.
  7. The prisoners. As well as the heroine, the following may be included:
    • The Innocent. Our heroine may be not guilty, but that’s different from the naïve young thing whom the heroine befriends, and has to rescue from…
    • The Queen Bitch. Usually with ties to the warden; expect a cat-fight with the heroine. Will either then bond, or become a deadly enemy who is brutally killed in the last reel.
  8. The guards. On the other side of the bars, you often find these characters:
    • The Warden. Sadistic if male, dyke if female. May quote biblical scripture.
    • The Nice Authority Figure. Token effort to avoid a wholly negative portrayal of the rehabilitation profession. Can be a doctor or psychiatrist; usually entirely ineffective.
    • Guards. Shout things like “Move it, ladies, this ain’t the Holiday Inn.”
  9. The plot. Not strictly obligatory. Should you feel the need, you can have something nefarious going on in the background; white-slavery is a favourite. When discovered by the heroine, she will either bring in the authorities (this usually takes a while), make an escape bid, or lead the inmates in an rebellion, which will inevitably be successful – Attica, this ain’t.
  10. The ending. Often sees the heroine released, sadder but wiser, to begin a new life outside on the straight and narrow. At least, until the sequel… If you’re lucky enough to make one, expect to recast, since your leading lady will now consider herself a ‘serious actress’, above such things. Try waiting a few years – her career will probably plummet again, and she’ll be glad of the work.

To test these ground rules as a working hypothesis, scientific practice now says we should apply some data to it, and see how it fits. Fortunately, Chris had just bought me a whole load of, er, data, because she thought I was into “that sort of thing”. Who, me? With experimental subjects thus sorted, let’s get on to the analyses. The numbers after each category refer to the elements listed above. But first, this:

All-Time Great WiP Exploititles

  1. Barbed Wire Dolls
  2. Concentration Camp For Girls
  3. Crucified Girls of San Remon
  4. Delinquent School Girls
  5. Emanuelle Escapes From Hell
  6. Naked Superwitches Of The Rio Amour
  7. Nurses For Sale
  8. School for Unclaimed Girls
  9. So Young, So Evil
  10. Strike of the Tortured Angels

The Big Bust Out (Richard Jackson) 1/5/6/8/9 – Heh-heh-heh… He said, “Big bust”, thereby covering both women and prison themes nicely. Difficult to tell the precise location here, but given the multi-national nature of the heroines, probably safe to say it’s foreign for some of them. This one starts off with all seven already inside, neatly bypassing questions of guilt or innocence. However, it doesn’t take long before they escape, along with their ‘social worker’ nun, only to fall into the clutches of white-slavers, filthy Arabs, and so on. Aided by a super-funky 70’s soundtrack and some good use of locations, there is also a bizarre sequence in which the nun goes into town looking for food, and ends up smashing a dwarf over the head with a boulder. It’s good to see a film which doesn’t avoid asking difficult questions about the role of the church in modern society. By the end of the film, the ranks of the women have been sorely depleted, and you can’t help wondering if they might perhaps have been better off staying in jail. B

Caged Heat 3000 (Aaron Osborne) 1/2/4/6/7/8/9 – This may be the sleaziest entry in Jim Cameron’s filmography – albeit only through the spaceship of his, spliced-in from Battle Beyond the Stars. For it is a Roger Corman production, so anyone expecting other than exploitation par excellence is being startlingly naive. Lisa Boyle (under the nomme-de-jail of ‘Cassandra Leigh’) stars as a girl sent to a futuristic prison asteroid, where she rapidly peeves both authorities and fellow inmates, and shows a remarkable fondness for violence which suggests the verdict was perhaps right on the button. The cast seems to be a mix of strippers and porn stars (even Ron Jeremy has a cameo), though the sets are surprisingly good and it looks better than its probably minute budget. After a bright start, balancing delicately on the tightrope of self-awareness, it seems to forget about the SF angle and descends into a standard “prison revolt” scenario, albeit with rather more fist fights than normal. Leigh certainly has the hard attitude – and breasts – for the film, and there’s enough of both to retain interest. C+

Caged Women (Luchetti Leandro) 1/2/3/4/6/8/9 – This is something of a rare item, in that the video was initially refused certification by the BBFC altogether. 25 minutes later (or rather, fewer…), it seeps out, shorn of all potential offence, mostly by the distributors. Is there any point watching a film missing over a quarter of its length? Perversely, yes: if five minutes had been cut, this would have been tedious garbage, but beyond a certain point, coherence is replaced by a fugue-like state of random scenes, connected only loosely. One second, our two heroines are the titular caged women, surviving by licking sweat off each other(!); the next, they’re in the jungle. Is this reality or delusion? Uncut, it made sense – perhaps – now, you’ve got to work hard at filling in the gaps, and whatever you come up with is likely more interesting than the atrocities removed for your protection. Admittedly, perhaps neither version ever did explain what an “American tourist” was doing in the middle of an Amazonian jungle. But it now gets the benefit of the doubt which, from an aesthetic, if not exploitative, point of view is a significant help. D+

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Ito) 2/7/8/9/10 – This is the second entry in perhaps the longest running WiP series, beginning in 1972, and still going strong today. The first four all star Meiko Kaji as Matsu, a prisoner of very few words – in this film, precisely two. At the outset, she’s under lockdown conditions about half a notch better than Hannibal Lecter, and we soon discover this is for good reason. Warden Goda, who has crossed her path before and come off worse, tries to break her spirit, but this merely leads to her escape, along with a dirty half-dozen of other murderous and malcontented maidens. They struggle through a surreal landscape, pursued by the warden and his men, leaving a trail of cadavers in their wake. It’s definitely a classic: in some ways, the movie comes across almost like a Leone western, while in others it’s more like Kwaidan, and it also possesses the hyper-red gore beloved by Japanese film-makers. Kaji does fantastically well given the limitations of her dialogue, and even the complete lack of background – it assumes you’ve seen the first part, so gives no hint why she’s in jail – works in her favour. B+

Purgatory (Ami Artzi) 2/3/4/5/6/7/9 – Ah, how the mighty are fallen…and Tanya Roberts too, now reduced to coy exploitation films like this one. She gets sent to eleven years in an African jail, where the governor, a graduate of the “Harvard School of Business”, farms the best girls out as hookers in a reprise of much the same plot as Chained Heat. Meanwhile, her mother battles corruption and embassy apathy to try and free her. A lot of the exploitation here happens off-screen: you’ll see rubber gloves being snapped on, and that’s it. Another particular highlight is one client of hers, who has the least convincing Scots accent in cinema history, and sings Take the High Road to make up for it. It’s pretty depressing to watch lengthy scenes of Tanya Roberts sobbing, as she loses her sanity but, inevitably, retains her immaculately coiffeured big hair. Though the political intrigue and conspiracy angles are well-covered, the lengthy final escape sequence can’t shake off the torpor of the first hour, and there are not even any moral lessons to be learned here. D+

Slammer Girls (Chuck Vincent) 1/2/5/7/8/10 – At least Vincent has the exploitation credits for this women-in-prison parody, and his porno background also means he’s not short of actresses (there’s no shortage of adult movie starlets to be found here – as well as Beth Broderick, who’d go on to be one of Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s aunts). This clearly wants to be Airplane! with breasts, and on odd occasions succeeds, partly through dumb gags, partly through a faithful recreation of every WiP cliché imaginable. Thus you get an innocent sent down, an undercover (very male!) journalist, secret medical experiments, etc. However, there are long spells when you could be watching a “serious” entry in the genre, and the acting rarely reaches a sufficiently giddy height to cover the gaps: only matron Veronica Hart pushes the pedal to the max, spitting out her lines with fine venom. It’s just about amusing enough to fend off sleep, but in no way replaces Reform School Girls as the best example of jailhouse jollity. C

Star Slammer: The Escape (Fred Olen Ray) 2/3/4/6/7/8/9/10 – Blimey, another SF/WiP crossover: stars ‘n’ bars, perhaps? Anyway, our heroine is framed for the murder of cult icon Johnny Legend, actually committed by Ross Hagen, and gets sent to the prison ship Vengeance, where all the usual stuff takes place. This being Fred Olen Ray, it’s cheerfully trashy, with its tongue largely in cheek: Hagen and Ray regular Dawn Wildsmith sneer magnificently, and a very ill-looking John Carradine turns up for about ten seconds. It’s daft, and knows it, remaining good-natured and surprisingly unsleazy (only one completely gratuitous topless flash). There is some stuff which could even be claimed as social satire except that, at the risk of repeating myself, this is a F.O.R. movie, so clearly can’t be. While gleefully nicking stuff from other movies, such as the monster from Deadly Spawn, towards the end, Ray chucks in effect shot after effects shot, and the cast are left to stand around looking bored. They weren’t the only ones, and it gelled badly with the cheery kitsch of the previous 75 enjoyable minutes. B-

10 Violent Women (Ted V.Mikels) 2/5/8/9 – You have to admire any director who proudly proclaims “Ted V.Mikels Classic Gems” on the video box. Ten hot-pants clad (this was made in 1979, after all) gold miners opt for the easy option of a heist instead, but the sheikh to whom their loot belongs hunts them down. Ted himself turns up as a jewel fence, and performs creditably enough there: he just needs lessons in lighting, as much of the film appears to take place in a coal cellar. We’re almost in the third quarter before they get put into prison, but Mikels makes up for lost time, cramming brawls, a lesbian cell-block head, a scripture-quoting loony, and a lot of beatings into a relatively short section which is the best part of the film. Sadly for the viewer, they escape, and things sink back into the abyss; it runs 20 minutes longer than the box claims, but that is probably more of a curse than a blessing. Certainly, it’s neither a classic nor a gem. D

Women Prison (David Lam) 1/5/7/8/9/10 – Hong Kong has produced some classic male prison films, such as Prison on Fire and The Story of Ricky, and this deserves to be up there with them, albeit closer to the former then the latter – scriptwriter Nam Yin also did Prison on Fire II. An excellent ensemble cast (Carol Cheng, Fung Bo Bo, Pat Ha, Charine Chan and Elsie Chan) tell the tale of Kelly (Ha), and the film wastes no time, turning her from bride to jail-bird inside four minutes. She then gets involved in a struggle for jail supremacy, and embarks on a downward spiral which pushes her to the edge of insanity. Oddly, a stretch in isolation proves to be a turning point (as well as providing a great version of House of the Rising Sun – “My power is always there/It will never die/Never complain or regret/To hold my fist of freedom”) and things build to a rousing climax. While sex is barely mentioned and the ending seems unsatisfactorily rushed, the characters are wonderful, taking the usual clichés and adding depth (Pat Ha in particular does a fine job). You actually care – a pleasant surprise for the genre. B

Women’s Penitentiary

Readers wanting a crash course in the women-in-prison film need go no further than the Women’s Penitentiary series, released by video label MCM, no doubt to follow up on the cult status of blaxploitation flick, Penitentiary. While the Captive Women line may have reached eight, they still lag behind W.P. and its thirteen entries to date. Why not collect the set?

Covering a broad range of style, content and era, they are all cynical retitlings of other movies (albeit ones which only extend to the box, leaving the credits untouched). However, their trashiest and most appealing factor are probably the delightfully sleazy sleeves, on which models pose in costumes and positions that capture the whole WiP ethos admirably, yet have absolutely no connection to the film,

The same can often be said for the text on there too: if early entries did at least make the odd nod to truth in advertising, later ones appear to have largely made-up names which cannot be found anywhere else. Thus WP 11 borrows a couple of names from Caged Heat, yet isn’t, and the cast of WP 13 appear to be complete unknowns. The series falls apart in other ways too: note the poor punctuation and spelling on the WP 13 sleeve below…

Just to add to the general confusion, the first entry in the series, was Ted V. Mikels’ 10 Violent Women (see above), but Women’s Penitentiary is also an alternate title for The Big Doll House, Jack Hill’s hugely influential Pam Grier movie. Hey, who said being a Women-in-Prison fan was easy…

  1. 10 Violent Women
  2. The Big Bird Cage
  3. Women in Cages
  4. Violenza in un carcere femminile, starring Laura Gemser
  5. Femmine in Fuga
  6. Women Unchained
  7. Island Women
  8. Five Loose Women, a.k.a. Fugitive Girls (with an Ed Wood script + cameo).
  9. The Big Bust Out
  10. Black Mama, White Mama
  11. ???
  12. 99 Women, from sleaze-master Jess Franco.
  13. ???