Sunday, January 8, 2017

Women In Prison Box Set review (2008)

Women In Prison Box Set

Reviews by Andrew Leavold [a much shorter version of this article was published in the Australian version of Empire magazine, March 2008]

Four Women in Prison staples starring Pam “Black is Beautiful” Grier, three of which were filmed in the Philippines, and all produced by the King of the Drive-Ins, Roger Corman.

Corman had toyed with independent film distribution since his Filmgroup days with brother Gene in the late Fifties, while simultaneously feeding product to his direct rival American International Pictures. By 1971 Corman was increasingly dissatisfied with the manner AiP were handling his films – his apocalyptic 1970 counterculture comedy Gassss-s-s-s-s was reportedly butchered beyond belief - and he decided to become a full-time independent film mogul. Thus New World Pictures was born, and having already made the John Ashley/Eddie Romero/Cirio H. Santiago connection in the Philippines, a lucrative partnership was sealed.

These Filipino drive-in films are a sub-genre unto themselves, with their own unique exotic flavour (admittedly an acquired taste) and skewed internal logic. I call it the “Hooters with Shooters” category, in which uninhibited Russ Meyer-esque beauties run around unspecified Banana Republic hell-holes in halter tops unloading machine guns. They have the four essential B’s – breasts, blood, black actors and banana trees – that make them quintessential B pictures, and along with Corman’s Nurses cycle and assorted cheerleader and stewardess films, they encapsulate Seventies drive-in exploitation.

Their real raison d’etre is simple: they made money. An exotic potboiler could be made outside the States for a fraction of the cost, with only a few economy class airfares to cover. The buildings were probably already there in the Philippines, as was the jungle not more than an hour’s drive from Manila, and the film-obsessed President Marcos’ army on permanent stand-by as uniformed extras. I should not neglect to mention their secret weapon: the local cast and crew, drilled to world-class standards by the relentless Tagalog-language film industry and, via Eddie Romero and Cirio H. Santiago and various pioneering foreign producers, by the thriving export market.

The Big Doll House (1971) was New World’s first foray into the “Chicks in Chains” cycle, and under Jack Hill’s assured direction it confidently sets the much-imitated template for future jungle prison adventures. All the now-familiar elements are there: the obligatory shower scenes, cat fights (in mud, no less), and the “New Fish”, here played by Judy Brown as Collier, a not-so-innocent thrown into prison somewhere in Latin America run by a cold Teutonic warden named Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer, and my first choice in the lead role of Ilsa She-Wolf Of The Philippines). Collier finds herself waist-deep in the cell block’s twisted sexual politics, caught in a cell between angry blonde Alcott (Roberta Collins) and man-hating hooker Grier (third-billed Pam Grier in one of her earliest roles), much to the dry horror of Grier’s hopeless addict girlfriend Harrad (Brooke Mills).

Days are spent cutting cane in what look like fluoro pink smoking jackets and, if unlucky, spending the night with Assistant Commandant Miss Lucien as one of her many torturous “experiments”, ostensibly to uncover political information, but we suspect more for her pleasure (and ours). United in their hatred for Miss Lucien, the jailbirds overcome their various power struggles and plan a bust out with the help of Harry (Sid Haig), an opportunist and privateer who does the cell block rounds with drugs hidden in fruit carts, and gets golden one-liners like “Don’t let your alligator mouth take over your hummingbird ass!” 

The Big Doll House was an enormous drive-in hit thanks to the perfect balance of cheese and sleaze in a snappy script from Don Spencer (The Student Nurses, Sweet Sugar). Even the Dolls are colour-coordinated, which Corman would perfect to a scientific formula, with just the right balance between blondes, brunettes, redheads and afros. Almost immediately there were imitators. From Dimension Pictures - Corman’s former associates at New World, Charles S. Swartz and his wife Stephanie Rothman - came two faux-Filipino prison films Sweet Sugar (actually filmed in Puerto Rico) and Terminal Island. Jack Hill’s former producer in Switzerland, Erwin C. Dietrich, assigned the ubiquitous Jess Franco to direct a series of ceaselessly vile jungle-bound exploitation pictures, while Corman himself commissioned Joe Dante and Allan Arkush to send up the entire Filipino cycle (as the hilarious film-within-a-film “Machete Maidens of Moratau”) in the New World self-parody Hollywood Boulevard (1976).

Corman’s second Filipino WIP picture Women In Cages (1971) sees Pam Grier in a much meatier role as Alabama, the vicious pot-smoking lesbian prison matron with a chip on her shoulder the size of Harlem, pitting (and bedding) one prisoner against the other for her own sadistic amusement. In typical Corman fashion, the race tables are turned so that the embittered ex-addict and prostitute assumes the position of slave owner, watching her white charges toiling away in the sugar plantation with obvious ironic glee. The REAL punishment is reserved for the “Hole”, an underground tank swimming with leeches, or the “Playpen”, Alabama’s personal torture chamber with its own guillotine.

Into the hellhole comes blond ditz Carol Jefferies or “Jeff” (the uniformly unmemorable Jennifer Gan) who’s unwittingly takes a heroin rap for her less-than-chivalrous boyfriend Rudy (Charlie Davao). As the owner of a floating whorehouse Rudy doesn’t need any more heat from the drug squad’s Detective Acosta, so he orders Jeff’s junk-sick cellmate Stoke (The Big Doll House’s Roberta Collins) to keep her mouth sewn shut permanently. Acosta, meanwhile, is putting the heat on Jeff to testify against her boyfriend but she won’t budge, and even breaks out of prison just to be with him, thus lifting the flailing drama out of its prison pen rut, through a much-needed jungle sequence and into a downbeat finale at Acosta’s cathouse.

Drab, sour and just plain ugly, Women In Cages is a real disappointment from the usually meticulous de Leon. Location sound is a living nightmare, and New World’s post-production team was too lazy to dub the sounds of a fist fight. Its characters are poorly drawn and swimming in uninspired dialogue; Roberta Collins (also in The Big Doll House) plays the cell’s alpha female Sandy and is always in top form, but it’s clear Pam is still learning her chops and is just not convincing as a tough-as-nails character, instead coming across as a kid playing at grown-ups. Other than a few well-placed camera shots, without Hill’s nonsensical flourishes the Big Doll House reunion limps along and barely registers as more than another anonymous WIP screen-filler.

In fact there appears a deliberate attempt on Corman’s part to disguise its Pinoy heritage: acting heavyweights “Bernard Bodine” (Acosta) is actually Bernard Bonnin, while Charlie Davao as “Charles Davis” is anglicized out of existence. To add insult to injury, Marissa Delgado (Juana), Paquito Diaz (Jorge) and Sofia Moran (Theresa) – three superstars of Tagalog cinema acting in substantial roles - aren’t even listed in the credits.

Jack Hill returned to the Philippines in 1972 with an evolutionary step in WiP films, the more playful and, one can argue, more experimental The Big Bird Cage. This time Hill wrote the script and amplified the elements in The Big Doll House that worked best: black humour to balance the nastiness, crass and deliriously absurd one-liners delivered with stone-faced conviction, and the unmistakable chemistry between Pam Grier in Sid Haig, who shared some memorable exchanges between the bars in their previous effort. In The Big Bird Cage, Sid and Pam return as a Symbionese Army version of Ozzie and Harriet, or in this case Django and Blossom, tearing around the Third World countryside inflicting their swinging brand of revolution. They attempt to kidnap Terry (Anitra Ford), a bored American thrillseeker who’s been schtupping half of the government, but it goes horribly wrong, and instead Terry is sent down the river – literally - to keep her quiet.

In a remote jungle location she enters a womens’ compound ruled with an iron fist by the angry gnome Warden Zappa (Eddie Romero regular “Andy”/Andres Centenera), constantly on the point of exhaustion screaming “Punishment! Punishment!” His two homosexual guards (one played with tittering, fruity menace by Vic Diaz) escort Terry past the Big Bird Cage itself, an intricate bamboo sugar mill used more often than not as an instrument of punishment, its victims crushed between its giant cogs. As the “New Pig”, she expects to be released any moment, but instead finds herself strung up by her hair and left as a warning. Blossom, meanwhile, botches an assassination attempt and finds herself in the same hell-hole, and immediately tries to take over as Top Dog (“It’s MISS Nigger to you!”). Django decides to liberate Blossom and the other caged birds – for the Revoution, you understand – and minces past the love-struck guards in uniform. Before you can say “Than Franthithco” he’s unleashed a prison full of willing revolutionaries who, in the ultimate twisted expression of sexual liberation, rape Vic Diaz at knife point.

The Big Bird Cage sees the Filipino drive-in movie click into top gear: fast paced, lines dripping double entendres, the twin ‘fro action of Grier (finally receiving top billing) and fellow wiry jailmate Carol (Abby) Speed, and a raging inferno of a climax in which the film literally melts onscreen.

Now to the box set’s odd duck, The Arena (1973, aka Naked Warriors), a novelty gladiatress number filmed by Corman in Rome’s Cinecitta which predates the Caligula craze by almost ten years. Blonde, thick-hipped snow goddess Bodicia (Black Mama White Mama’s Margaret Markov) joins a wild-haired Pam Grier Mamawi, plucked from a Nubian mating dance, in captivity. They’re swabbed with mops and thrown kicking and screaming into the Arena in carefully ripped togas in front of their bloated, jaded Roman audience. They learn quickly their sex is the ultimate weapon, and work their way through the ranks – both in the gladiator ring and the boudoir – and overcome their cattish rivalry to lead a slave revolt. Like Spartacus, but with an afro. Oh, and tits.

What promises to be a colourful hybrid of costumed cheese and WIP nastiness is let down by its uneasy mix of American and European elements. Thus we get the alienating technique of dubbing EVERYthing in post, so that the entire film sounds unvaryingly flat, plus sloppy direction which may have been lost in translation (though cinematographer and future exploitation hack Aristide Massacessi aka “Joe D’Amato” reportedly took over the reins from Steve Lone Wolf McQuade Carver). Rome’s mouldering ruins are hardly used to the film’s advantage, and instead we’re treated to a disused bullring and someone’s musty wince cellar doubling as catacombs.

For someone as prolific as Corman, you’d expect the quality to vary, and the Women In Prison Box Set does just that. Two hot, two not, but even throwaway films from the Golden Age of Exploitation have a reflected glory about them.

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