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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.