Stars: Geneviere Anderson and The'la 'Rain' Brown
I had really high hopes for Sugar Boxx, which after all is a brand new women in prison movie, one that doesn't just have plenty of naked female breasts but also cameos from genre names as prominent as Kitten Natividad, Tura Satana and Jack Hill. Those hopes were met, though Tura and Jack only have the briefest of speaking roles, but what I found is that it has something even stronger going for it: it's an entirely independent movie made by a fan of the genre who made what he wanted to see, not what he felt some perceived audience might want. I think these critters are my favourite films nowadays because they ring utterly true, something that becomes even more obvious when compared directly to Hollywood product which gets faker with every year that passes. The best big budget films are made by fans too and while some of them are prominent (think Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro), there are far too few of them working within the mainstream industry.
Most of Sugar Boxx is set inside the Sugar State penitentiary in Florida, a women's prison run by the ruthless warden Beverly Buckner, who of course is blonde, evil and lesbian. Hundreds of women are sent her way, but investigative TV journalist Val March discovers that there's a rather striking pattern to them, after being pointed in that general direction by the aunt of one of those girls. They're all young ladies, all under 25, all from Tallahassee, all are convicted on drug and solicitation charges, all get sent down for hard jail time even on their first offense, and all are either innocent or at least not particularly guilty of much except blind stupidity. The one we see at the beginning of the film giving a blowjob to an undercover cop has a pretty ineffectual defence: 'But you said you weren't a cop!' she berates him.
So off goes Cheryl to Sugar State courtesy of Judge Tura Satana and off goes Val to look for her courtesy of Judge Jack Hill. Val has done her research and she persuades her producer Ed to let her go find her next scoop by going undercover inside Sugar State. She's a bright and determined girl and she looks the part, though she does have one streak of blind stupidity. 'What could happen in prison?' she asks him. She obviously hasn't seen this sort of movie but she soon gets a hint at what could happen when she goes speeding towards Tallahassee in a hooker outfit under the name of Angel Mullwray. She wanted to be caught, which she promptly is, but I doubt she intended to be beaten by corrupt Sheriff Toll and very probably raped in the process. And she hasn't even got to Sugar State yet.
When she gets there, sashaying into the pen in her bangled top, Daisy Dukes and high heels, she promptly gets deloused by Kitten Natividad, something that I'm sure a lot of folks would be happy to pay for. She also meets guards like Capt Green and Elmer Lee Fish, who are pretty nasty folks, busy overseeing the whipping of a girl who tried to escape, and before too long she ends up in Warden Beverly's office, who promptly gives her the scoop she's been looking for at their very first meeting. There's a special program for inmates as cute as her, one that involves living on the ranch with a snack bar and only part time light duty, with a day a week to relax in a comfortable environment and party on down with the very special guests of the warden, who they're there to entertain. Now she just has to prove it all, after surviving long enough to put a case together, and anyone who's seen a women in prison movie knows what that's going to entail.
Actually we get a women in prison movie heavy on the topless nudity and less heavy on the blood and sadistic violence, the sinister doctor character being cut from an earlier version of the script. We also get a movie surprisingly full of social comment, coincidentally heightened by my watching this in Maricopa County, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who pioneered putting his prisoners in tents in pink underwear. The proceedings were never intended to win any awards for drama, but there's enough attention given to the back story and enough restraint shown on the sadistic side to ensure that this could easily run well to both male and female audiences and be just as worthy on future viewings, suggesting a potential cult hit. So many women in prison movies are inherently nasty affairs that however great they are on the first viewing don't bear returning to.
Geneviere Anderson, who didn't know the women in prison subgenre when she signed up to play Val March, brings a sense of elegance to proceedings as well as some drama, not just playing lesbian scenes with the wicked warden but heartbreak scenes with Cheryl's Aunt Irene, ably played by the capable Jacqueline Scott, who began her genre career back in 1958 in William Castle's Macabre. Women in prison movies have changed more than a little since she made House of Women in 1962 though! Anderson is probably best known for a cooking show that she writes, produces and hosts, called Gen's Guiltless Gourmet, but her most prominent role was as the corpse of the week on an episode of CSI: Miami and I could see her as a regular on a series like that. She certainly has the looks and the talent for it and I'd much rather watch her than David Caruso any day of the week.
The'la 'Rain' Brown is far more obviously acquainted with exploitation films and filmmaking and she's a sheer delight as a sassy hooker called Loretta Sims that Val gets chained to on work detail. She definitely channels that blaxploitation vibe, reminding not just of a sassier version of Pam Grier but with an animalistic Grace Jones touch too and a mastery of the profane that could easily see her partner someone like Samuel L Jackson in a Tarantino movie. If we ran a drinking game around every time she uses the word 'bitch' we'd never make it through the movie, but it never seems out of place.
Val and Loretta end up not just cohorts in the fight against Warden Beverly but fast friends too and Anderson and Brown have great chemistry together, something that really builds the film. Of course it can't hurt that they work in white T-shirts and fight each other in the river the first day on work detail. That gets them a day in the hot box, which is basically just a sauna compared to what we saw in The Bridge on the River Kwai, at least while the sun is up. At night it gets very cold indeed and they're naturally dressed only in panties.
Beyond some magic delivered by these two leading ladies, there are lots of little touches that make Sugar Boxx a joy to watch. Cody Jarrett, who wrote and directed, as well as performing a whole slew of the post production technical duties, obviously knows and loves his material and that shines through. There's nothing here that screams of overt self importance like so many modern takes on grindhouse genres that so often hammer home their references as if we wouldn't recognise them otherwise. This is no spoof, it's a pretty heartfelt tribute to a bygone day that I think Jarrett nails, down to the way these oppressed prisoners manage to keep their uniforms pristine, their faces made up and even highlights in their hair, without ever making a fuss about any of it. I loved the fact that the one good guard is a black man named Mr Tibbs but that name is never driven home with a 'They call me MISTER Tibbs!' line to make it obvious.
While the story is inherently not going to hold a lot of surprises, Jarrett keeps it from being entirely obvious. So back goes Val to the warden to join the special program, after giving her some special service first, which can't have been too much of a hardship given that she's a lesbian anyway and Warden Beverly's voice is wonderful, part acerbic Eileen Brennan, part confident Jack Palance and part pure sexy porn star. Of course Val finds Cheryl, of course she finds a threat to her cover and of course she gets out in the end to rumble the story, but there's more going on than that, with a whole payback angle given how high this corruption runs. Here's where it really gets joyous with use of split screen, kung fu fighting, weapons training, pimp daddies in purple outfits, the works.
It's not all good, but it's all good where it matters. Some of the supporting actors are not that great but Kitten Natividad is great fun as Matron Mays and while Linda Dona is no Sybil Danning as Warden Beverly she doesn't try to be. Both of these characters could have done with a little more depth and a little more screen time. The picture could have had a little more blood, those machetes that look so awesome on the film poster being put to a bit more frequent use, but those are minor points. The film could have used a little more budget, not enough to make it go all high class on us but enough to give us some more prisoners and a little more flavour to the Sugar State pen.
Then again, such are the breaks when you make pure independent cinema, films that don't merely have 'indie' stamped on them as a fake seal of approval by the studios that backed them to begin with; but which were really made outside the system, by people who have to balance the freedom to do what they want with the restrictions of having to do so with only whatever resources they can muster. More budget always helps but the unmistakable feel of the genuine is even more important and it's films like this that carry that in abundance. It was obvious from the screen that everyone here is genuine, even before Anderson, Brown and Jarrett proved it after the show in person with one of the more enjoyable Q&As I've experienced. Sugar Boxx deserves to succeed. Go do your part.