Sunday 9 April 2023

Women in Cages (1971)

Director: Gerry de Leon
Writers: James H. Watkins and David R. Osterhout
Stars: Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Jennifer Gan and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

When I mentioned in my review of The Big Doll House that Jack Hill played it for fun but the jungle women in prison subgenre soon got more vicious, I wasn’t expecting it to happen quite so quickly as this. For half its running time, this is pretty close to being the same film but it grows into something much more and it definitely has more of a vicious streak.

Watching them together as a double bill is a real eye-opener, because the similarities go far beyond what you might expected.

Sure, a young lady is convicted of a crime in the Philippines and sent to a jungle prison, but it’s exactly the same prison as in The Big Doll House. The budget ran to a sign here, reading Carcel del Infierno, or Hell Prison.

Initially, I thought it was the same cell, but it’s one down, Cell No. 2 rather than Cell No. 3, so new graffiti but familiar girls. Three of the cast of The Big Doll House returned, but their roles were shuffled in a worthy approach.

The new fish is Jeff, played by a giant of an actress called Jennifer Gan—she was Amazon #2 in In Like Flint, but better known to Corman fans as Marlene in Naked Angels. In The Big Doll House, Jeff was Collier, played by Judy Brown, who’s back but moving up to play Sandy, the tough chick in charge of the cell.

The Sandy role was Alcott last time out, in the form of Roberta Collins, who’s also here, as Janelle Stokowski, better known as Stoke, the drug addict in the cell, such an opportunity in the previous film for Brooke Mills as Harrad.

That just leaves the Filipina local, who has a new name and face, Theresa not Ferina, with Sofia Moran taking over from Gina Stuart. And that’s because there are only four women in this cell, because there’s no replacement for Bodine the revolutionary and Pam Grier isn’t cellbound this time.

Instead, she took on the role of the sadistic lesbian chief matron, Alabama, and plays her with absolute relish. She’s still deliberate but it works better here, because she’s in charge and she knows it. Kathryn Loder played Lucian as a clinical cold blooded killer in The Big Doll House, but Grier is all hot blood as Alabama, a manipulative mistress with a taste for torture.

She’s given some glorious new sets to play with. Her rooms are lit in lurid red with some weird symbol on the door, into which Theresa runs gleefully to strip off for her. Then there’s the Playpen, a well equipped torture chamber that grows as the film runs on.

Sandy’s the first victim. She’s walked past the guillotine and the wheel and the nooses to be stripped naked and strapped into a pair of metal boots bolted to the floor. That floor then slides, thus parting her legs so that Alabama can slide a hot brazier between them. Needless to say, Sandy can’t even stand up for her hard labour in the fields the next day.

Of course, Jeff doesn’t have a great couple of days either. The strip search is quicker, but there’s delousing after the inevitable fire hose shower. She fails to eat a poisoned sandwich—that kills a large rat instead—but she wakes up in the morning to get stabbed in a fight that she wasn’t even part of. Hard labour is kind of the highlight for her.

For a film that owes so much to The Big Doll House, it’s surprisingly a better one. It’s more fleshed out, even during the textbook women in prison scenes, but there’s far more coming once we get to the inevitable prison break.

It certainly delivers more action from the outset: catfights, torture and sadism a plenty. There’s an escape attempt in the fields and an impactul response when the girls are caught and returned dead to the prison by trackers. I didn’t count the boobs, but there seemed to be a lot more of them, especially given two mass shower scenes.

Grier has glorious Playpen scenes, with new torture implements each time: the wheel gets used, even an electric shock device. Oddly, she plays into some yellow peril tropes, with red lights and opium pipes, even though she’s an African American woman eager with a whip.

And there are are assassination attempts in the cell, because there’s an actual story here that goes beyond the genre, the title not just sadistic hyperbole; the cages aren’t restricted to prison walls, but flimsier ones on board the Zulu Queen, a sin ship in which local crooks drug women and force them into a life of prostitution serving American sailors or locals with enough cash.

You see, unlike Collier who had murdered her husband, Jeff is an innocent. Well, sort of. She starts out at a cockfight, eagerly enjoying the violence but unaware that her companion is there with a bag of cash to be swapped for a bag of drugs. When he sees the police arriving, he slips that block of heroin into her bag, with the line, I kid you not, “Hold this for me and don’t tell anyone where you got it. I’ll explain later.” She’s so na├»ve that she keeps believing that he’s going to get her out of prison for far too long, even though Rudy’s secretly paying Stoke to kill her—that poisoned sandwich, the snake that’s slipped through the cell window, even acid poured into the hotbox while she’s being punished with isolation.

Eventually, of course, she wants out, so talk of prison break begins and Women in Cages eclipses The Big Doll House with its much larger framework. Four girls make it out, but they take Alabama with them as a hostage, which only gives Grier more opportunity to shine, merely in a subservient role rather than a dominant one, especially given that Theresa, her former prison plaything, is one of those four girls.

I don’t want to spoil where this goes, but it’s not just a women in prison movie. It becomes a more conventional thriller, but in more than one way, moving through sequences that we’d place in particular genres to get back to where it began. It’s also unflinching about what it’s willing to do and who it’s going to do it to. It isn’t just “harsh, harsh, harsh”, as Tarantino described it, because there are happy endings here along with what he appropriately called a final shot of “devastating despair”. It finds an awful reality, even though it’s an exploitation movie first and foremost.

I enjoyed this one a lot more than I did The Big Doll House. It’s a bigger and more ambitious movie. It’s better acted, better shot and better explored. Pam Grier is a revelation in this one, relishing her shift from victim to villain. The only thing it doesn’t have is Sid Haig.

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