Nostalgic for Sleaze, part V: film review for ‘Women in Cages’.

In August 2007, Grindhouse director Quentin Tarantino said of the film [Women in Cages], “I’m a huge, huge fan of Gerry de Leon…. [the film] is just harsh, harsh, harsh,” he said, and described the final shot as one of “devastating despair.” — from Wikipedia.

The unfortunate inmates of ‘Women in Cages’ (1971).

If you’ve ever viewed the trailer for the Roger Corman-coproduced Women-In-Prison (often abbreviated to WIP) film Women in Cages (1971) and heard the voiceover intone its famous tagline “white skin on the black market”, then you just know that what you’re about to encounter is a gloriously sleazy gem of 1970’s exploitation cinema. In this regard, Women in Cages doesn’t disappoint. Replete with the usual sex and sadism typical of this exploitation subgenre, this film also boasts Pam Grier as a cruel prison warden named Alabama who’s brimming with more racial hatred against ‘whitey’ than an entire Black Panther convention. While her anger may be somewhat justified, given the revelation of her abusive past, her constant and relentless viciousness makes Grier much less enjoyable to watch here than in her signature roles in the blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown. That said, Grier still chews up the scenery and is easily the best thing about this picture. The weakest performance regrettably comes from the lead actress Jennifer Gan, who doesn’t even have the B-movie courtesy to become naked in lieu of being able to act. What I like about Women in Cages is the fact that it’s less about titillation and more about the sweaty grime of a Filipino jungle prison. Whereas Images in a Convent was essentially a soft-focus, nun-themed porno with good lighting and a melodramatic musical score, this film is pure B-movie sleaze with zero pretensions.

Quick Synopsis: A naïve American woman learns the hard way that her Filipino gangster boyfriend isn’t actually a nice guy when he sets her up as a drug mule. Thrown into an exceptionally harsh prison in the Philippines, she endures hardship at the hands of the sadistic warden Alabama, who alternately seduces and tortures her inmates. She plots her escape, all while her boyfriend enlists some ‘inside help’ to have her dispatched before she can implicate him as a drug lord.

Production: In contrast D’Amato’s Images in a Convent, the film quality here is very low. Like many of the exploitation films shot on location in the Philippines, this was done cheaply and with no attention to things such as, oh, camera work and lighting.

A visit to Alabama’s torture chamber can potentially singe that abundant 70’s bush in “Women in Cages.” Ouch.

Sin Factor: The prerequisite nude shower scenes and inferences of lesbian sex, though much less explicit than Images in a Convent. Drugs, several catfights, an oceangoing brothel and a roving gang of male bounty hunters/rapists. The most disturbing element is Alabama’s personal torture chamber, in which uppity inmates get whipped, burned, and electrocuted. On the whole, nastier and more violent than Images in a Convent, even when you factor in the troublesome rape scene of the nunploitation film. I’d still recommend this film, but understand what you’re getting into.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part I: sex, violence and newspaper movie listings.

“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
– Edgar Allan Poe.

The impossibly busty Chesty Morgan was a grindhouse fixture in the 1970s.

I may be dating myself here, but I am a child of the 1970’s. One of my favourite childhood activities involved sprawling across the living room floor with the newspaper, closely studying the movie listings in the Entertainment section. Why, do you ask, was a young child so thoroughly fascinated by the listings in the movie section? Simple. The latter two pages of the movie section were customarily reserved for advertisements for the drive-in theatres and the smaller, single-screen (and second-tier) movie houses, typically referred to as the grindhouse theatres. And these theatres promised that which you could not readily access anywhere else: the sleazy, the pornographic, the violent, the gory, and the shocking. In short, the lurid subject matter of the exploitation film. The hardworking Ontario Censor Board had effectively shielded my innocent eyes from viewing such troubling content on TV and in the movie theatres, but their efforts did not prevent me from finding it elsewhere. In fact, as the above quote from Edgar Allan Poe suggests, it was precisely due to the forbidden nature of this content that I felt compelled to seek it out. And so, my preadolescent self scrutinized those back pages of the movie section, trying to imagine — unsuccessfully, no doubt — just how “the vampires do it”, or marveling at the intimidating assets of Chesty Morgan. After all, it was the latter part of the 1970’s and the heyday of schlock and exploitation cinema.

A movie print advertisement for “4 orgies of evil”, as it would’ve appeared in the newspaper.

Now, for the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to place these grindhouse movie listings in the proper context. These listings served as my only window onto a dark, seedy and alternate world, one that ran parallel to the family-friendly bright lights of the local cineplex. While I was far too young to view these films, simply the knowledge of their existence thrilled me. This was the era that predated the proliferation of videotape, and was several years before the DVD or, yes kids, even the Internet. If, for instance, you wanted to view what a human being might look like after being turned inside out, you’d have to trek from the cozy comfort of your suburban home into the inner city and plunk your money down at the kiosk of a grimy grindhouse theatre. In stark contrast, in this digital age of the 21st-century, you would simply Google “horror movie in which people are turned inside out,” and discover that Roger Corman’s Screamers is the cinematic gem you seek, then set about finding a copy online*.

This preamble about nostalgia and 1970’s movie listings is my long-winded way of introducing a new series of blog posts on the exploitation film. As the topics I tend to fixate on typically involve gender, sex and violence, I plan to focus my discussion on exploitation films that most clearly address these subjects: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and naziploitation.

Next up, flogging as a form of foreplay in the nunsploitation film.

*Here’s some fun facts about Corman’s Screamers, a re-released US version of Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (1979)