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.

Horror Films 101: Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971)

Delphine Seyrig channels Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with my admiration — one might even say, obsession — for European horror films from the 1960’s and 70’s. What these films often lacked in budget, they more than made up for with stunning visuals and style. Of course, when you have a 1000+ years of art and culture sitting at your doorstep, it’s difficult not to look fabulous. Such is the case for Harry Kümel’s highly stylized erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971). From the architecture of the grand hotel on the Belgian seafront, to the shimmering sequins of Delphine Seyrig’s evening gown and the blonde waves of her 1930’s bob hairstyle, everything and everyone looks beautiful.

Author David Chute wrote an elegant summary of Daughters of Darkness for the recent Blu-Ray release of the Kümel classic which accurately captures the mood of the film:

Art-movie goddess Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) slinks through the plush Eurotrash settings as the deathless Elizabeth Bathory, Vampire Countess, in Harry Kümel’s minor Dutch classic of lesbian erotic-gothic. Blood mingles with water during the languorous shower scenes. Set at an upper-crust seaside resort, the 1971 film recounts Bathory’s plot to replace her current consort (Andrea Rau) with a fresher specimen, an abused newlywed whose brutal young husband is an inconvenience waiting to be eliminated. Although both the bi-sex and the neck-biting violence are tame by today’s standards, the film has a graceful, gliding sense of pace that gets under your skin; something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen. It never quite does, but the mood lingers. See it with someone you love–or would like to. –David Chute

Stefan (John Karlen) gets all hot and bothered as he and Elizabeth recount the many tortures inflicted upon the victims of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory.

The phrase “…something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen…” instantly leapt out at me when I first read Chute’s summary, as this echoes my own experience with the film. If David Lynch had been making Eurotrash vampire films in the 1970’s, he’d probably make a film much like this one. From our first glimpse of the Countess, as she glides out from the backseat of her Bentley and up to the desk of the hotel concierge, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of kink. The camera tightly focuses on the gleaming patent leather of her high black boots as she steps from the car, an image that says fetish more than it does vampire. It is quickly apparent that the relationship between Elizabeth and her “secretary” Ilona has little to do with typing memos, and the scene in which Ilona crouches obediently at Elizabeth’s feet clearly establishes their dominant/submissive lifestyle arrangement. Of course, a bisexual female vampire with a taste for BDSM isn’t an entirely uncommon entity in the realms of horror fiction. The true wild card in Kümel’s film lies in the character of Stefan, the secretive husband prone to fits of violent rage. His rather prurient interest in sexual sadism becomes apparent when he recounts the legend of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory, writhing with erotic pleasure as he describes the tortures inflicted upon her victims. Later in the film, he savagely beats his wife Valerie with his belt. And then there’s the whole matter of his “mother,” whom he’s mysteriously reluctant to introduce to his new bride. The scene below, where Stefan gives his ol’ Mum a call, is gloriously creepy:

My favourite moment of that scene is when the butler kneels down before Mother, and “Mother” reaches out to pet his bald head in the way one would a family dog. The butler reacts, but only mildly, before he walks away in silence. Kink abounds, but its only ever hinted at.

As the film nears its finale, the body count predictably rises. Ilona slips in the shower and falls upon a straight razor. The abusive Stefan gets his final comeuppance by way of a glass fruit bowl. Yes, fruit bowl. The Countess herself meets her end impaled on an unfortunately located tree branch as she is pitched from her crashing car. The sole survivor Valerie keeps the Báthory legend alive by donning Elizabeth’s fetching black PVC cape — complete with bat-wing trim and campy-vamp high collar — and seductively sidling up to a young couple.