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 II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.