Women's prison movies have always been a genre and subculture among American moviegoers, hovering somewhere between the seamy and the campy.
Babes behind bars! Chicks in chains! It's the old story of stereotype meets archetype, corn meeting porn, and examples come and go, in the manner of "Hell Hole," which is now making its way across the country. But for some reason buried deep in the psyche of America or Hollywood or both, there may be as many as 10 more following close behind this summer, possibly the greatest outpouring ever.
That doesn't mean these pictures are any good. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not everyone appreciates the sight of imprisoned women enduring (a) verbal abuse, (b) physical abuse, (c) sexual abuse or (d) all of the above. (Note: There is never a none of the above.)
The essentially salacious content of these films can be taxing -- but the story lines are models of simplicity: A wide-eyed innocent (locked up for something she did not do, or did accidentally) turns tough, following incarceration. During her imprisonment she encounters a lot of fighting among the inmates, at least one full-scale riot and, cleanliness being next to godliness, shower scenes.
Skeptics may snicker but, unlike crime, these movies pay. Filmed for less than $700,000, "The Concrete Jungle" (1982) sold more than $11 million in tickets. Its $1.3 million follow-up, "Chained Heat" (1983), outgrossed it, selling more than $20 million in tickets, according to producer Billy Fine.
Further proof is in the persistence of the genre. Surmised the venerable Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of Arkoff International Pictures and cofounder of the now-departed American International Pictures, "It's always been a good staple."
He should know. "About 600 pictures ago, I made a couple of them," he said, referring to "Girls in Prison" (1956) and "Reform School Girl" (1957). "It's like fashion. Wide lapels are out one year, in another. Well, women's prison pictures are hotter some years than others -- but they've never gone out of style."
Arkoff's company is distributing "Hell Hole," coproduced by Fine, about an amnesiac (Judy Landers) sent to a sanitarium, where she encounters thug Ray Sharkey and mad scientist Mary Woronov. Also on the summer roster: "Red Heat," about imprisonment and escape from an East European women's prison, starring Linda Blair and Sylvia Kristel. In "Bad Girls Dormitory" three beautiful teens encounter the horrors of juvenile hall. The Argentine-made "Condemned to Hell" (dubbed in English) deals with gang warfare within the confines of prison.
One must emphasize "Can't Shake the Beat." It's a kind of "Flashdance" behind bars. A young dancer kills her stepfather (he beats her mother). In prison, the inmates think she's a goody two-shoes and brutally beat her. She's dispirited, but while she's in her infirmary bed she is inspired to dance again. And she goes on to perform in the big show for the governor.
Also coming: "Georgia County Lockup," about an undercover agent forced to serve time, is now filming in Nevada. In "The Naked Cage," an innocent woman is imprisoned with the only person whose testimony could set her free (it is in development at Cannon Films). Women prisoners are dispatched to outer space in both "Prisonship" and "Prison Planet," to begin filming this summer.
Meanwhile, the hit stage spoof "Women Behind Bars," which lampoons the genre, is in development at ABC Motion Pictures, although it isn't likely to amuse the people who take this stuff seriously.
This all started with the social reform-expose' films of the late '30s. The peak was "Caged" in 1950, the still-harrowing film that brought Eleanor Parker a best-actress Oscar nomination. But then came the '50s-era tirades about "flaming youth," with hot rodding, cool cats with duck-tail haircuts and rock 'n' roll (and the "loose morals" that it unleashed), leading more than one sweet young thing to crime -- and punishment.
The genre reawakened with a bang in 1971 with "The Big Doll House." This got women out of the traditionally boring (and shapeless) prison garb, and into short shorts -- befitting this one's tropical island setting.
Explosive leading lady Pam Grier and scenes of torture and blatant sexuality set the tawdry stage for future women's prison movies, including the 1972 follow-up, "The Big Bird Cage." Back again were Grier and a barbaric island detention facility.
Both films were directed by Jack Hill, who has recalled, "We weren't trying to be socially realistic. These were total fantasies. A tropical island prison? Come on!"
All the same, some critics took hostile exception. "One reviewer called 'Big Doll House' 'jungle rot.' But we made a lot of money," said Hill.
Island fever continued with "Black Mama, White Mama" (1973), about two women (including Grier), manacled together, who escape. Or as the ad copy proclaimed: "Chicks in Chains!" Jonathan Demme, the film's coauthor, also produced "The Hot Box." ("A tropical torture chamber where anything can happen!" declared the ads.) En route to critical plaudits for the direction of such films as "Melvin and Howard" and the Talking Heads documentary "Stop Making Sense," he also did the cultish "Caged Heat" (1974).
Said Demme, "I'm proud of that picture. I took it seriously. I know it's a full-tilt exploitation movie, but I also saw the women as tragic heroines. I rewrote the script six or seven times to get in feminist issues as well as the requisite nude scenes."
"Caged Heat" is a hard-edged film that covers medical experimentation (lobotomies) within prison walls, and shoot-outs on the outside. The title is a homage to Demme's two favorite prison movies, "White Heat" (which starred James Cagney) and "Caged." "I also named the title character Cromwell, for John Cromwell, the (late) director of 'Caged.' And I used that film's last line," Demme added.
That line -- "She'll be back" (first uttered when Parker completes her prison term in "Caged") -- sums up the grim transformation often depicted by the genre.
More happily transformed was a budget of $180,000 into a gross of more than $1 million during the film's first weekend alone.
These films have a lot of identifying elements.
For example, Sybil Danning and Linda Blair are the undisputed queens of the realm. Other actresses who have done time -- in strong roles -- include Stella Stevens, Jill St. John and Barbara Luna. Edy Williams is also a familiar face (that is, familiar body) within big-screen prison walls.
These films also "boast" luridly imaginative ad campaigns, like . . . "99 Women" (1969): "The Turned-On Women of Our Turn-About Times! Wild Women, Weird Women! Women in Prison Without Men!"
Poster art for "Chain Gang Women" (1971) screamed, "Chained Like Animals -- Treated Like Trash -- Even the Filth and Sweat Couldn't Stop Their Primitive Cravings!" (The latter title is significant because it would seem to be misleading, since the "chain gang women" actually are two farm girls who encounter a cruel group of chain-gang men.)
On the flip side are those genre films that deliver even more than they promise. Foremost among them are the "Ilsa" sex-and-sadism films, including "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" (1974) -- which continues to play "grind" houses and the drive-in circuit in some parts of the country.
Possibly because the sounds of a slamming cell door and the screams from within require no translation, these movies are especially popular in foreign territories. According to Helen Sarlui, in charge of development and sales for Continental Motion Pictures Inc., which is involved with eight women's prison movies (like "Can't Shake the Beat," "Hell Behind Bars" and "Hell Penitentiary"), the Italian-made "SS Experiment Love Camp" continues to play in Europe, though it was made in the mid-'70s. Filmed for $200,000, it has grossed about $1.5 million, said Sarlui.
Tim Kincaid, writer-director of "Bad Girls Dormitory," believes the appeal of these films lies in the thought of women fighting. "It's socially unacceptable behavior. People have always liked to watch cat fights."
Filmed for $80,000 in 10 days, Kincaid said his movie was inspired by the spate of teen-age sex comedies. "I noticed all these interchangeable, goofy teen movies, and I decided to put a women's prison film in juvenile hall." He laughed, adding, "My juvenile hall happens to be located in a high-rise, in the dead center of Manhattan."
Along with nudity, karate scenes and hints of lesbianism, the film "presents" Marita, an acting newcomer from Finland. "But most people will think she's from Puerto Rico or something, because she has this absurd Lupe Velez kind of accent."
"Red Heat," what with such stars as Blair and Kristel (the aging one-time Emmanuelle), is a $2.5 million feature with a built-in audience. Still, first-time feature director Robert Collector is a bit uneasy about being identified with the genre. "I can't ever say that I'm above the material. I have to start somewhere. But, this isn't 'Repo Man' or 'Blood Simple.' I didn't have the luxury of doing an esoteric piece.
"What I've tried to do is give the film some cinematic value. We have lesbians -- you've got to have lesbians. There's no way you can get around certain requisite scenes. But the story is ultimately about taking responsibility."
Another sort of ultimate will be women prisoners in outer space, according to "Prisonship" director Fred Olen Ray ("Biohazard," "Scalps").
A test version of Ray's film appears on "Sleazemania," the compilation film by Johnny Legend made for videocassette (Rhino Video). "It's more a 'Star Wars'-type of film, with campy elements," said Ray, who prides himself on the fact that he has never seen a women's prison film. "But I've heard all about them. Drugs and rape scenes sound pretty unplesant." Thus, while his film will include nudity, he promised, "no drug injections."
Jim Wynorski, cowriter-producer of "Prison Planet," boasts that his film will "go beyond anything ever done--since we're set on a distant planet many thousands of years from now." The story line involves a female James Bond, who poses as a prisoner to learn the truth about "terrible" goings-on-including lobotomies.
He promises a nude shower fight--in a laser shower yet: "The girls are rolling around in between these rays of death." Plus an outer-space brothel, a battle between Earth girls and Delta girls (they are fishlike, with gills), and the warden's ominous "brain chair."
The question, though, about women prisoners in outer space is: Why?
Said Ray: "It seemed like the next logical step."