"Cages" comes as part of the irresistible "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" line, which is only natural since the skinflint producer practically invented the sub-genre with lots of skin.
In the dank, Filipino prison that is 1971's "The Big Doll House," the more unfortunate inmates hang in bamboo cages outside to bake in the sun. Inside, Pam Grier shares a cell with Roberta Collins, Judith Brown and Brooke Mills, and there's not much to do but have cockroach races. As a visiting fruit vendor, Sid Haig cops a feel off Pam and hopes for rape.
The girls get into three kinds of fights: mud, food and cat. The worst-behaving among them get tortured via water boarding or electroshock right to the boobs. It's a strange place — the evil, emaciated warden (Kathryn Loder) keeps a cobra in her office file cabinet.
Released one year later, "Women in Cages" shares some of the "Doll" cast and the same sets, but is not the same thing. For one, Grier is now on the other side of the bars as a villain, and relishes the change to bark orders: "Hit it, slut!" For another, we get a delousing sequence and showers by firehouse.
This time, Jeff (Jennifer Gan, "In Like Flint") is thrown into a bamboo pokey for her no-good boyfriend's crimes. Since he's involved in mob-style activities, his enemies use heroin as bait to convince cellmate Stoke (Collins again) to kill Jeff. From poisoned sandwiches to snakes, it's almost comical in how often Stoke fails, making Jeff like something like a clueless Inspector Clouseau, bumbling her way through survival.
Escape seems hopeless, until one of them gets thrown into an underground pit for punishment and finds it connects to the sewage system. Even if she is the baddie, it's a bit unsettling to see Grier getting groped by many men in the finale. This was sold with the tantalizing, racially charged tagline of "White skin on the black market," and one wonders if early cockfighting footage of a white rooster sparring with a black rooster isn't some sort of intentional foreshadowing.
Now playing a crook named Django, Haig's back in 1972's "The Big Bird Cage." He thinks he's struck gold with his choice of hostage in the tall, sultry Terry (Anitra Ford, "Invasion of the Bee Girls"). When he mentions possible rape, she replies laughingly, "You can't rape me — I like sex!"
Her association with him gets Terry tossed into the concentration camp-esque accommodations of the title, complete with a slave-driven sugar cane press outside and a dog-kicking warden, this time male, inadvertently doing an impression of Al Pacino as Tony Montana as a Filipino. Among the prisoners, the most manly of the bunch is Bull (Teda Bracci), who looks like she once issued an LP titled "Tapestry."
They eventually get some help from Django, who plays gay (in the most stereotypical, un-PC way) to distract the male guards. A revolutionary angle thrown in, putting Grier on the side of good again — well, at least compared to the warden and jailers.
Legendary B director Jack Hill provides commentaries for his two "Big" films, but the gem among the extras is "From Manila with Love," a new, near-feature-length documentary on the films, featuring interviews with various cast and crew members. By today's standards, these flicks are rather tame, yet still down-and-dirty dollops of exploitation fun.
If it's real sleaze you're looking for, you'll flip for the "Women in Prison Triple Feature." Bearing the brand of "Mr. Skin Presents," the set offers "Chained Heat," "Red Heat" and "Jungle Warriors." Yes, friend-of-Gazette Mr. Skin's name is on it for a good reason: gratuitous nudity abounds.
He provides a minute-long VO introduction for each, in his inimitable, pun-filled manner ("seems more accurate — make that 'rack-urate'"), calling 1983's "Chained Heat" as "the greatest women in prison film of all time." I can't say I agree, but it sure delivers the goods, and is presented fully uncut for the first time, in a crisp, clean print.
Ten years after earning an Oscar nomination for "The Exorcist," Linda Blair was already in a career slump, but at least still getting starring roles. In this notorious entry on her CV, she plays Carol, a woman in mom jeans and with a hairdo so feathered, it should eat seed. Unlike Corman's films, this heroine actually did something to get thrown into the clinker, saddled with an 18-month stint for accidental vehicular manslaughter.
On day one, she meets jailmates with names like Twinks, Spider, Grinder and Bubbles, "as in Champagne." She also meets warden Ernie Bacman (John Vernon, "National Lampoon's Animal House"), who has a tweety bird and a hot tub in his office, the latter in which he smokes stogies and videotapes Monique Gabrielle (among other fully nude narcs) with surveillance cameras: "Don't call me warden! Call me Fellini!"
Yes, he's corrupt, as is guard captain Stella Stevens ("The Poseidon Adventure"); some of the facility's girls are allowed to be smuggled out to "party" with Henry Silva ("Above the Law") and his rich-white-guy pals — the kind of scenario that leads to equal parts raping and coke-snorting. Only Carol has the guts — or naïveté — to stand up to the system, but she doesn't yet know what happens to snitches. (Sometimes, it's a hook through the neck; other times, a crude toothbrush shiv.)
As popular among cult-film lovers as Blair is (or even blaxploitation star Tamara Dobson from "Cleopatra Jones," for that matter), the spotlight belongs to the lovely Sybil Danning ("Battle Beyond the Stars"), who gets to call Carol a "chalk-faced whore!" (Danning reveals in the disc's interview segment that her own breasts look so large in that tank top because she was at that time of the month. Good to know!)
The naughtiness — I didn't even mention the lesbian activity in the showers — builds to a full-scale prison riot. That may be expected, but how far "Chained Heat" dares go may not; brace yourself for some truly unpleasant moments.
Its inferior sequel only in spirit (bleak though it may be) is 1985's "Red Heat," which is not to be confused with the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Jim Belushi team-up of the same name (and the mind boggles if it were). The print on this disc even bears the subtitle "Unschuld in Ketten," which I'm guessing is German for "unleash the kitty."
Blair is back, but now as Christine, who's engaged to a meathead Army lieutenant (William Ostrander, "Christine") stationed in East Germany. After throwing a hissy fit, she runs into the streets, only to be kidnapped, accused of espionage and sentenced to three years.
The girls there are harsh. Some have tattoos on their faces; one even sports the beginnings of a mustache. Points to whoever thought to cast "Emmanuelle" sex symbol Sylvia Kristel as Christine's enemy; those points are taken away from whoever gave her the hair of Lucille Ball.
While Christine endures harsh conditions and ill treatment behind bars, her fiancé plots with his pals to break her out, leading to a final scene that is riddled with genuine dread and tension. Good for him, because "Red Heat" is uglier — in theme, look and tone — than "Chained." Anyone who likes the earlier film must immediately watch this afterward for a double bill of doin' time.
Finally, there's 1984's "Jungle Warriors." Technically, it may be a stretch to call it a WIP film, but lithe ladies are tied up in it, and if that's good enough for this set, it's good enough for me.
Everyone knows what happens when you transport a bunch of beautiful models into a foreign locale for a photo shoot, but if you don't, "Jungle Warriors" will remind you: They're mistaken for spies, held against their will and defiled. In essence, it transplants the general concept to the South American wild.
As the shoot's producer, Marjoe Gortner ("Starcrash") can offer to ply the models with all the Quaaludes and coke he wants in an effort to get in their pants, but he can't do diddly squat about their small plane crash-landing in the swamps, where the women face instant threat by gators, snakes and frizzy hair.
Marjoe doesn't last long, getting spiked by a booby trap, leaving the ladies (among them, Andy Sidaris regular Ava Cadell) at the mercy of a beefy drug lord (Paul L. Smith, "Red Sonja") and his drop-dead sister (Danning) who accuse them of nosing in on their territory, and thus, throw them to the eager, dirty paws of his army.
Geez, the women sure aren't treated with kindness by their host, but they get off easy compared to the men, one of whom gets his head macheted clean off. If you think "Chained Heat" and "Red Heat" were all right, but lacked senseless shooting of machine guns, this is your movie. Then again, let it be known that Danning mostly keeps things under wraps in "Warriors," if you know what I mean, and I think that you do. —Rod Lott