Women in Cages (1971)

You can't really go wrong with Pam Grier in a film. Bring Pam Grier into a seventies "women in prison" movie? You can't go wrong at all! Well, if you're a radical feminist you won't get much out of this sleazefest, and even the sensitive side of your old Uncle Boris flinched at a couple of the scenes in this one, but look, brutality to women goes with the territory of this genre. I only had myself to blame. Let's delve a bit deeper into this Filipino dungeon.

Judy Brown stars as Sandy, framed for carrying drugs by a corrupt drug-dealer boyfriend, and thrown into a Philipines hellhole for women. This prison is set in the middle of a savage jungle, and run by "Matron" Alabama (Pam Grier), an embittered American woman from Harlem who sadistically seduces, controls and tortures all and sundry. We also meet two more Americans, heroin addict Stoke (cult mainstay Roberta Collins) and Jeff (Judy Gan). At first this "new fish" (Women-in-prison lingo for new girl) is naive and innocent, but after being power-hosed, de-loused and put to hard labour, the innocence soon melts away. Alabama takes an instant dislike to Sandy, but in the meantime makes life hell for Jeff, stringing her up naked in a torture-room called "the playpen", and giving her the prison's "version of the hotfoot". Ouch! Stoke also gets her turn, being spun naked on a spinning wheel, and attacked with a sort of trident-thing. Prison life is not fun! Alabama also has a Filipino lover whom she whips with a bullwhip in a naked sadistic frenzy. I never thought I'd be seeing Pam Grier in a scene like this! It's brief, but you can tell what's going on.

There's also a sub-plot about Stoke being given a deal to kill Sandy to keep her quiet about her slimeball boyfriend, Rudy (Charlie Davao). At first, Stoke tries to poison her, then sets a snake on her, and even throws acid on her while she's locked in the putrid rat-filled sewer which acts as solitary confinement. While stuck in the sewer, Sandy sees a way to escape. We have already seen that any escapees are tracked by vicious mercenaries, killed and the corpses dragged back. After Sandy gets the electrical torture treatment from Alabama, all thoughts are on escape. Convincing Stoke, Jeff and Alabama's lover to go with her, Sandy escapes and they, through sheer luck, take Alabama as hostage. The trackers are hot on their trail, and they must make it to a boat that has been organised by Stoke. Alabama and her lover make a bizarre sort of peace, but pay a horrible price by being raped and killed by the trackers. Poor old Alabama really cops it as she's raped and drowned by the brutes. Sure, she's a villian, but I'm glad I didn't have any feminist friends watching this scene with me. Sandy, Stoke and Jeff make it to the escape boat, but one more imprisonment awaits. Stoke is still a traitor through and through, and leads them to a floating brothel-boat run by Rudy .... Jeff is working a secret deal with the police, but can a rescue happen in time for them to escape their final fate, as subjugated hookers?

If you like Women in Prison movies, this one has all the staples. The New Fish, the shower scenes, the torture, nudity, savage sex-crazed Warden, corrupt authorities, lesbian interludes and the inevitable breakout. The cast are all good, seemingly putting their all into this little B-prison film. Roberta Collins is fantastic, evoking some sympathy as the hapless junkie, whose lack of morals endangers all around her. The director, Gerardo de Leon, films a lot of close-ups of his beautiful actresses, to very good effect as their glistening, expressive faces can carry it all off. Pam Grier steals the show as Alabama, with her sadistic performance. I've never seen her as a baddie before, but she does it exceedingly well. At one point one of the prisoners, horrified at all the depravity, screams at Alabama, "What kind of Hell did you crawl out of?" She replies with a sneer, "It was called Harlem!"

Women in Cages is worth a look for this moment of dialogue alone. Other noteworthy moments exist in the film though, and if you want to explore the "WIP" genre, I'd recommend this one as an introduction. The treatment of women is pretty brutal in some of the scenes, but the title gives the subject matter away to a good extent. Be warned. Students of seventies cult cinema (like myself) will enjoy the distinctive music, cinematography and irreplacable stars such as Pam and Roberta Collins, doing their sweaty, prison-bound thing.

© Boris Lugosi 2005.


Review written: 04/19/2005 20:15:00