Thursday, September 30, 2010

"....I've been locked away so long now I forget my crime...."

The story's old hat by now. Something sleazy makes a bit of money so a sequel gets hatched. With The Big Doll House we had what was perhaps (according to Jack Hill) the most profitable independent production at that time. So a sequel was not just inevitable but a solid guarantee - don't forget we're talking about a property owned by Roger Corman. All the same they couldn't very well make a direct sequel; those of you who've seen The Big Doll House know why. So Roger Corman put up a little money, probably even a little less than they had on The Big Doll House, and turned over all responsibilities to a mostly indigenous cast and crew. Women In Cages is a little more muddy, features almost unbelievably bad editing and relies too heavily on actors speaking their second or third languages but it also features a much more confident performance from a returning Pam Grier and some excellent work from fellow Big Doll House alums Roberta Collins and Judith Brown.

Women In Cages
by Gerardo De Leon
To the familiar sound of a delay-fitted conga drum we meet Carol Jeffries, a Filipino criminal's classy American girlfriend who has enjoyed the high-life enough not to ask where Rudy, her beau, gets his money. We join them on Rudy's boat just as the police show up looking to bust him on, of all things, drug possession. The boat is a whore house and gambling hall so that they have to go searching his pockets for something to bust him on is a little strange. Anyway, Rudy puts the dope they're after in Carol's purse and so she's the one who gets sent to the slammer. In short order she meets the sadistic Alabama (Pam Grier), the matron who runs the place with an iron fist, iron shoes, iron guillotine, iron maiden and a number of other torture devices in a room she calls the playpen. This place makes the torture scenes in The Big Doll House look positively tame. Her cellmates are an even rougher crowd than the last bunch we dealt with. Carol, or Jeff, as they all call her, is sharing the cell with the equally nasty Sandy and Stoke (Judith Brown and Roberta Collins) and a native girl and Alabama's pet Theresa. Sandy has it out for Theresa because of her constant dalliances with the matron, which everyone is fully aware she does to escape torment. Alabama, for her part, hates Sandy and Stoke and grows to loathe the reticent Jeff immediately because they're white. She spends more time accusing people of racism than Spike Lee but instead of heavy-handed agitprop, Alabama uses a whip to help get her point across. After Theresa gets a little carried away one night while massaging the matron, Alabama's newest form of pleasure is pitting the poor, rejected thing against the girls in her cell: what could be more fun than watching someone trying to murder the white bitches she so hates? All in all this place is much less hospitable than the big doll house.
And as if things weren't hard enough, the powers that be are making things even worse from the outside. Stoke happens to know Rudy and his people. The nervous gangster says he can get her an early release if she can kill Jeff before she can testify against the gangster. And after an attempted poisoning goes awry and a snake in the vents proves a close call, Jeff starts to get wise and Stoke starts thinking about other options. Meanwhile Alabama tries and fails to make Stoke her new bitch; the only thing her defiance gets her is a trip to the playpen. So between Theresa's hatred for Alabama, Stoke's fear of Alabama, and Sandy's resignation to her sentence, they're all ears when Jeff proposes a break-out. They've got it all sorted but some visiting officials throw a monkeywrench in the works. They ask Jeff what she thinks of the place and an honest answer lands her in the hole. It's not all bad news, however, for the hole has a weak spot: some bars that lead to a sewer can be easily removed and that's a much safer way out than through the jungle like they originally planned. Even if they had made it out, the prison keeps some trackers on staff that have caught everyone who's ever tried to escape. So all they have to do is land themselves in the hole and then it's a long crawl to freedom. That is unless Rudy's guys get to them before they find their way to sanctuary...
...the point of that ellipsis is that after the crawl through the sewers is done and the fates of most of the major characters have been assigned the film should have just stopped. Roberta Collins hangs around with no more dialogue, Pam Grier and Judith Brown's stories are wrapped up and all we have left is the D.A. coming to Rudy's whoreboat to arrest him and save Jeff, easily the least interesting of the cellmates. That part is poorly edited and frankly pretty uninteresting. The movie did nothing to make us care about Jennifer Gan's Jeff and I certainly don't give a goddamn about Rudy or the investigation into his criminal activities. The whole movie takes place in a prison cell and placing the climax back on the boat was a serious miscalculation. The three leads had all progressed enough to make me wish we'd spent the last ten minutes with them. Judith Brown basically plays Alcott from The Big Doll House this time around and Roberta Collins is like a mix of that film's Harrad and Bodine. Theresa is this film's Ferina and there's almost no difference between the two characters' behavior. Collins gets the bulk of the film's heavy lifting like the scene where she busts into the harbour master's cabin while he's screwing his girlfriend and she's the only one with conflicting motivation inside the prison. She handles addiction a little better than Brooke Mills though the post-fix reverie is note-for-note the same thing in both films. I'm sorry to make so many references to The Big Doll House but it's hard not to judge Women In Cages as anything but a retread and cash-in by a less competent director. De Leon had an eye for composition that Jack Hill did not but it hurt as much as it helped. The scenes in the playpen are much more interesting and Corman-esque than those in Lucian's room but scenes like the beach-set confrontation between the gangsters and the police are as nice to look at as they are impossible to follow. Everyone's in silhouette so I didn't know who was still alive until it was over.
That said De Leon's craft does not extend to any other aspect of the production. The acting from everyone who isn't a native English speaker is terrible. Pam Grier wasn't quite Pam Grier yet but she was inching ever closer. Roberta Collins is gorgeous here and I'm really bummed that they waited until Caged Heat to put her in another of New World's WIP films. But I don't think we can chalk any of the performances up to De Leon. The editing, particularly where dialogue from angle to angle is concerned, is a mess. If the film hadn't been made in 1971 I'd swear someone pieced this thing together on iMovie what with all the inexplicable fade ins and outs and the nearly impenetrable darkness in some scenes. The film needed to be dark and messy, but that should have been on screen not behind it.

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