Thursday, October 14, 2010

"....I've been working on the road now, I've been working by the sea...."

I'm kind of amazed that The Big Bird Cage isn't remembered as anything other than a minor exploitation classic. I mean really if The Big Bird Cage had never been made there's a good chance that American International Pictures would never have fronted Jack Hill the money to make Coffy and Foxy Brown, two of the most important blaxploitation films in history. The movie showed that Pam Grier could carry a movie and she went on to become the female black icon of the 70s. She made such a splash that years after the exploitation boom had been silenced, an up and comer called Quentin Tarantino would never have tried to revive his career in his third movie Jackie Brown, which opened to middling reviews and poor box office, which sent our young man into the business of making pastiche/rip-offs of his favourite genre films to standing ovations that have yet to cease. If The Big Bird Cage had never been made, Roger Corman, the head honcho at New World Pictures, would never have attempted to recapture the magic by making three additional Women In Prison films, one of which was the debut of an unknown novice director called Jonathan Demme who was beginning a few-picture tenure with NWP. Demme, along with future producer Gary Goetzman and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, had bigger things in mind than exploitation cheapies and thanks to their collective resumes cultivated under Corman, were able to establish themselves as quite the talents. But before all that Corman had to earn enough good credit while simultaneously running out of ideas. If the Philippines hadn't quit on him, he'd never have needed to relocate and it just so happens that two continental changes couldn't save the Golden Age Women in Prison film from dying a much mourned death.

The Woman Hunt
by Eddie Romero
Silas, a slimy thug, is running around the jungles of the Philippines rounding up undesirable women who he thinks no one will miss. He's not the only one. A steely femme fatalle called Magda is out buying prostitutes from disreputable sources on the orders of the enigmatic Spyros, a man of power who's feared by most everyone. Silas has picked a number of forgotten women himself but he's also made the mistake of picking up foreign correspondent Lori, who isn't nearly as willing to go quietly as some of her fellow captives. After a botched escape attempt the girls (among them Pam Grier surrogate Billie and McGee, played by a very tired looking Pat Woodell). Most of the girls are pinay who won't be missed and even McGee seems fairly resigned to whatever Spyros has planned. Spyros is a corpulent ex-military man who has invited a group of his billionaire friends to his estate to coincide with the arrival of the girls. These guys have all made their money doing rather seedy things but what Spyros has in mind has even them shocked. He's hired a staff of bastards to go out looking for these women because Spyros plans to hunt them for sport. That's a new one even for these louts, but, then what do you get the man who has everything? Well this is the last straw for Billie, Lori and a reluctant McGee who orchestrate an escape with the help of Tony, one of the guards who's started thinking twice about his commitment to his lifestyle as a henchman. And because this is a film modeled both on The Most Dangerous Game and The Big Bird Cage, a happy ending for everyone seems pretty much out of the question, doesn't it?

Not that I particularly cared. The Woman Hunt is the biggest letdown of all the WIP films in the wake of The Big Doll House. First of all, what a premise to squander! A sexed up version of The Most Dangerous Game? Sign me right the fuck up! When I learned about this movie I went into such a furious search for it that I didn't bother asking why no one seemed to have heard of it. Well turns out no one talks about it because there's a good chance that the seven people who saw it promptly forgot everything about it. And I went way out of my way to find a bootleg copy of this movie. So imagine my frustration when I was given not only a pisspoor VHS rip but a pisspoor VHS rip of one of the dullest sexploitation movies I've ever seen. I already forget most of what happens between character unremarkable, terribly lit death scenes. It would be bad enough if The Woman Hunt were only dull but it so fucks up the awesome potential of its story that I had to fight to pay attention during the last twenty minutes. The titular hunt doesn't actually happen, at least not in the traditional Most Dangerous Game mold. The girls escape sort of devolves into the hunt but its disorganized and the girls are equally well armed by the time the billionaires catch up with them. And yet the advantage is clearly with the women, which doesn't feel earned in the slightest. I can't tell you how anxious I am to make my name as a filmmaker so I can get my hands on someone's money and remake this thing pronto because this I can say without hyperbole that this is the greatest idea in the history of film given the lamest possible treatment.

The problem is Eddie Romero, to oversimplify a bit. As a horror director he rarely disappointed. He was responsible for the brilliant Terror Is A Man and its staggering number of sequels, after all. But give him anything that doesn't have a touch of Dr. Moreau and he just couldn't deliver the goods. The Woman Hunt is listless from start to finish and any actor incapable of directing himself winds up personality-free. So that means that the only two people who exit the film having earned their paycheck are Pat Woodell and Sid Haig. Speaking frankly I wish Woodell had sat this one out. She is one of the best things about the wildly enjoyable The Big Doll House but it wasn't because of her chops as an actor. She was an idea given beautiful human form who goes out with two machine guns in her hand. She's the intangible, she's the revolution personified. Who wouldn't want to fight for her? Here she's apparently learned how to deal with no direction and her response was to create a character who barely has it in her to raise her head and yawn her lines. She's so often looking at her feet in dismay that I spent the whole movie wondering when the hell she was gonna show up. Her short hair doesn't help matters any. Romero not only wasted her, he neutered her and that shit is a crime. Sid Haig was a bit more fortunate. Oh to have been Sid Haig in the early 70s! He got paid to play himself with slightly varied accents in film after film for most of the 70s (he spent the 80s chasing paychecks into the likes of Zombie Aftermath but I call that a small price for never having to learn how to show depth in order to pick up a well-earned paycheck). In fact if I had to reccomend The Woman Hunt, and I kinda do for this reason alone, it's because it features the oiliest, sleaziest role Sid Haig EVER PLAYED. I know, that seems like something you can't calculate, but his behavior in the first half of this movie is just...it's like Burgundy made in a used toilet. It's so disgusting, but it does down smooth. Once he leaves the story the film quickly runs out of steam and has to settle for fumes.
And all that might mean a little more if The Woman Hunt weren't so ass-achingly dull. Romero posseses neither Gerardo de Leon's eye for composition nor Jack Hill's astonishing wealth of sleazy set pieces. His Women In Prison films all have the feeling of just going through the motions, putting emphasis on all the wrong things and missing the point completely. Just look at this film's nearly rapturous conclusion, which juxtaposes a pretty intense suicide with two characters frolicking in an Edenic oasis in the middle of the jungle after having murdered a bunch of motherfuckers. Romero just didn't have the knack for these things, though luckily The Woman Hunt is the worst of the three he made in all. Despite his having no talent for WIP pictures Romero was quickly poached by AIP which left Corman in a bit of a situation. Jack Hill was busy making Coffy and Foxy Brown for AIP (they really did take all his rising stars, didn't they?) but he still thought there was money to be squeezed from the caged teat. So he thought fast. Where could you make an exploitation film cheaply with people sympathetic to your plight? Where do you think?

The Arena
by Steve Carver & Joe D'Amato
That's right, Italy! Corman convinced Pam Grier to come back for one more New World film before she became the nearly exclusively property of AIP. The move to Italy and a partnership with the great Joe D'Amato meant a few things. Corman and director Steve Carver decided that they might as well play their location to the hilt and so converted their usual narrative to a setting more geo-appropriate. Instead of working for a crazed warden in the sweltering jungle, Pam Grier and newly-minted leading lady Margart Markov would reteam after Black Mama, White Mama as Roman slaves forced into gladiatorial combat. Now if that sounds like a genius subversion of the formula, it is, but The Arena is a film that fucks up almost as often as it kicks ass. For the other thing that the Italian location and crew meant is that costs were cut on everything, including synch sound, which meant dubbing all around. In an opening not all that different from The Woman Hunt, slaves are rounded up from all over the country side surrounding Rome and are bought at market by Timarchus and Lucilius, the guys who run the Gladiator bouts on the other side of town. These two are in a bit of a pickle; in one of those only-happens-in-movies-or-to-movies things, people are no longer showing up for Gladiator matches. Timarchus is running out of cash and he's got to spice things up a bit before people decide they'd rather just...i don't know, screw in the streets or something instead of paying to see grown men fucking kill each other with swords. Well a few extra women around, especially women as different as the former priestess Bodicia and the tribeswoman Mamawi, things are a little tense. The new slaves have not hit it off, to put it mildly. In fact they bitch and cut each other down so much that it only takes something minor for the girls to throw down their tools and start a giant brawl in the kitchens one night (the spectacle is not unlike your standard prison food fight). When Lucilius gets a load of this, he reasonably concludes that where violence alone fails to draw a crowd, violence and an erection is a combination no Roman would pass up.

The girls enter training with Septimus, the reigning champion at the arena, the next day. It doesn't go particularly well and the first fight is a bit of a joke. Dierdre, one of the newer slavegirls, gets wasted rather than face both stagefright and deadly combat and Bodicia pins her with no effort. The crowd is amused enough to let them both live and the next day Mamawi is set to fight Livia, the bitchiest of all the slaves. Livia, however, is a Roman citizen with a trick up her sleeve. She uses her citizenship to curry favour with the crowd, who won't stand by while woman of high birth is maimed and killed. So a girl called Lucinia takes Livia's place. This has some pretty serious consequences. Lucinia is Septimus' longtime mistress and once Mamawi is forced to kill her under threat of execution, everyone in the slave quarters has second thoughts about this whole female gladiators thing. Bodicia, Dierdre, Mamawi, Septimus and most of the other slaves (Livia's the hold-out) start organizing a revolt that will not only free everyone but cripple Lucilius and Timarchus for good. But, this wouldn't be a Women In Prison film without some pretty major hiccups in the plan.

There's a reason you've never heard of Steve Carver. Aside from The Arena and the semi-famous Big Bad Mama, he never directed anything that amounted to more than a blip on anyone's radar. And if The Arena is any kind of marker for his style, I can't say it's all the surprising. The Arena is by-the-numbers and the only thing new or different about it were the few bits of set design that came standard with the period setting. And frankly the most exciting thing in that department is the sight of Pam Grier carrying a trident wearing what looks like half a burlap sack as a bra. And as boss as that image is it doesn't make up for the terrible cinematography, the airless direction and the most damning mistake of all, the atrocious dubbing. It's not even that they do a bad job synching up the lines to the moving mouths, it's that when you take away Pam Grier's voice, you cut her presence in half. Same goes for Margaret Markov, who I hadn't yet seen in Black Mama, White Mama. Thanks to the strained vocal performances The Arena is almost just another Italianate gladiator film, saved by its similarity to the New World WIP films and by the moments when Pam Grier's ferocity transcends language and her body language and inimitable sneer speak louder than whoever's doing her voice. It still can't be heard over the volume of the mediocrity, though.
The well wasn't completely dry by the middle of 1974 even if between AIP and NWP they'd done almost everything you could think of that involved both women and jail. After all, they'd never made a film set on their home turf. And where else did the inspiration for the first Corman-produced WIPs come from but the American women behind bars films of the 50s. So, Corman turned another fresh face loose behind the camera, one Jonathan Demme and whether he knew it or not, commissioned the last (great) Women In Prison film of the 70s. What he also probably dind't realize was that Demme was a kid with dreams. Like a confused young auteur by the name of Martin Scorsese before him, Demme took his cheap-ass assignment way more seriously than anyone could have predicted. But whereas Scorses turned Boxcar Bertha into a jerky, frenetic, ultra-violent tragedy, Demme pulled out every last stop in turning what would have been an ordinary and merely watchable exploitation film into one of the strangest movies Corman ever funded. From the avant-blues soundtrack to the bizarre camera-work to the hallucinatory dream sequences to the presentational performances to the aimless narrative to the fact that perplexingly this is the movie that usually gets ranked just behind The Big Bird Cage as best women in prison film of the 70s, Caged Heat is a strange bird, indeed.

Caged Heat
by Jonathan Demme
Right out of the gate things are pretty weird. We follow someone who turns out to be an undercover cop who kind of lackadaisacally walks into a crime scene where moments later three drug runners come out shooting. The sole women among the trio is Jacqueline Wilson and she's the only one of them who gets nabbed. It took me a long minute to realize what I'd seen before I could join the shootout, already in progress. Anyway, she's sent up the river to a prison run by the sexless Superintendant McQueen (one of the many, many subversions of masculinity in this flick). Her cellmates, or at the least the ones we'll concern ourselves with, are Belle the kleptomaniac (Let's hear it for Roberta Collins, making one last journey into the breach and looking like she could eat all these newbies alive), Maggie the bitchy latina, Pandora, this film's Pam Grier and Lavelle, the girl who sleeps in Jackie's top bunk. The dynamic here is nothing new. Pandora and Belle look out for each other, Maggie hates both the new girl and Belle, Belle's trying to either just break out or steal food, an operation that requires a kind of OCD countdown and memorization of the vents, and Jackie wants out but quick. The oppurtunity presents itself when Maggie makes a break for it during one of their labor days working on a farm up the road from the prison. Not thinking, just acting, Jackie runs for the truck even as the guards shoot at it and the two former enemies are now forced to work together to evade capture once again. It isn't long before they decide that the right thing to do is to go back and break out their friends (with the help of Maggie's acquaintance Crazy Alice), especially because they know what the prison's doctor is up to; Jackie herself was subject to his version of corrective treatment - shock therapy - and doesn't want him fucking with any of her friend's heads. And both girls would kill to get in one last crack at McQueen.

Now, this might seem like a kind of a thin plot for a short film, but even at only 79 minutes, there is a lot of weird shit going on here. The first thing I'd like to draw everyone's attention to is the name John Cale listed under soundtrack. John Cale was the organist/bassist/violist/occasional singer for The Velvet Underground. He left in late 69 to pursue a solo career that was split between making some of the best rock albums of the 70s and truly strange contemporary avant-garde music. The score for Caged Heat lies perfectly between the two styles. For every jew-harp-and-slide-guitar arrangement to emphasize just what a sweltering day it is there's a furious viola solo during a dream sequence or as a prelude to a catfight. Jonathan Demme is pretty famous by this point in his life as being someone who knows his shit record collection-wise, but even still; asking John Cage to score a Roger Corman-produced prison movie is a little like asking Daniel Day-Lewis to do a guest spot on Burn Notice. Yet, as I'm sure it would in my hypothetical, somehow it works. Then there is the wildly different styles of photography in use here. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto was a long way from The Sixth Sense, but he was clearly no slouch, even this early in his career. The first establishing scenes of the prison are gorgeous, solid tracking shots, the kind that you'd find in respectable films, yet somehow because it's Caged Heat, I respect them more than I would in, say, Brother John. And when he wasn't sneaking calling cards in, he was trying his best to help Demme craft some junior Buñuel-type surrealist images, like the two dream sequences which look directly influenced by Los Olvidados. That shit just doesn't happen in these kinds of films and if I didn't know better I'd say that this guy's crazy ass vision would have gotten him banned from major studios. Not that his crazy divergences aren't wholly welcome. I was sick to death of how predictable and tired these films had gotten and Demme managed to make a pretty good cup of coffee from day old grounds.

And you know that he was someone who'd done his homework, otherwise what would Barbara Steele be doing here? Like Joe Dante and David Cronenberg after him, Demme used his limited resources and somehow got ahold of one of the finest actresses genre films ever laid claim to. Maybe because Steele, like most of her early collaborators, didn't realize what a talent she really was. Her spastic, twitchy brand of wheelchair-bound evil makes her seem human despite her villainess credentials. Demme makes something unique here in that he shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that this woman is weak and probably just wants a hug but her actions are vile and unreasonable and yet they make perfect sense. That's synergy between an actor and a director if I've ever seen it. For instance her response to what has to be the single goofiest thing in the movie, the drag-variety show that Belle and Pandora put on, is totally unfair but just look at her face as she passes judgment. Her words are fierce and suitably tyrannical but her face betrays her. But as confusing and eccentric as the first half of Caged Heat is, the stuff that takes place in preparation for the big bust out is genuinely thrilling and smart. Take the scene where Maggie, Jackie and Crazy Alice (by the way, what a stroke of genius that was. If this film had nothing but Crazy Alice, it'd be an instant classic in my book) try to rob a bank and show up in the middle of some guys already robbing it. It's not crucial to the story but it's a divine little set-piece that Demme handles beautifully. The girls get the drop on the boys, then send them into the waiting arms of the cops before strutting off with the loot, cool as can be. But of course while they're doing this, we quickly lose interest in the goings-on back at the prison, which brings me to the biggest strike against this movie: Roberta Collins is wasted! No longer the feisty animal she was in the Philippines, she's desperate, vulnerable, and relies on physical humour in the first half and then spends the second half strapped to a gurney in anesthetized silence. That shit is just not kosher. It might not be as egregious as Pat Woodell's sleepwalking through The Woman Hunt but it was enough to make me rather disappointed.
And then on the seventh day, Roger Corman rested. Caged Heat was the end of the Women In Prison film as AIP and NWP knew them and they quickly went looking for some place else to strike. Taken as a whole these movies aren't quite as thrilling as when you view them out of context. It's hard not to judge everything by The Big Bird Cage, for instance, and maybe if I hadn't just seen it The Woman Hunt and The Arena might have been a touch more enjoyable. But then I'm pretty judgmental about the quality of sleaze films, so maybe not. All in all they make for a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of B movie production houses. No idea was beyond consuming way beyond its freshness date and, astonishingly, even after anyone could have convinced that another middling WIP film was a good idea out comes one of Corman's many talented proteges and he up and turns the whole game on its head. Caged Heat is a fascinating watch and a fitting close to something that started as brilliantly as it did. If Savage Sisters had been the last of these movies to hit screens, that would have been a damn shame indeed.

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