The early-to-mid ’80s was the last great era of the women-in-prison film. A key player in this late-period renaissance was “Paul Nicholas,” a.k.a. German director Lutz Schwaarwachter. He’s best known for Chained Heat, an all-star classic that is the favorite women-in-prison film for many a grindhouse buff. However, he also returned to the genre during this time with The Naked Cage, an underrated late period entry that is just of deserving of notice by the drive-in cognoscenti.
The unusually complicated plot of The Naked Cage begins with bad girl Rita (Christina Whittaker) suckering an easily controlled cokehead named Willie (John Terlesky) into pulling a bank robbery. The only problem is the robbery takes place the bank where his ex-wife Michelle (Shari Shattuck) works. Michelle gets mixed up in the robbery as she tries to save Willie and gets sent to prison for her troubles.
Once there, Michelle has to dodge a corrupt, S&M-loving lesbian warden (Angel Tompkins) and Smiley (Nick Benedict), a guard who thinks raping the inmates is a fringe benefit of his job. There’s also trouble brewing between the black inmates and the casually racist warden… and when a vengeful Rita gets transferred to this prison, that lights the fuse on this powder keg.
As the above synopsis reveals, The Naked Cage applies a lot of ambition to its grindhouse agenda. Nicholas couldn’t write a believable piece of dialogue to save his life – all the ‘dramatic’ scenes veer into howler territory – but his script shows an uncanny sense of timing in its ability to balance its twist-happy plot with strategically timed lashings of smut and violence. He also cleverly balances his grim story content with slick cinematography from Hal Trussell that gives it just the right glossy, neon-tinged 1980’s look.
The performances are also surprisingly decent – Tompkins and Benedict have campy fun with their villainous roles and Shattuck puts some admirable gusto into her too-good-to-be-true heroine role. Nicholas gets bonus points for casting bodybuilder Faith Minton as the ‘barn boss’ of the inmates – schlock fans may remember her as the ‘Godzilla’ that fell in love with Jackie Gleason in Smokey And The Bandit 3.
However, the top acting honors in The Naked Cage must go to little-known Christina Whittaker – with her “new wave porn star” hairstyle and her Flashdance-style torn prison garb, she looks like a member of the Go-Go’s gone bad as she schemes and slashes her way across the screen in a blaze of nostril-flaring fury. She’s truly a wonder to behold.
In short, The Naked Cage provides an exuberantly trashy coda to the women-in-prison film’s final theatrical era. Nicholas was probably aware he was making grindhouse fodder but he set out to make the most complex, artsy piece of grindhouse fodder he could muster up – and that’s enough to get a schlock addict misty-eyed for the days when low-budget genre filmmakers tried to compete with mainstream cinema instead of just settling for a bunk in the straight-to-video celluloid reformatory.
DVD/Blu-Ray Info: Shout Factory released this on DVD as part of its Cult Movie Marathon Vol. 2 multi-pack set. It’s an old, full-frame VHS master, soft but watchable. The better bet for exploitation fans is the 2017 blu-ray from Scream Factory, which offers a snazzy hi-def transfer in its original ratio.