Jim Wynorski is one of the true survivors in the b-movie scene. As theatrical releases gave way to video rentals and video rentals gave way to cable and streaming, he kept slugging away and found his niche in each new market for schlocky fare. It’s harder than ever today, with budgets and schedules slashed to the bone, but Wynorski refuses to give up. In recent years, he’s plugged himself into the modern day equivalent of the drive-in: the basic cable market for cheap and fast campy monster flicks. Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is a recent Wynorski entry in this style and it shows he can produce easy-to-watch material despite the format’s limitations.
As the title suggests, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre crossbreeds the women-in-prison genre with the cheapo CGI monster flick. A prison clean-up detail in the backwoods is disrupted when Honey (Dominique Swain) shows up to bust her lover Anita (Cindy Lucas) out of lockup by stealing the prison van and diverting everyone it contains to a rural hideout. Unfortunately, a nasty company fracking in the area has freed a group of prehistoric sharks from a long-buried underwater cave. Said sharks can burrow under the ground to attack (!) so the group find themselves trapped and looking for a way to escape. Meanwhile, Detective Patterson (Traci Lords) figures out what is happening and tries to stop both the jailbreak and the shark attack.
If you watched any of the made-for-cable monster flicks that glut the SyFy Channel’s weekend programming, you have a good idea of what to expect from Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre: limited and cost-conscious CGI monster attacks, a lot of camp humor to cover for hasty scripting and performances and a filmmaking approach that favors speed over style or invention. Because it was made to fit the standards and practices of basic cable, the film is also devoid of the sex or violence that spiced up this kind of movie in the ’80s and ’90s.
However, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre can be pretty entertaining if you’re in the right no-frills-needed mood because it is cheerful, unpretentious and eager to please. Wynorski gets a nice look from his digital photography and keeps his pacing sharp as he puts the cast through their paces. Both filmmakers and cast know this is an inherently goofball enterprise so they lean into that quality, keeping the mood light as they move from one cost-effective sequence to the next (example: Wynorski turns a work-detail scene into a charmingly gratuitous wet t-shirt sequence). The results are more funny that they are suspenseful but they are knowingly funny, which makes a difference when you’re dealing with shoestring budget fare like this.
Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre also has a nice bonus in a surprisingly good performance from John Callahan as Carl, the guard who goes from kidnap victim to hero as the story progresses. Callahan is a veteran actor with tons of primetime and daytime soaps to his credit and unlike most of the cast, he plays his role in a low-key manner that deploys a bit of sly humor in all the right places. Wynorski wisely leans on his performance to keep the daft storyline going and Callahan quickly becomes an anchor for the film, with his professionalism keeping it from drifting off into camp oblivion.
In short, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is exactly as silly as you might expect from a movie with that title – but it’s made with a contagious sense of fun that makes being cheap and frivolous into entertaining virtues for the b-movie fan.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just issued this on blu-ray. The transfer does well by the digital photography and both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo mixes are included. Both mixes are pretty low-key but the 5.1 makes nice use of Chuck Cirino’s wall-to-wall electronic score.
As for extras, the main one is a lively commentary that pairs Wynorski with Lucas and co-star Amy Holt. They tease each other and have lots of laughs as they go through the challenges of each scene, pointing out how many problems were solved on the spur of the moment and how it was refreshing to shoot in a small town where people were friendly to a film production. The bonus features are rounded out by a trailer and an image gallery.