When The Big Doll House became a smash hit, it opened the floodgates for women in prison films. Anyone who could get a camera crew to the Philippines or another similarly cost-effective location started grinding out “babes behind bars” epics that delighted the drive-in crowd. Producer Roger Corman, never one to bypass a trend, set Women In Cages into the production hot on the heels of The Big Doll House and even retained three of its stars — Judy Brown, Roberta Collins and Pam Grier — to fill out the cast. The result was a different kind of women-in-prison film from its predecessor: tougher, faster and shockingly grim.
The narrative offers a concentrated dose of bad-vibes sleaze. Jeff (Jennifer Gans) is our pretty but dangerously naïve heroine, who gets sent to prison when her rat-fink boyfriend Rudy (Charlie Davao) sets her up to take the rap for some drugs that actually belong to him. She finds herself in an archetypal jungle hellhole where a brutal ex-American matron named Alabama (Pam Grier!) runs the show with sadistic delight. When she isn’t driving the inmates to the breaking point in the cane fields, she’s either sleeping with them in her boudoir or brutalizing them in a torture chamber right out of Mark Of The Devil.
Lost in a daze, Jeff tries to get along with her cellmates, which include tough but decent Sandy (Brown), hard-luck junkie Stoke (Roberta Collins) and Theresa (Sofia Moran), who is Alabama’s current nocturnal plaything. Unfortunately, Rudy has realized that Jeff needs to get killed before she can wise up — and he puts the squeeze on Stoke, offering drugs in exchange for Jeff’s murder. Meanwhile, Jeff realizes she must bust out of prison and hatches a plan. She and her cellmates bust out with Alabama in tow as a hostage — but there are several miles of dangerous jungle to cross as well as lethal “trackers” on their trail — and when they reach civilization, fate has more surprises in store for our beleaguered inmates.
Women In Cages is often thought of by b-movie buffs as a lesser experience than The Big Doll House or The Big Bird Cage because it lacks the satirical wit, character depth and thematic ambitions of those films. While Women In Cages can’t compete on those levels, it isn’t designed to — and that kind of judgment ignores what an effective little programmer it is. It is best viewed as an alternative take on the genre: whatever this film lacks in complexity, it makes up for with blunt force sleaze.
Director Gerardo De Leon simply goes for the throat, piling on the sleaze and violence with glee. He balances the high level of sleaze with an appropriately over-the-top looking, framing it all in compositions that fall halfway between comic-book panel and men’s magazine cover. The torture scenes in particular have a very specific, fetishized S&M fantasy look to them. De Leon also knows pacing is crucial and he keeps his densely plotted story rolling out at a relentless pace studded with slap-in-the-face shocks. He even throws in a supremely cruel coda that closes the story out on with a gut-punch level of nastiness. The overall effect is not unlike the women-in-prison films of Jesus Franco and Bruno Mattei but made with higher levels of style and consistency.
Better yet, De Leon understands that the melodrama and emotions much be cranked up as high as the sex and violence for an enterprise like this to work — and he gets the kind of performances necessary. Gans is decent as the doe-eyed heroine, kind of like Alice if she ended up in a sleaze-movie prison instead of Wonderland. Brown is also good as the essentially heroic Sandy, who can still have a nasty moment — look out for the scene where she goads Theresa into a fight over her relationship with Alabama.
However, the movie really belongs to Grier and Collins. Grier gives a grand villainous diva performance as the film’s wicked matron, creating a character is fueled purely by hatred and spews her venom whenver she gets the chance (she gets a choice monologue near the midway point where she explains how she ended up this way). Collins matches her note for melodramatic note as Stoke, playing against her usual charming style to create an intense, bug-eyed portrait of addiction-driven deceit. She digs into the melodrama with total conviction, making her character the sleaze movie version of the “tragic bad girl” character you often see in Douglas Sirk films.
In short, Women In Cages is a deliciously cruel slab of b-movie sleaze. It only takes 80 minutes to watch but even the hardiest schlock mavens will feel winded by the time the end credits roll.