“This movie is trying so hard to be sexy yet doing it in such a grotesque fashion that you can’t help but laugh at its arch characterization and infantile understanding of women.”
Attention women: Do not move to the Philippines, start dating a pimp, get hooked on opiates, and agree to take the fall for crimes you didn’t commit. If you do, you might end up in one of apparently 50 hellish female prisons on the islands, such as the one from the 1971 sexploitation extravaganza, Women in Cages.
There’s really no explaining the subgenre of sexploitation regarding women in prison films, but there is a very simple explanation for why so many were made in the Philippines in the 70s: It was cheap. A number of American film producers, Roger Corman in particular, shipped production to the small, tropical nation to maximize exotic locales on tiny budgets. Women in Cages came hot on the heels of the same year’s The Big Bird Cage and features most of the same cast. The film’s director, Gerardo de Leon, must have been given a very specific edict from Corman: show as much nudity as you can for as long as you can. Oh, and maybe throw in some girl-on-girl brutality for good measure. The result is a milestone in the genre and depraved fun to boot.
The story of Women in Cages is convoluted, but the gist is that young, white American Carol “Jeff” Jeffries (played by the annoying Jennifer Gan) is the girlfriend of Filipino mobster Rudy who runs a forced prostitution right and when the law comes to bust him, she takes the fall with the understanding that he’d help her get out of prison as soon as possible. What she doesn’t know is that Rudy set her up and never intends to free her. She is sent to a horrible prison whose head matron is a sadistic lesbian named Alabama (played by a very young Pan Grier in one of her earliest roles) who delights in taking girls who talk back into “the playpen,” which is home to Alabama’s vast array of medieval torture devices. Jeff is put into a cell with three other inmates: Sandy (Judy Brown), Stoke (Roberta Collins), and Theresa (Sofia Moran, the only Filipino in the bunch). There’s a surprising number of American women in this prison and they all get put in the same cell. Little does poor, naïve, irritating Jeff realize that all of them were associates of Rudy and he’s just promised Stoke, a heroin addict, all the smack she could hope for if she’d kill Jeff and make it look like an accident. This scheme fails numerous times. Eventually, the women all escape with Alabama as their hostage and try to make it back to the city only to discover poachers have been hired to stop any escaping women, and of course there’s that whole thing about Rudy being a white slave trader. These women just can’t catch a break.
This movie is 81 minutes long and by the 45 SECOND mark, we’ve got a girl with her top off. And it’s pretty much wall-to-wall 70s nudity until the end. There is no beating around the bush here, if you’ll pardon the expression. Mass shower scenes, lesbian love scenes, gang rape scenes – all non-porny of course. The “playpen” sequences all feature one of the four main prisoners subjected to strange torture, all naked of course. Well, mostly naked. Generally, the women are strapped topless to some kind of Inquistion-inspired rack with their arms above their heads (I don’t really need to explain why), but Jennifer Gan must have had a clause in her contract because she’s got her arms tied across her chest. You know, the way a sadistic lesbian prison warden would never do. These scenes are the most visually striking with Grier laughing with devilish delight while harsh red lighting floods the background. Even as a newcomer, Grier was the best actor and thus she was given the most interesting character, sharing at various moments that she grew up in Harlem and was raped by a white man and hence why she’s so demented. The scene where she takes Theresa, her ostensible girlfriend, to her boudoir could easily have been rewritten to feature Dennis Hopper’s character from Blue Velvet. She’s a brutal character, but she gets the most brutal end, and despite how horrible she’d been up to this point, you actually feel sorry for her.
This movie has every kind of sick, twisted male fantasy Grindhouse movie theaters loved and even has a finale featuring Filipino actors fighting each other on a gambling freighter for seemingly no reason. If taken seriously, this movie can make you feel gross, especially when you consider these actresses were not treated very well. However, this movie is trying so hard to be sexy yet doing it in such a grotesque fashion that you can’t help but laugh at its arch characterization and infantile understanding of women. Later in the decade, there would be movies where women rise up against their male aggressors and take revenge, but at this point in time they just get degraded and abused and then more men show up at the last minute to rescue them. It’s salacious and trashy and ridiculously fun to laugh at. This is a classic of exploitation cinema and a re-voiced trailer features during the Planet Terror portion of Grindhouse, and if that don’t solidify its place in cinema history, I don’t know what will.