‘We’re not running a hotel here!’ barks the haughty lesbian-sadist Governess who’s in charge of the running of the festering slum that masquerades as a women’s prison in writer-director Oswaldo de Oliveira’s deranged grindhouse opus “Bare Behind Bars”. This rapidly emerges as perhaps the mother of all understatements: the brutal regime in this most insalubrious of Brazilian correctional facilities is implemented with recourse to an unprecedented mixture of random beatings, frenzied sexual gropings, torture and mutual masturbation between the animalistic inmates and a bunch of buxom guards, who take the appearance of a statuesque, stern-faced troupe in décolleté-emphasising, navel-slashed shirts. There’s a torture chamber in the dank basement area, where the more unruly miscreants are sent to be enthusiastically punished using a selection of medieval-looking instruments and sadistic processes; a deranged blonde lesbian nurse in the infirmary, who, when she’s not getting high on ether fumes is usually practicing her own thorough methods of ‘physical examination’ involving the use of rubber gloves, rough cavity searches and an exotic selection of dildos, sometimes ending up in the unfortunate ‘patient’ having to be hurriedly disposed of by her colleagues in a makeshift cemetery out back; and there’s the Governess herself, who’s actually running the place as a glorified sex farm, selling off inmates to an unscrupulous, perverted lesbian client for exorbitantly large sums of money.
The women-in-prison exploitation sub-genre is a brand of film sleaze that particularly thrives on its select audience’s enjoyment of the camp value to be had in the most depraved representations of human misbehaviour. There have been numerous examples over the years -- with the form being particularly popular with the likes of Jess Franco, whose numerous ventures into this misbegotten genre frequently display the always-uneasy alliance between blunt social satire and the most unashamed on-screen sado-porno antics imaginable. Or at least that is what I thought until I cast eyes on this unholy mishmash, surly the sine qua non of the entire Women-in-Prison sub-genre.
The previously mentioned Oswaldo de Oliveira is rather an unknown quantity in the annals (or should that be anals -- geddit?) of exploitation cinema. Acting here not only as director and writer but also his own cameraman, de Oliveira would appear to be an attention-seeking Franco-style auteur with a macabre sense of humour allied to an insatiable instinct for the perverse. All the usual elements of seat-of-the-pants exploitation filmmaking are to be found here, though: de Oliveira’s direction is as chaotic and as unruly as the feral inmates themselves, the dubbing script and the performances of the English voice artists have a persistent tendency to add extra camp value to an already slap-dash exercise in exaggerated acting styles, threadbare illogical plotting and sudden drop-of-the-hat diversions into the most over-cooked lesbian softcore sleaze scenes.
The musical accompaniment for much of the film appears to be made up of an almost random selection of old library tracks dumped on the soundtrack with no thought at all for their appropriateness; frivolous jazz pieces, cheesy lounge cues and melodramatic piano rumblings swapping places with the same free and easy abandon as the incarcerated sexual partners whose animated couplings take up most of the time on the screen. Indeed, “Bare Behind Bars” often plays like a parody of the genre it dwells within, straining at the bounds of credulity -- although it is hard to clear up how much of this has been layered in afterwards by the tongue-in-cheek English dub.
There are certainly plenty of absurd soap opera elements and performance styles clashing with all those hoary staples of the genre such as the frequent nude communal showers, intimate prisoner examinations, naked exercises in the yard, endemic lesbianism between banged up inmates and constant scenes of sexualized torture. The mad blonde bombshell nurse is played as a ditzy Marilyn Monroe character whose scenes veer unconvincingly between overblown sit-com screwball comedy and titillating lesbian sex play. She’s also completely insane -- as is much of her non sequitur dialogue -- and winds up more often than not accidently killing her patients cum sex ‘partners’. The governess, meanwhile, is played like a staring-eyed soap opera queen bitch: one who enjoys preening herself while taking luxurious foamy bubble baths and engaging in energetic lesbian workouts in her office with a chosen inmate, in between pocketing cash for selling off the girls no one will miss. While she and most of the other wardens are happy to dish out the torture and solitary confinement to the violent, skimpily attired inmates (a random search reveals nearly all have been concealing sharpened weapons in their most intimate orifices!), one rogue warden is convinced that their charges should be better treated, and that the endemic lesbianism in the place should be stamped out. This is not going to be easy since the overcrowded cells are perfect havens for frenzied orgiastic ruttings -- which many of the wardens are not averse to joining in with when the fancy takes them.
The choppy editing, the mad shifts in tone and the film’s uncommon talent for allowing almost any scene to suddenly develop into a tediously panting sex coupling no matter what the previous context, eventually lends the entire work something of a deranged atmosphere – not unlike that of the later work of another eccentric Brazilian exploitation maverick, José Mojica Marins. While most of its first two-thirds are concerned with cramming in as much nudity and feverish depravity as humanly possible while swapping between two jarring sub-plots -- the one, about a group of inmates’ attempting to organise a break out, and the other following the fate of one of the girls sold on to the governess’s businesswoman client (she’s spirited away on an exotic holiday during which her buyer attempts to inveigle the young innocent into the predictable lesbian tryst) -- the final twenty minutes go off-piste altogether when the plotters manage to stage their unlikely escape by taking advantage of carnival night on the Brazilian streets and go off on a crazy romp of a rampage by cover of the dark.
After the feverish, grim but essentially artificial environment of the prison set, it comes as something of a shock to see the same brand of madness taken out into the real and unmistakably impoverished streets of Brazil. The rundown rubbish-strewn shanty towns in which the action now takes place are apparently crammed with unfeasibly hirsute, overweight, moustachioed sex gods -- and reprobate jailbait escapees apparently find them irresistible, if this little exercise in ugly-looking explicitness is to be believed. After causing havoc in a nearby family’s home (during which they shoot the wife, castrate and murder the husband and do unthinkable things to the twelve year old son) they each split up and go their separate ways, while some unfit-looking detectives sporting facial hair that makes Jason King look clean cut attempt to hunt them down, a job made somewhat easier by most of them insisting on wasting valuable escaping time hanging around and indulging in various grunting hardcore sexual escapades.
“Bare Behind Bars” comes to Arrow DVD as the first in a new cut-price range of exploitation classics. It features an acceptable if not stellar anamorphic transfer of the film in its original 1.66:1 ratio accompanied by a rather feverish English language trailer with an amusing female voice-over. The packaging includes a booklet with artwork and writing by Cinemasewer.com scribe and artist Robin Bougie, a reversible cover featuring Bougie’s work on one side and the film’s original artwork on the other, plus a fold-out poster. Be aware though that, unlike the similarly extra-less Blue Underground US release, this version has 1.35 seconds of hardcore footage cut out of it. This is an improvement on previous attempts to release the film in the UK though, which resulted in an outright ban.
A cartoonish, absurd and terminally wooden mixture of voyeuristic sleaze and poorly acted smut, “Bare Behind Bars” is compellingly bonkers, over-the-top trash-cinema at its finest, distilled down to its raw sex ingredients and served up satisfyingly untarnished by even a modicum of good taste or by any self-deluding notion of core social relevance. It’s pure unvarnished filth, and that’s all it ever set out to be. It succeeds mightily on these terms and will be a worthwhile purchase for anyone who enjoys the more eccentric seamier side of cult cinema.