The women’s prison movies while, undoubtedly a 1970’s film trope, still flourished in the eighties. While certain aspects of the sub-genre never changed, the eighties women’s prison films (in most cases) were less visually offensive but far, far more bizarre (yet detailed in terms of plot), and usually attempted to inject some drama beyond the usual capture, rape, escape dynamic of SWEET SUGAR, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, and other pioneering films of this genre. By the 80s, audiences wanted more of a story, usually about an “innocent” female protagonist instead of spending 90 minutes watching an unlucky woman getting caught and thrown into a rape cage. In addition, the women’s prison movies of the eighties tended to take place in actual brick and mortar prisons instead of the South American work camps of their predecessors. Whether this was merely a cost saving measure or a commentary about the evils of actual prison overcrowding in the Reagan era is anyone’s guess. A final unique facet of eighties prison movies is the fact that they are almost always incredibly complicated; usually focused on some sort of deep seated corruption in the prison system itself. Of course, most men never notice these subtle political pot-boilings. As a man who first discovered these movies as a teenager, let me say that all I ever wanted from these films were shower scenes, blouse ripping cat fights, and forced lesbian experimentation. Such film facets, when administered in large enough doses, will give its male viewers such a case of “breast blindness” that we will never notice that these films aren’t actually sociological statements regarding sexist themes, nor a cautionary tale about the abuse of power in general. All women’s prison films, regardless of era, are just another a contrived plot device to justify as many physically strenuous “jiggle inducing” activities that half-naked women captives can be forced to engage in during a scant hour and a half running time under threat of being shot by men with guns. This being said, I am STILL the warden of Women’s Prison movies and apparently it’s time for another inspection. In accordance with state law and to keep this review as serious, dispassionate, and as professionally detached as the films themselves, I will be typing this review while wearing greased latex gloves and cackling madly for no apparent reason while somber synth music plays loudly in the background.
Well, well what do we have here?
Chained Heat (1983)
When it comes to women’s prison films of the eighties (or of all time), no list would be complete without some mention of CHAINED HEAT, the film that Linda Blair said ruined her career. For fans of this sordid sub-genre, however, Blair’s career sacrifice may have been worth it. Also as an added bonus this is the full, uncut European version of with three minutes of footage that has never before been released on DVD in this country. With that in mind, now would be a good time to explain why this film is worth owning in the first place. First of all the cast is a veritable “who’s who” of B-movie actors who names most people won’t recognize until they see them onscreen, playing the same roles they always do. Aside from Linda Blair there is Sybil Danning who, here, plays the role of a butch, blonde, and beautiful “poor man’s Ilsa” that she plays in most of her films. Next there is the statuesque Tamara Dobson, a blaxspolaitation star who is best known for her portrayal of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973-1975). Finally John Vernon is on hand to play Warden Bacman; a soft-bodied evil jerk who runs the prison. Badly.
With all of these actors doing exactly what they’re known for in other films, this could have been a borderline prison parody, but CHAINED HEAT ratchets up the crazy in other ways as well. While most movies about a women’s prison have one criminal enterprise being run on its grounds, CHAINED HEAT has two of them; an in-house drug ring operation run by the warden, and a prostitution ring being facilitated by a power mad guard named Captain Taylor. At first, the two criminal enterprises know nothing about each other, but, eventually, the girls are used as disposable pawns by each camp to first try to expose and then eradicate the other. Sound confusing and unnecessary yet? Believe me; it only gets more so. Apparently the prison is also a simmering racial cauldron ready to boil over as the two female gang leaders Erica and Duchess, (Played by Danning and Dobson, respectively) are about to wage their final battle with one another.
The scenes of actual prison violence in this movie are detailed, using grisly special effects that would rival many horror movies of the period. Of course, cast in the middle of this machination of misogyny is Linda Blair’s character, Carol Henderson, an innocent girl who really gets the worst this whole sad (covered here in the several minutes edited from the American version until now).
So let’s recap, what we have here is a bizarre cinematic blender of every B movie sub-genre from sexploitation and blaxploitation to slasher movie, only without the quiet, thoughtful plot subtleties you might expect from such a B-movie mash up. The fact that the end product makes next-to-no sense whatsoever shouldn’t stop you from watching this, because, while it is obviously as mean spirited it incredibly silly and painfully contrived, this hot mess stands as the last great cult R-rated women’s prison movie. If you do need a more noble reason to watch, however, the film also has a message of tolerance and sisterhood at the end where the female inmates share a group hug after brutally murdering all of the rapist guards which somehow always makes me all teary inside. You go girls!
Red Heat (1985)
Not to be confused with the (1988) version of RED HEAT starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, this film focuses on a woman’s prison in West Germany, where poor, poor Linda Blair ends up behind bars once more on trumped up charges (does this chick have the worst luck in the world or what?). Also along for the ride is Sylvia Krystal, none other than EMMANUELLE herself, playing a ravenous lesbian bully whose turn-ons include cruelty, tattoos, and night time raids on her fellow female prisoner’s bunks that gives new sexy meaning to the term “Blanket Party”.
Sounds like a good film doesn’t it? You’re damn right it does!
Sadly, however, somewhere everything went horribly awry, and not in the fun ways you expect them to in a woman’s prison movie. RED HEAT actually strives to be a serious movie, with a story filled with political intrigue, the evils of bureaucracy, and the archetypal love story between the Linda Blair character (Christine) and her army lieutenant fiancé (Mike), who will do anything to get her back. Not that I am against such “normal” films - the reuniting of two lovers against impossible odds in wartime is among cinema’s most compelling plots, and, when properly done it always amounts to nothing less than a powerful saga fraught with love and adventure, (or as I call them, sex and violence). It’s just that I don’t think this is what most people want from a film called Red Heat! It is hard to imagine why anyone would try to attach such an ambitious and cumbersome plot to a woman-in-prison movie as the most successful films in the genre are the ones that stick to the established formula. From capture to escape, women’s prison films are always filled with the exact same events, usually in order, yet no one notices or complains because they contain as many lurid scenes of unrated inmate action as the ever-present ninety minute running time and the MPAA rating will allow. Perhaps this is my biggest problem of all with RED HEAT’s inclusion in this set is the fact that this film was originally released in a 104 minute (sexier) version on videocassette but here we get the 93 minute version. Senselessly edited movies are a pet peeve of mine, and this is made worse by the fact that the version of Chained Heat included here is presented in all of its uncut glory. Why not Red Heat? The interrogation of Christine by Sofia in the Warden’s office, while admittedly not an Oscar worthy moment, was the only scene I remembered about this film when I first saw it 20 years ago, but, alas, it’s not here. It‘s a sad day when any DVD makes us reminisce fondly for the days of Vestron Video/VHS tape. Bah!
Jungle Warriors (1984)
The final film of the collection is one I had never seen (or even heard of) so, admittedly, my expectations were low. Not technically a woman in prison film, Jungle Warriors starts out with a small charter plane full of supermodels on a location hunt who crash land on South American island owned by a drug kingpin named Caesar Santiago, so you know that not all of the “shooting action” in this one is going to be a the simple clicking of a Nikon during civilized scenes of temptation as pretty women giggle and pose suggestively in tropical locales. Does this plot sound contrived and, perchance, more than a little remedial? Boy have you got its number! Within the first half hour the women are captured and interrogated by Santiago’s sister “Angel” in the only way that the lesbian sister of a drug lord (who is played by Sybil Danning, of course) can. She chains them from the ceiling and attacks them in ways not seen since the hanging “meat” sparring in ROCKY. A nice twitch moment, but then all of Santiago’s men start getting involved, and the scene suddenly becomes unpleasant both for the women and the viewer as a suggestive scene of gang rape ensues. Cut scene and fade to bleak…
If that was all there was to this film it would be a sad, pointless bit of misogyny at best, but this one does possess a hidden and explosive nugget of satisfying cult goodness. It seems that a Mobster Named John Mastranga (aptly played by John Vernon) is visiting the island as well, looking to speak with Santiago about the importation and distribution of the cocaine. It is when they are sitting at a table negotiating furiously over the details of their arrangement and eying each other when a gunshot is heard as women make their bid for escape. Suddenly the entire film erupts into an “ESCAPE 2000”-style melee, as every protagonist in the film essentially tries to kill every member of the opposing team as quickly and messily as they can, many of them using unique finishing moves, obscure fighting styles, and archaic weapons. Sound wacky? Oh it is, and it gets only more so. The CIA who have been unsuccessfully tracking Caesar for years lock onto a radio signal sent by one of the escaped women during the gunfight and they soon arrive by several helicopters, leaping into the fray. The result is a bizarre four squad bloodbath that I don’t recall ever seeing before SMOKIN’ ACES. The scenes of gunfire and hand to hand combat, while far from believable, are actually quite well done and downright shocking. The conclusion is a mishmash of babes, bullets, and blood that succeeds only because it gives you three times the amount you are expecting from your average woman in prison film.
Admittedly the explosive conclusion does not make up for everything that preceded it, but, considering the genre of film, I look at this fierce finale at the end of this 3-pack not unlike the explosive firework show at the end of a long and tedious ballgame that had run into triple overtime. During tragic, bittersweet moments like the conclusion of this film I like to quote cooler and calmer heads for solace. In this case, I think the great singer and songwriter, Axl Rose, said it best.
“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby…you’re gonna dieeeeeee.”.
It would seem truer words were never spoken.
And now it is time to look at the boxed set as a whole. CHAINED HEAT, presented uncut for the first time on DVD! RED HEAT cut for no good reason at all! JUNGLE WARRIORS was cut in some countries as well, but this is the intact version. As much as I hate edited products, and as much as I don’t like to agree with the reviews of the nameless nudie neophytes on Amazon.com, this purchase may be worth it just to get CHAINED HEAT. I will say it just once more; it truly was the last great women-in- prison movie. In closing let me say that while this triple feature may not capture the offenses of every unchained moment of its original releases, it does do them some justice.
Extra Features Include: Introductions for each film by Mr Skin, video Interviews with Stella Stevens and Sybil Danning, and Theatrical Trailers.