Written by: James Bickert and Brian K. Williams
Directed by: James Bickert
Ellie Church as Inga Von Krupp
Tristan Risk as Val
Jett Bryant as himself
Kelsey Carlisle as Penny
Would you believe the first women in prison movie was nominated for no fewer than three Academy Awards? The first movie set almost entirely in a women's prison, anyway. By the time Caged was released in 1950, movies with incarcerated females as at least a major plot point had been hitting screens for almost 20 years. Funny that the genre's first step towards the bottomless chasm of sleaze it would leap eagerly into feet first in the 1970s also garnered it mainstream critical praise for the first time.
Men's magazines, not subject to the same strict regulations as the film industry, were already delving into full-on exploitation territory with women in prison stories around the same time. Incarcerated women enduring human rights violations for the entertainment of the masses can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century, with Denis Diderot's novel La Religieuse (The Nun for you non-French speakers) in 1796, but if you want to get persnickety about it (and I like being persnickety), that's the beginning of the nunsploitation subgenre and only a close relation of the standard women in prison flick, which tend to have little or no religious imagery or themes.
As the 60's rolled along and censorship restrictions began to roll back, filmmakers started to get a little more adventurous with the possibilities of the format. Then in 1969, Jess Franco (because of course it was Jess Franco) and Harry Alan Towers released 99 Women to considerable financial success and the floodgates opened. Still fairly tame by the standards of what would be released less than a decade later, 99 Women featured at least embryonic versions of what are now recognizable as most of the major tropes of the genre.
Once exploitationeers caught wind of the money to be made, it was off to the races. Anyone who could get their hands on a camera, a gross building in a jungle, and a handful of women willing to bare it all for gold and glory was turning out their own women in prison flick. Incidentally, did you know that Roger Corman can smell a single penny on the ground from up to three miles away? Scientific fact. The genre in its purest form had quite a long run in its original heyday, finally fizzling out in the early 90s, although its influence can still be seen today in the popularity of things like Orange is the New Black. Like any deliciously icky exploitation subgenre, it still has its devoted group of degenerate fans, and of course that's why we're here today.
Penny is a student activist, and she isn't having a very good day. We meet her chained to two other women, all three of them being hauled off to jail on trumped up drug charges in the totally not made up South American nation of Rattica. Judging from the other two women's reactions to the situation, this isn't their first ride in the clown car of banana republic justice. Once the women have been issued their regulation coffee cup, cockroach, and I-can-see-your-labia short prison dresses, Penny discovers that the surly and unpleasant guards are going to be far from her biggest problem. The jail is all but run by badass inmate Val, with Tristan Risk doing her best wild-eyed sneering Lina Romay impression (her introductory scene is even a direct reference to Romay's role in Greta the Mad Butcher, and of course that's far from the last reference to WIP movies that this genre love letter will serve up).
Elsewhere in the prison, the adorably befuddled Jett Bryant is trying to figure out just how his last drug smuggling run went so massively pear-shaped that he wound up as Rattica's latest puppet president, held under guard by the most laid-back military dictator in history (imagine Fidel Castro as played by Tommy Chong on sleeping pills and you'll be getting close to the mark). And because it is a direct violation of international law to make a women in prison movie and not have the prison doctor be a sadistic mad scientist, Inga von Krupp is hosting her old mentor Dr. Greeley (Paul McComiskey from Dear God No!) to compare notes and see whose method of torture is the most effective. A fourth subplot involving an American covert ops organization called KS-13 trying to assassinate Jett Bryant to destabilize the Rattican government before it can completely recover from the last coup sort of ambles alongside everything else without accomplishing much until it's time for everything to come to an explosive head after 80-or-so minutes of torture and nekkid catfights and the antics of what is possibly the most lovable duo in exploitation film history.
I was of two minds when I watched this movie the first time around. Of course I was excited that some of my favorite indie filmmakers were doing a women in prison movie, but I think I was expecting something closer to the 70s filth I'm used to. There is a ton of humor in this movie, and it rather blindsided me. After watching it again with the commentary track on, I realized that was precisely the right choice to make. The world already has one Bare Behind Bars. What it didn't have until now was an Abbott and Costello style routine done by a sleepy South American dictator and Zakk Wylde's cool uncle. Among the goals Bickert stated for making this movie was doing a WIP flick with no rape in it. That is a welcome omission, and between that and the humor, this movie becomes something much more special and interesting and downright fun than it ever could have been as just another dreary parade of atrocities.
Most of the switches in tone are handled with a deftness that appears as simplicity on first viewing, but when you see it a couple of times it becomes apparent just how artfully it's done. Using humor to break up the brutality also helps to highlight just how good Bickert and Williams are at the latter as well. Particularly the fight between Penny and Charli (Alyss Winkler), and the death of Inga von Krupp. Speaking of Inga, this is a great performance from Ellie Church. She's definitely the standout actor in the bunch. Inga is obviously an homage to Ilsa, but there are as many differences as similarities. Inga is scarier and more driven than Ilsa, less a power-mad sex predator than a Cenobite. Her obsession with the effects of pain and pleasure come to a head when she realizes that her time is done, and her final act is to bond with her torture machine. Church sells the hell out of the ecstasy she derives from her demise.
Thinking of demises and handling of tone, if I was expecting a whole movie of 70s film pastiche, the ending makes it very clear they could have delivered exactly that had they chosen to do so. The haunting, melancholic feel of the 70s mini-apocalypse ending (I hesitate to call it a downer, as at least some of the people who deserve to make it out alive do) is reproduced to perfection. I mentioned Ellie Church before, but Tristan Risk makes Va's death scene just as affecting. We got to see a side of Val just minutes before that showed her cruel nature was a survival instinct brought out by prison life, and somewhere in all that tough-as-nails armor there was still a decent person who almost had a chance to see the light again before the bombs started falling. As we see the characters succumbing to their fates, the whole thing is set to an eerie, depressive piece of music not a hundred miles away from Riz Ortolani's Cannibal Holocaust theme.
Of course with a movie made so quickly for so little money, it's not entirely a home run. While our stars all bring their A-game, some of the other performers are awkward and amateurish, and there are some pretty unfortunate digital effects. I could also have done without the zombie subplot, as it doesn't really go anywhere or serve any purpose beyond adding a little extra gore that could easily have been thrown in without the inclusion of the walking dead. I think it would have been more interesting to have Inga experimenting on the former Rattican president while he still had his wits about him and see him cringing and gibbering in a cage robbed of his humanity. It would have made her character that much more menacing.
Minor quibbles, all, and things that simply come with the territory in modern low budget genre movies. There's so much to love here, because the filmmakers clearly love what they're doing. If they chose to skimp on a few effects shots to make sure their cast and crew were well fed and taken care of (which Bickert says on the commentary is exactly what they did), then more power to them. I've never seen a movie I didn't like from this bunch, and it's safe to say I'm a fan for life. Make sure you snag a copy if and when it hits retail, and keep an eye out on social media so you can back their next Kickstarter project and get in on the fun!