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Babes Behind Bars: The Women-in-Prison Film Genre

Posted on 25/3/14 by Pete

Long about the 1960s, the United States loosened its film standards. You could show some skin now, but it couldn't be for out-and-out sex. This launched the curious phenomenon of the soft-porn exploitation genre: Where you have to contrive some kind of redeeming story on top of as much sleaze as you could shoot without fogging the camera lens. Even before the loosening of standards, the film medium was already rife with exploitation films, but they were a lot more constrained and had to nudge, nudge, wink, wink to get their point across.

It goes like this: "People want to see titty!" "Ah," counters the FCC, "we can't have you make movies just to show titty." "Well, what if we want to warn people about the dangers of prostitution?" "Hmmm," says the FCC, stroking its goatee, "I guess that's acceptable then, as long as you're doing it for an upright moral purpose." And so, hundreds of filmmakers exploited this loophole, covering the most lurid and fascinatingly titillating subjects of depravity in the interest of - ahem - moral guidance. Films warning of the dangers of drugs, Nazis, sexual fetishism, going insane, and yes, crime, were produced, as an excuse to mash as much titty onto the screen as possible. We'll keep saying that word until it becomes funny. And then some.

Oh, and this is a NSFW subject, so don't click the links, don't look at the trailers, and in fact you should probably not let mom catch you reading this either.

One famous example is Caged Heat, 1974. Produced by an uncredited Roger Corman (who just about made a career and a half out of these), it's known today as one of the most stereotypical of Women-in-Prison flicks. Set up with a vanilla crime scene that has our heroine cuffed and sentenced before the opening credits are finished, it wastes almost no time getting to the strip searches. We're not about to embed it here, but we did find Caged Heat on YouTube.

Not to be confused with the title Chained Heat (the names will run together before long), a 1983 handsome pile of utter trash. Starring Linda Blair, no less! Apparently the whole The Exorcist thing didn't set her up for loftier goals. Here's a NSFW (didn't we already warn you once?) trailer:

While the Razzie-nominated film is remembered today for being one of the most enjoyably bad examples of its genre, it still made money in its day. It even got a couple in-name-only sequels that are even more forgettable.

Jump back a bit; did you know Pam Grier was in all this? Yep, meet The Big Doll House, a droll and silly 1971 clunker that now looks like a charming museum piece for its time. Here's yet another NSFW trailer:

That's about as cheap as they got, even back then. Somebody apparently got the concept of American prisons mixed up with Cambodian killing fields, but boy, did they ever know their market when it came to the sleaze! It was flicks like this on Pam Grier's resume that got her nod from Quentin Tarantino to star in Jackie Brown in 1997. In fact, Jackie Brown is filled with references to Grier's earlier career, including a scene where she's framed for a crime and locked up.

Mainstream film sometimes takes a potshot at the genre as well, as in the 1996 film Freeway, with Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields, and music by Danny Elfman. If that line-up didn't make you melt into a puddle of mush, you're reading the wrong blog. Here's the trailer if you don't believe us:

For a left-over, there's 1990's Caged Fury, which is reviewed so swell over at Tenebrous Kate's that we can't bring ourselves to one-up her.

Bonus Buck: The Women-in-Prison genre is alive and kicking its bitchy heels with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, trailer time:


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