Caged Women / Violence in a Women’s Prison / Emanuelle Reports from a Women’s Prison / Emmanuelle in Hell / Women’s Penitentiary 4 / Violenza in un Carcere Feminile (1982/1984) -**½
Pondering the principles of intellectual property as applied in the Italian movie industry of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s is a good way to drive yourself batty. Take Caged Women and its sort-of sequel, Women’s Prison Massacre, for example. Both movies star Laura Gemser as a character named Emanuelle, and in both films, Emanuelle works as an investigative journalist doing suicidally reckless things for the sake of a scoop. That might lead one to conclude that they were late entries in the prolific series spun off from Black Emanuelle, and indeed some of their distributors have tried to pass them off as such, both in Italy and overseas. However, there are good reasons for believing that what we’re really looking at here is an unauthorized cash-in, shameless even by Italian standards.
To begin with, by 1982, Laura Gemser hadn’t starred in an “official” Emanuelle movie for five years; 1980’s Emanuelle: Queen of Sados was a Greek production that tried to do to the Italian Emanuelle series what it had already done to the French Emmanuelle films. So long a hiatus seems most unlikely considering that all five of the legitimate Black Emanuelle sequels were cranked out over less than half that time. Secondly, none of the three production companies behind Caged Women and Women’s Prison Massacre had had a thing to do with making any of the previous Gemser Emanuelles. Admittedly, that’s weak evidence in context, because the relationship between franchise and production company seems to have worked differently in Italy during this period, but it’s bolstered somewhat by the absence of formerly key names like Bitto Albertini and Joe D’Amato from Caged Women’s credits. And that leads me to the best reason of all to look askance at these movies’ Emanuelle credentials. The people most responsible for the pseudo-Emanuelle women’s prison flicks were Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, justly renowned as thieves among thieves. These are the guys who once managed to steal from every zombie and cannibal gut-muncher made to date within the space of a single, 101-minute film, and who then had the audacity not merely to set it to Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead score, but to credit Goblin for the pilfered music! These are the guys who, working separately this time, spent part of 1990 making phony sequels to both Troll and The Terminator. (Some sense of the difference between Charles Band and the Terminator franchise’s successive owners may be gleaned from observing that Fragasso’s bogus Troll 2 has been allowed to stand, while Mattei’s fake Terminator II now hides behind the title Shocking Dark.) And in any case, Caged Women was not Mattei’s first attempt to misappropriate Laura Gemser’s Emanuelle fame. As the real Black Emanuelle series breathed its last, Mattei hired Gemser to host the first of his Mondo-style sex “documentaries,” known in English-language release as Sexy Night Report and Emanuelle and the Erotic Nights. At that point, why not stuff a barely recognizable version of Emanuelle into a by-the-numbers chicks-in-chains flick, too?
Mind you, we won’t be finding out that Gemser’s character is investigative journalist Emanuelle Steerman, snooping undercover in Italy’s most corrupt prison at the behest of Amnesty International, until Caged Women is better than two-thirds over. Leave it to Bruno Mattei to swipe a popular, profitable character, and then fail to mention that he’s done so until the final act of the film. At first, we— along with all the major characters— will be under the mistaken impression that Gemser is Laura Kendall, pimp-killing prostitute. Emanuelle/Laura is brought in at the same time as two other women, by the names of Kitty (Maria Romano, from Thor the Conqueror and The Final Executioner) and Consuelo (Ursula Flores, of Dead End). This is actually sort of a coed facility, in the sense that women are confined in one wing, men in the other; the two wings are separated administratively as well as physically, each with its own executive and staff of corrections officers. The two wings may even be under the control of two completely separate law-enforcement agencies, because the male guards’ uniforms look nothing like those of their female counterparts. Indeed, whereas the female warden (Lorraine De Selle, of Damned in Venice and House on the Edge of the Park) dresses like a regular cop, the male commandant (Jacques Stany, from The Cat o’ Nine Tales and Castle of the Living Dead) dresses like a military officer of flag rank. In any case, if Amnesty International is gunning for corrupt prison authorities, these two are certainly tempting targets. It isn’t just that they’re having an improper affair, or that their approach to prison discipline is brutal to the point of sadism, or that they’re in the habit of covering up inmate deaths due to guard misconduct. They do all those things, to be sure, but the really impressive bit of malfeasance is the private rape-circus they like to put on at the commandant’s villa on the prison grounds whenever their sex lives could use a boost of illicit thrills.
Emanuelle’s cellmate is a lifer named Pilar (Leila Durante, of Without Trace). She’s been in for twenty years already, and she’s the warden’s idea of a model prisoner. Never causes trouble, never talks back to an order, and most of all, never says a word about all the evil shit she sees Rescaut (Franca Stoppi, from The Other Hell and Buried Alive) and her guards pull every single day. Naturally, that means she’ll be turning over a militant new leaf as the climax approaches, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The warden figures Pilar will be a good influence on “Laura,” who has already displayed a marked tendency to be mouthy. Hertha the Boss Bitch inmate (Françoise Perrot, from Lust for Sex and The Secret Nights of Lucrezia Borgia) has noticed that, too, and can surely be counted on to keep Emanuelle’s stay behind bars exciting.
Plot is not exactly an abundant resource in Caged Women, but it becomes just a tiny bit less scarce after a stint in rat-infested solitary confinement lands Emanuelle in the infirmary. There she meets Dr. Moran (Gabriele Tinti, from Reflections of Light and Endgame), the prison physician. Rather unexpectedly, Moran is an inmate himself, serving a life sentence for murdering his wife. Even more unexpectedly, that doesn’t make him the usual Gabriele Tinti rat-bastard— Mrs. Moran had inoperable cancer of the oh-my-God-it-hurts, and the doctor was acting out of arguably misguided mercy when he acquiesced to her pleas for poison. Moran, in his way, is also an enemy of the prison officials, although he has seen no realistic opportunity as yet to blow the whistle on them. Sure, there’s Miguel (Caligula and Messalina’s Raul Cabrera), the local villager who visits the prison periodically to donate some of his crops, but who’s going to take the word of a bumpkin like him against that of the commandant, the warden, and the rest of the staff? A journalist, though? And a journalist on a secret mission from Amnesty International, no less? That’s different. That’s something the doctor could use if his bosses were to provoke him sufficiently— and what kind of women’s prison movie would this be if the officials could help themselves from behaving as reprehensibly as possible, even in the face of their own clear self-interest?
To give you some idea of the kind of movie Caged Women is, let me explain how Emanuelle gets herself put in solitary. She’s scrubbing the floor out in front of the shower room when two of the guards stride up to her, and kick over her bucket. They’ve got a more urgent job for her, to empty out a giant brass urn full of shit. Where did the guards get a giant brass urn full of shit? Search me. But that’s what they have, and they want Emanuelle to take it somewhere and empty it. She doesn’t want to do that, so when the one guard hands it over to her, she tosses the contents all over her tormentors instead. And then they have a three-way catfight. In a puddle of shit. ‘Cause Bruno and Claudio are all classy like that. As for the rat attack itself… wow. Now I’ll be the first to concede that a determined pack of rats can fuck up a human pretty good, especially if the human in question is locked with them in a confined space. However, it also seems obvious to me that the human’s chances would improve markedly if she would fucking stand up and move! Emanuelle’s solitary confinement cell has got to be the most spacious I’ve ever seen in a movie— plenty big enough to permit some vigorous charging about, kicking, and gyrating. I mean, make those rats work for their supper, you know? Another Great Moment in Good Taste serves as a turning point in Dr. Moran’s developmental arc, pushing him closer to rising in rebellion regardless of the personal cost. Over on the men’s side, there’s a guy called Leander (Franco Caracciolo, of Death Walks at Midnight and Killer Nun), who is basically the sex surrogate for the entire wing. One afternoon, Hertha amuses herself by perching her cellmate girlfriend, Malone (Antonella Giacomini, from Lady of the Night and The Seven Magnificent Gladiators), in front of their window, and having her put on a show for the men in the exercise yard opposite. When Leander sees his clientele all fawning and drooling over Malone like a couple of paper hangers in the background of a Horatio Altuna pin-up, he pitches a fit. The scene has very much a 70’s Mediterranean sex comedy vibe for a while, but then Leander makes the mistake of telling his fellow prisoners that they’re all cut off. The men stop their panting and catcalling at once, and turn on Leander as a body; he dies of his resulting injuries in the infirmary a short while later, in what appears to be Mattei’s idea of a moment of moving tenderness. The tandem tonal shift is enough to give you whiplash.
Another thing that would give you whiplash if you attempted to take Fragasso and Mattei at their implicit word that their Emanuelle is the same person as Bitto Albertini’s or Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle is the portrayal of that character for most of Caged Women’s length. The woman we know from Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals can be just as nasty a piece of work as anybody running this prison; she’d have had a dead rat or two clutched in her teeth when the guards pulled her out of the hole. The Fragasso-Mattei Emanuelle, on the other hand, is a complete cipher, with no discernable personality whatsoever. She is an inert object that this story simply happens to, and it is impossible to imagine her either murdering her pimp (as the forged police and court documents claim of Laura Kendall) or getting her Shock Corridor on for Amnesty International in the deadliest prison in the land. That’s the main thing keeping Caged Women from being more enjoyable than it is. There’s no real central character, but neither is there anything that can meaningfully be called an ensemble. Instead, there’s just this huge, echoing absence shaped like Laura Gemser smack in the middle of the film, which is crippling in conjunction with the woefully underdeveloped script and the lack of any clear trajectory of action. I’m not a bit surprised that Caged Women has been overshadowed by its sequel in the years since the latter’s release, because nothing plays up Women’s Prison Massacre’s relative strengths like watching the two films one after the other.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal roundtable that we should have thought to do a long time ago, celebrating one of Italy’s most infamous filmmakers. Zombies, slashers, cannibals, sharks, sexy nuns, depraved empresses, Nazis, barbarians, women in prison... Bruno Mattei did it all, and did it all badly in a way you can’t mistake for anybody else (except maybe his longtime collabortor, Claudio Fragasso). So join us now in our observance of Brunoween: the holiday that starts a little too late, and just keeps going on and on...