Women in Cages (1971) Women in Cages/Women's Penitentiary III (1971) **½

     I’m guessing at least one of you was wondering when I’d get around to reviewing a Pam Grier movie. Frankly, so was I. I mean, we’re only talking about the number-one female ass-kicker of the 1970’s, here! Most people remember her mainly for her blaxploitation action flicks— Foxy Brown, Coffy, and the like— but it was in the women’s prison genre that she first made her mark after debuting with a role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Grier’s first (and probably most fondly recalled) foray into that territory was the seminal The Big Doll House, but in the same year, she also appeared in this lesser-known film. Women in Cages and The Big Doll House make for an interesting pair. Both were shot in the Philippines and both have Grier playing opposite Roberta Collins, but what makes them work so well as a unit is the fact that, between the two of them, Pam got to play on both sides of the authority line— a prisoner in The Big Doll House and one of the better evil matrons I’ve seen in Women in Cages.

     That, of course, means we won’t be seeing Miss Pam for a while. Instead, our first introduction is to Carol Jeffries (Jennifer Gan of Naked Angels)— but call her “Jeff“— the American girlfriend of a Filipino gangster named Rudy (Charlie Davao, from Blind Rage and Supercock [settle down, you perverts— it’s a movie about an illegal cockfighting club {No! Chickens, damn it! Chickens!}]). Jeff is apparently one dense girl, because she doesn’t seem to realize that Rudy is a crook, despite the fact that the ship he owns operates as an offshore brothel, casino, and all-around den of iniquity. Thus I personally can’t bring myself to feel all that sorry for the little ditz when Rudy sneaks a good two kilos of heroin into her purse just in time for it to be found on her (and not on him) when the cops raid the ship. Jeff goes down, and fast too. A scant three scenes later, she arrives at the front gate of the Carcel del Infierno— Hell Prison.

     Now we meet Pam Grier. Her name’s Alabama, and like Jeff and most of her future cellmates, she’s an American expatriate. The thing Alabama likes best about her job seems to be the opportunities it affords for lording it over white girls in vicarious revenge for the injustices of her own upbringing in the Deep South. So it’s interesting that neither Sandy (Judith M. Brown, from Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Toxic Zombies) nor Janelle “Stoke” Stokowski (Roberta Collins, of Death Race 2000 and The Unholy Rollers) is Alabama’s prison-bitch girlfriend. Rather, that duty falls to Theresa (Sofia Moran), the only Filipina in Jeff’s new cell. This leads me to the one major departure that Women in Cages makes from the usual formula. Even though Theresa spends her off-hours sharing Alabama’s bed, she is not the expected evil trustee prisoner figure; in fact, there is no such character in this movie at all! That’s not to say that Alabama is all Jeff has to worry about, though. Stoke happens to have been one of Rudy’s whores, and one day the mob lawyer comes to visit her with a message from her former employer: Rudy wants Jeff dead. She’s a weak link in his defenses, and he wants her eliminated posthaste. The job falls to Stoke because, as a hopeless heroin addict, she can be pretty much counted upon to do anything Rudy says in exchange for a fix. Jeff is going to spend most of this movie escaping narrowly from strange and potentially lethal accidents.

     There is one thing Jeff, Sandy, and Stoke can agree on, though, and that’s their desire to get the hell out of prison. At first, Jeff thinks Rudy’s lawyers will do the trick for her, but as the days stretch out into weeks and months with no word from the man whatsoever, she gradually realizes that she’s on her own. None of her cellmates is willing to join her in a breakout, however, because they know that the surrounding jungle is prowled by poachers whom Alabama and her warden are happy to hire out as bounty hunters to bring back anyone who does make it past the outer walls. But when Alabama tires of Theresa’s services, and sends her on a trip to the basement torture chamber known as the Playroom, a window of opportunity opens up. Theresa hails originally from a village only a few miles from the prison. Not only does she know the jungle every bit as well as Alabama’s headhunters, she thinks her friends and relatives would be willing to take in any women who escaped with her. And considering the drastic repositioning within the prison hierarchy she’s just undergone, escape suddenly seems like a much more attractive option. Then, when Jeff’s mouth buys her a trip to solitary confinement (and this is one prison in which “the hole” is exactly that), she discovers what looks like a way to pull the jailbreak off. The subterranean solitary confinement cells have a drainage grate at the bottom that leads into some kind of sewer. If Jeff, Sandy, Stoke, and Theresa could find a way to sneak into the hole after dark, they could follow that tunnel straight to freedom. Then all they’d have to worry about is Alabama, the poachers, and Rudy’s murderous gangsters...

     If it hadn’t been made so early in the cycle, you’d wonder why anyone would bother to make a film like Women in Cages at all— it’s that close to standard issue on all counts. As a consequence, all but the true completists (are there women’s prison movie completists out there?) can probably feel safe enough giving this one a pass. What makes it work to the extent that it does is Pam Grier. She’s great fun to watch in spite of her underwritten dialogue, and seems surprisingly into her role. It’s also an enjoyable change of pace to see Grier as a villain for once. Women in Cages came too early in her career for her to have developed much of the stock screen persona that served her so well throughout the decade, nor did she yet have a type to be cast to or against. Her performance here therefore has a freshness about it that many of her otherwise much better turns in otherwise much better movies from later in the 70’s lack. It might not be essential Pam Grier, but it could be worth a look after you’ve seen Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Scream, Blacula, Scream, and it would certainly make a great double feature with The Big Doll House.



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