The women in prison film (or WiP film) is a subgenre of exploitation film that began in the early 1900s and continues to the present day.
Their stories feature imprisoned women who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse, typically by sadistic male or female prison wardens, guards and other inmates. The genre also features many films in which imprisoned women engage in lesbian sex.
WiP films are works of fiction intended as pornography. The films of this genre include a mixture of erotic adventures of the women in prison. The flexible format, and the loosening of film censorship laws in the 1960s, allowed filmmakers to depict more extreme fetishes, such as voyeurism (strip searches, group shower scenes, catfights), sexual fantasies (lesbianism, rape, sexual slavery), fetishism (bondage, whipping, degradation), and sadism (beatings, torture, cruelty).
Prior to these films, another expression of pornographic women in prison was found in "true adventure" men's magazines such as Argosy in the 1950s and 1960s, although it is possible that Denis Diderot's novel The Nun anticipated the genre. Nazis tormenting damsels in distress were particularly common in these magazines.
Most women-in-prison films employ the same stock characters and formulaic situations. Characters that are fellow inmates may include a sarcastic prostitute, a manipulative snitch, or an aggressive lesbian. The female criminals are usually hypersexualized and fetishize homosexual relationships. The authority figure of the prison is usually a cruel woman who herself is a variation of the traditional prison lesbian. Common scenes in women in prison films may include:
The narrative peaks with some kind of rebellion, which may include a fight, attempted break out, or natural disaster such as a prison fire or earthquake. The story then follows with an uprising or escape sequence in which the villains are killed and the prisoner is freed. Occasionally a new inmate is an undercover reporter investigating corruption as in Bare Behind Bars or a government agent sent to rescue a political prisoner (Caged Heat 2: Stripped of Freedom, Love Camp 7). Most commonly, the prisoner is reunited with a man (a lover, father, or priest) who guides her to goodness so she can reestablish her life with familial and heterosexual relationships.
Hollywood made movies set in women's prisons as early as the 1930s, such as Ladies They Talk About and Hold Your Man (1933), but generally, only a small part of the action took place inside the prison. Women-in-prison films developed in the 1930s as melodramas in which young heroines were shown the way to a righteous life by way of the prison. Under the influence of pulp magazines and paperbacks, they became popular B movies in the 1950s. It was not until the 1950s, beginning with the release of Caged (1950), starring Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead, So Young, So Bad (also 1950), and Women's Prison (1955) with Ida Lupino and Cleo Moore, that an entire film was set inside a women's correctional facility.
The film that kicked off the genre in a new direction was Jesús Franco's 99 Women, which was a big box office success in the U.S. in 1969. That year Love Camp 7 was also among the first pure exploitation films that influenced the women in prison and Nazi exploitation genres.
In 1999, the popular TV series Bad Girls was released on Britain's television network, ITV. Bad Girls took a turn from the usual prison drama seen before to show a different perspective of women's lives and sexuality in prison. Didi Herman states,"Unlike other mainstream television products that may have lesbian or gay characters within a prevailing context of heteronormativity, [Bad Girls] represents lesbian sexuality as normal, desirable, and possible."
A number of the WiP films remain banned by the BBFC in the United Kingdom. Among them are Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), on the grounds that they contain substantial scenes of sexual violence and in the case of the latter an actress who at 16 was under age at the time of production, rendering it child pornography under U.K. law.
Examples of traditional WiP films set in the U.S. include: The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Chained Heat (1983) with Linda Blair, Tamara Dobson and Sybil Danning, Cell Block Sisters (1995), Caged Hearts (1995), Bad Girls Dormitory (1985), Under Lock & Key, Caged Fear (1991), Caged (1950), Freeway (1996) with Reese Witherspoon and Brittany Murphy, and Stranger Inside (2001).
American tourists are incarcerated overseas in Chained Heat 2 (1993) with Brigitte Nielsen and Red Heat (1985) with Linda Blair. Both films are about innocent women who are thrown into foreign prisons and forced to face sadistic guards and brutal rape. Mainstream, non-exploitation prison films dealing with this theme include Bangkok Hilton (1989) starring Nicole Kidman and Brokedown Palace (1999) with Claire Danes, both which are set in Thailand and are focused on women who are imprisoned for smuggling drugs. Also Prison Heat (1993 film), set in Turkey, is about four innocent American women who are mistakenly thrown in prison for cocaine possession.
Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974) is one of the better known WiP films and has a cult following due to its tongue-in-cheek approach and casting of horror icon Barbara Steele as the warden. Demme also co-wrote The Hot Box in 1972, which is about female prisoners who break free and start a rebellion against their captors.
In recent years, films that parody or pay homage to the classic WiP films of the '70s have emerged such as Cody Jarrett's Sugar Boxx (2009) and Steve Balderson's Stuck! (2010). Both of these films mimic classic WiP films by including typical WiP film characters, predictable scenes, and similar plots overall.
Italian exploitation directors have produced scores of WiP films with far more graphic sex and violence than those produced in the U.S.
Bruno Mattei directed Women's Prison Massacre (1985), Caged Women (1984), and Jail — A Women's Hell (2006). Other films include Women in Fury (1985) and Caged Women in Purgatory (1991).
The Nazi exploitation subgenre centers on the same theme of captive women suffering abuses in war-time prison camps. Many of these films were developed in the late 1970s and the early 1980s as the industry continued to grow. Films such as SS Experiment Love Camp, SS Camp 5: Women's Hell, Hell Behind Bars and Hell Penitentiary directed by Sergio Garrone in 1983, Gestapo's Last Orgy (1977) directed by Cesare Canevari, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg (1978) and Fraulein Devil (1977) directed by Patrice Rhomm, SS Hell Camp (1977) directed by Luigi Batzella, Women in Cell Block 7 (1973) directed by Rino Di Silvestro and Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977) directed by Mario Caiano were partly inspired by the U.S./Canadian Ilsa series.
The abuse of Chinese women in Japanese detention or prisoner-of-war camps during World War II is depicted in a series of Hong Kong films. Prime examples include Bamboo House of Dolls (1973) with Birte Tove (1945-2016) and Great Escape from a Women's Prison.
Comfort Women (1992) is based on real events. Chinese prostitutes are abducted by Japanese soldiers and used for brutal scientific experiments at the notorious Unit 731 medical camp.
A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994) and its sequel are based on historical records of China's Qing Dynasty. The topic of sex "is usually considered taboo in traditional Chinese society", which makes the film industry scandalous and frowned upon by many.
In Japan, prison films are often made into a series based on popular characters from manga comics such as Prisoner Maria and the Sasori (Scorpion) series which includes Female Convict 701: Scorpion, directed by Yutaka Kohira, starring Meiko Kaji. Many Japanese films include themes of vengeance and retribution with a heroine who take revenge against the drug or prostitution syndicates responsible for her incarceration. In the film Female Convict 701: Scorpion, the audience "can see a story of Japanese women in captivity, with lots of very life-like scenes" because Japanese directors desire to produce "natural looking stories" to enhance the reality of the situation. Many Japanese films contain these "natural looking stories" because they were based off life events, such as the internment camps.
The "Jungle Prison" subgenre has films set in fictional Banana republic nations run by corrupt dictators in either South America or Southeast Asia. The majority of these were filmed in the Philippines where production costs are low. Here, a group of nubile prisoners are herded together in a stockade prison camp and used as slave labor, doing tasks such as cutting sugar cane or digging in a quarry. These films usually involve a revolution subplot with political prisoners freed by other inmates in a climactic raid where the villains are killed.
Actress Pam Grier starred in several Filipino jungle films such as Roger Corman's The Big Doll House and its sequel The Big Bird Cage, plus Women in Cages, and Black Mama White Mama (story co-written by Jonathan Demme).
The especially brutal Escape from Hell, a.k.a. Escape (1979) and its sequel Hotel Paradise came from Italy. Jesus Franco's Sadomania features scenes such as gladiator fights to the death and prisoners hunted like animals in an alligator-infested swamp.
The Nunsploitation (nun exploitation) subgenre emerged at the same time as the WiP film and is composed of the same basic elements. The stories are set in isolated convents that resemble prisons where sexually-repressed nuns are driven to rampant lesbianism and perversity.
The Mother Superior is usually a cruel and corrupt warden-like martinet. The nuns are treated like convicts, with rule-breakers subjected to whippings or Inquisition-style tortures. The added element of religious guilt entails scenes of masochism and self-flagellation.
The WiP film has also expanded into other areas and film genres such as horror and science fiction.
A notable European horror-hybrid is the 1969 Spanish film, The House That Screamed. A psycho-killer lurks in a house for wayward girls run by a harsh disciplinarian (Lilli Palmer). This groundbreaking film has influenced many others, particularly the Dario Argento thriller Suspiria.
Werewolf in a Women's Prison (2006) draws from the monster-movie genre.
Caged Heat 3000 (1995) stars Lisa Boyle (a.k.a. Cassandra Leigh) as an inmate on an asteroid prison. Includes futuristic touches such as electric bra torment and cattle prod-like sticks.
Chained Heat 3: Hell Mountain (1998) and Chained Rage: Slave to Love (2002) are both set in a barbaric post-nuclear world where slaves are forced to toil in the mines.
Terminal Island (1973) with Phyllis Davis, Tom Selleck, and Marta Kristen and Caged in Paradise (1989) starring Irene Cara are both set on isolated island penal colonies with no prisons or guards. Inmates are simply stranded there and must fend for themselves. The 1985 Japanese film Banished Behind Bars has a similar theme.
Janet Perlman's satirical graphic novel Penguins Behind Bars is a parody of the women in prison genre. It was later adapted by Perlman as an animated short which aired in the U.S. on Cartoon Network.
In recent years, North American Pictures, the Canadian makers of Chained Heat 2 set up a separate production company in the Czech Republic called Bound Heat Films for creating R-rated, erotic WiP, Nazisploitation, and female slavery films. Many of these star Rena Riffel (from Showgirls). Titles include: School of Surrender, Dark Confessions, Stories from Slave Life, No Escape, Caligula's Spawn, Slave Huntress, and Bound Cargo. While not technically considered pornography the nudity in many of the scenes in these films draws on fetishes as a dramatic element.
Bars and Stripes is a video producer that maintains a website entirely devoted to its line of prison-based BDSM fetish films. A stable of recurring "inmates" are listed with mug shots and information. Most of the films are part of a continuing story. Other companies that exclusively produce prison fetish films include: Chain Gang Girls, CagedTushy.com, and SpankCamp.com.
Cheryl Dunye is an independent film producer who produced the prison drama Stranger Inside (2001) about a young African American women who purposely misbehaves in juvenile detention to get transferred to the women's prison in an effort to reunite with her imprisoned mother.
99 Women (German: Der heiße Tod, lit. "The Hot Death") is a 1969 women in prison film. One of the earliest and most financially successful examples of the genre, it was directed by Jesús Franco, produced by Harry Alan Towers as an international co-production, and features an international cast including Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri, Luciana Paluzzi and Herbert Lom.
The script was purchased from Robert L. Lippert.Anita Strindberg
Anita Strindberg (born 19 June 1937) is a Swedish former actress who appeared in numerous Italian giallo films in the 1970s.
Strindberg appeared as Anita Edberg in two Swedish films in the late 1950s. She started her career in gialli with Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin in 1971 and starred in her first lead role that same year, in the Sergio Martino-directed The Case of the Scorpion's Tail. In 1972, she starred in two more gialli: Aldo Lado's Who Saw Her Die? and Martino's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.After the early 1970s, Strindberg acted in many types of genre films: a women in prison film Women in Cell Block 7 (1973); the Exorcist-like horror film The Antichrist (1974); and the poliziotteschi film Almost Human (1974), directed by Umberto Lenzi. Her last film was Riccardo Freda's Murder Obsession, also known as Fear co-starring Laura Gemser.Caged Fury (1989 film)
Caged Fury is a 1989 remake of a 1983 film of the same name. It is a women-in-prison film about a group of prisoners who decide to escape from an all-female prison. The film was directed by Bill Milling, and stars Erik Estrada, Richard Barathy and James Hong.Caged Heat
Caged Heat, also known as Renegade Girls, is a 1974 women in prison film. It was written and directed by Jonathan Demme for New World Pictures, headed by Roger Corman. The film stars Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, Ella Reid, Rainbeaux Smith, and Barbara Steele.
John Cale wrote and performed its soundtrack music, which features the guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield.
Two later features, Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom (1994) and Caged Heat 3000 (1995), made use of the Caged Heat name and the women-in-prison situation, but are unrelated films.Girls in Prison
Girls in Prison is a 1956 drama/sexploitation women in prison film about a young woman who is convicted of being an accomplice to a bank robbery and is sent to an all-female prison. The film was directed by Edward L. Cahn, and stars Richard Denning, Joan Taylor, and Mae Marsh. American International Pictures released the film as a double feature with Hot Rod Girl.Hell Hole (film)
Hellhole is a 1985 women in prison film.
It was distributed by Arkoff International Pictures. Shout Factory had planned to release this film for the first time on Blu-ray and DVD sometime last year, but was cancelled due to the film having missing footage. The movie has since been released on Blu-Ray in late 2016 by Scream Factory, a subsidiary of Shout Factory.Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is a 1976 sexploitation women in prison film, the first sequel to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.Nightmare in Badham County
Nightmare in Badham County is a 1976 ABC TV women-in-prison film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey and starring Chuck Connors, Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody. The film was so popular in China that it was released in cinemas and Raffin became the first Western actress to make a promotional tour of the country, after which she became an unofficial ambassador helping China make deals with Hollywood.Red Heat (1985 film)
Red Heat is a 1985 women in prison film starring Linda Blair and Sylvia Kristel.Sadomania
Sadomania – Hölle der Lust is a 1981 German-Spanish women in prison film directed by Jesús Franco, starring Ajita Wilson. It was also released as Hellhole Women, Prisoners of the Flesh and Sadomania: The Hell of Passion.Savage Sisters
Savage Sisters is a 1974 women in prison film made in the Philippines and directed by Eddie Romero.It was the last and most expensive of several movies actor/producer John Ashley filmed in that country.The Big Doll House
The Big Doll House is a 1971 American women in prison film starring Pam Grier, Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Brooke Mills, and Pat Woodell. The film follows six female inmates throughout daily life in a gritty, unidentified supra-tropical prison. Later the same year, the film Women in Cages featured a similar story and setting, much the same cast, and was shot in the same abandoned prison buildings. A non-sequel follow-up, titled The Big Bird Cage, was released in 1972.The Concrete Jungle (film)
The Concrete Jungle is a 1982 American women in prison film directed by Tom DeSimone and featuring Jill St. John and Tracey E. Bregman.The Hot Box
The Hot Box is a 1972 women in prison film from Joe Viola and Jonathan Demme, who had previously made Angels Hard as They Come (1971) for New World Pictures. It was shot in the Philippines and was originally known as The Prescription Revolution.The Muthers
The Muthers is a 1976 women in prison film. It starred Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy, Tony Carreon and John Montgomery.Violence in a Women's Prison
Violence in a Women's Prison (Italian: Violenza da un Carcere Femminile) is a 1982 women in prison film directed by Bruno Mattei.
The film is about Emanuelle (Laura Gemser), who is sent to Santa Catarina Women's Penitentiary for drugs and prostitution, where she meets the warden (Lorraine De Selle) and the other inmates. Emanuelle's actual reason for visiting is undercover reporting for Amnesty International.Women in Cell Block 7
Diario segreto da un carcere femminile (International title: Women in Cell Block 7, UK title: Love in a Woman's Prison) is a 1973 Italian women in prison film written and directed by Rino Di Silvestro. It represents the directorial debut of Di Silvestro and the first Italian women in prison film.
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