Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Frauengefängnis (1976)

... aka: Barbed Wire Dolls
... aka: Caged Women
... aka: Gardiennes du Pénitencier, Les
... aka: Femmes en cage
... aka: Jailhouse Wardress
... aka: Woman Caged
... aka: Women's Penitentiary IV

Directed by:
Jesus Franco

There's wall-to-wall female nudity and sadism galore in this very sleazy Swiss / West German women-in-prison torture flick. Along with ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN (1977) and WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9 (1977), it made up a troika of w-i-p flicks that Franco made for Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich over the course of three years. If one wanted to be a little more lenient then WOMEN WITHOUT INNOCENCE (1977), another Franco / Dietrich collaboration, could be thrown in there, as well. Even though it's set in a mental asylum for female patients instead of a prison, it was basically the same thing. These kind of films of course came back into vogue in the early 70s thanks to the success of the Roger Corman-produced, Jack Hill-directed films like The Big Bird Cage (1971) and The Big Doll House (1972), which became such big hits that hundreds of similar efforts were made around the world well into the '90s. Prior to the Corman films, Franco had already made at least one women's prison feature, 99 Women (1969), which is very mild in comparison to what he'd later do. His later ventures into this genre were also, tonally, a bit different than what others were doing with the same format. The female empowerment angle present in nearly all other w-i-p films, used perhaps as a crutch to justify all of the torture and nudity, is thrown right out of the window in favor of degradation and graphic nudity. Cellblock 9, for instance, found every single one of its female captives getting killed off at the end. Some reward for enduring such torture, huh? One of ladies fares a little better in this one, but most do not.

Things open with a long sequence of a starving, chained woman being treated like a dog while she desperately pleads for food and a guard barks out things like "Bitch!" and "Filthy whore!" while whipping her. It'll be a sign of things to come for poor Maria (Lina Romay), the newest prisoner in this women's island rehabilitation camp. Maria has been tried by some tribunal and given a life sentence for the murder of her father. Naturally she's actually innocent of the crime as a ludicrous later plot twist will reveal. Instead of having to work 14 hour days in the salt mines at another prison, the evil directress (Monica Swinn) has convinced authorities Maria is insane, so now she'll be subjected to these wacko's idea of therapy. Dr. Carlos Costa (Paul Muller), who is actually Dr. Moore but killed the real Costa and is now impersonating him, has her sign papers allowing them to do shock treatment on her. Next thing she knows she's tied down naked to electrified bedsprings getting jolted into submission.

The corrupt prison staff are breaking each girl's will and then pimping them out to high ranking government officials on the side. One girl goes to an impotent Governor (Roger Darton) who has Nestor (Eric Falk), chief torturer at the prison, rape her while he watches. One of the prisoners gets a letter out they're being tortured but it's intercepted. For punishment, they have their food rations cut in half and more girls get tortured and violated. Most of the prisoners being held there have gone crazy from all of the psychological and physical abuse they've had to endure. Ingrid (Peggy Markoff), who murdered her own brother because she had incestuous designs on him, is a delusional nymphomaniac who constantly plays with herself and keeps talking about Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella. Rosa (Beni Cardoso) has been reduced to a giggly, child-like state. And the virginal Berta (Martine Stedil) has somehow managed to keep it all together since she's been there, but the staff's still working on that. After getting simultaneously electro shocked and anally raped with a cane, Maria gets thrown into a cell with those three and eventually several of them plot to escape.

If this film belongs to anyone, it's probably Swinn as the cruel lesbian wardress. She has dialogue like "This isn't some country club!" and refers to the prisoners as "the lowest kind of scum" while prancing around in an outfit consisting of an ill-fitting monocle, an unbuttoned shirt, a belt, panties, knee-high black boots and a riding crop. During one scene, she bends the virgin over a table to test her virginity with her finger, has sex with her then instructs the girl to slap her around. Afterward she has the girl thrown into solitary confinement. And solitary confinement here means being denied food or water, getting chained up on the floor naked and having Nestor whip and degrade you. Swinn's character also makes the occasional aside about how much she detests "bleeding heart liberals" and journalists who want to expose the abuse going on at her prison. I suppose in Franco's mind this is all probably a parable about the need for prison reform.

By far the strangest scene in here is when Maria flashes back to her father (played by Franco himself) sneaking into her bedroom at night and trying to "show his affection." The scene is oddly shot in slow-motion. And I don't mean that the film itself is put in slow-motion, but Franco and Romay move in slow-motion! Aside from that one scene of unintentional hilarity, this film falls into a really gray area. It's too ridiculous to be taken seriously and too nasty and one-note to be "fun." Even the torture and humiliation scenes are boring and tiresome because they're drawn out for so long. The breakout "action" at the end is just plain pitiful. Naked ladies will be the film's chief drawing card and the nudity here is about as graphic as you can get outside of a straight-up porn film, with close-up spread eagle shots, zooms into crotches and fingers (and a lit cigarette!) being inserted into vaginas.

Frauengefängnis was originally released in the U.S. in a heavily cut version as Barbed Wire Dolls (the DVD with the same title is uncut) and would later be issued on VHS (again, drastically cut) under the titles Caged Women and Women's Penitentiary IV. In 1979, hack distributors Eurocine blended scenes from it with Hell Train (1977) and Elsa Fraulein SS (1977) and released it as a new film called Jailhouse Wardress.


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