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José Mojica Marins
José Mojica Marins,
Based on the Ed Gein case, a deranged rural farmer becomes a grave robber and murderer after the death of his possessive mother, whose corpse he keeps (among others) as his companion in a decaying farmhouse.
A girl is caught in a drug bust and sent to the hoosegow. The iron-handed superintendent takes exception to a skit performed by the girls and takes punitive steps, aided by the sadistic doctor who is doing illegal electroshock experiments and raping drugged prisoners. After a while the prisoners put away their petty differences and plan the Big Prison Escape. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
a women's prison movie meant to shock and weird you out more than titillate... and that's good!
Jonathan Demme started out in such a way that might not seem all that auspicious; he somehow got connected with Roger Corman after years of being a film publicist, and at first was writing and producing (and sometimes for some fine exploitation product like the underrated, or just under-seen, Angels: Hard as They Come, which is the most porny-but-not-porn title for a film ever), but near the end of the women-in-prison "craze" that Corman cooked up via his New World Pictures, Demme asked to take a shot at the genre. What he wrote and directed - used with the budget of what I assume is literally the change that Corman had left over after he called in the phone booth to make the deal for the lights and other things for the crew - is a weird little number, a movie that titillates but only incidentally, and is more concerned with showing how women - or simply PEOPLE in general - are oppressed and repressed to the point where they got to bust out and escape/take over. It's a real late 60's/early 70's feel to this one.
Where it gets weird is in the overall tone, and in part in Barbara Steele's performance as the prison warden. Early on there are a few dream sceees and delusions of grandeur; Steele's warden (who goes about in a wheelchair because... um, because she can, and it seems creepier I suppose with her costume and hair and glasses and voice) sees a performance put on by a couple of the girl prisoners to the rest of the prisoners and it's a tasteless burlesque (maybe, if one wants to get all film history since Demme at the time was a self-professed movie buff, is a little reminiscent of a similar cross-dressing scene in Grand Illusion - I have no way of knowing if that was inspiration, but I'd like to think it was), and it gives her fantasies of... seeing herself as if she is a dancer and performer in front of the girls. This horrifies her to the point of putting the hammer down even harder, and this includes medical experiments like electro-shock (not *really* how it should work, but it's a Corman movie, let it go), and overall oppression on the prisoners.
What's cool about the movie is that it does have a story that unfolds and that you can follow, though at first it doesn't seem that way; early on it feels like it'll be episodic, like we'll follow this character or that as they do one thing or the other. It may even feel a little light as far as some of the requisites for these exploitation fare. Demme only stages one "cat-fight" between two girls, albeit in the shower (though clothed), but this is actually clever because he does this to draw the characters who get into this fight closer together - one of which, the white woman, who we think might be the main character since she's the one seen at the beginning of the film being arrested after a botched robbery, not really the case as it's an ensemble - and they become the pivotal characters in the story.
Some of this may have been heightened by the DVD transfer, which seemed as though it was simply slapped on from an archival 35mm print (I normally don't give warnings in a review such as this, but the audio here for my speakers was among the worst mixed I've had for a DVD by a major director such as Demme before), but it feels as though Demme and company had little to work with technically speaking. This is even to the detriment of a shot or two, like I wondered if Demme and Tak Fujimoto (even his *name* sounds like film) had time for 2nd takes as one of the shots loses its shutter for a few seconds mid-shot and goes dark. And yet this also adds to the grit of the picture; the characters shoot guns a lot and it's sloppy, but that adds to the thrills and the humor. It feels closer to something like real life than the manufactured hackneyed work of a journeyman or someone punching in for New World Pictures.
Demme seems like someone who has something to prove, even if it's for a prison picture that involves an over-the-top sadistic doctor (what IS he going to do with those polaroids?), and an unfolding of a story that, eventually, has a tight logic to it as far as what the two women are going to do who had that one cat-fight and are now on their own. To be sure there isn't a lick of subtlety to this, but I like it that way, all the way down to the soundtrack full of harmonica hootin'-blues ala the end of Stroszek, and the acting which is.... ACTING all around! I loved the energy most of all, that Demme kept the pace so that we could have a moment or two to take a sequence in - like when the one woman goes through the vents, counting every second down, so she can bring food to her beleaguered colleague in solitary confinement (of all things, though I'm sure part of Demme's commentary on how nakedness in this situation is stripping women's freedoms) - and then it goes back into overdrive.
It feels like a movie by someone with something to SAY as opposed to routine, and while not all of it works enough of it does to where you can be entertained, especially by the ending where it goes into madness-mode, and if one were to by some miracle come to this *first* in Demme's oeuvre without seeing anything else, one might think "... huh. What happened to that guy?" God bless Roger Corman for taking chances like this one. 7.5/10
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