Women in Cages (Gerardo de Leon, 1971)
Women in Cages, made for Roger Corman and Cirio Santiago’s production outfit, seems to be an unremarkable entrant to the women-in-prison subgenre. Standing alongside Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) or Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), the film looks like a paltry offering, a mere by-the-numbers redoing of the formulaic scenario. However, beneath the unflattering production values and the very stylized visual theme is a film that is much more than an addition to the infamous subgenre of women in prison films. Women in Cages is a bleak and truly suffocating look at women’s descent to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual imprisonment.
The difficult proposition of raising Women in Cages above the confines of surface-level thrills and excitement is bolstered by the film’s final shot, its thematic coup de grace. We are given a close-up of a woman’s face, drenched with icy sweat, her lips shivering while her partner starts to make his sexual advances. It shows desolation in full unflinching view, an unguarded summation of the subgenre’s intended or unintended thesis. That final scene where the frame encages the feverish yet still beautiful face with her eyes revealing a half-awaken daze, presumably caused by the numbing effects of the drugs she takes but in reality represents everything that binds her body, mind, and soul, sums up the film where women are perpetually encaged.
Apparently, screenwriters David Osterhout and James Watkin would recycle the tired tale of innocent suspects being convicted, imprisoned, and eventually terrorized out of their sanity. It begins with a package being passed on from the passengers of the Zulu Queen, a mysterious ship which hosts a well-kept bordello, to a drug lord lounging with his girlfriend Jeff in a cockpit. Upon being signaled by his underlings of the arrival of the police, the drug lord switches the package to his girlfriend Jeff. The package turns out to contain prohibited drugs, and Jeff, overly naive and agreeable, lands in jail. Women in Cages basically tells her story, her initial interactions with her cell mates and the impossibly difficult prison matron, and her attempt to escape the penitentiary.
Jeff, (Jennifer Gan) is easy to regard as a stupid and infantile girl. Hopeful that her felonious boyfriend will bail her out, absentmindedly swims in a confused ecstasy of a non-existent romance, ignorantly grounding her survival to the person who caused her imprisonment. It’s easy to condemn the character as unrealistically too simpleminded, yet we have to understand that she is new to the terrifying circumstance. Unlike her cellmates, it is still possible to comprehend hope in her character. Probably one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when Jeff is unjustly punished by trapping her inside a dark chasm where out of sheer hopelessness, she starts reciting children’s limericks. We literally witness all her innocence and hope deteriorate as she is further castigated, later on disclosing a woman permanently changed and scarred.
Although Jeff is the primary concern of the narrative, the film also details the misfortunes of other jailbirds of the aptly named women’s penitentiary “Carcel del Infierno.” These are all women who have suffered longer than Jeff, already hardened and turned callous by the inhumane conditions within the prison. Sandy (Judy Brown), a battered wife, was imprisoned for murdering her husband. She has developed a relationship with the police officer who is tasked with tracking down evidence to finally pin down Jeff’s boyfriend. Stoke (Roberta Collins), the girl in the aforementioned final scene, is in the prison for untold reasons. One would guess that it is due to her insufferable dependence on drugs as we first see her lying in bed, her face sparkling with cold sweat, and clearly thinking of other things other than the arrival of newcomer Jeff. She is then lured with drugs into killing Jeff by the drug traders before Jeff snaps and becomes witness against her boyfriend. These two women have ulterior motives for befriending Jeff. Both of them prisoners of their respective vices: Sandy with her incessant need for love in the person of the police chief, and Stoke with her undying itch for drugs.
Teresa (Sofia Moran, curiously uncredited despite her noteworthy performance) is the statuesque Filipina beauty who relishes in her uncomfortable relationship with prison matron Alabama (Pam Grier). She drowns in a sea of contradicting emotions, of lust and love, hatred and passion, physical imprisonment and emotional torture, all dealt upon by her one-way emotional attachment to Alabama. Alabama, on the other hand, has no room for affection having attained a status wherein she could deal to other people the suffering that she has experienced growing up. Her one motivation in life, the one stimulus that delights her, is the satisfaction of her twisted sense of retribution, not against those who have maltreated her, but against anybody she has ascendancy on. The chemistry between Teresa and Alabama is sublime, to say the least. Both are dependent females who are predicated by their respective races: Teresa is the lone Filipino in her cell (she doesn’t really fit in with her Caucasian cell mates nor the rest of the other Filipino prisoners) while Alabama laments on her sufferings as a black girl living in the ghetto. However, they are separated by their disparate needs: Teresa is longing for genuine attention and romantic companionship while Alabama merely sexual satisfaction dealt upon by her higher status. The duo’s comeuppance feels like one of the film’s campiest moments. Deep in the wilderness, Teresa comes back from safety only to violently ravage an entangled Alabama, supposedly out of spite and vengeance, only to be invaded by passion and suddenly kisses and fondles her with what seems like gripping reminiscence of a relationship and an equality that never happened. Their stubborn desires prove to be their downfall as both of them are caught, raped and killed by the marauders. It turns out that their respective fantasies of romance and dominance are quite insignificant in the face of men.
Women in Cages is significantly improved by those little details and clever touches that embellish the bland and unoriginal story. Rather than merely telling the story by going from point A to point B and adding a number of scenes with gratuitous nudity, filmmaker Gerardo de Leon infuses both depth and a distinct and effective visual style to the film, probably to the disdain of those looking for cheap thrills. Observe the ominous crimson tinge that paints Alabama’s pleasure cell. It clearly spells out a warning for fatal danger yet at the same time is tempting. Her underground dungeon offers a bevy of Gothic-inspired contraptions designed to inflict the most perverted of tortures. De Leon truly has an indubitable eye for color, compelling blocking and intuitive editing as the film, despite its limited budget and several flaws, succeeds in looking and feeling more than some cheap and one-dimensional B-movie.
In the end, we have a film that is harsh, much harsher than the typical entrants to the infamous sub-genre. Instead of focusing on the triumph against adversity and the success of escape, the film details the horrible transformations, the irreparable wounds and lesions, the vicious cycle of violence and evil that are the major points of the film’s unpalatable thesis. The scenes that purport happiness and joy, like Sandy’s reuniting with her police officer or Jeff’s daring rescue aboard the Zulu Queen are merely fleeting moments, forgettable instances that can never take us away from the film’s overbearing despair. You forget the sunlight, the smiles, the well-bred breasts, the pretty women that carry them, and of course, freedom. All that is eventually left with us are the anguish, the agony, the different afflictions and vices that imprison the women, cruel Alabama and her torturous affair with Teresa, and of course, the indurated face of Stoke signaling “The End.”