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“Well here we are Miss, the asshole of the world, and only God knows what the hell you're doing here.” When you think of exploitation cinema your mind primarily jumps to the 1970s and 80s, but rarely does it venture into the 1990s. The 'women in prison' genre had been around for decades, but saw it's heyday in the wake of Jess Franco's 99 Women (1969), so Leandro Lucchetti's 1991 film Caged Women is quite a late entry. The nineties were a lean time for horror and exploitation filmmaking, and it was also about this time that the Italian film industry, that had been so full of life, began to crumble.
“You take care of your ass and I'm gonna take care of mine.” Opening with a woman running through the jungle in rags – replete with slow motion topless sequences – only to be hunted down, things get off to a grim start. Meanwhile, Janet Cooper (Pilar Orive, braless and wearing the hell out of some Daisy Dukes) arrives in a remote South American coastal town completely unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Checking herself into the nearest hotel, a skeezy joint with a rough and tumble bar, Janet wastes no time in washing up for some adventure...
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“Independent young woman, wandering the world alone in search of kicks wherever she can find them.” After being accosted by a lecherous oaf and defended by helicopter technician Frank Nolan (Christian Lorenz), a handsome square-jawed blonde who can fill a pair of jeans, she takes the latter to bed. After a steamy – and exceptionally sweaty – sex scene, he immediately professes his love for her, but she has plans to move on and continue seeing the world. Unfortunately for her, Sergeant Flores (Gaetano Russo) – the bar room degenerate she met earlier – is a crooked narcotics cop who plants drugs in her travel bag. Unwilling to take her twist of fate lying down, Janet defiantly professes her rights, but is soon drugged and taken to a fortress prison in the middle of an inaccessible swamp.
“I have a strange sensation that if I stay here I'll get involved in the kind of situation that could endanger me.” With due process out of the window and awakened by the leering female prison guard Gerda (Elena Wiedermann), Janet discovers that she has been thrown behind the bars of, what else in this genre, a white slavery hell hole. Controlled by the perverted Captain Juan (Aldo Sambrell, of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, and Satan's Baby Doll), and surrounded by other inmates whose spirits have been crushed, Janet maintains her innocence and strains against this corrupt regime. However, when she finds Louise (Isabel Libossart), a fellow American, the seriousness of her situation comes into sharp focus. Here the prisoners are rented out to wealthy farmers in orgies where “anything can happen”, or hunted to the death as punishment for rebellion. Can Janet find a way of escaping, will Frank track down his missing new-found love, or will injustice prevail?
“Your sweat, it's like water.” Low on gore, mid-range on violence, but high on bared flesh, Caged Women is obsessed with its jaw-droppingly beautiful protagonists. With nothing to wear but skimpy smocks (that are regularly torn off in defiance or during impromptu wrestling matches), the film finds any and all opportunities for a bit of mucky behaviour. Tonally, the movie is somewhat split, mixing uncomfortable scenes where 'the merchandise' are examined with jolly moments of saucy daftness. The inevitable scenes of torture are, however, relatively tame – particularly when compared to earlier entries in the genre such as Jess Franco's Sadomania – but there are moments of weird levity to balance things out. From foreplay in a mid-flight helicopter to a scene where Janet and Louise lick the sweat off each other's bodies to stay hydrated (yes, seriously), Lucchetti's film seems most at ease with its lighter side.
“You can live like a Queen here, if you like.” Featuring softcore South American vibes and plenty of post-80s synth (by Lanfranco Perini), the film is a generally well-crafted affair. The script (written by Lucchetti) isn't original by any means, but Janet's consistent wit and intelligence throughout strikes a pleasing chord. While it tends to lack the vengeful bite of other WIP movies like Chained Heat, or Jack Hill's iconic duo of The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, it's Pilar Orive's spirited approach to the 'old rope' material that elevates proceedings. Aldo Sambrell enjoys sneering in an almost moustache-twirling manner as the head bad guy, while Christian Lorenz brings morals and Elena Wiedermann dispenses twisted pleasure.
“I have this overwhelming desire to give you everything.” Visually the film is quite strong, with particular attention paid to the lighting, and Renato Doria's cinematography still works surprisingly well in 4x3 (as opposed to the original shooting ratio of 1.85:1). Full Moon's “Grindhouse Collection” DVD plays up the 42nd Street vibe, but provides a clean print with good audio. Special Features wise there are a handful of trailers and an introduction by Full Moon's Charles Band in which he gives a little background on grindhouse cinema and this particular collection of movies.
“Those two Americans, they're going to give you a run for your dollars.” Crammed-full with slow motion nudity, sweat-drenched naughtiness, and all the usual touchstones of 'women in prison' films, Caged Women ticks all the expected boxes. It has moments of nastiness, but is mostly concerned with admiring its breathtakingly gorgeous cast. Balancing more troubling scenes with moments of downright wink-to-the-audience glee (the conspicuous close up of a slowly washed bottom) Lucchetti's movie stands firmly in the middle ground of the genre. It never reaches the heights attained by Jack Hill, or the notoriety of Jess Franco, but it steps over and around the dregs. On its own terms – a 1990s exploitation movie – it stands out, with particular acclaim for Pilar Orive's credible, strong-willed heroine. Obviously Caged Women isn't exactly what you'd call politically correct, but for aficionados of the wider WIP movement, which has always had a relatively niche market appeal, it provides most of what you'd expect.