Women in prison film  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Women in prison film (or WiP) is a subgenre of exploitation film that began in the late 1960s and continues to the present day.

Their stories feature imprisoned female offenders who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse, typically by sadistic male or female prison wardens and guards. The genre also features many films in which imprisoned women engage in lesbian sex.

Before the '60s, films on women behind bars were serious, realistic dramas that depicted the miseries of prison life. They also carried an implied moralistic or cautionary message about the consequences of breaking the law.

The exploitation WiP films that followed discarded all moralistic pretentions. Instead, they are works of pure fantasy intended only to titillate the audience with a lurid mix of sex and violence. The flexible format, and the loosening of censorship laws, allowed filmmakers to choose from an extensive menu of misogynistic taboos. From voyeurism (strip searches, group shower scenes, cat-fights) to sexual fantasies (lesbianism, rape, sexual slavery), to fetishism (bondage, whipping, degradation), and outright sadism (beatings, torture, cruelty).

Prior to these films, the only expression of such fantasy material was found in the many "true adventure" men's magazines such as Argosy in the 1950s and 1960s, although a plausible case could be made that Denis Diderot's novel The Nun anticipated the genre. Nazis tormenting damsels in distress were perennial favorite subjects for the lurid, sub-pornographic covers of these sensationalistic magazines which, by the end of the '60s, were in decline.


Recurring plot elements

Most women-in-prison films employ the same stock characters and formulaic situations which have since become cinematic cliches. They generally begin with an innocent girl (or group) being wrongfully sent to a corrupt penitentiary or reform school run by a brutal and lecherous male or lesbian warden (who might also be running an inmate prostitution ring on the side).

After the obligatory strip search, group shower, lesbian sex scenes, cat fights with a tough "queen bee" gang leader, a stabbing or two, cruel punishments and sexual assaults by sadistic guards and a yard riot quelled by spraying the prisoners with a firehose, the story usually concludes with a bloody uprising or escape sequence in which the villains meet with a grisly death.

Occasionally the "new fish" 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, Love Camp 7).

History of the genre

Hollywood made movies set in women's prisons as early as the 1930s, such as Ladies They Talk About and Hold Your Man, 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 Jesus 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. Since the 1970s, women-in-prison films have become a specialty product that has more to do with sexual fantasies than with real prison life.

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.Template:Citation needed

American films

Typical examples of traditional prison films set in the U.S. include: The Concrete Jungle (1982), and its sequel Chained Heat (1983) with Linda Blair and Sybil Danning, Cell Block Sisters (1995), Caged Hearts (1995), Bad Girls Dormitory (1985), Under Lock & Key, and Caged Fear (1991).

American tourists are incarcerated overseas in Chained Heat 2 with Brigitte Nielsen, Red Heat with Linda Blair, and Prison Heat, set in Turkey. Mainstream, non-exploitation prison films dealing with this theme include Bangkok Hilton (1998) starring Nicole Kidman and Brokedown Palace (1999) with Claire Danes, both set in Thailand, and Return to Paradise, (1998), set in Malaysia.

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.

Steve Balderson's Stuck! (2010) stars Karen Black, Mink Stole, Jane Wiedlin, Pleasant Gehman, Susan Traylor, Stacy Cunningham and Starina Johnson. Stuck! will have its world premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London, October 2009.

Italian films

Italian exploitation directors have produced scores of WiP films with far more graphic sex and violence than those produced in the U.S.

Examples include six by Jesus Franco: 99 Women, Women in Cell Block 9, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden, Barbed Wire Dolls (1975), Women Behind Bars, and Sadomania (1980). Bruno Mattei directed Women's Prison Massacre (1985), Caged Women (1984), and Jail — A Women's Hell (2006). Sergio Garrone directed Hell Behind Bars and Hell Penitentiary (both 1983). 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. Partly inspired by the U.S./Canadian Ilsa series, Franco, Mattei, Garrone and other Italian directors created scores of films such as SS Experiment Love Camp, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell, Gestapo's Last Orgy, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, SS Hell Camp, Fraulein Devil, Women in Cell Block 7, and Nazi Love Camp 27.

Asian films

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 (1972) 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 Sung Dynasty.

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 starring Meiko Kaji. Many Japanese films include themes of vengeance and retribution with a heroine who eventually becomes an avenging angel pursuing the drug or prostitution crime syndicate responsible for putting her behind bars.

Jungle prison films

The steamy, "tropical hell-hole" variant has spawned many 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, wearing the regulation halter tops and cutoffs, are herded together in a stockade prison camp and used as slave labor, such as cutting sugar cane or digging in a quarry. The harsher, isolated setting allows for scenes of unrestrained brutality with whip-cracking guards, diabolical punishments, and death by gruesome accident or execution. These films usually involve a revolution subplot with political prisoners freed by their comrades in a climactic raid where the evil warden and guards are shot and the camp is burned down.

Actress Pam Grier starred in several Fillipino 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).

Sweet Sugar, aka She Devils in Chains (1972) starred Phyllis Davis, Caged Heat 2: Stripped of Freedom (1994) featured Jewel Shepard as an undercover agent.

The especially brutal Escape from Hell, aka Escape (1979) and its sequel Hotel Paradise came from Italy. In Jess Franco's bizarre Sadomania, both the guards and prisoners go topless throughout the film which also features gladiator fights to the death and prisoners hunted like animals in an alligator-infested swamp.

Related genres


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 who rules with an iron hand. The nuns are treated little better than convicts, with rule-breakers subjected to sadistic whippings or Inquisition-style tortures. Plus, the added element of religious guilt makes way for lurid depictions of painful masochism and self-flagellation.

Mixed-genre prison films

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 (Lili Palmer). This groundbreaking film has influenced many others, particularly the Dario Argento thriller Suspiria.

Human Experiments (1979), and Hellhole (1985) are two examples of a spate of horror films where prisoners are experimented on by mad scientists.

Werewolf in a Women's Prison (2006) draws from the monster-movie genre.

Caged Heat 3000 (1995) stars Lisa Boyle (aka Cassandra Leigh) as an inmate on an asteroid prison. Includes futuristic touches such as electric bra torment and cattle prod-like sticks.

Star Slammer, aka Prison Ship (1987) is one of several low-budget space sagas set in the future.

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.

Prison film producers

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.

In popular culture



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  • Williams, Melanie. "Women in Prison and Women in Dressing Gowns: Rediscovering the 1950s Films of J. Lee Thompson", Journal of Gender Studies, 11(1):5-15, 2002 Mar

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