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Hell in the Cell
The women-in-prison (WiP) film has a long, moderately disreputable history. While including serious portrayals, e.g. Sharon Stone's Last Dance, far more numerous and, indeed, entertaining, are those which treat the field as an opportunity for exploitation. It's particularly appealing to those on a restricted budget: locations are kept to a minimum, and what other genre lets a film-maker get a quantity discount on the costumes?
At first glance, it may be hard to distinguish Chained Heat from Caged Fury. But connoisseurs know that within its parameters there's a broad range, from subversive B-movies like Caged Heat (directed by Jonathan Demme, later to make Silence of the Lambs), through parodic excess in Prison Ship Star Slammer, by the same creator as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, and out to the hardcore S/M nastiness of Jess Franco's severely unpleasant Ilsa, The Wicked Warden.
More evidence of this variety can be found in two Japanese babes-behind-bars films which arrived here, almost simultaneously: Scorpion's Revenge, and Prisoner Maria: The Movie. Both are women-in-prison films, in that they are about...well, women in prison. But that's about all the two have in common.
Dir: Daisuke Gotoh
Stars: Yohko Saito, Shizuka Ochi, Kristin Norton, Tetta Sugimoto
Scorpion's Revenge is an understandable, if not really helpful, retitling of a film called Sasori in USA; as this suggests, it attempts to add an exotic flavour by setting things in an uncivilised and/or dangerous locale. Foreigners are, after all, inherently evil, and do far worse things to our women than we ever would. This isn't new: many of Roger Corman's 1970's WiP movies were shot in the Phillipines, albeit partly for cost reasons.
During its first half, Revenge is largely an identikit job, wheeling virtually every staple of the genre into play. Heroine Nami Matsushima (Yohko Saito) is sent to prison for killing her boyfriend with a car-bomb. Of course, she's innocent (they always are), and soon finds herself facing the horrors of jail life. These include vicious guards, a predatory lesbian who resembles Jamie Lee Curtis, her innocent friend in the cell next door, and frequent showers. All of these are common WiP ingredients - except, obviously, the need for someone to look like Ms. Curtis. Even the Bible-quoting warden comes from Reform School Girls, where the role was memorably played by Sybil Danning, herself a graduate of the classic Chained Heat. But this incestuous plagiarism is okay: you always know where you are with a WiP film.
Revenge romps through this at high speed in a mix of English and Japanese, until it all gets too much for our heroine to bear. She escapes with her friend, Yuko - who turns out to be blind, though it took me half-an-hour to realise this. This is a great pity, since the film then completely loses its way: while the prison genre offers plenty of scope for entertainment, the wandering-aimlessly-round-a-desert genre is trickier and has been largely avoided (Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout being the obvious exception).
They eventually reach familiar ground, and that's more than can be said for the movie, which spirals spectacularly down from this point. Nami discovers the truth about her boyfriend's death, Yuko goes out for revenge against those responsible for her incarceration, and the resulting plot twists are so ludicrous and badly executed, they kill the film dead. The absurd climax does at least explain half the title, but the contrast to the opening 40 minutes suggests some people are better off cannibalising other movies.
Prisoner Maria: The Movie
Dir: Shuji Kataoka
Stars: Noriko Aota, Tetsuo Kurata, Koji Shimizu
Despite its title, Prisoner Maria: The Movie has a different set of influences altogether. First up heroine Maria is only a prisoner for a few minutes; the most obvious reference point is Nikita, and it's not alone. Luc Besson's film has spawned a TV series, one remake, and a host of unofficial clones, all on the theme of a female criminal forced to become a government assassin. This tape is not the first Prisoner Maria adventure, and things have changed somewhat over time: her bosses have become kinder, and no longer use death-threats against her child to convince Maria they're serious. She also gets a car to ship her around, rather than having to sprint back to beat their deadline: run, Maria, run! Now, she does the hits merely in return for access to her son, but it's more poignant and altruistic than in Nikita, which was largely driven by pure self-interest.
Given the ongoing nature of the series, the set-up and background are understandably sketchy. However, it's enough, and Maria (Noriko Aota) is swiftly hunting a serial killer who is a potential embarrassment to the government, since he's a politician's son. Were it this simple. it'd be a very short film - even as is, it's only 75 minutes - and so she's soon embroiled with the Taiwanese mafia, a nosy cop, and a particularly mad doctor, whose hobbies include mind-control, white slavery, organ bootlegging and saying typically mad-scientist things, such as "I am God! What's wrong with God changing the minds of people?" It's not giving much away to hint that a bad end awaits.
Based on a manga by Shigeru Tsuchiyama and Shintaro Iba, this is cheerfully shallow stuff, although the occasional sequences of abuse may have more liberal viewers twitching -- the depiction of the serial killer at work is unlikely to survive any British release. Aota wears a selection of tight dresses and short skirts, and performs her action scenes creditably enough, though the likes of Michelle Yeoh will not be losing any sleep. In addition, some thought has clearly gone into the story, which is perhaps where it wins out most convincingly over Scorpion's Revenge.
For the core of exploitation is countering the inevitable budgetary limitations. Usually it's through something like nudity, which has been described as the cheapest special effect. However, just as cheap is imagination, and it tends to be this which lifts the better kind of trash cinema above the pack. When Scorpion's Revenge leaves the familiar confines of the prison setting, it runs out of ideas, while Prisoner Maria does its best to keep the audience interested throughout. It also boast a stronger core concept, and that's why it has the potential for a series, whereas Scorpion's Revenge fails to get through one film - as for a series...I think not.
[This article originally appeared in Manga Max]
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