The Muthers

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“Jolly rogered.”

This is a strange cross-breed between a blaxploitation flick, a pirate movie and a women-in-prison film. Then again, a lot of the seventies films coming out of the Philippines tended to be at least somewhat bizarre, and this is likely no exception. The titular gang are pirates, led by Kelly (Bell) and Anggie (Katon), who roam what appears to be the Caribbean, going by the mention of Santo Domingo, but is actually in the Eastern hemisphere, boarding and robbing unsuspecting vessels, and fighting with a rival band of brigands using their kung-fu skills. However, Kelly’s sister goes missing, and is tracked down to a coffee farm belonging to the evil Monteiro (Carreon), which he runs in the manner of a pre-Civil War Southern plantation. Our heroines go undercover, only to discover getting out will be tougher than getting in.

It starts off in fine form, coming over as a modern, urban version of a sixties swashbuckler, and it’s a shame it didn’t stick to this premise, which would have offered something rather innovative. Instead, from the time Kelly and Anggie – yes, there is apparently an extra “g” in there – show up on the farm, it goes down too well-worn a path, with sadistic guards, fellow inmates who cozy up to their captors, and showers. Lots of showers. After the expected breakout attempts, recaptures and punishments, things eventually end in an equally expected riot, enlivened somewhat by the unexpected return appearance of the rival pirates, as allies of Monteiro,

muthersBoth Bell and Katon had worked with Santiago before, in T.N.T. Jackson and Ebony, Ivory & Jade respectively, and make a decent impression here. I’ve read a few other reviews that rip into this for poor-quality action, yet I can’t say I hated that aspect too much. Sure, there are times, particularly for any acrobatic moments, where the doubling is not exactly well-concealed. But there are other times where they’re putting in their fair share of effort, and should be appreciated for that. It is, if not quite tame, rather less sleazy than some on Santiago’s offerings. At first, I thought this was because I was watching it on Turner Classic Movies (yes, a refreshingly broad definition of “classic”!), but turns out to be fairly mild. Mind you, Bell’s ultra skin-tight top doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination there!

On the whole though, I’d have preferred if it had stuck with the pirate theme present at the beginning, which was a good deal fresher than the rote WiP fodder served up in the middle. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I did lose a bet with the wife: on seeing a guard tower overlooking the workers’ huts, I predicted it would later explode in a giant fireball, as a guard falls from it. I am disappointed to report that this simple pleasure was with-held from me. Sheesh, what is the world coming to, when a film from the golden age of Phillsploitation can’t even deliver on this expectation?

Dir: Cirio H. Santiago
Star: Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon, Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy

Angels With Golden Guns

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“Virgin on the ridiculous.”

The beautifully lurid sleeves above and below probably give you some idea of why this one fell across my TV. They probably also explain the sarcasm dripping from Chris’s lips, during the three minutes she remained in the room. I can’t really argue with her on this one: it’s an entirely incoherent mess, though I have to say, I was entertained somewhat more than the one and a half star rating above would imply. The latter is a reflection of quality, and that I could only recommend this, even in the loosest of terms, to fans of bad movies who are feeling significantly masochistic.

The plot, and I used the term loosely, focuses on a white slavery ring, that seems to specialize in the bulk abduction of models who, in between being rented out to sleazy individuals. are then held in a remote jungle compound, from which there is no escape. We know there is no escape, because they try – quite why the captives don’t wait until the rather more escape-friendly location of their renting-out, is never clear. But, hey, this gives the warden who oversees them the chance to yell a lot, and there is also the opportunity for what may well be the biggest cat-fight in cinema history, so that’s nice. Meanwhile, a detective is also investigating the gang from the other direction – when not pretending to be gay, in a disco sequence which is either extremely tolerant or very homophobic, I’m not sure which.

According to what I’ve read, producer Joseph Lai inherited a film studio which had a lot of abandoned movies in various states of completion, and made his career out of finishing them – usually with little regard for continuity or logic – and marketing the results by focusing heavily on the sizzle. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this, yet it certainly goes a long way towards explaining the results here, which includes a strip version of Play Your Cards Right (Wikipedia advises me that US visitors should read that as Card Sharks). Matters are not helped by English dubbing that seems to have assigned accents at random, and music stolen from other, much better movies – I’m fairly certain Goblin didn’t give Lai permission to use chunks of their score from Suspiria, anyway.

Not that it’s an inappropriate choice, for this does capture a similarly incoherent, dreamlike quality – I suspect less through artistic vision, more a result of scenes that appear completely out of nowhere, bear exactly no relation to anything that has happened, then vanish without any further reference to them or their participants. If Andy Sidaris was Chinese, and entirely out of his gourd on magic mushrooms, this might be the sort of thing which would result. Just do not take that as any kind of recommendation.

Dir: “Pasha” (Shan Pa)
Star: Eva Bisset, Gigi Bovee, Emma Yeung, Hok Nin Lau
a.k.a. Virgin Apocalypse
or Terror in a Woman’s Prison
or, entirely inexplicably, Anger

Vendetta

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“Ripe for a remake starring Zoë Bell.”

vendettaMovie stunt-woman Laurie Collins (Chase) is out for the night with her sister, Bonnie, until the latter accepts the company of a young man. When things get more than a bit rape-y, and Bonnie ends up shooting her attacker dead. She is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, much to the chagrin of her sister. Worse is to follow after Bonnie is sent to prison, as there, she then falls foul of the jail’s top dog, Kay Butler (Martin). Bonnie soon turns up a corpse, with the incident written off as suicide, due to the heroine found in her veins. But Laurie doesn’t believe a word of it, and deliberately commits grand theft auto, among other crimes, in order to be sent to the same prison, where she can find those responsible, and make them pay for what they did to Bonnie.

Starting with a film-within-a-film scene which had me wondering if I was watching the wrong, post-apocalyptic movie, it’s a nice idea to have the heroine be a stunt-woman, and gives a credible explanation for her physical talents. This 1986 film is also ahead of the curve in making, in explicitly making the facility a “for-profit” prison, something which would eventually become an issue almost three decades later. That said, this does appear to be a rather cushy penal establishment, where inmates are well compensated for their work, and there is both a swimming-pool(!) and a video-arcade(!!). It doesn’t skimp on the exploitational aspects, with the shower scenes typical for the genre, and the rape of Bonnie is genuinely nasty.

In this, it shares something of the same look and feel as Reform School Girls, made that year, right down to the presence of an blonde, obvious Ilsa-lookalike in charge, though Collins’s Miss Dice is far more sympathetic  than Sybil Danning’s Warden Sutter. [Coincidentally or not, both films also feature the Screamin’ Sirens’ song, “Love Slave”, during a scene of sexual abuse.] The main weakness here is likely Chase, who seems rather unconvincing in terms of physical presence, though does acquit herself half-decently in the action scenes. Her Laurie just doesn’t quite feel like the kind of character who would go to such elaborate lengths to extract brutal vengeance – and it’s a damn good thing she wasn’t sent to another facility. You can contrast her character with that of Martin, who definitely feel like the kind of scum that would rise to the top inside.

There is a certain bleakness to the ending [spoilers follow]. After Laurie has completed her revenge, with the help of Miss Dice, the warden turns to her and says, “Did it bring Bonnie back?”, then adding, “You have the rest of your life to think about that.” It’s somewhat disconcerting for the viewer who has been brought along on Laurie’s quest, suddenly to have the moral carpet yanked out from under them like this, instead of any closure. If the hairstyles haven’t aged well, this philosophical ambiguity has.

Dir: Bruce Logan
Star: Karen Chase, Sandy Martin, Kin Shriner, Roberta Collins

Lust for Freedom

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“Lust Highway”

lustforfreedomUndercover cop Gillian Kaites (Coll) needs a break from the force after an operation goes wrong, with her boyfriend and fellow cop being gunned down in front of her. She goes on a road-trip, but has the misfortune to go through a town where the local cops are in league with the prison to arrest fetching young ladies on fabricated charges. They can then be shipped off to jail and… Well, the script is kinda vague on the specific purpose behind this, clearly quite significant, operation involving a large number of people and no small effort. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and presume the ends, whatever they may be, justify the means. Gillian ends up framed for drug possession, and has to survive against brutal guards, brutal fellow prisoners and matron Mrs. Puskar (Trevor) – in the interests of sustaining suspense, I will avoid revealing whether or not she is brutal. Eventually, the brutality on display becomes too much, and she leads the inmates in a revolt against their cruel captors. In other words: women in prison plot 3A.

It’s not a genre which naturally is at home here: whether it qualifies, depends on the approach taken with the heroine as much as anything. How pro-active and action-oriented is she? It’s really a judgment call, but in this case, Coll is physical enough to qualify, and there are a couple of other elements that just about push this into the fringes of our territory. Most obviously, is the lengthy pro-style wrestling match between two inmates, at the behest of Puskar. It’s notable, because one of the participants is actual pro wrestler Dee ‘Queen Kong’ Booher, who was part of the GLOW franchiseas ‘Matilda the Hun’ (a name shamelessly stolen from Death Race 2000), and at 6’4″, certainly deserves the name. Kaites also professes to possess some close-combat abilities, befitting her role as a cop – which she, curiously, never mentions during her incarceration – and uses these to defend herself.

The downside is, this isn’t very good in most aspects, ranging from the overuse of voice-over, clearly as a penny-pinching tactic to avoid the rigours of sync sound recording, through a godawful soundtrack consisting largely of two songs by eighties hair-metal band Grim Reaper (in the film’s defense, it actually was the eighties), to the performance of the lead. This is Coll’s only credit ever, according to the IMDB, and you can understand why. Compared to, say, the Female Convict Scorpion films which were my last dip into the field, it’s positively chaste, outside of a lesbian scene between scream queen Michelle Bauer and porn starlet Summer Breeze. So you have something which is neither tongue in cheek, nor excessive, nor well-acted or filmed. Kinda hard to work out what the point actually is. Great poster though…

Dir: Eric Louzil
Star: Melanie Coll, William J. Kulzer, Judi Trevor, Elizabeth Carlisle

Alley Cat

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“Never quite sinking to tedium, yet never rising to reach interesting.”

alleycatAnother review compared this to Savage Streets and Vigilante, from the same era, and I can certainly see the similarities. Black belt Billie Clark (Mani) finds herself hamstrung by the ineffectual legal system, after she stops a rape – and, indeed, ends up going to jail, which is more than can be said for the attackers. With the help of a sympathetic cop (Torti), who’s also her boyfriend, she works her way up the chain to the sleazeball at the top, Krug (Wayne), presumably named after the villain of another grindhouse classic, The Last House on the Left. But it’s a climb not without its personal cost.

It seemed an almost cursed work, going through a lengthy hiatus mid-shoot, with one director for each chunk, and a third who then fiddled with the movie post-production. The results are about as uneven as you’d expect, but are hampered mostly by the characters involved being bland and forgettable. For someone who has gone through quite a lot, Billie is pretty damn phlegmatic about it all, rarely even bothering to get angry, though does believe cleanliness is next to vengefulness, going by her multiple shower scenes. Mind you, this lack of colour is line with Krug, who is not particularly scary himself, and is hardly a criminal mastermind in charge of an evil empire, his gang consisting of about three guys, with the combined IQ of a Pomeranian.

The supposed martial-arts expertise of the heroine leaves a little to be desired, too. If you’re going to make a point out of someone being a black belt, you need to be able to deliver at least convincing fakery in this department, but there are few moments when Mani (or even her obvious stunt-double) reach the necessary level of semi-competence. The fact that she’s still capable of beating up the bad guys, simply makes them look even more woeful. They’d have been better off letting her hang on to the gun, instead of using that instead to trigger the whole “women in prison” subthread, which feels like it comes from an entirely different movie, rather than just a different director. I couldn’t quite muster the loathing to turn it off: it’s the kind of film that just sits there, occupying 90 minutes of your life.

Dir: Victor Ordoñez, Edward Victor, Al Valletta
Star: Karin Mani, Robert Torti, Michael Wayne, Jon Greene

New Female Prisoner Scorpion: Special Cellblock X

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“And we bid a fond farewell to Nami, and a third different actress.”

The comparisons of Takigawa to Lazenby above proved appropriate in another way, both being canned after one entry playing the iconic title character, which is probably just as symptomatic of something. The replacement here as Nami Matsushima is Natsuki, who seems to go back toward a more taciturn heroine, closer to the original. But it’s, effectively, another reboot, with not even a nod to the previous entry. In this case, the heroine is a nurse, framed for her involvement in the hospital murder of a politician who was threatening to expose corrupt practices. The film starts with her being sent back to jail after a failed escape attempt: that resulted in the rest of the inmates being punished, and they’re none too pleased to see her brought back. There’s also a pragmatic guard who is happy to keep the inmates supplied with cigs and chocolate in exchange for peace, but his position is threated by the arrival of a new head of “security”, with a much tougher stance. After trying to expose the abuse to a visiting dignitary, he ends up in hot water, and teams up with Nami, the pair going on the lam through the mountains, chained to each other – it’s a bit like Black Mama, White Mama, with characters forced to work together for their mutual benefit.

In some ways, this feels like a combination of the first two movies: it has the “woman wronged by the man she loves” theme of the original, and then the “escape through a blasted landscape” plotline from its immediate sequel. There’s also the usual helpings of abuse, though the sexual content here is significantly toned-down, with Natsuki barely showing a nipple. On the other hand, the S&M seems more intense, most notably a scene where multiple prisoners are bound and hung up, to be brutally beaten. By this point, I’ll confess that my interest in that aspect, never exactly great, was all but non-existent. Things did perk up post-escape, with some excellent cinematography, as the pair struggle through the deserted landscape [it’s easy to forget how concentrated the Japanese population is, leaving some areas almost desolate]. Of course, it ends with another vengeful confrontation for Nami – not for the first time, on a roof.

The paucity of original ideas to be found here likely indicates why the series went into dormancy thereafter. As a way to wrap up, however, it works fairly well, particularly if you consider it as a “greatest hits compilation” from the preceding entries. While Natsuki still falls short of the intensity brought to the role by Kaji, she is an improvement on Takigawa, and this moves at a brisk enough pace to sustain interest, even in a viewer looking for less prurient aspects.

Dir: Yutaka Kohira
Star: Yoko Natsuki, Masashi Ishibashi, Hiroshi Tachi, Takeo Chii

New Female Prisoner Scorpion 701

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“Reset! Reset!”

Just goes to show that the “cinematic reboot” is not a 21st-century invention, e.g. Batman or James Bond. For a mere three years after Meiko Kaji showed her sting as Nami, the studio reset the series, giving it a new director, new (and much more talkative) lead actress, and returning Nami Matsushima to a happy, criminal record-free young women, with a loving boyfriend. Except, of course, he turns out not to love her quite as much. Things start to collapse after her sister uncovers evidence of major government corruption, and passes it to Nami, shortly before being kidnapped. After Nami uncovers the truth – her sister is killed and she is framed for the murder, with the help of her boyfriend, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Initially an easy mark for the tough girls in her cell, Nami soon develops her mean streak. And she’s going to need it, because the politician behind it all is looking to tidy up the loose end she represents, by killing her and making the death look like a suicide. Name turns the tables, in incendiary fashion, and it’s clear that she’s one loose end that won’t be quietly disposed of.

Y’know how On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a really great Bond film, with a crappy Bond, Lazenby being the merest shadow of Connery? That’s the situation we have here. The film would be perfectly serviceable, but with every (largely superfluous) word, gesture and action, the viewer can’t help but be reminded of Kaji, who simply fits the character being depicted here, far better. Not that Takigawa is a bad actress. It is just that Kaji made such a strong impression in the role, anyone else playing the character is almost bound to seem like a pale imitation in comparison. Without Kaji or the surrealist touches brought to the previous entries by Shunya Ito, there really isn’t much to distinguish this from the rougher end of the pinku genre, with Kohira appearing to take particular interest in the rape.

The sections after Nami breaks out are the best, in terms of style, and it’s hard to put your finger on any problems: “competent” is likely a good word for this. But probably the most damning indictment, is that I watched the film, wrote most of the review, and then realized almost nothing about the second half had stuck in my mind at all. I ended up having to pull the movie up, just to convince myself I hadn’t been called away to dinner half-way through or something. I hadn’t: it had just failed to make any significant impression on me.

Dir: Yutaka Kohira
Star: Yumi Takigawa, Ryoko Ema, Nobuo Kaneko, Ichiro Nakaya

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Grudge Song

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“Can Sasori escape the hangman’s noose and live happily ever after?”

Nami (Kaji) is about to get married, but her wedding day is rudely interrupted by the arrival of the cops, who arrest her. On the way to prison (and, unsurprisingly, death row, given the body count left behind in the previous three movies), she takes out the driver, causing a crash. The injured Scorpion staggers away, and is rescued by Kudo (Tamura), a former political radical who was brutalized by the police for his actions, and so has a massive load of resentment against them. After being informed of Kudo’s harbouring of Nami by a worked at the sex-club where he works, the cops take him in: and use both physical and psychological torture to try and make him give up her location. Eventually arrested, Nami is sentenced to death, but the cops intend to make sure the time leading up to her execution is as unpleasant and possible, and the detective in charge, Hirose (Tsukata), is intent on making even Nami’s death as lonely an experience as possible.

“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Michael Corleone’s quote from Godfather III seems appropriate here, as it appears Nami was preparing to settle down to a normal life, difficult though it is to see her as a happy housewife. Of course, the cops won’t let it lie, and so begins another cycle of revenge. As in the previous entry, it’s less Nami’s vengeance than her associate’s, at least initially, as we discover Kudo has as much, if not more, reason to hate the police as she does. The final section, however, returns to its roots, with Nami back in prison and having to handle hostility, not only from the police but the guards, though by this time, she has at least attained near-legendary status among the other prisoners, as you’d expect. Doesn’t stop her screwing with another prisoner, who appears to be calmly awaiting her fate: the point of that seemed kinda lost, and unnecessarily cruel.

The last of the series in which Kaji starred, it was also the only one of her four movies not directed by Ito. His replacement, Hasebe, is competent enough, but only rarely brings the same sense of style to proceedings. Kaji is as worth watching as ever, but for too long, she seems like a supporting character in her own movie, with the focus more on Kudo. Chalk up another win for misleading advertising though, as Nami certainly does not use the long rifle with which she is pictured on the DVD sleeve (right).

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

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“Because a baby is for life – even if the Yakuza think otherwise. “

When this begins, Nami (Kaji) is on the run, and slices the arm off Detective Kondo (Narita) after he handcuffs himself to her. She befriends street hooker Yuki (Watanabe), who runs foul of the locak Yakuza gang by turning tricks on their turn, while trying to care for her brain-damaged brother, whom she also services sexually, to stop him from raping women(!). After Nami is involved in the death of a gang member who was blackmailing her, the gang’s madam Katsu (Lee), who knew the Scorpion from her own prison days, captures her, locking our heroine up in a literal big bird-cage. But after the true horror of the Yakuza’s treatment of their women is revealed (it starts with a golf-club going where no golf-club should ever go), Nami escapes and carves a bloody path of revenge on those responsible. When Katsu realizes what’s going on, she turns herself in to the police, figuring jail will be safe from Sasori’s wrath. Take a wild stab in the dark… Which, by coincidence is exactly what Katsu deserves.

There are some angles to this I liked. For instance, the way that Nami is taking revenge here, less for herself – really, she gets off pretty lightly, in comparison to the previous two installments – than for others. I also enjoyed the way she… Well, I’m reluctant to spoil it, but let’s just say, she takes care of Katsu and Kondo without getting her hands dirty. However, the positives are largely balanced out by Yuki, who is one of the more irritating and pointless creatures in cinematic history. Her life appears to be a litany of bad choices, and the film seems to realize how tiresome she is: in the second half, she’s largely relegated to flicking lit matches into the sewer where Nami is hiding out (in a fetching blue dress, it has to be said).

This would be Ito’s last entry in the series: he’d later go on to direct Gray Sunset, which beat out Kurosawa’s Ran to become Japan’s official Academy Award entry for the Foreign Film category in 1985. He seems to have reined in some of his more stylish visual excesses here, which is a bit of a shame, as that’s one of theings which helped elevate this series above the level of generic exploitation. This certainly delivers on the sleaze front [yet could be seen as pro-life, an interesting combo!], but at least in the first half, doesn’t have a great deal more to offer.

Dir: Shunya Ito
Star: Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Yayoi Watanabe, Reisen Lee

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

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“Out of the frying-pan and into the fire goes our heroine.”

Right from the start, Nami (Kaji) established her utterly hardcore credentials, as she’s trying to dig her way out of the dungeon where she has been for the past year. With a spoon. Held in her teeth. She’s let out for the day because a bigwig is visiting, but takes the opportunity to attack warden Goda (Watanabe), almost depriving him of the sight of his other eye. As punishment for the resulting riot, Goda sends four guards to gang-rape Nami, and all the inmates are sent to a hard-labour camp. On the way back, they beat Nami as punishment, leaving her near-dead but it turns out that was just her ruse to get the guards to open the back of the van and escape. She leads the women across a blasted landscape, revenge once more on her mind, with Goda’s men in hot pursuit.

It doesn’t work quite as well as the original, in part because Nami’s motivation isn’t as clear and powerful: it’s only at the end that I realized who she was out to get (and, for the second time, we get a climax on a roof that, remarkably, actually ends, without someone toppling off it). It’s just not as strong a motive, considering everything she has been through by that point, and her terseness reaches almost epic proportions, so isn’t much of a help. Second time round, Ito has reined in the sexual aspects considerably, but has upped the surrealness, as if to make amends, and the results are a couple of truly brilliant sequences. One has a body turn into leaves and blow away, while the other sees a literal river of blood announce the death of a character. However, once they break out of jail, Nami seems largely passive, observing proceedings rather than driving them, and that deflates her value as a heroine.

It’d certainly be wrong to describe this as a failure, because it is undeniably successful at generating the atmosphere and tone desired by Ito, and Kaji is as charismatic as ever, with a powerful screen presence few actresses of any era can match. However, those elements exist in something of a vacuum here, and the results, while worthwhile, are less effective than I seemed to remember them.

Dir: Shunya Ito
Star: Meiko Kaji, Kayoko Shiraishi, Fumio Watanabe, Yukie Kagawa