Recently a poll found that more than one in five British cinema-goers preferred comedy to any other film style. Action/adventure films placed second, with romantic comedies rounding out the top three. That trio of genres eats up most of the space at the movie theatres, but there are hundreds of other kinds of films.
This weekend, Sucker Punch opens in theatres, a women-in-prison film directed by 300 helmer Zach Snyder, reviving a genre thought to have gone the way of nunsploitation and Pauly Shore movies.
Of all the sub-sub genres, the women-in-prison movie has to be one of the least appreciated… at least in recent years. There was a time when these stories of women in lock up, at the mercy of cruel prison guards, proudly took up screens in drive-ins and second-run houses. With names like Caged Heat and Barbed Wire Dolls, these movies, along with kung fu and blaxploitation flicks, kept many a grindhouse in business.
WIP films have been around since the 1930s, but didn’t become popular until the 1950s when cautionary tales like Agnes Moorehead’s Caged and Ida Lupino’s Women’s Prison mixed and matched hardened criminals with sadistic guards.
It wasn’t until Spanish exploitation filmmaker Jess Franco hit upon the misogynistic recipe of mixing babes, bars and bondage, however, that the subgenre was officially born.
His first WIP movie, 99 Women (featuring the voice of the demon child in The Exorcist, Mercedes McCambridge), sparked a revolution in sexploitation films.
One of the early stars to emerge from the WIP heyday was Pam Grier. Starring in The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House—“Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man. Or to him.”— Grier became, as Quentin Tarantino called her, “the first female action star.”
No WIP exploitation film ever won an Academy Award, but at least one of their filmmakers did. Today, Oscar -winner Jonathan Demme is known as the man behind Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but buried deep down on his resume is his big screen debut, Caged Heat. In addition to the obligatory violence and nudity, Demme added a storyline about prisoner abuse through medical experiments.
“Jonathan took that assignment,” remembers producer Roger Corman, “and said: ‘This is gonna be the best one ever made.’ Jonathan took the genre, worked with it, and made something exceptionally good.”