Prison Girls (1972) *½
Let me clear up a practically inevitable misconception right up front. Prison Girls, despite the obvious implications of its title, is not in any ordinary sense a women’s prison movie. In fact, only its first few scenes, plus another at the very end, even take place at the St. Helena Women’s Correctional Center. Instead, Prison Girls is a pointlessly long, grindingly dull softcore porn anthology set in a monotonous, brown world of doughy, hairy, unwashed, and occasionally leathery people, enlivened only by a grimy and disturbing gang rape in a down-market auto-repair garage. Had I caught it in the theater, it would also have had the dubious selling point of 3-D cinematography, but I don’t see how the illusion of Uschi Digard’s humongous tits flopping out of the screen at me would have helped all that much.
We begin with a six-way nude catfight in the prison shower, because of course we do. The dialogue attendant upon these supposedly titillating fisticuffs, such as it is, establishes that a select group of inmates are to be granted a weekend furlough on the recommendation of staff psychiatrist Dr. Vivienne Rhinehardt (an actress whom I have been unable to identify, although she looks maddeningly familiar). Then we cut to Rhinehardt’s office, where the doctor is consulting with one of the prisoners in question (who never gets a character name, although she’s played by Barbara Mills, from Truck Stop Women and The Stewardesses) about the psychological problems that ultimately led to her incarceration. Evidently it’s all because she’s frigid. Her inability to satisfy her husband, Frank (Frank Harris, of Executive Wives and Adultery for Fun and Profit), drove him to cheat on her, and she responded to his infidelity by taking drugs, shoplifting, and selling the stolen goods. Rhinehardt locates the root of the patient’s frigidity in the combination of her upbringing (which taught her to think of sex as something to be hidden away and not discussed) and the lack of privacy at the apartment she and her husband share. The walls in their building are paper-thin, so any moans of pleasure are sure to be overheard by half the neighbors— an intolerable state of affairs for someone with this girl’s internalized attitudes. Fortunately, the shrink knows just the thing for it. Some years ago, she sent a couple of her other hangup-riddled patients on a sex retreat at the well-appointed summer home of one of her rich buddies. (Cue lengthy flashback of two moderately attractive couples boning their way across a mansion that looks like the 70’s got drunk and vomited all over a formal sitting room from 19th-century Ottoman Syria.) When No Name Girl goes on her furlough, Rhinehardt prescribes that she and Frank spend the weekend at the same house, following in their predecessors’ crotchsteps.
Soon thereafter, Jack the warden (John Barnum, from The Young Secretaries and The Adult Version of Jekyll & Hyde) comes in to discuss piggybacking a law-enforcement function on top of the girls’ therapeutic furlough. It seems that one of the six prisoners— no one knows which— is the girlfriend of a wanted criminal who just made himself even more wanted by gunning down a bank guard. Jack wants to assign police officers to follow each of the furloughed inmates at a discreet distance, in the hope that whichever one of them is involved with the perp will lead them to him. Rhinehardt okays the scheme, provided that it can be managed so as not to interfere with the rehabilitative goals of the furlough.
Now we get into the meat of the movie, as each of the six prisoners gets her own personal vignette. (Well, more or less. Actually, Girl #5 gets a supporting role in Girl #4’s story.) Up first is Kay (Jacqueline Giroux, of Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and The Beauties and the Beast), who was in for prostitution. She means to be done with the life, but first she has to go pick up a small fortune in skanky clothes from her boyfriend and former pimp, Mike (Jason Williams, from Flesh Gordon and Alice in Wonderland). She comes home to find that he has two new girls, and that Sugar (Marsha Jordan, of Lady Godiva Rides and Dr. Carstair’s 1869 Love-Root Elixir) and Phyllis (Luanne Roberts, from Trader Hornee and Simon, King of the Witches) have been helping themselves to her stuff in her absence. Kay makes a big show of objecting to being treated thusly, but from the way she and Mike fall into bed together after he makes the other girls doff the stolen duds, I don’t think St. Helena has seen the last of her.
We already know how Frank and his wife spend their weekend, so let’s skip ahead to Joyce (Maria Arnold, of Meatcleaver Massacre and Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman!). She’s doing time for shanking her worthless, abusive husband, and the unfinished business she means to attend to during her 48 hours on the outside concerns her brother-in-law, Ken (Howard Alexander, from Seeds of Lust and Tijuana Blue). Unlike his brother, Ken was always unfailingly decent to Joyce, even to the point of siding with her over his own family in the aftermath of the murder. Joyce is confused and a little pissed off, then, that she hasn’t heard from him in all this time. When she drops in on him at his auto repair garage, Ken explains that he thought it would be best if he left Joyce alone, even though he didn’t want to; he felt like he owed his no-good brother that. It’s obvious to us, although Joyce is perhaps only just starting to catch on, that Ken has been in unrequited love with his sister-in-law since probably the day his brother introduced them, but this isn’t going to be the tender reconciliation that might normally imply. Just as Ken and Joyce start moving in that direction, a bunch of his friends barge in with trouble on their minds. These are the local chapter of some outlaw biker gang, and when their leader, Hawk (Gerard Broulard, from The Erotic Adventures of Zorro and Sacrilege), sees Joyce, he decides that the afternoon simply won’t be complete without a nice gang-rape. And when he realizes that Ken has feelings for the victim, he insists that his friend enjoy the honor of going first.
Next comes Toni (Tracy Handfuss, of Psyched by the 4-D Witch and The Big Snatch). She drops in on her old friend, Freddy (Chesley Noone, from Hangar 18 and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), to catch up and get laid. The attraction seems to be that the jet-setting Freddy is the only guy she knows who’s been too wrapped up in his own shit to realize that she’s been in prison. The visit doesn’t go quite the way Toni envisioned, however. First, when she arrives, Freddy is in the middle of painting a landscape— across the nude bodies of four hired models. Joyce’s intrusion leads to a miniature labor uprising as the girls protest being sent packing before the agreed-upon session is up, let alone being forbidden to take a shower first for fear of discoloring Freddy’s porous marble bathroom fittings. And no sooner have the models left than the pair are interrupted by Gertie (Annik Borel, from Weekend with the Babysitter and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils), Joyce’s behind-bars girlfriend, who has also been furloughed for the weekend. Gertie is the jealous type, so she decided to spend her time away from St. Helena keeping tabs on Joyce. It all ends happily enough, however, since Freddy is unthreatened by bisexuality, and Gertie determines that if he isn’t, then she won’t be either.
Finally, let’s meet Cindy (Uschi Digard, from Ilsa, Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks and Harry, Cherry & Raquel). She’s the girl Jack was thinking of when he put tails on all the furloughed prisoners, and she does indeed lead the cops straight to Johnny’s safe house. (I couldn’t sort out who played Johnny, either.) Johnny knows he’s in big trouble, and now that Cindy is back on the outside, he wants her to go on the run with him. Cindy, however, is dead serious about this whole rehabilitation thing, and tries to talk him into turning himself in. After all, he waited for Cindy; it’s only fair that she be prepared to wait for him to serve his time, too. The discussion is cut short, though, when those cops following Cindy make their presence felt. This being an exploitation movie from the 70’s, it was probably inevitable that the final segment (apart from the scene at the prison that wraps up the framing story) would not come to a happy ending.
I noticed, while investigating director Tom De Simone’s resumé, that he directed a lot of gay porn under the name Lancer Brooks. Consequently, I wonder if we’re looking at a situation similar to David De Coteau’s work for the soft porn wing of Charles Band’s video empire, a gay guy failing at smut for straight people because he lacks the necessary intuitive understanding of what’s supposed to be arousing about hetero sex? Certainly the lack of enthusiasm with which De Simone seems to approach the opening catfight suggests the perspective of someone who really doesn’t get it. In any case, Prison Girls truly is almost as un-sexy as the likes of Femalien, although the earlier era naturally means that it’s un-sexy in very different ways. The whole cast of Prison Girls badly needs a shower, to the extent that even the most appealing couple (Frank and his wife, for the record) left me too distracted by phantom armpit funk to enjoy their scenes. Matters aren’t helped, either, by the unremitting smooth jazz score, which manages to sound skeezy and listless at the same time. Most of all, though, Prison Girls, while softcore, suffers from a hardcore-like indifference to cinematic technique whenever the actors’ clothes come off. The one exception is the gang rape at Ken’s garage, which could teach most Last House on the Left knockoffs a thing or two. The trouble is, a harrowing scene like that is the last thing I want to encounter in a movie that’s theoretically trying to turn me on.