Review: ‘Bad Girls Behind Bars’

Campy compilation of four women's prison movies from four different decades proves surprisingly entertaining in "Bad Girls Behind Bars." Clips from such disparate sources as a '30s Stanwyck programmer, a Pam Grier exploitation flick or an Anne Heche mad lesbo villain vehicle edit together for a surprisingly continuous view of prison life.

Campy compilation of four women’s prison movies from four different decades proves surprisingly entertaining in “Bad Girls Behind Bars.” Witty scrolled asides to the audience provide an interactive context that never condescends. Helmer Sharon Zurek eschews cheap shot sound-bite montages for long stretches of girl-on-girl action. Clips from such disparate sources as a ’30s Stanwyck programmer, a Pam Grier exploitation flick or an Anne Heche mad lesbo villain vehicle edit together for a surprisingly continuous view of prison life. Pic, inviting collective participation, should wow at gay fests or group video viewings.

What becomes immediately obvious is the homoerotic atmosphere endemic to the genre, from a buttoned-down, cigar-smoking suffragette type in Warners “Ladies They Talk About” (1933) and the sophisticated, wise-cracking Lillian Roth and Barbara Stanwyck lounging around in the same movie, to Edward L. Cahn’s 1956 “B” film “Girls in Prison,” where Warners’ sly complicity gives way to clueless ’50s incomprehension as innocent Joan Taylor finds herself at the mercy of her guilty cellmates.

The more explicitly S&M “Women in Cages” (1971) seems transparently designed to afford a pretext for Grier in thigh boots to crack her whip. The degree of characters’ innocence is virtually indistinguishable from the depth of their decolletage. Yet even here the conventions of the genre rule, as the newcomer is indoctrinated into the intricate power structure of an all-female captive society.

In her pursuit of a thematic throughline, Helmer Zurek often decolorizes John McNaughton’s made-for-TV “Girls in Prison” (1994) to downplay segues from the earlier, black-and-white films (only “Women in Cages” is always presented in color, presumably because pic’s jungle setting is too exotic and the print too grainy to be easily assimilated). In “Girls,” Heche steals the show as a plagiarist maniacally laughing in her cell as she plots the assassination of the hapless songwriter whose composition she stole.

Zurek’s manipulation of her material is both minimal and deliberately blatant. The audience is encouraged to call out every time one of a glossary of terms like “new fish” pops up in dialogue or appears as a superimposed icon on the screen. Faked visual superimpositions include a Time Magazine cover of Ellen De Generes in Heche’s jail cell; also, whenever an onscreen letter is opened in the vintage footage, inane mash notes are substituted for the original pic’s plot-specific messages.

Midway through the film, Zurek confides to her audience, again via written scroll, that she understands completely if they are uncomfortable shouting at the screen, and that if they do not laugh out loud, it does not necessarily mean they themselves are felons or, worse, Serious Lesbians who find nothing funny. Yet, paradoxically, these post-modern jolts serve to co-opt any simplistic mockery of the films. Unlike putdown exercises such as “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Bad Girls” invites audience appreciation.

Bad Girls Behind Bars

Production

A Shout Out Movie! production. Produced, directed, edited by Sharon Zurek.

Crew

(Color, B&W). Reviewed at Newfest Film Festival, New York, June 5, 2005. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Barbara Stanwyck, Lillian Roth, Joan Taylor, Adele Jergens, Pam Greer, Anne Heche, Ione Skye.

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