Prison A-Go-Go

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My anticipation of this film is either based on my changing tastes or ever-lowering standards, depending on your interpretation. See, I never really cared for the old Women In Prison (or WIP) films. They all had pretty much identical plots - good girl is either wrongfully sentenced to prison or consciously infiltrates prison to expose injustice. Once there, she is victimized by the guards and inmates alike. There was no real pressure to juggle the plot at all. It pretty much served to show some extended shower scenes and some sapphic action, both of which I like, not to mention rape and torture, which I don't. Sure, there are some guilty pleasures in the bunch, and most of them were released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the 1970s. The Linda Blair flicks BORN INNOCENT (actually a gripping little TV movie) and CHAINED HEAT also deserve a look. But for the rest, nothing really stuck with me. I mean, how many stereotypical lesbian sadists can you see?

But look around you today - the world is not as welcoming of exploitation cinema. And the simple reason why is that the mainstream is far more sadistic than most of what we saw before. Sex and violence, even graphic sex and violence has infiltrated just about every facet of television. And it's all in such a more money-hungry and altogether unsavory way that it's kind of sad. The GIRLS GONE WILD videos, reality TV shows, and MTV strumpet parades have brought exploitation into our living rooms but completely without the blue collar ethics and overall charm of the great exploitation films of times gone by. Thank God, low budget films continue to thrive, mainly thanks to the advent of the SOV industry. But honest to God sleaze is hard to come by when the media giants continue to market debauchery with a fresh gleam and even make it - gasp! - acceptable. Hell, most of the joy of exploitation came from the face that the industry knew it was slumming and didn't care.

So when word came down that the folks at e.i. Independent Cinema (home of Seduction Cinema, Shock-O-Rama, et al) were working on a film called PRISON A-GO-GO, I was all a quiver. Great, a WIP movie!

When Callista (Lauren Graham, absolutely no relation to the GILMORE GIRLS and BAD SANTA actress) is kidnaped by a mad scientist, her veterinarian friend Janie (Laurie Walton) goes out looking for her. Actually, I think Janie may be Callista's sister, or perhaps a co-worker, or perhaps someone who owed her money. Honestly, I didn't catch it. Does that make me unprofessional?

Anyhoo, Janie quickly tracks Callista to a women's prison located in the Phillipines. She's really a good girl, so she has to kill a bum in order to get put into stir. Once there, she can't locate Callista, but she does meet a colorful assortment of inmates. Jackpot (Rhonda Shear) is her closest friend, a nympho who knows the prison inside and out. Breezy (Tina Parker) is a woman who never showers and farts up valuable contraband. Cross-Eye (Louisa Lawless, again no XENA relation) basically covets her pet porcupine and says "You're gonna learn to like it, bitch!" alot. Here would ordinarily be the point in which the inmates would make Janie's life a living hell. But actually the inmates are pretty nice, friendly and approachable. More on this later. There are also some ninjas that show up for no other reason than the filmmakers seem to think ninjas are funny.

What Janie doesn't know is that Callista is in the evil clutches of Dr. Hurtrider (Travis Willingham), a mad scientist who performs experimental mutations for reasons even he is not quite sure of.

The prison also has a brand new warden, played by Mike Wiebe. He's the slacker type who got his prison credentials through a correspondence program, a funny notion that they should have done more with. This right here is a big difference. Prisons are usually run by sexual sadists whether it be Kate Murtagh in SWITCHBLADE SISTERS or Sid Haig in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. This guy is a laid back kind of evil and not terribly bright. In the part, Wiebe reminded me of Luke Wilson. I hate Luke Wilson.

And that is the major problem with PRISON A-GO-GO. In spoofing the WIP movies, it actually strays far from the conventions of the genre. The warden is not a threat. If they had exploited this facet of the plot, it could have been a welcome relief. But the role is played so laid back, it borders on being irrelevant. The guards are not sadistic in the slightest. The prisoners themselves all seem quite nice and neither Janie nor the other prisoners seem to ever be in any mortal danger. Without any real danger to speak of, we have many scenes of the gals just hanging out. There are a few good gags here and there, but nothing terribly exciting. How can you effectively spoof the WIP movies, if your film barely qualifies as one itself?

And there's another thing. Despite being released by the good folks at e.i. and having loads of drive-in name power, PRISON A-GO-GO is downright chaste. There are fart jokes and the occasional flash. But sex? Nada. Rape? Sorry,. Torture? Just Hurtrider's experiments which is more ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN than MEN BEHIND THE SUN. I'm sorry folks, but given the setting and the plot, as well as the very genre being set up, this is just not going to cut it. It is not enough for some of the humor to be in bad taste, this film should be raunchy as hell. In order to succeed, PRISON A-GO-GO needed to be a sleazy gem that excelled both in lampooning the genre and creating enough cheap thrills of its own.

Rhonda Shear does a fine job in the role of Jackpot, and she serves as one of the producers as well. Shear had a cult favorite cable show in the early 1990s, USA UP ALL NIGHT. This was what USA Network aired in the period after the excellent NIGHT FLIGHT and before the endless DEAD ZONE reruns. She presented two exploitation movies back-to-back and typically from the Troma archives. The films were cut to hell, but the show was still entertaining for its time. Where else was I going to see Burt Ward (Robin on the old BATMAN show, for the culturally impaired) wearing a shirt that said "Sex Cowboy?" Sadly, Shear's film could easily air on the old basic cable show with minimal cutting.

The main exploitive conceit is the shower clock. A clock appears in the lower right corner for most of the film and counts down the minutes to the next shower scene. Once the clock goes off, the scene begins without fail, even if we're in the middle of an action sequence. It's a funny idea that is beat to death with a stick. Plus, the ploy could backfire on the filmmakers. After all, wouldn't this just make it so much easier to press the forward scan button on the DVD player? Don't get too excited anyway. Even the shower scenes are very non-graphic with only a couple breast shots from supporting cast members who aren't so shy.

One of the main things I was looking forward to in PRISON A-GO-GO was the starring role of Mary Woronov. This gal sure has led a full life in the cult spectrum. She started out in Andy Warhol's Factory. Later in the 1970s, she appeared in several notable B-films for Corman's New World Pictures, including ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and DEATH RACE 2000. She even wrote a few books in her time and I absolutely love her novel SNAKE. Woronov is sexy, smart and has a wicked sense of humor. Surely her presence could only help. And it does. Woronov's scenes are the film's best. Even her first line, "These had better be the cattle prods I ordered," sent waves of laughter through this reviewer.

But don't get too used to it. Woronov is not the star of the film. In fact, she completely disappears after five minutes. I don't get it, she is the most prominently featured person on the box cover. She gets above the title bulling. Where's Mary? Sadly, the promise of more Woronov is just a ruse to keep you watching. It's a bait and switch to tease us with the Woronov scenes, only to forget about her. Troma head Lloyd Kauffman also has a few hilarious scenes as a prison guard. He comes on like a tsunami and injects the film with a lot of energy, but his scenes are so few they could have been shot in less than a day.

So, PRISON A-GO-GO disappoints. The plot is inane, the content too tame and the jokes are pushed way too far. Still, a few jokes really deliver and both Shear and Walton turn in good comedic performances. All in all, PRISON A-GO-GO is cute and endearing in spots. But cute and endearing aren't what we look for in a WIP film, even one with its tongue firmly in cheek.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis