Before Orange is the New Black (whose latest season premieres on Netflix today), media dealing with women in prison (WIP) often had a bad reputation. ‘70s and early ‘80s WIP exploitation films like Chained Heat (Paul Nicolas, 1983) were critically panned and described by many as sleazy, seedy, rape-y, off-putting and dumb, although they have their ardent fans. Orange is the New Black took the basic WIP narrative structure (a naïve outsider enters a women’s prison and learns how to function there) and made it smart, adding a healthy dose of character development and social commentary. However, it was not the first to do so. Today, we feature six smart WIP films and one TV series to check out when you’re done binge-watching.
Caged (John Cromwell, 1950)
One usually doesn’t put the phrases “Oscar nominated” and “women in prison film” in the same sentence, and yet one must when discussing Caged. This classic, which laid out a set of tropes that WIP films and TV shows have used ever since, snagged three Oscar nominations: Best Actress in a Leading Role for Eleanor Parker, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Hope Emerson, and Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay for Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Virginia Kellogg. Kellogg pulled some strings and actually incarcerated herself in a women’s prison to conduct research for her book Women Without Men, which inspired the movie. 19-year-old Marie (Parker) gets thrown in prison for being an accomplice to her deceased husband’s armed robbery. Her experiences of vicious politics among the prisoners and abuse from the cruel matron (Evelyn Harper, butching it up in an iconic role) turn her from a naïve, scared little flower into a hardened, ruthless woman. If you’re creative, think of Caged as the origin story of The Sound of Music’s villainous Baroness Schrader (played by Parker in 1965).
Terminal Island (Stephanie Rothman, 1973)
Stephanie Rothman is legendary among fans of feminist exploitation films. Trained by Roger Corman, Rothman was known for infusing her films with a feminist and surprisingly artsy sensibility. She eventually left Corman’s New World Pictures to run the film division of Dimension Pictures with her husband, Charles S. Swartz. Terminal Island was one of her most successful pictures for Dimension. The film foresees the plots of both the Steve Austin trash classic The Condemned (Scott Wiper, 2007) and the blockbuster Hunger Games books and movies. The film takes place on Devil’s Island, where the government sends murder convicts for life, expecting them to fight to the death. Carmen, a tough young woman, arrives on the island to find an oppressive society led by Bobby. He enslaves the local female population and rules with an iron fist. In a classic Rothman move, some of the more freethinking prisoners (including a young Tom Selleck!) work to overthrow the social system. They create a new, harmonious society that rejects both misogyny and violence. This might be the only women (and men) in prison film with a feel good ending.
WARNING: THIS CLIP IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK
Caged Heat (Jonathan Demme, 1974)
Legendary writer-director Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense! . Something Wild , and The Silence of the Lambs ) made his directorial debut with this Roger Corman-produced WIP flick, which is both an effective entry in the genre and a classic sendup. It has the usual plot: Narcs bust an innocent-ish girl named Jacqueline (Erica Gavin) for drugs and force her into women’s penitentiary hell, which is lorded over by the evil, wheelchair bound warden McQueen (the great Barbara Steele). There she faces the usual lesbianism and inmate antagonism, and unusually grotesque medical experiments. However, Caged Heat stands out from the bunch because Demme (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) takes time developing his characters. He establishes each woman’s subjectivity by giving her a fantasy sequence, a plot device that we’ll see used again in 2002’s Chicago. The film also comments on how the government-sanctioned social structure of the women’s prison mentally and emotionally harms those who are stuck there. Even the evil McQueen is made slightly sympathetic (or, at least, understandable) when she daydreams about performing a cabaret act—out of wheelchair—in a nightclub, a la Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930). The movie takes a refreshing feminist turn when its female prisoners band together at the end to stage a big escape. In addition to having a phenomenal director and a dynamite cast, Caged Heat benefits from cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (who’d go on to photograph contemporary classics like The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense ) and music by former Velvet Underground member John Cale.
Born Innocent (Donald Wrye, 1974)
Linda Blair gives a phenomenal performance (maybe her best) in this TV movie about a teenager who runs away to escape her abusive father and ends up in a terrible reform school. The movie infamously traumatized a generation of kids with a scene in which a gang of fellow inmates violate Linda with a broomstick. However, the movie has much more to offer. It’s a truly powerful, devastating portrait of a smart, compassionate girl’s emotional destruction at the hands of two hypocritical institutions that are meant to support her: the nuclear family and the reform school. If you want some campy thrills, Born Innocent will provide those, too. It has some priceless ‘70s “groovy teen” dialogue to keep audiences from falling too deep into despair! Blair later starred in the seminal sleazy WIP films Chained Heat and Red Heat (Robert Collector and Ernst R. von Theumer, 1985).
Prisoner aka Prisoner: Cell Block H (Created by Reg Watson, 1979-1986)
Many have cited this hit Australian TV soap opera as the prototype for Orange is the New Black. It recounts the trials and tribulations of a group of women prisoners who struggle for power, deal with devastating separation from their outside lives (or, in some cases, struggle with leaving prison), and form alternative families. While many prison dramas before Prisoner (including several on this list) incorporated lesbianism as part of the prison freak show, Prisoner was arguably the first to really grapple with the complex, often profound romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships among incarcerated women (a tactic which some have described as Orange’s innovation). Like Orange, it also made the need for prison reform a major recurring theme.
Stranger Inside (Cheryl Dunye, 2001)
The brilliant director Cheryl Dunye, who started her career making feminist experimental films with popular appeal (most notably 1996’s The Watermelon Woman, the first feature directed by a black lesbian), directed this essential HBO film. Treasure enters the State Facility for Women hoping to meet her mother, Brownie. Their reunion is complicated by the fact that Brownie has a new, adopted family (a wife and two daughters) behind bars. Orange is the New Black owes a particular debt to Stranger Inside. The show and series both deal with a tempestuous relationship between a mother and daughter behind bars, tensions among different racial and ethnic groups, guard-inmate romances, and the dangers and temptations of selling contraband.
Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)
Just because it’s a musical doesn’t mean that it can’t be a WIP film! Based on a Broadway show originally created by Bob Fosse, Chicago tells a tale of savvy murderesses exploiting the media’s love of sex and violence to become superstars. The film uses song and dance to speak volumes about its characters (“The Cell Block Tango,” in which the gals recount their crimes, is a highlight). Marshall replaces the grit of most WIP films with razzle-dazzle style (glittery costumes don’t always enhance WIP films, but they sure enhance this one). As Big Mama Morton, the requisite lesbian warden, Queen Latifah gets what Caged Heat’s McQueen always wanted: Her own show stopping musical number. That’s progress!
Ben Raphael Sher is Vice President of Development at X-G Productions and a PhD candidate at UCLA. His writing also appears on ChillerTV.com and SyFy.com (divisions of NBCUniversal), and the Eyes of Ben Sher blog (http://eyesofbensher.blogspot.com). He regularly co-hosts the Retro Movie Love podcast (http://retromovielove.com).