Thursday, May 07, 2009

Women's Prison Massacre (1983)

While Bruno Mattei's Women’s Prison Massacre (Emanuelle Fuga Dall'Inferno, literally Emanuelle Escapes from Hell in Italian) is technically a Black Emanuelle film (Gemser actually stars as the character Emanuelle, and not just in re-dubbed and re-titled international cuts), it’s pointedly different than the original Black Emanuelle films made infamous by Joe D’amato. Despite directing films like Porno Holocaust and the fake Caligula sequels, Mattei’s films are much tamer than D’Amato’s (but, really, that isn’t saying much). While Emanuelle is still a head-strong, free-spirited reporter here, her character is quite different than the Emanuelle found in D’Amato’s classic exploitation films.

In films like Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Gemser plays the photo-journalist Emanuelle as a carefree, precocious nymphomaniac, following illicit thrills around the globe. So, it’s strange to find her locked in a prison here, robbed of D’Amato’s defining cosmopolitan characteristic. Consensus being that Gemser can’t act, one would assume that her performance here would lack the nuanced performance potentially afforded by this alteration. Granted, Gemser is wooden, but that may have more to do with her icy, impassable beauty, a disposition that can occasionally convey only aloof boredom. However, Gemser’s performance here is actually quite good, and certainly among the best of her career (the Russian Roulette scene is particular evidence of this).

The film begins with a perplexing bit of performance art that barely serves as exposition and fails to set the proper tone of the film. Emanuelle and two compatriots are seen on a make-shift prison stage, slathered in harlequin face-paint and flatly presenting a three-hander monologue, the type of “I’m a whore/ I’m a woman” pseudo-feminist hot-air found in many exploitation scripts. Workman Italian stalwarts Claudio Fragasso (notorious director of the D'Amato-produced Troll 2, which Gemser had a hand in) and Olivier Lefait (first A.D. to Mattei on Rats: Night of Terror and writer of the lesser Violence in a Women’s Prison, which this film is a sort-of sequel to) really outdid themselves with this bizarre trio of monologues.

While at odds tonally, this strange and off-putting opening scene in Women’s Prison Massacre seems added as some sort of notification (or warning) to the audience that this is not a typical women-in-prison film. In fact, nods in the film to genre convention (lesbianism, rape, riot, escape) feel compulsory and tangential; in the average by-the-books WiP picture, these moments would be highlighted and heavily presented, as the execution of lurid subject matter is the raison d’etre of most exploitation genre films. Chalk it up to characterization perhaps, but it’s rather unsuccessful in that regard. The inmates find this bit of theatre so offensive they begin to riot and throw fruit (where the hell did they get it?), at the urging of Emanuelle’s rival Albina (Ursula Flores, for some reason playing a different character than she played in ViaWP).

While Emanuelle is at the film’s core, Women’s Prison Massacre is in many ways an ensemble piece. Albina and at least two other inmates are adequately developed. And midway through the film, a half dozen new characters are introduced in an inspired run of scenes. The prison’s warden (Carlo De Mejo as Harrison) is for some reason tasked with housing a gang of vicious male killers in an unused portion of the prison (as to why they would be brought to a women’s prison is a question you’re going to have to ask the gods of exploitation cinema). Italian character actor Gabrielle Tinti provides the film’s best performance as the gleefully sadistic Crazy Boy Henderson (He and Gemser would reunite the following year in D’Amato’s post-apocalyptic sleeper Endgame).

With the introduction of these characters, the film nearly shifts into Poliziesco thriller territory, as the gang manages to take control of a police van en-route to the prison, enlisting police-impersonating thugs as blockade and taking the warden captive. The crew hole up in the prison, locking the inmates and guards away as they negotiate with the cops gathering outside the compound (including the corrupt D.A. who put Emanuelle in prison). These action scenes are incredibly visceral and lively, and perfectly complimented by Luigi Ceccarelli’s Simonetti-esque score. This is a welcome twist on the formula and a fully functional and successful genre-mash-up.

While up to this point the violence in the film is of a prisoner-catfight type nature (aside from a blackly-comic scene where Emanuelle takes a brutal baton-hit to the face from Cannibal Ferox's Lorraine De Selle), the sadistic nature of Crazy Boy’s gang pushes the film into new mean-spirited directions. While directors like Sergio Martino and D’Amato craft films with a pervasive tone of sleaze, Mattei’s WPM contains only isolated moments of shocking violence and sexual depravity, which makes these scenes more powerful than they would be alongside the non-stop cavalcade of shock formula of the D’Amato Black Emanuelle films or Martino‘s cannibal pictures. While Crazy Boy taking a mouthful of gore is a high-note, the film’s most gruesome scene has to be the sequence where a broken and abused prisoner fatally wounds a thug by inserting a razor blade into her vagina and seducing him (luckily this isn‘t a D‘Amato film, as Gianetto De Rossi would have actually figured out some way to film the appendage/razor contact).

Despite a predictable climax, Emanuelle’s fate at the end of the film is somewhat ambiguous. Presumably this device is a bit of insurance, material to fuel the start of more Emanuelle WiP films. However unless I’m mistaken, this and ViaWP are the only such major pictures. While the triumphant tone of the film’s dénouement is depleted by this bit of business, this film is still jam-packed and engaging, and certainly a high-point for both the women-in-prison genre and the sub-genre of Black Emanuelle films starring Laura Gemser. Recommended.