Little did I realize I was buying a ticket to a future installment of Trashterpiece Theatre.
As prison escapee Rita (Christina Whitaker) hitches rides down a quiet two-lane highway, she ends up getting a lift from Willy (John Terlesky), who’s looking for a good time in the stolen car he’s driving. After getting ID’d at a diner by a cop and blowing away the cop and the cook, Rita and Willy hole up in a motel, do some drugs and the horizontal mambo, then plan to rob a bank for getaway money – specifically, the bank where Willy’s estranged wife, the wholesome Michelle (Shari Shattuck), works.
The robbery goes wrong in a hail of gunfire, and ends with Willy, Rita, and Michelle in a violent car crash. Willy is killed, and Michelle is sent to a women’s prison for 3 years because Rita falsely testifies that Michelle was their “inside man” for the attempted heist. As Michelle deals with prison life – including a corrupt (and kinky) warden (Angel Tompkins) and a sleazeball guard named Smiley (Paul Benedict) – someone special is transferred to Michelle’s prison: Rita. And she’s looking to get revenge on Michelle for deliberately crashing their getaway car and sending her back behind bars.
I’ve never been a huge fan of women-in-prison (WIP) films, but they’re a well-followed genre – with books, websites, and blogs dedicated to them. (FYI: Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme’s first film was the 1974 WIP flick Caged Heat.)
Yet even the casual WIP viewer can see that Naked Cage writer/director Paul Nicholas delivers the goods in terms of what these films are known for, and what’s expected of them: Campy dialogue, overdramatic acting, and women-on-women action (in both sex and violence). Yet throughout it all, he also largely succeeds in fleshing out the characters so that we feel (and fear) for the good girls when they’re in danger, and cheer when the bad folks get their comeuppance.
Nicholas also uses plot devices that rise above the WIP genre, including many that rival those of mainstream films (he keeps twists and turns coming at a steady pace). And cinematographer Hal Trussell brings an inventive style to the proceedings with many unique camera angles (the POV of Rita’s return is especially great).
No review of The Naked Cage would be complete without a mention of the tragically delicious ‘80s aspects of the film:
* Rita rocks a cassette Walkman and radical sunglasses while hitchhiking
* The warden’s pleasuredome is awash in neon and Venetian-blind lighting
* There’s more feathered hair than all four of my high school yearbooks
In fact, the soundtrack, lighting, set pieces, and wardrobe all scream late ‘80s cheapie (The Naked Cage was released by the king of ‘80s cheapies, Cannon Films).
You may be shocked – shocked! – to learn that The Naked Cage may not be completely accurate in its portrayal of the criminal justice system. For instance, I don’t think standard women’s prison uniforms in the ‘80s came with the Flashdance off-the-shoulder option, nor do I think they were color-coded based on race (for some reason, the black girls’ uniforms are pink and the white girls’ are blue). And I don’t think that Rita flipping her testimony to the truth (something she promises to do when Michelle has her in a compromising position) would instantly free Michelle.
The Naked Cage is an enjoyable balance of campy sleaziness and solid story structure, with a generous dash of character development. True, it’s exploitative and trashy, but it’s often stylishly executed and well worth watching.
(Unfortunately, The Naked Cage has never had a proper release on DVD. I got my VHS copy on eBay; you can also find sellers on Amazon.com (see below). And with a simple Google search, you’ll find dozens of places where you can buy or download it. Happy hunting, and if I hear of an official DVD release, I’ll post the news here.)
Where are they now?
- Shari Shattuck (Michelle) – Following her last acting role in 2000, Shattuck has found a second career as a novelist.
- Christina Whitaker (Rita) – After a handful of films (including Assault of the Killer Bimbos), Whitaker’s last role was in 1994’s straight-to-video Love Street.
- John Terlesky (Willy) – Terlesky is now a TV director, recently helming episodes for Army Wives, Castle, and Ugly Betty.
- Angel Tompkins (Warden) – Tompkins’ last film role was in 1991, but she now does voiceover work and has made several runs for president of the Screen Actors Guild. Earlier in her career, Tompkins often played the sexy bombshell in films like How to Seduce a Woman and The Teacher, and she earned a Golden Globe nod for her role opposite Elliot Gould in 1970’s I Love My Wife.
- The one Naked Cage actress I thought we’d see more of is Stacey Shaffer, who plays recovering heroin addict Amy. Shaffer brought a significant amount of complexity to a character that, in this kind of film, could have easily been one-dimensional. (Since Naked Cage, Shaffer has done a horror film, bit parts on TV’s Diagnosis Murder, and an acclaimed short film in 2006.)
Is it suitable for your kids?Hopefully my above review will already tell you the answer: No. But if you need specific examples:
* Smiley rapes a prisoner and attempts to rape Michelle
* Drug use (cocaine, heroin), including a scene where Willy snorts coke off Rita’s, um, water ices
* The warden gets busy on several occasions (in graphic detail) with a female inmate
* Copious amounts of nudity
* An inmate is smothered to death
* Various beatdowns, shootings, and stabbings, plus an especially nasty scene where an inmate chokes to death on shards of a broken mirror
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?I’m guessing this is one for you to watch alone or with the guys.
The Naked Cage
* Director: Paul Nicholas
* Screenwriter: Paul Nicholas
* Stars: Shari Shattuck, Christina Whitaker, John Terlesky, Angel Tompkins, Paul Benedict, Stacey Shaffer
* MPAA Rating: R (nudity, drug use, profanity, violence)