I'm not sure what the heyday for Women in Prison movies was but I'm pretty sure that by 1983 the wave had crested. By then I assume that the conventions of the genre were in place and most interested moviegoers knew what to expect from such a film — there will be at least one wrongfully imprisoned inmate and she will invariably be the most attractive; the prison will be run by a hard-ass and possibly corrupt warden; there will be plenty of female nudity and at least some lesbian groping; and harsh girl-on-girl violence will erupt as often as it can be inserted into the plot. As long as these elements are in the movie, other things are negotiable. So its usually much more fun to track a film's success in juggling these elements than it is to quibble over the fact that one resembles another. The joys are in the details.
And so we come to Bruno Mattei's Women's Prison Massacre. Mattei (hiding behind one of his many pseudonyms) puts all his pieces in place and creates his usual derivative, trashy mess. I don't think there was an original bone in the guy's body but his ability to assemble a shambling Frankenstein, made up of parts ripped from other people's work, is almost unrivaled in its bold theft and entertainment value. Mattei's films are never good, but they are fun. This one is no exception.
The movie begins during a strange stage show being performed by three of the prison's inmates. Dressed seductively and painted up like mimes, the women spout autobiographical confessions in bizarre self-important monologues. This avant-garde act doesn't go over well with the prisoner audience; lead by the very touchy blonde firebrand Albina (Ursula Flores), a minor riot breaks out to end the show. Where all those fruits and vegetables came from to be thrown at the actors I have no idea, but it makes for a funny scene with plenty of flying tomatoes.
It turns out that this play was written by inmate Emanuelle (Laura Gemser). She was given permission to stage the show by the warden, Colleen (Lorraine De Selle), who is now quite angered by the reaction. You'd think she would have thought about this before letting the inmates see it. Now she insists the dialog must be cut and toned down or there will be no more shows. Here we learn that Emanuelle is a crusading journalist, imprisoned by a corrupt district attorney named Robinson for getting too close to his criminal enterprises. It's also obvious that this Emanuelle is supposed to be the same one played by Gemser in the loose series of "Black Emanuelle
" films made from 1976 to the early 1980s. I was a little surprised by this, as I was unaware of this movie's connection to the character, but it fits in neatly with the others and Gemser is always pleasing to see. I have begun to wonder just how many official and unofficial Black Emanuelle films there were, though... I've seen about 10 and they just keep on coming — if you know what I mean!
Well, just when you think the focus of Women's Prison Massacre is going to be the trials of putting on a brilliant piece of high-minded performance art in a prison hellhole, the story shifts. Or lurches, rather. Albina definitely has it in for Emanuelle and her fellow actors. As play performers Irene (Antonella Giacomini) and Laura (Maria Romano) are enjoying some lesbian heavy petting in the communal showers, the enraged blonde stomps off and alerts the guards. These guards slap the two lovers around and hold their heads underwater much to Albina's delight. Emanuelle complains to the warden about the incident but since the guards claim they did nothing wrong, it stops there. Emboldened by this success, Albina arranges with the guards to have some time alone with Emanuelle and attacks her in the showers. Humorously, Albina's fighting skills are sorely lacking and E puts the smackdown on her easily, pulling her blonde wig off in the process.
At this point we are witness to the warden taking a phone call from corrupt D.A. Robinson, insuring him that Emanuelle will be done away with very soon. Proving she's dumber than she looks, Albina tries again to kill E, this time with a knife, while both the guards and the warden look on. Once again E kicks the crap out of the lunatic and ends things by burying the knife in her opponent's thigh. As the screaming, cursing woman is dragged away to the infirmary Emanuelle is returned to her cell, smile firmly in place. Further attempts to have the reporter die by inmate violence are postponed when the warden receives word of an emergency. Four vicious male prisoners were being transported to the prison to be held for a few days (prior to their executions) when their partners made a bid to spring them. In the resultant gun battle two cops were killed and the van they were traveling in was wrecked. The lone surviving cop (Carlo De Mejo) manages to get the criminals to the women's jail, but as they're being placed in cells the four men gain the upper hand, taking the warden and the now wounded cop hostage. They close off the cellblock (with its dozen or so inmates) and start issuing demands.
From here on the film is a prison siege story, with the police trying to end things without more death and the inmates inside indulging in whatever nastiness they wish with the trapped female prisoners. The four men are a fine bunch of bastards, too. Gemser's real-life husband and frequent co-star Gabriele Tinti plays "Crazy Boy", the brains of the group. He gets the cops outside to give him a walkie-talkie and makes his standard three demands: $5 Million in small bills, a getaway car and safe passage out of the country. Of course, he might as well have asked for the letter M to be stricken from the English language, but he seems content. His gives them a three hour deadline and then the sadistic fun begins.
Anyone conversant with the genre can guess the end point from here but with Mattei it's always a question of just how perverse he will get before the credits roll. In this one he gets pretty damned perverse! Even before we get to the rape, razor blades in vaginas and SWAT team assaults the film has already laid the crazy card on the table. Irene has a male blow up doll she sleeps with and the prison appears to be in a poorly kept medieval palace. Even goofier, the film tries hard to pretend it's taking place in California even though its European locale is obvious in everything from the cars to the buildings to the countryside. I seriously doubt that any U.S. police department has ever fielded a subcompact cruiser, much less one with an extension cord running up to power the rooftop lights. And I was laughing out loud at the high level police officer's uniforms with more decorations and braid than a dress parade general.
But all this stuff is part of the fun of a silly, guilty pleasure like this. Say what you will about Mattei's lack of skill in most areas of filmmaking, but the man knew his lowbrow targets. Even as he steals something so plainly as the Russian Roulette scene from The Deer Hunter he manages to add a gory note to things that can't help but produce either a shudder or a laugh depending on your tastes. For trash connoisseurs there is some real fun to be had with Women's Prison Massacre. All others would be best warned off.