Woe be the filmmaker who enters into the realm of the ridiculous without the proper training or talent. Just because you and your buddies think a certain subject is funny, especially after a pony keg of Pabst, a couple dozen Jell-O shooters and a bowl or two of bong-ready backwood stink weed doesn't mean that the mild mannered mainstream moviegoer will buy into your bedlam. It's been said a billion times before, but apparently it bears repeating yet again, but humor is in the bone of the beholder – the funny bone, that is. People have conflicting ideals about what is hilarious, and don't often agree with others in their age group/demographic/ quilting bee. Parody is personal, irony is individualistic, and if you're going to make something that is supposedly witty, you better be gambling on a group, not idiosyncratic initiative.
This is the first place where Prison a Go-Go goes wrong. Filmmaker Barak Epstein, along with his writing partner Mike Wiebe believe that, as a genre, the women in prison films are ripe for ridicule. They see them as female-on-female farces just waiting to have their hilarity hymen popped for all the world to bask and belly laugh in. And naturally, since they find it timeless, ticklish stuff, they want to celebrate it in cinema for everyone to enjoy. Pleasure, however, is perhaps the last thing you will derive from this incredibly moronic movie. Our creative crackpots want to fashion a spoof out of sweat-slicked sweeties getting nice and friendly in their feloniousness. But the end result is too nutzoid, too blinkered and bewildering to guarantee guffaws.
Small town veterinarian Janie decides to break INTO a Philippines prison where her sister has been taken hostage. Apparently, a mad scientist named Dr. Hurtrider wants to use this particular kidnapping victim in his evil plan to rid the world of the common cold. His methods, however, are a tad esoteric. He plans on applying torture, lobotomies and genetic mutation to those fighting coughs, stuffiness and general aches and pains, bypassing the more popular compresses, antibiotics and Nyquil. Janie kills a local bum, gets her Asian penal sentence, and ends up in a strange, surreal place where all the guards are gay, the women are more the victims of fashion than violence, and the newly hired warden is the laziest loser on Earth – maybe the universe. Still, it will take the help of queen bee Jackpot, a gaggle of her broads behind bars, and a reluctant ninja to help her save her sister, defeat Hurtrider, and escape this loony Prison a Go-Go.
In the vernacular, Prison a Go-Go is what we call an Irritating Little Brother movie. You know the kind we're talking about, a movie that thinks it can play with the big boys, tries way too got-damn hard to live up to their level of spontaneity and cleverness, but only ends up being more tiresome than funny. Oh sure, these minor league motion pictures can occasionally come up with a clever joke, or an occasional laugh out loud moment, but for the most part, they represent ambition playing out of its league, an insular sense of comedy calling only those who are tuned into its particular brand of balderdash. One has to credit writer/director Barak Epstein for attempting something this fabulously surreal, this out and out farcical. But since he never hits a single target he is aiming for, it's also hard not to yawn at the end result.
Epstein, along with his co-writer Mike Wiebe, was obviously hoping to create a horror/exploitation parody, the kind of campy send-up that would pay homage to as well as whiz all over the genres he was gently nudging. In his send-up sites are all manner of b-movie mainstays – the women in prison flick, the zombie horror stomp, the mad scientist on a rampage picture and the ninja-based martial arts movie. Stir in some strange notions all his own, a wealth of marquee talent – DRIVE-IN marquee, that is – and a real knack for the filmic feel of comedy, and Prison a Go-Go should sing like a cellblock stoolie. But sadly, this is nothing more than a 50/50 flop a film that only gets half of its hilarity right. Unfortunately, the other portion of the motion picture is so pathetic that it basically eliminates any goodness generated.
Part of the problem is Epstein and Wiebe's take on the lampoon. Common sense and cinematic regulation requires that when you pick your property to pry apart, you should tackle a subject area with a working knowledge of what makes your objective both serious and silly. Down right dumb just doesn't count, nor does insular non-sequitors or personal in-jokes. Only Airplane! can get away with random site gags like watermelons dropping from the sky, bad rear projection and gratuitous Bee Gees parodies. The vast majority of Epstein and Wiebe's jokes are like the appearance of Howard Jarvis in that zany ZAZ film's opening moments. Moose and porcupine are obvious preoccupations for the filmmaker – either that, or he feels they are inherently funny and simply by mentioning them, people will be rolling around in rib tickled delight. Whatever the case may be, he inserts so many of these private pranks into his film that we're not left laughing, but instead trying to decipher what possible meaning they might have to the cast and crew.
Similarly, some of the scenes seem incredibly random, especially if the purpose of this movie is to give us gratuitous sequences of babes getting shirtless for naps, showers, fights and fornicating. For example, the set-up with inept vet Janie is pointless, since it doesn't really provide us with any context for the humor we will see later. We learn nothing about our lead (except that she farts a lot when she takes a dump) and her sister, Callista, is a name looking for a gag. When the bad guys bust in, the invasion comes out of left field, and adds nothing to our pleasure. All it does do is introduce the wacky mad doc, allow for a couple of clever creative conceits (the portable TV in place of the psycho scientist) and give us a plot point from which to start. Epstein could have done away with all this going nowhere nonsense, since most Janes-in-jail don't bother with minutes of backstory. A few FLASHBACKS would have been fine.
Also, whenever we enter the lethal lair of our sinister scientist, the movie just falls apart. Travis Willingham is very good as Dr. Hurtrider, in a real "boy I wish I was Bruce Campbell" kind of way. But the connection to the corporeal correctional concept is tentative at best. Nothing that happens in the lab makes that much sense (curing the common cold by torture, genetic mutation and turning people into flesh eating zombies? Huh?) and the eventual porcupine-girl transformation is so long in coming that it's anticlimactic, to say the least. From the random assistants who either disappear without explanation or end up as the living dead's dinner, to the dumbest reason ever for crossing a human with a spiny rodent, Dr. H only hinders Prison a Go-Go. While such a strange character may (or may not) come directly out of the genre being spoofed, he's just a dreary diversion, not a real cause for comedy, concern or menace.
Had it simply stayed with the caged cooter parameters, had it given us overheated honeys unable to control their incarceration amplified libidos, and then used gay muscle studs and Lloyd Kaufman to take it out on with smut and skin o'plenty, Prison a Go-Go would have been wanton and wonderful. It would have done the cult of Shelias-in-shackles a grand and glorious service, reminding us that fans flock to these films for their more baser, not logistical instincts. But the filmmakers want to play it for laughs, not lewdness, and as a result, we have to trade catfights and hot oil massages for jokes about smuggling contraband in your ass and flat-chested chicks taking WAY too many asexual showers.
All that being said, there are still some good things in Epstein and Wiebe's weird and whacked out world, elements that make Prison a Go-Go worth at least a one time rental. Mary Woronov is delightfully demented, channeling a little bit of her patented Principal Togar as the executive in charge of warden hiring. As the person she employs, co-writer Wiebe makes a sensational slacker, lazier than a sloth on Thorazine and twice as droopy. His ennui is entertaining and pitch perfect for this form of farce. As a ninja that is more gymnast than assassin, Ilram Choi is very funny - and very agile – in what could have been a throwaway role. And while it is always a treat to see USA Network's Up All Night star Rhonda Shear (here playing the perplexingly underwritten role of a prisoner named Jackpot) we don't get many – or any – chances to see the "assets" that made her famous. Still, she brings the right tone of self-deprecating silliness to a film that is constantly flummoxed by the mood of merriment it wants to create.
With some sporadic gore, a nice little bit about the perils of product placement, and an occasionally funny line here and there, Prison a Go-Go is by no means a total bust. But it is not a laugh riot. Heck, considering the length of time we prance around this paltry pokey, it is barely a prison riot. Instead, it's an attempt to fuse craziness to classic cult cinema, to marry a post-modern sense of irony with a wonky, Hellsapoppin' humoresque. The consequences are neither timid Three Stooges nor third rate Troma. It's just an average attempt at something that was probably impossible to begin with. After all, there has to be a smidgen of seriousness in the intended object of your roasting . And last time anyone checked, the babes-behind-bars school of cinema wasn't quite Dogma '95. Prison a Go-Go should have been a lot better. But one does imagine that it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.
Epstein shot this surprisingly good looking movie on actual film, using rented equipment and short ends to make his cinematic aspirations come to life. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the 35mm print looks terrific, but there is a downside to such a striking image. When viewed in such a near perfect, pristine mode, the other elements of the movie really start to look cheap. The found locations look cluttered and cruddy, some of the sets look like they were cut out of cardboard, and several of the F/X shots feel amateurish and incomplete. Epstein tries to incorporate this into his overall ideal, but the crap couture concept never really succeeds. What we end up with is a great looking film with a very low to no budget sense.
Again we face the dilemma as practiced by most first time filmmakers. Needing music to provide mood for their masterwork, they settle on what currently resides in their IPod - or worse, what some wannabe Elfman thinks is the greatest orchestral opus ever created for the sonic silver screen. In Prison a Go-Go's case, we get a little from Column A and a lot from Column B. When we aren't being browbeaten by a Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack loaded with all manner of skate punk pandemonium, we are forced to tolerate Alan Pollard's pretentious, ersatz-cool jazz scoring. Epstein never understands the value of silence, and he fills every scene with noise – either in the forefront, or pointlessly percolating underneath. While the dialogue is always clear and the conversations discernible, the non-stop noodling by the bands makes it difficult to concentrate, let alone enjoy the film.
Shock-O-Rama Cinema has made a valiant effort to supplement and compliment Prison a Go-Go by adding a ton of tasty extras to the package. We get a decent behind the scenes featurette (which is too short, frankly – Epstein talks at length about his experiences on the Make Your Own Damn Movie DVD box set) as well as some audition clips, a few snippets of the film's premiere at the Shock a Go-Go Film Festival, an equally petite interview with Epstein, and a collection of deleted scenes/alternative takes. The two best features are actually the most fun you'll have with this DVD, period. Something called Prison a Go-Go Super Bonus features three excerpts from the aforementioned film festival - an 18 minute audience Q&A with b-movie legend Roger Corman, a 12 minute session with Mary Woronov and the biggest thrill of all, a 24 minute talk with the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation genre, David F. Friedman. All three segments are sensational and make this disc worth owning outright, if just for the chance to hear these stalwarts' wealth of humor, knowledge, and genre insight.
Similarly entertaining is the full-length audio commentary featuring Epstein and five other members of the crew. Frankly, there are more jokes in this alternate narrative than in the entire movie combined. Between the anecdotes about primadonna performers, the reason for certain costume choices, and the whole Jolt/"Other Cola" debacle, you've got a bonus offering that surpasses the film it is meant to support and sell.
Epstein and Wiebe are going to get a critical pass this time, as their effort is obvious in every minute that is up on the screen. Though it is really nothing more than a stream of stupid subconsciousness, Prison a Go-Go will probably inspire some minor mirth for those who don't look for sense or sensibility in their wit. But before you take that hard earned scratch out of your overworked wallet, perhaps you best rent this retardation first. If you groove along to its combination of corn and kooky, then by all means, make these independent auteurs happy and buy their product. But for most, a single lend/lease will be enough. It will give you more Prison a Go-Go than you ever thought necessary.
This is not a Punk Rock Holocaust level loony tune, however. It can NEVER compete with the classic comedy of Midnight Skater. But some will still hear the words 'Women in Prison' and get a hilarity hard-on that just won't quit. Epstein and Wiebe may not provide a joviality pop shot when all is said and done, but there are some who will feel satisfied after spying this bit of heroines in the hoosegow hogwash. After all, one man's dirge is another man's delight. Too bad Prison a Go-Go plays like a far too eccentric psalm for most lovers of laughter.
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