Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Here is where the 'Camp' in Warner's new Cult Camp series comes into play: Two of the Cult Camp Classics Volume 2: Women in Peril selections feature major female stars on the desperation end of their careers. For about ten years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? an exploitation market flourished in older actresses coming back to play 'mature' women, especially in bloody horror films. They returned to the screen for fun, mortgage money or perhaps to nurse the delusion that they still belonged in the spotlight: Olivia de Havilland, Tallulah Bankhead, Ann Sothern. The resulting embarrassing freak shows became guilty favorites for 'those in the know' to wonder at the decay of Hollywood sex symbols, or to find psychological correlations between the stars' real lives and the characters they played.
Warners wisely open their three-disc set with a much earlier movie in a different exploitation specialty, the Women In Prison or WIP film. As the latter two late-sixties offerings are truly terrible, the earlier film serves to compensate -- its 'camp' values are undeniable yet it functions beautifully as a drama and could easily be a top title in a Film Noir collection.
Caged is so good that it doesn't need the 'camp' label, which at first makes its placement in this set seem an error. After all, the picture garnered three Oscar nominations. If some of it now seems funny, the effect is no different than watching Double Indemnity with a modern audience. They may laugh at the hardboiled dialogue, but when it's over they applaud out of pure respect. Caged is frequently compared with Olivia de Havilland's celebrated turn in The Snake Pit, but has a much harder edge. It's the logical offspring of Warners' 'social injustice' pictures of the Depression years. Young Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is railroaded into a 5 to 15-year stretch by the same kind of rotten luck that befell Paul Muni in the great I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Caged is the now familiar WIP story of the innocent transformed into a hardened dame by a cruel penal system. Eleanor Parker's performance grabs us from the start when rough guards drag the terrified Marie from a prison wagon at the gates of the Big House. John Cromwell's sensitive direction contrasts Marie's innate decency with the nasty prison world, where all inmates are presumed sluts. Marie cringes at insults from the staff: "You tramps!" The caring superintendent Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is too busy staving off rotten politicians that want to cut her budget and return the prison to stone-age brutality. Worse, the official directly in charge of the inmates is the floor warden Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a brutish monster interested only in inmates that can pay for special privileges. Harper bullies and mistreats all the convicts, who are terrified of her.
The honest look at sordid prison reality is unexpected for a film of this vintage. The first cellmate Marie meets is the addled Emma Barber (Ellen Corby), a funny little fool who finally cracked up and shot her abusive husband. Another deranged woman drifts about in a state of psychotic denial, like Blanche Dubois. The toughest woman in the block is an ancient lifer willing to clobber anybody who gives her a hard time -- even Harper gives her a wide berth.
The term 'CP' is defined openly as 'Common Prostitute.' Sleepy-eyed Smoochie (Jan Sterling) philosophically claims that all the girls are here because they got hooked up with the wrong kind of men. Tough Kitty Stark (Betty Garde) ran a shoplifting ring; she's an obvious 'tough dyke'- styled lesbian. The connected inmates immediately want to know if Marie will join the racket. Signing up to steal for the gang almost guarantees an early parole. Marie resists -- at first.
The draconian parole board denies Marie freedom because her mere presence at an armed robbery (net haul $40; her husband killed) brands her as a vicious criminal. Marie's morale plunges when she realizes that she's pregnant and will have to give birth in prison. Even more horribly, her worthless mother refuses to take the child for even a few months, and Marie is forced to give it up for adoption.
From then on Marie realizes that she's alone in her fight against the world. She proves that she'd be a perfect shoplifter for Kitty but still refuses to cooperate. Kitty loses her status as inmate cell boss when the convicted procuress Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) is assigned to the cellblock and can offer the hulking Harper more bribe money. Marie's further experiences include a riot, a murder and a stretch in solitary confinement.
Caged's unholy villain is Hope Emerson's menacing Evelyn Harper, a despicable warden who wouldn't be out of place on the staff of a concentration camp. When Harper thinks Marie has money, she cozies up to her: "Let's you and me get acquainted, honey. You may be a number to others but not to me. Sit down in this chair, it's kinda roomy." Later, she forcibly shaves Marie's head, a grotesque punishment that creepily translates as a rape. Harper likes to see her charges suffer and gloats over the political connections that keep superintendent Benton from firing her. We can't wait to find out if Harper will get her proper comeuppance.
The Camp values in Caged come only in retrospect, as a reflection of the trashy excesses of later WIP pictures. This film is the original template. 1 Ellen Corby is the archetypal cute madwoman and Jan Sterling the experienced prostitute. Edgy remarks abound, some of them pretty explicit: "She's a neat trick!" Eleanor Parker apparently really had her head shaved and undergoes a definite personality swing to the dark side. Marie's last vestige of decency is taken away when she tries to prevent Harper from confiscating a pet kitten (a substitute baby?) she's hidden in her locker.
Perhaps author Virginia Kellogg purposely had an inmate voice the name of a gift of forbidden lipstick -- "Jungle Red!" That exclamation was a key line in Clare Booth Luce's The Women of ten years earlier. The contrast between that indulgent women's fantasy and this rebellious nightmare couldn't be greater.
The DVD of Caged is a fine B&W transfer with good audio to flatter Max Steiner's music score. A trailer is the only extra. Putting Caged on this Cult Camp disc is almost a case of reverse subversion. The movie reminds us that most 'Camp' efforts are really pale copies of much deeper originals.
Speaking of a pale copy, The Big Cube is the kind of movie that serves only to remind us how low a studio could stoop. Lines like 'you have to see it to believe it' can't convey its trashy 'appeal.' The only fun in watching is to find out if it can get worse. It does, scene after terrible scene.
The Mexican co-production bears a resemblance to some of the cheaper trash Mexican dramas I've seen from the sixties, vapid conservative fantasies where the young people have orgies, use drugs and refuse to listen to the wiser old folks until it's too late. Filmed by the famous Gabriel Figueroa, The Big Cube has a major-film visual veneer, and little more. The cheesy psychedelic effects had to be horribly dated even when new.
Lana Turner is Adriana Roman, a great actress who retires from the stage to marry millionaire Charles Winthrop (Dan O'Herlihy), abandoning her playwright friend Frederick Lonsdale (Richard Egan) on the sidelines. Charles' spoiled daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg, a non-personality who reminds of Paris Hilton, at least this week) returns from school in Europe to form friendships with a gang of decadent young people addicted to sex and drugs. They dress in gaudy mod fashions and take LSD in sugar cubes dispensed by corrupt medical student and gold digger Johnny Allen (George Chakiris). Johnny charms his way to boyfriend status with Lisa, but Charles lowers the boom when he comes home to find the swingin' kids rocking out to an impromptu striptease (!). When Charles is killed in a yachting accident (!!) Johnny conspires with Lisa to use LSD to send her new stepmother Adriana to the nuthouse. Adriana hallucinates psychedelic light show patterns while Lisa starts to realize that Johnny's no catch after all. And all that stuff about trying to murder Adriana, well, Lisa was just 'mixed up', you know?
This is clear case of 'somebody should have thought twice.' Lana Turner demolishes whatever respectability she had with her involvement in this sleazy travesty. Undeniably a star, Turner is incapable of playing a celebrated actress, and her final cure effected through a stage reenactment of her trauma could very well be the nadir of dramatic invention. She glides through scenes utterly convinced that she's glamorous and attractive, when she's simply discovered a new kind of early senility.
The outrageously sinful 'bad kid' behaviors are the kind of nonsense that a clueless middle-aged writer would come up with. Chakiris slips a guy LSD as a purposeful prank. The hipsters entertain themselves with a strip act. On his wedding night, Johnny decides to sleep with another girl, and when Lisa objects, a foursome is proposed. Crude editing underlines every attempt to inject sex into the proceedings. A few nude scenes (shots, really) earn the film a lenient "M" (now "PG") rating.
The film is obviously shot in Mexico with a Mexican supporting cast and crew. The actors' English is fine but many of the men have ruddy complexions, black hair and moustaches! The Big Cube is recommended mainly for those who want to watch Ms. Turner make an absolute fool of herself, and for those already primed by word of mouth that it's not to be missed.
With all the severe restoration problems facing deserving Hollywood classics, it's galling to find The Big Cube in near-perfect shape. Warners have given it a brilliant enhanced transfer, in color. The trailer emphasizes the psychedelic / macabre aspects. Note that whenever Lana is seen in close-up, the image suddenly becomes soft and gauzy: gotta protect the star!
Trog has been long reviled as both a terrible monster movie and Joan Crawford's last (& least) film appearance. Producer Herman Cohen clearly made the picture with his eye on a narrow profit margin; as with his previous Crawford pic Berserk! he commits the fewest resources possible to get a releasable movie onto the screen. Freddie Francis directs efficiently and can hardly be faulted for failing to make anything out of the drama; there's nothing to work with.
In rural England, amateur spelunkers tangle with a dangerous troglodyte, and local researcher-anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Crawford) steps daintily underground to verify his existence with her widdle fwash camwa. As soon as Trog is installed in a lab cage Brockton is proving that the hairy ape-man is really a softie at heart, playing with dolls and responding to kindness. But nasty local troublemaker Michael Gough won't let up in his campaign to have the proto-human executed; he's anti- Trog, anti- science and anti- feminist. Sure enough, Gough gets croaked while trying to frame Trog as a menace, and the ape-man kidnaps a blonde moppet before retreating to his subterranean lair. Only Crawford has the nerve to descend alone to give the monster a stern talking-to, so he'll behave like a good Trog.
If that description sounds trite, the movie only amplifies the sentiment. Trog's crash pad is an unconvincing cave set with funny-colored stalactites. He appears to be an ordinary guy wearing a mask lifted from one of the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with an extra bit of hair; I imagine Stanley Kubrick was not amused. With Trog's mismatched pink chest and gray face, we wonder why none of the actors doesn't reach forward and try to wrench off what has to be a Halloween mask.
Crawford is her professional earnest self and her dignified Doctor Brockton handles the script's unending expository dialogue as if it were actually important. Of course, it's grotesque to see her being oh-so sensitive and caring with the foolish-looking monster, or strutting into Trog's deep cave like Big Momma come to settle accounts. In the film's most absurd scene Trog flashes back to traumatic memories of days gone by, which appear as film clips of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion dinosaurs battling from The Animal World!
Joan Crawford's on-screen roles have been linked to her own personality more than any other glamour star, let alone those who made a comeback in Grand Guignol horror films. Trog can be seen as the ultimate expression of Crawford's habit of dominating her screen vehicles by influencing her directors or throwing tantrums. In the early 1950s the bulk of her energy went into neutralizing female competition, mostly by bullying young actresses that might upstage her. She even forced a rewrite of the conclusion of Johnny Guitar so her character could gun down the uncooperative Mercedes McCambridge. By the time the 60s come around, she's handpicking her female supporting actresses (Diane Baker, Judy Geeson), forcing them to wear unflattering costumes and taking away their best dialogue.
Many of Joan's films post-1957 repeat the basic dynamic from her greatest hit Mildred Pierce: an insensitive (or crazy) daughter tries to do harm to Crawford's innocent mother. In Trog the actual daughter character (Kim Braden) has been reduced to a meek cipher, freeing Crawford to form her important relationship with a co-star that can't answer back or steal a scene -- an uninteresting hairy monster. When Crawford confronts Trog in the cave finale, she screams at him as if she were rebuking a disobedient child. Like a good co-star, Trog immediately obeys and surrenders his little captive. Crawford quickly hands the kidnapped girl to her mother before the kid can attract too much audience attention. She has finally found a film that suits her temperament.
Warners' DVD of the shamelessly tacky Trog is an almost perfect enhanced color transfer -- we see far too much of Michael Gough's spittle as he grossly overacts in scene after scene. The trailer hypes the terror angle but can't disguise the film's cheapjack nature. Yes, Trog and The Big Cube may occupy a DVD shelf place of honor for bad Camp Cult film lovers, but the rewarding Caged is the title to tell one's friends about.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cult Camp Classics Volume 2: Women in Peril rates:
Movies: Caged: Excellent; Cube: Awful; Trog: Fair -- with mitigating circumstances
Video: all Excellent
Sound: all Excellent
Supplements: Trailers only
Packaging: Three keep cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: June 12, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. Although there were certainly precedents, like Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl with Louise Brooks. That film makes the lesbian power system in a girl's prison grossly explicit.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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