The Grand Illusion of the gals-behind-bars bin, or at the very least its The Battle of Algiers. The setting isn’t the Third World mud-wrestling pits of the usual AIP potboiler, but the Southern California of "agricultural therapy," roadside motels and bank robbers in Disney masks: Jonathan Demme’s America. The Connerville Institute for Women is the "violent sorority" where wised-up toughies, damaged waifs and other incarnations of female victimization peek through grilled windows and dream of brief little Maya Deren send-ups. (Differently but equally oppressed, prudish warden Barbara Steele escapes into a fantasy of her own, where she ditches her wheelchair, unfurls her severe bun and puts on a long-legged cabaret act.) The new fish (Erica Gavin) arrives courtesy of a botched drug deal and promptly clashes with the fierce block queen (Juanita Brown), who warns "I’m gonna kick your little pretty teeth so far down your throat you’re gonna get a picket fence around your asshole." Roberta Collins, Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith and Ella Reid are a few of the other Athenas in this vibrant take on multicultural grindhouse sisterhood, with a "goddamn perverted sadistic maniac" of a doctor (Warren Miller) standing, smoking pipe and power-drill in hand, for lobotomizing chauvinism. Handed the rough Hill-Franco-Mattei blueprint, Demme is generous with communal showers and grudging with sleaze, using a fabulous vaudeville act (Collins and Reid in male drag, whiskered like raunchy Godot refugees) to playfully yet confrontationally deconstruct the subgenre’s exploitative expectations of gender performance. An assembly of ribald jokes, a constant flow of human harmonies amid the mayhem, a revolution envisioned bursting through the walls and leaving the guards with pants around their ankles. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. With Lynda Gold, Mickey Fox, Joe Viola, John Aprea, and Desiree Cousteau.
--- Fernando F. Croce