Divine Trash

AS SAM FULLER once advised Jim Jarmusch, "If the first scene of your script doesn't give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing away." Point taken--now let's try this on for size: In the first five minutes of the Fuller-penned Girls in Prison (made for Showtime in '94 and just released to video), a mid-'50s-era Hollywood High student named Melba (Bahni Turpin) watches a TV news report on the Korean War and happens to spot her brother lying dead on the battlefield. Horrified and hysterical, Melba runs home to her mother, whom she finds dead of a heart attack. (Mom had seen the very same broadcast.) At this point, the poor girl is so distraught that she retaliates against the McCarthyite local newscaster who'd ranted about "bastard pacifists," taking a hammer to his skull and bludgeoning him to death. Melba flees the scene but is soon forced to drop her bloody weapon to the pavement. The next morning's front-page headline reads: "Hammer Slayer Captured!"

Suffice it to say that sleaze-lovers left unaroused by Pecker might do well to take a peek at this rather divine trash. With its lurid prison-yard catfights and all-girl gunnysack race, not to mention the female strip-show for inmates or the steamy shower scene wherein Melba and Carol (Ione Skye) make out butt-naked, Girls in Prison delivers abundantly on its title. But it's also stacked deep with, uh, titillating credits. Aside from Fuller (who's been having one helluva year for a dead man), the film flaunts a pre-out-and-about Anne Heche (playing the grateful recipient of a slipped bar of soap); direction by B-movie maven John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer); and additional cult cachet for being one of Showtime's 10 in-name-only remakes of American International Pictures schlockers from the '50s. (The original Girls in Prison, directed by Edward L. Cahn, starred the now-forgotten Joan Taylor and Adele Jergens.)

Yet, as Melba, Carol, and songwriter Aggie (Missy Crider) are all sent up for life on account of bashing sexist pigs, the movie's true inspiration is the pseudo-feminist string of early-'70s girls-in-prison classics such as Sweet Sugar and The Big Doll House, which saw fit to attach righteous themes onto their exploitation. True, Girls helmer McNaughton is no Jane Campion (witness his woman-hating Wild Things with Neve Campbell). But, lest the more correct among us dump this picture in the garbage along with the subgenre from which it sprang, bear in mind that no less a cinematic do-gooder than Jonathan Demme (Beloved) got his start perpetrating such distaff jail flicks as Caged Heat and The Hot Box. Might there be a Toni Morrison adaptation in McNaughton's future, too?

Girls in Prison is available at area video stores.

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