The late director Bruno Mattei (who made many movies under many pseudonyms) gets a bad rap – granted, I’ve hated a fair number of his films, but I’ve seen cinematic atrocities far more agonizing than anything he ever unleashed on a more-than-suspecting public.
After all, he gave us one of the most distinctive Italian Dawn of the Dead rip-offs in Hell of the Living Dead (also known as Night of the Zombies and a bunch more). At the 2012 edition of Montreal’s sadly defunct Kinetik Festival, the band Miss Construction had a compilation of horror clips running in the background – among them, the classic-ridiculous combination eye-gouge/tongue rip from the climax of that film. It left enough of an impression on my best friend that we eventually wound up watching the movie together, spewing MST3K-styled riffs from start to finish.
So perhaps it’s by providence that I loved Women’s Prison Massacre, wherein atrocity, milked for full exploitation value, is inserted into the narrative and thematic DNA like a fast-dissolving cyanide capsule.
As with the cannibal subgenre, women-in-prison films were a strike-while-the-iron-was-hot trend that yielded a couple notorious titles before its limited narrative paths were exhausted. That, and the dissolution of rural drive-ins and 42nd-Street grindhouses as homes for all things skeezy reduced the prospects of profiting off straight exploitation fare as the 1980s came to a close.
In most Mattei efforts, there is a fair amount of silliness on parade (sometimes intentional; sometimes not; sometimes the result of the always-awful English dubbing), a more-than-satisfactory amount of sleaze, and a degree of shock value that just might take you off guard (example: a nasty castration that left me squirming). Credit resident idiot genius screenwriter Claudio Fragasso, who will forever live in bad-movie infamy for unleashing Troll 2 on the world.
Sure, the premise of Women’s Prison Massacre is outlandish, and exists primarily to establish a scenario that encourages shower scenes and soft-core groping. As a logistical aside, the prison seems pretty underpopulated (with about a dozen chained women occupying a pretty vast space).
The casting of Laura Gemser (the Emmanuelle series) as a rebellion leader, and familiar Eurosleaze faces like Lorraine De Selle (House on the Edge of the Park) as the warden, Franca Stoppi (Buio Omega) as a sadistic guard, and Carlo De Mejo (City of the Living Dead) as a cowboy marshal transporting some male scumbags to the prison, helps lend the grisly content an aura of shameful, guilty-pleasure fun.
The benefits of watching something like Women’s Prison Massacre border on the prurient, with the low-grade thrill of human sacks of garbage being torn asunder by women who are Mad As Hell And Not Gonna Take It Anymore being the primary appeal. It may not be deeply intellectual, but damned if it doesn’t hit beats of catharsis along the way.
Once the prison is under siege by aforementioned male scumbags, a District Attorney with an ax to grind attempts to negotiate from a safe distance; while the armed policemen await orders, their stoicism could be mistaken for drowsiness. Some of the acting is hilariously apathetic, failing to convey any urgency given the situation.
Women’s Prison Massacre is a bizarre film, full of the imbalances that make most Italian exploitation programmers strangely endearing, but is seldom dull. Hell, I would go out on a limb and say it’s easily the best thing Bruno Mattei ever contributed to cinema.
Take that for what it’s worth.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10
(For a tease of the madness, check out this clip courtesy of the good folks at Scream Factory:)