Monday, September 14, 2009

Reform School Girls (1986): or, So Young, So Bad, So What!


It might not seem so, but parody is a genre that is really difficult to do well. It helps to have a genuine affection for the genre or subject you're poking fun at--please to see This is Spinal Tap, Shaun of the Dead, or even Broken Lizard's Club Dread. Even then, it's a balancing act. You can go completely over the top a la Airplane! and rely on sight gags and joke-a-minute pacing to keep the audience happy. Or you can go the wry/dry route, something along the lines of Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon, counting on your audience's knowledge of the genre's tropes to sell your sly manipulation of such for your yucks and chuckles. Either approach takes a deft hand and no small amount of skill--get too silly, and you spiral out of control into stupid pop culture references and fart jokes; get too dry, and it's hard to tell if you're joking.

I say all this because even after watching it, I'm not entirely sure whether Tom DeSimone's 1986 Women-in-Prison flick Reform School Girls is really meant to be a parody or not. They certainly tried to sell it as such back in the day--the trailer (link here, and helpfully embedded at the end of the review) wants you to believe it's the laff riot of the season. But DeSimone has his actors play it almost completely straight, which means either he was going to dry route and overdessicated, or else he was making an homage that the marketing suits didn't know what to do with. Or maybe the WiP genre itself travels so close to self-parody anyway, poking fun at it is a sucker's game.

We open with Jenny (Linda Carol), a fresh-faced beauty from the wrong side of the tracks, waiting in the getaway car while her boyfriend tries to rob a warehouse or something. Things go predictably wrong, as the significant other shoots a security guard and goes down in a hail of bullets , leaving Jenny holding the bag as an accessory to armed robbery and murder. But since she's underage--that's what they tell us, anyway, so we just have to go with it--the judge sentences her to reform school instead of prison, until such time as she's old enough to face the world on her own.

Pat Ast disapproves of your kitchen cleaner.

She soon finds herself at Pridemore Juvenile Facilities, in the company of a ragtag group of innocents and ne'er-do-wells of the sort you'll expect if you've ever seen a WiP flick before. Jenny is quickly befriended by tough-talking Bronx chick Nicky (Laurie Schwartz, doing a pretty good impression of Jo from Facts of Life), who has been in before and agrees to show Jenny the ropes. Also along for the ride is timid runaway Lisa (Sherri Stoner) who wound up here after her brother was killed by their foster parents, who were also sexually abusing Lisa. How this translated into a reform school term for the girl I wasn't exactly sure, but the important thing is that they get incarcerated together, and that's exactly what happens.

As I'm sure always happens in a state-run reform school entrusted with the rehabilitation of minors who have strayed off the straight and narrow, the girls are immediately stripped and forced to take a group shower, then told by a sadistic matron, "You're going to be inspected inside and out, so GET IT CLEAN!" After they towel off the girls are sprayed down with DDT--presumably for delousing purposes--and then introduced to Matron Edna, played with over-the-top, predatory-lesbian sadism by Pat Ast. Edna munches chocolates and informs the girls of the favors the can expect if they "play nice," then confiscates Lisa's squeak-toy/rag doll, the only possession of her deceased brother's that she has left. Just so there's no question who the bad guy is here.

Jenny, Lisa, and Nicky are then escorted down to Dorm 14, their new home. You can tell this is the baddest block in the whole damn jail by the blaring rock music and the clouds of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume that greet the girls at the door. They walk in to find the entire population clad in Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie, a sure sign that these are the Bad Bad Girls, the ones who likely rule the school. Baddest of the bad is Charlie Chambliss, played by punk rock legend and Grammy Nominee Wendy O. Williams. Constantly lifting weights and strutting around in her thong bikini, Charlie quickly sets her sights on Jenny and Lisa as perfect additions to her gang of lesbian miscreants. Jenny stands up for her timid friend, however, setting up the expected rivalry between them.

Is this a reform school, or a ZZ Top video?

Also on hand is requisite bleeding-heart psychologist Dr. Norton (Charlotte McGinnis), who is new to the school and wants to make a difference in all these young ladies' lives. Of course this runs directly counter to the school's mission statement as defined by Warden Sutter (80s softcore legend and sometime sexy werewolf Sybil Danning), who has a predilection for Nazi SS gear and spends her free time reading misogynistic scripture over the loudspeakers by way of bedtime stories for her charges.

It would be easy to point out the ridiculous particulars of the movie's set-up so far, and use them to bolster the argument for parody. The "reform school" is a prison in all but name, complete with armed guards, license-plate manufacture, and plantation-style work details straight out of Cool Hand Luke. Of course none of the girls look anywhere NEAR juvie age, least of all Williams, who could easily pass for a lifer. The lingerie that all the girls wear in their dorms (and Williams wears even while on work detail, which for her involves sunbathing and pouring iced tea for Edna) is definitely NOT prison issue. And Danning's Warden could only be more Nazi-ish if they dressed her in Dyan Thorne's Ilsa outfit, complete with swastikas. So they're obviously taking the mick, right?

"Hotsy totsy!"

But hold on there. If you take a look at the previously reviewed Jess Franco WiP opus, 99 Women, you'll see that with the possible exception of calling the place a reform school, none of the elements detailed above are really that far outside the norm. Vicar fantasy girlfriend Rosalba Neri wears her stockings and garter belts throughout her incarceration, even while working outdoors; the warden reads books about the Third Reich and speaks with a clear German accent, despite (or perhaps because of) the setting in Argentina. And I don't think anyone would accuse Franco of not being serious about his women-in-prison flicks.

The plot plays out pretty much by-the-numbers as well. There are catfights, gang rivalries, solitary confinement, a failed escape attempt on Jenny's part (she uses her feminine wiles to seduce the work truck driver into helping her escape, only to be betrayed by him at the gate once he's got what he wanted--typical man, no?), tragic deaths, and a kangaroo committee meeting in which Dr. Norman is made to look a fool for bringing up all her crazy allegations of abuse. And of course there's the climactic uprising in which Jenny leads the prisoners in revolt against their sadistic keepers. WiP 101, with not even standard deviation.

Also arguing against the parody idea is the tone of the piece. Though there are certain borderline-comedic elements (the DDT spray-down, the constant hard rock interludes, Edna's parasol and bikini tea-service in the fields, etc.), there's an overall bleakness to the flick that never really goes away. A large part of this is due to Wendy O. Williams' fierce performance as Charlie Chambliss. Of all the girls in lockdown she's the one actress who seems legitimately dangerous (and was, in fact), and her gruff, no-nonsense line delivery never betrays anything but the utmost seriousness. The scene where she and her gang trap Lisa in the bathroom (taking advantage of Jenny's having been sent to solitary confinement) and brand her with a red-hot coat hanger is damn near chilling in its sadism. Add to that the dark gloominess of the prison itself, the feeling that the bad guys will always win and there's no escape--it has a cumulative downer effect that overcomes any claim to levity.

"Look, bitch, we're moussing your hair out whether you like it out not!"

However, arguing for the parodic interpretation are some truly quotable lines of dialogue, which taken out of the gloomy context seem almost National Lampoonish. Here's a smattering:
  • (on adopting a stray cat) "The last thing we need around the dorm is another pussy!"
  • (Warden Sutter to Edna) "It's time you put on your 'fuck you' boots and start kicking!"
  • (truck driver to Jenny) "Let's play carnival." "What's that?" "Sit on my face, and I'll guess your weight!"
The final battle between the revolting prisoners and the sadistic staff could also be read either way, but whatever your interpretation it's completely off the rails. Joining forces against an unhinged Matron Edna, Charlie and Jenny lead the girls in an all-out riot. Guards are murdered, girls are shot, and Charlie strips down to her leather warrior woman stage gear, steals a bus, and sends it careening into the guard tower where Edna is picking off prisoners with a rifle. The tower goes up in flames, Edna catches fire and plunges like a comet to her death, and presumably the state finds a more qualified, less Nazi-ish staff to replace them for the happy ending.

Coup d'Etat

If the acting isn't meant to be parody here, it's pretty bad. Apart from the aforementioned strong performance by Williams (who's clearly pretty much playing herself) and Carol as Jenny, the rest of the cast do little to acquit themselves (HA!). Pat Ast chews the scenery a little too much as the sadistic matron, and her "BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" eeevil laugh gets old less than halfway through. Danning, while striking to look at, is simply terrible as an actress, apparently reading her lines off cue cards for many of her scenes. And the rest of the girls give music video-level performances, only without quite so much polish. However, it is worth mentioning that Sherri Stoner, who plays doomed innocent Lisa, later achieved geeky fame as the voice of Slappy Squirrel in TV's Animaniacs. Which is pretty dang cool, imo. ;)

So how to rate? Well, If it's not meant to be a parody, the flick does hit all the requisite plot points and thematic notes of a WiP film from the 70s. However, it does so without the commitment of its forebears--there's little sex (even the shower nudity seems reticent), little torture/whipping (Lisa's branding being the main exception), and a reluctance to "go there" that would not have been present a decade earlier. The climax is a worthy battle, but too little too late, really.

And if it *is* meant to be a parody--it's really just not that funny. Which is a problem, clearly.

Words to Live By

I was entertained by parts of Reform School Girls, and Wendy O. Williams is something to see in action, so I can't really hate the flick. But I didn't love it either, and maybe its split personality is why. Anyway, I settle in on an average 1.5 thumbs rating. Worth seeing if you're a Plasmatics fan, or if there's nothing else on and you dig the loud music. Otherwise, I hear The Big Bird Cage is pretty good...

The Trailer for Reform School Girls (1986):



Misrepresentative? You make the call!

3 comments:

Tenebrous Kate said...

Your thoughts on this movie mirror my own, Vicar. I love the late and MUCH-lamented Wendy O. Williams in an entirely inappropriate and unladylike manner and she gives off sparks every time she's on-screen here--makes me wish the movie had gone MORE in one direction or the other, into depraved BDSM darkness or insane parody, and given her more to work with. I *like* WiP flicks, and this has all the right ingredients, which makes its ultimate failure to gel all the more disappointing.

And yeah--"Big Bird Cage" fucking RULES. Make no mistake, dude.

Al Bruno III said...

You called it right on this one, the tone is all over the place and I found very little entertainment.

But I will admit to you that I never much liked WIP flicks... I'm not sure why really because I do like shower scenes...

Cinema Du Meep said...

This movie always makes me feel so oozily good inside. Thank you!

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