There are a lot of dark corners to the human brain. Somewhere back there is the part that has a fascination with women behind bars. The “Women in Prison” genre has long been a favorite of B-movie producers. Producer/director Roger Corman certainly put out his share of these films. So it seems only fitting that the company Corman started, New World Pictures, would release a spoof of the genre. Here comes 1986’s Reform School Girls.
The film centers on a pretty (almost 30-year old) teenager named Jenny (Linda Carol) who ends up sent to reform school after being involved in a shootout. Now, I don’t know where the “school” part comes into play, because this is a prison with hard labor and everything. The joint is run by a sadistic “nurse” named Edna (Pat Ast) working under the leadership of a militaristic warden (Sybil Danning). On the cell block, though, the real boss is Charlie (Wendy O Williams), an inmate with a gang of loyal followers and what appears to be a contempt for things like wearing clothes. The only ray of light in this joint is the resident psychologist, Dr. Norton (Charlotte McGinnis) who does what little she can to help the girls.
Jenny divides her time between helping out a timid new inmate named Lisa (Sherri Stoner) and trying to find a way to escape. She attempts to get a ride out with the truck driver who drives the girls out to work in the fields, in exchange for sexual favors, but he ends up turning her in. Tensions rise, though, when an incident with Edna results in Lisa tumbling to her death from the guard tower. It all culminates in a bloody and fiery riot.
It’s hard to know how to take Reform School Girls. It bills itself as a spoof of women in prison films, but that’s a genre that has never really taken itself that seriously to start with. I don’t think I’d call this a spoof. It’s just a women in prison film for the 80’s. Only Pat Ast’s performance seems to be done with a bit of a wink to the audience. Otherwise, everyone else is playing it pretty straight. Director Tom DeSimone doesn’t seem to inject enough comedic nuance to make it clear that this is poking fun. DeSimone did direct a few other women in prison movies earlier in his career, including Prison Girls and The Concrete Jungle. His eclectic career also features the likes of Hell Night with Linda Blair, Angel III: The Final Chapter, and an awful lot of porn.
Probably the most indelible aspect of this film is the performance of punk singer Wendy O Williams as Charlie. Williams manages to be both perfectly cast and a massive error in judgement all at the same time. There’s no doubt she fits the part. The hard-featured singer looks like she was chiseled from a brick. She’s scary lookin’. Her delivery, though, is unintelligible. Her line readings jump back and forth between hurried and labored. She was obviously not cut out to be an actress. Sadly, the singer clearly lived a troubled life, attempting suicide several times before ending her life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1998.
There are some bright spots, though. Pat Ast channels Divine in her appropriately over-the-top turn as Nurse Edna. Sybil Danning, though underused, is well suited to her role as Warden Sutter. I also really enjoyed Sherri Stoner as the mousy runaway Lisa. What was strange was when I realized that she had been the reference model for both Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Belle in Beauty and the Beast. This is definitely not the sort of film you expect to find a future Disney princess in.
In the end, Reform School Girls doesn’t really work as a satire. I mean, how do you satirize a genre that already has a bit of a satirical edge inherent in it? It’s like if someone said they were going to make a parody of Young Frankenstein. It’s probably better to just look at this film as a legit women in prison movie with a few sly winks to the audience. It’s not a stellar film in either case, but it’s not without a few fun elements.