I tend to think of Cannon as having been a pretty fearless studio. There was nothing beneath them. Ninja films, breakdancing movies, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, you name it! So, it only makes sense that they would dip their toe into that genre known as women in prison flicks at some point. So in 1986 they gave us an oh-so-eighties look behind bars, The Naked Cage.
The story concerns a goody-two-shoes young woman named Michelle (Shari Shattuck) who works in a bank and loves to ride horses on her parents’ farm. One day, her ex-husband attempts to rob the bank where Michelle works, along with a mean chick named Rita (Christina Whitaker) who has recently released herself from prison. Long story short, when the robbery is foiled, it appears that Michelle was in on the plan and she ends up behind bars.
Of course, life in prison is the pits. There are constant battles between the white inmates and the black inmates, the warden is fond of snagging the ladies she fancies for private rendezvous, and there is a male guard who doesn’t just like to have his way with the ladies, but he stages their suicides when he’s done with them. The only good thing about this prison is that they seem to have a plentiful supply of hair care products and off-the-shoulder tops for the ladies. Things quickly get worse for Michelle, though, when Rita ends up on the same cell block and begins to position herself as the leader.
The Naked Cage doesn’t really manage to break any new ground when it comes to this sort of movie. Everything you’d expect to be there is there: girl fights, stabbings, shower scenes, lesbian warden, even the heart of gold prisoner who cares for injured animals is here. Still, even with all the tropes intact, I’d have to say The Naked Cage is better than the average women behind bars film. It’s effectively grimey despite an overabundance of 80’s pastels and lip gloss.
There’s no real A-list talent here in the cast. Okay, let’s be honest, even to say B-list or C-list would be a stretch. The cast, though, deliver performances that feel appropriate for this film, despite the fact that they’d probably come across as goofy in just about any other. There’s something strangely delightful about how Shari Shattuck as Michelle cheers excitedly over sweet potatoes with extra marshmallows in the opening scene in a way I’d expect a six-year-old to react. It makes her transformation into a hardened prison resident all the more enjoyable. It’s lovably campy. Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if the somewhat campy approach much of the cast has was on purpose or not; but it works, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
As appealing as the film’s leading lady is, though, she is the victim of a crime as most scenes are stolen from her by Christina Whitaker as the villainous Rita. Her character is introduced to us in the opening credits as she hitchhikes in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots as “Tough Enough” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds blares. It’s clear she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with from frame one, and Whitaker oozes evil every moment she’s on screen. With her sleek look and short, spiked, jet black hair, she looks like Pat Benatar, but terrifying. As the film progresses she just gets nastier and scarier. The film has several other “villain” characters, but they come off like Strawberry Shortcake compared to her.
There’s nothing in The Naked Cage that we haven’t seen a dozen times already in other women’s prison flicks. Yet, there’s something very satisfying about this take on the genre. Its over-the-top sleazy, but with an 80’s sheen that makes for a very entertaining hour and a half.