Jarv’s Birthday Series: Reform School Girls (1986)
This may not come as much of a shock, but I’ve actually been genuinely surprised at the variety of film released round about my Birthday. On one hand there are some “family” films released, and then right at the other end of the spectrum there’s schlock like Class of 1984, and, more importantly, the subject of today’s review. Reform School Girls (release date 22nd August in America) is a film that I can guarantee would never get a release nowadays, particularly after Snyder ruined it for everyone with Sucker Punch, and represents a last hurrah for the exploitative Women in Prison movies of the late 1970’s.
I don’t generally like Women in Prison movies. I find them needlessly boring and usually quite unpleasant. There are some superior examples out there, but as a rule they are merely an excuse for the director to strip actresses down and then sadistically beat them. Reform School Girls follows these lines but is a bit better in that it is actually a pitch-perfect parody of the genre. What is interesting to note, though, is that the film’s name star (Wendy O. Williams- also on Sountrack duty) actually detested the finished product, but as she was a nuttier than a bag of M & M’s punk singer, I can safely disregard what she thinks.
Reform School Girls is, unsurprisingly, about a reform school full of girls. Hehehehehe.
Juvenile delinquent Jenny(Linda Carol) is arrested in a car crash that takes place when she’s the getaway driver for her hare-brained boyfriend’s hare-brained heist. The judge decides not to throw the book at her (he even holds up the book first) but still sentences her to 3 years in Pridemore Reform School. Unfortunately, the prison is full of angry lesbians like Charlie (Wendy O. Williams) and run by evil “Matron” Edna (Pat Ast- fabulous here), and Warden Sutter (Sybil Danning). Jenny struggles to adjust, but falls in with obvious victim Lisa (Sherrie Stoner), and tough girls Claudie and Paula (Denise Gordy and Andrea Parnell respectively). Life is hard, but she finds prison Dr. Norton (Charlotte McGinnis) willing to help. Eventually, there are a couple of riots and a truly insane ending.
This film is fucking hilarious, and I believe intentionally so. The director, Tom DeSimone, had already had two cracks at Women in Prison films beforehand and decided that they both sucked balls. So as a last shy at the genre, he went for a balls out satire of a film type that he’d come to detest. As a result of this, Reform School Girls is played completely straight, but stuffed full of every single little detail that you would expect to see in the genre. So, we’ve got Pillow fights, lesbianage, lewd dialogue, teenagers well in their thirties, women sitting around in their lingerie for no apparent reason, stilted “Tough Girl” acting (particularly from Williams and Gordy) violence, and gratuitous nudity. It’s still very much an exploitation film, but it’s a sharp one, one that has aspirations higher than showing some skin. Take, for example, Charlie’s first appearance, Edna has just confiscated Lisa’s stuffed rabbit, and introduced them to their dormitory. She assigns them beds at the end, and our three new inmates walk down the middle of the beds surrounded by the rest of the inmates in their underwear. They get to their bunks to see the back of a woman’s head. This woman is doing arm curls with a ludicrously oversized dumbbell. She turns around and… YIKES!!! She’s about 90, and I said at the time as much of a Reform School Girl as Droid is. The timing of the scene is sheer perfection and the visual punchline of this woman, who is obviously 20 years too old for the part, works a treat. There are loads of great visual jokes in this film.
The acting is far, far better than a film called Reform School Girls deserves, especially when you take into account that it is stuffed full of Friday 13th alumnae. Williams plays the whole film with an angry snarl on her face, spitting out dialogue like “You should know, you lick them every night” with a kind of frenzy. Charlie is the showiest role here, and she revels in it- her contribution to the riot (smashing a bus’ windshield with her face before climbing on top and doing a weird dance with a gun) is spectacularly entertaining. Gordy is great as badass Claudie as well- a mass of barely controlled anger and the few times she gets to beat the shit out of Charlie are hugely amusing. However, Ast is the surprise here. Edna has all the cheesiest dialogue in a film full of cheesy dialogue, but she’s fucking hilarious- and I love her standing on the burning water tower screaming “CONTROL” at the top of her lungs while laughing like a loon. It’s a great villain turn, and she chews, even for a big girl like her, an inordinate amount of scenery. The weakest link, actually, is Carol as Jenny. There’s no way that she’s remotely badass enough to be able to protect Lisa and she doesn’t come across at all as a delinquent.
The writing, on the other hand, is a touch patchy on more than one occasion, with some accidentally laughable dialogue mixed in with the deliberate humour. The scene that leaps to mind is Jenny’s love scene with the dubious driver guy in the back of the van. His big pick up line? “I want to play Carnival”. I hope this was intentional, but it isn’t alone as a pretty atrocious piece of dialogue in the film. Dr. Norton gets most of the terrible lines, but her character is a one-dimensional powerless hand-wringer, so it’s not surprising that she makes a meal of it. Lisa is even worse. As soon as you see her, you know that bad things are headed her way, and the lengthy monologue she has about being stuck in a fridge while her house burned down is an embarrassing piece of writing. Nevertheless, most of the characters represent conventions, we expect to see them here, and in a satire/ parody of this type it isn’t likely that they will be more developed than that.
There are a couple of other points of note here. The first is that Williams was the highly controversial lead singer of the Plasmatics (I think, I haven’t checked), and as such she supplied several of the songs used in the film. They’re all great examples of late-period punk and rock along at a fair old lick. Furthermore, they are all completely appropriate for both the genre and the film itself. Secondly, despite the above sense of fun, there are several wince-worthy moments to the film. I won’t talk about the cat, because that’s just nasty, but Lisa’s branding is both excessive and incredibly painful looking. Pity, really, as the film storms along nicely without these touches.
OK, just before I sum up these are the things I learnt about the American penal system from this film:
- All female prisoners have ridiculous and elaborate underwear that they wear almost all the time in place of uniform.
- Said uniform is ridiculously short, and shows the panties every time they move.
- Shank’s can easily be concealed by an angry stick-thin 37-year-old wearing two boot laces and a hankie.
- Pillow fights are a given during any prison riot.
- Being sprayed in the back with a water hose can cause you to fall into a coma.
- Fat Lesbians value control very highly.
- Prison Wardens model their dress on the SS.
- A fork can be used to hold a prison guard hostage
- Prison buses can steer themselves.
Overall, I’m amazed at how enjoyable this film was. It’s heavily flawed and feels quite cheap, but most of the time is nothing more than a highly amusing piece of exploitation. Even if it is taking the piss. Nevertheless, I’m grading these honestly, and I doubt very much that I’ll ever watch this again sober, so in all honesty, I can’t give it that high a rating. On that basis, I’m giving it 2 and a half intoxicated post-arrest Lohan’s out of 4, and I do recommend this as a rollicking piece of sleazy fun. It’s almost worth watching just for Williams, actually.
Next up is the first in my first shit period, and it is one of my most hated films. 1987 sees the loathsome, cretinous, dishonest and mean-spirited Dirty Dancing soil our website, so expect to see a scathing review handed out.
The list so far:
- 1978 – The Driver (3 out of 4)
- 1979 – Life of Brian (4 out of 4)
- 1980 –Xanadu (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1981 – An American Werewolf in London (4 out of 4)
- 1982 – Class of 1984 (3 out of 4)
- 1983 – Fire and Ice (1 out of 4)
- 1984 – Cal (1/2 out of 4)
- 1985 – Teen Wolf (3 out of 4)
- 1986 –Reform School Girls (2.5 out of 4)
- 1987 – Dirty Dancing
- 1988 – Married to the Mob
- 1989 – Millennium
- 1990 – Darkman
- 1991 – Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
- 1992 – Christopher Columbus: The Discovery
- 1993 – Hard Target
- 1994 – Natural Born Killers
- 1995 – Desperado
- 1996 – Freeway
- 1997 – Mimic
- 1998 – Blade
- 1999 – Teaching Mrs. Tingle
- 2000 – Bring it On
- 2001 – Heartbreakers
- 2002 – Simone
- 2003 – My Boss’s Daughter
- 2004 – Exorcist: The beginning
- 2005 – The Cave
- 2006 – Invincible
- 2007 – War
- 2008 – Death Race
- 2009 – Der Baader Meinhof Komplex
- 2010 – Piranha 3D
- 2011 – Conan the Barbarian