Cult Camp Classics Vol. 2: Women in Peril
Caged (1950)/The Big Cube (1969)/Trog (1970)
Release Date: June 26, 2007
For the second of four entries in their "Cult Camp Classics" series of releases, Warner Bros. Home Video brings us three films starring three Oscar-nominated actresses playing jeopardized protagonists. One is a career highlight for which the actress was justifiably nominated and the "Cult Camp Classic" label is an unfair appellation. The other two are late career embarrassments that would have required the invention of the word "camp" if it had not already existed.
Caged (1950 - Warner Bros. - Unrated - 96 minutes)
Directed By: John Cromwell
Starring: Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Hope Emerson, Ellen Corby, Betty Garde, Jan Sterling, Lee Patrick
"Caged", adapted by Virginia Kellogg from her own story researched by having herself incarcerated at four separate women's prisons, tells the story of nineteen year-old Marie Allen (Parker). Marie finds herself imprisoned after being charged as an accomplice for waiting in the car while her husband was killed in an attempted armed robbery. Shortly after being processed by the prison administration, she also learns that she is pregnant. Initially timid, terrified, and determined to simply serve her time and get out as soon as possible, the influence of the other convicts, corrupt sadistic guard Evelyn Harper (Emerson), and an uncaring system begins to weigh on her, especially after a traumatic experience sends her into premature childbirth. Only Ruth Benton (Moorehead), the prison administrator seems to be genuinely interested in the concept of prisoner rehabilitation, and she virtually has to stage a one-woman strike to get the slightest concession from the politically motivated men who control the prison finances.
This film is way too good for a "Cult Camp Classics Collection", but I suppose its presence is due to the exploitative "women in prison" genre that it helped spawn. It may have a certain cult status due to its copious coded lesbian elements as well. On its own merits, though, "Caged" fits squarely in the mold of other "social justice" crime films from Warner Brothers such as "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". On the positive side, DVD consumers can own this excellent film today and do not have to wait for the release of a thematically more appropriate set like, say, another "Controversial Classics" collection. An Oscar-caliber bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The movie is exceptionally well cast. Parker was Oscar-nominated for her role, and while she does give a decent performance that anchors the film, it is the supporting cast that really sticks in the viewer's mind after watching it. Literally looming over everyone is Hope Emerson (also Oscar-nominated) as Evelyn Harper. Standing a head taller than most of the rest of the cast, she perfectly represents the nightmare of abused authority. Agnes Moorehead brings an atypical depth to the role of the crusading prison administrator. This type of role is usually a thankless affair inserted into crime and/or noir films at the demand of Production Code censors to show that not everyone is corrupt, but Moorehead shows occasional signs of a resigned cynicism that go a long way towards making the character seem three-dimensional. The women cast as the other inmates all have strong facial features that make them easy to tell apart. This is sometimes an issue with prison and war films where everyone dresses alike. Chief among them is Betty Garde as the grim-visaged Kitty, who's outside connections keep her at the top of the inmate food chain...at least until someone even better connected shows up. Jan Sterling provides comic relief as the somewhat bubble-headed "Smoochie", a woman incarcerated for prostitution who is frequently reading letters from home with amusing commentary on their content. The film is unusually frank about Smoochie being a prostitute, stating it outright when she is introduced. On the other hand, it avoids any suggestion that its lead actress would be tempted into such a life, having Kitty attempt to recruit Marie into a shoplifting racket run by men who will set her up with a permanent address and a bogus legitimate job to satisfy the parole board.
The film is shot and lit in the film-noir style by Carl Guthrie under the direction of John Cromwell. The shots are frequently composed with the shadows of prison bars used for moody and symbolic effect, and some scenes are played out almost entirely in darkness. Sound is also used effectively to create a stark and bleak prison reality, with typically dramatic and effective Max Steiner music underscoring the drama as appropriate. The filmmakers wisely avoid the temptation to make any of the actresses look glamorous with the possible exception of the middle aged wealthy society vice queen played by Lee Patrick.
This is easily the best film included in any of the four "Cult Camp Classics Collection" sets, and would be worth picking up on its own if you have no interest in "camp" cinema.
The Big Cube (1969 - Warner Bros./Seven Arts/Cimex - rated M/PG - 98 minutes)
Directed By: Tito Davison
Starring: Lana Turner, George Chakiris, Karin Mossberg, Richard Egan, Dan O'Herlihy, Pamela Rogers, Carlos East
"The Big Cube" concerns the Winthrop family. Wealthy widowed patriarch Richard (O'Herlihy) has just married stage actress Adriana Roman (Turner). Despite efforts by Adriana to reach out to her, Richard's daughter, Lisa (Mossberg), has trouble getting past her resentment of her new step mom. Additionally, Lisa's ditzy friend, Bibi, brings her into a circle of bohemian friends who enjoy tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. Central to this group is medical student Johnny Allen (Chakiris), who supplies them with the LSD-laced sugar cubes they enjoy. Johnny takes an immediate interest in Lisa in hopes of getting access to the Winthrop family fortune, but has trouble earning parental approval, especially when he is caught throwing a wild party at the Winthrop home when Richard and Adriana return early from a business trip. When Richard dies in a tragic accident, Johnny convinces Lisa to start dosing her stepmother's sedatives with LSD in order to have her declared incompetent so that Lisa can claim her trust fund and marry him.
If you want to see the definitive contemporaneous cinematic statement of 60s youth drug culture,... well,... "Easy Rider" was released a couple of months after this turkey. Compared to "Caged", "The Big Cube" is much more like what I expect from a "Cult Camp Classics Collection". The film is so bad that I could not distinguish whether it did not know what it was about or it just went about it so badly that it kept undermining itself. Thematically it plays something like "Valley of the Dolls" amplified by "Reefer Madness", with a soapy plot coupled with an indictment of 60s drug culture so inept that the folks actually being indicted must have thought it was hilarious. The psychedelic freak-outs have to be seen to be believed, with an early one set in a club looking like something I can only characterize as Laugh-In at the Fillmore West with gratuitous nudity.
Just when you think that the film has moved past the point of self-parody and settled into being a fairly conventional dysfunctional family soap-opera, you get treated to a bohemian wedding sequence and a therapy method for Turner's character developed by her stage director more so than her doctor that flings it back into camp high gear. The last few scenes with Chakiris' character play like throwbacks to the type that would regularly get appended to red-lined scripts at the height of the Production Code era. Fortunately, they are staged and executed so awkwardly that one can enjoy their exquisite badness without reflecting on their ham-handed attempts at sending a moral message.
The film was co-produced by Warner-7 Arts and Cimex, and a lot of the key contributors were primarily known for their work in the Mexican film industry. This may explain why the movie disorients as it does with a handful of Hollywood actors in the middle of a movie that looks like a Mexican exploitation film. Try as she might, Lana Turner never quite finds her acting way in this cinematic world, but neither does anybody else in the film.
Trog (1970 - Warner Bros. - rated GP/PG - 91 minutes)
Directed By: Freddie Francis
Starring: Joan Crawford, Michael Gough, Bernard Kay, David Griffin, Kim Braden
When a group of spelunkers in northern England, encounter a strange and violent creature while exploring a previously uncharted subterranean cave, Dr. Brockton (Crawford), becomes convinced that it is the proverbial "missing link". After capturing the creature, Brockton, her daughter (Braden), and one of the spelunkers who conveniently has been reading for an anthropology degree, Malcolm (Griffin), work to train him to tone down the violence and perform simple tasks, inviting scientists from around the world to study him. At the same time, Sam Murdock (Gough), a local business leader makes the destruction of the creature his personal vendetta.
As with "The Big Cube", this film fits very comfortably under the "Cult Camp Classic" umbrella. Why Joan Crawford agreed to star in this movie is something of a mystery, but it is easy to understand why she never consented to make another one. The title creature is so ill conceived, that it is next to impossible to take this spin on Frankenstein-style creature features seriously. If Trog looks like a stuntman running around in fur slippers and a loin cloth wearing only the head piece of an ape costume from "2001: A Space Odyssey", well, that's because he is. Other moments of exquisite badness not directly related to the creature make-up include Ms. Crawford repeatedly firing a tranquilizer gun at Trog with a report sounding like a shotgun blast, Trog slowly lifting a car up on its side until it promptly bursts into flames for no apparent reason, the dinosaur slideshow that, along with a surgery, is intended to stimulate Trog to be able to speak, the tinted Willis O'Brien stop-motion dinosaur scenes (cribbed from Irwin Allen's 1956"The Animal World") that spin out of Trog's head and then spin back into his neck during the aforementioned surgery, and any scene where Crawford and the actors playing her assistants are attempting to train Trog to accomplish tasks that require less dexterity than it would have taken him to manufacture his boots out of animal fur. There were times during the training scenes when I expected Crawford to break out a guitar and sing "Troggy Went A-Courtin'", but it never materialized.
The actors play things completely seriously which, in an "Airplane!" sort of way, just makes the campy elements seem funnier than if they were winking or mugging. Michael Gough is the only actor who really goes over the top, but he basically has no choice given the dictates of his character as scripted, and I would argue that he gives the best performance in the film, all things considered.
Prior to "Trog" Director Freddie Francis had a number of horror films under his belt, and he was also a very accomplished cinematographer. "Trog" is extremely well lit and photographed, and whenever the production design does not work against it (translucent orange plastic stalactites, the Trog creature, Crawford's otherworldly eyebrows, Gough's otherworldly ears ...) the film looks very nice. Francis also appears to have kept the recipe for super saturated ultra red blood used when he was making films for Hammer in the 60s.
"Caged" receives an outstanding black and white transfer at a 4:3 ratio appropriate for its original theatrical presentation. Detail and depth of contrast are excellent, and the compression renders the light natural film grain with only very mild artifacts.
"The Big Cube" appears very slightly windowboxed to 1.75:1 in a 16:9 enhanced transfer. Colors are very bright and very 60s, with a slight softness typical of the era. The diffusion is cranked up another few notches for most of Lana Turner's close-ups. Compression is pretty good and video and film artifacts are minimal.
"Trog" has received a beautiful color transfer that fills the entire 16:9 frame. You may weep for all of the better films that have not received transfers this good, but you cannot fault Warner for a near perfect transfer of a near-perfect element. Other than upping the bitrate to address some compression issues that appear from time to time, I could not really ask for more from a standard-definition DVD video presentation.
All three films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 English mono tracks that are above average for films of their era. "Trog" has by far the widest frequency response and greatest dynamic range, and is marred only slightly by noise reduction artifacts that will be audible to critical listeners. "The Big Cube" has the most complex mix, especially during its psychedelic freak-out episodes.
All three films come with their original theatrical trailers with no other extras.
All of the films are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The cases are in turn enclosed in a thin cardboard box with a cover image showing a montage of the film cover art.
While "Caged" may not be my idea of "Cult" or "Camp", it is a somewhat underrated classic and worth owning for serious fans of 40s and 50s film. "The Big Cube" and "Trog" are impressively bad misfires that will push all needles on your "campometer" into the red. All three films receive excellent audio-video presentations with only theatrical trailers as extras.