Here’s a longtime favorite Women-In-Prison film of mine. Something I didn’t know until I was watching it again to review here that it was co-written by the late Lisa Comshaw, who also had a small role in the film. It’s the only writing credit she has in her over 20 year career as an actress, so I wish I knew more about what exactly she contributed to the script and how that came about. Directed by Robert Houston, who also co-wrote the script along with Ed Elbert, Terry Kahn, and Gregory Winger (only Comshaw – as Lisa Sutton, and Houston are credited in the actual film, Elbert, Kahn, and Winger are listed on IMDB) this film was released in 1991 and stars David Keith and Kristen Cloke.

To be clear, while it contains many of the Women In Prison tropes, this is not a softcore exploitation film. The R-rating it gets is from language and violence, there is no female nudity. And the fact that it boasts an impressive cast who either already had or would go on to have long “mainstream” acting careers afterward, I think also shows that this was meant to be a serious film.

Keith and Cloke are Tommy and Kristen, a White trash couple in Oklahoma. They’ve been together for a while off and on, with the “off” times precipitated by Tommy’s stints in prison. He’s just got out after his latest bid and is promising to go straight and asks Kristen to marry him, which she accepts. But when they got to a jewelry store to shop for wedding and engagement rings, Tommy is embarrassed that he can’t afford any of the really nice ones. The condescending attitude of the store owner (played by acclaimed character actor Stanley DeSantis) doesn’t help. So Tommy impulsively decides to rob the store at gunpoint and gets shot by the security guard as he and Kristen speed off in her car. After they get a certain length away, Kristen pulls over and kicks Tommy out of the car, angry over what he did. Then she drives off, but the cops catch up to her and pull her over and arrest her. Her car being seen escaping the scene of the crime, and the stolen ring was found in her car, so the cops got her dead to rights. And she refuses to rat out Tommy knowing that another conviction would have been his third strike and sent him away for life. So she takes the fall and is sentenced to a year in jail.

In prison, she quickly runs afoul of some of the meaner prisoners, including Joy (Charlie Spradling), a Lifer who has a lot of pull with the guards, with her sole ally being a prisoner named Judy (played by Loretta Devine), who was sent to the prison at the same time as her, despite Judy being Black and her and Kristen’s friendship not conforming to the racial politics of the prison. She also gets the unwanted attention of a creepy male guard named Ray (Rick Dean). One night she’s saved from Ray’s advances by the Deputy Warden, Mrs. Charles (Deborah May), who seems to take a liking to Kristen, recognizing that she’s not a hardcore criminal like most of the inmates, and attempts to make Kristen’s time in prison a little easier, although it soon becomes clear that her interest in Kristen isn’t strictly platonic either.

So up until that point this is the standard WIP film. About an hour into it takes a somewhat implausible turn. One night at a bar Tommy happens to meet a stranger, played by Ray Sharkey, who buys him drinks. But then as they’re leaving the man finds out that Tommy is violating his parole by being in the bar and pulls out a badge and prepares to arrest him. Tommy knocks him out and drives away, but the man follows him in his car. But because he’s drunk the man drives off the road and crashes. Tommy pulls over an inspects the crash, the man is dead. He checks his ID, including a briefcase that was inside the car, and finds out the man is Reginald Hayes, and by sheer coincidence, he was heading to the prison that Kristen is in to become their new Warden. Tommy decides to steal the man’s identity so he can, I guess, break Kristen out of the prison.

It’s not the smartest plan for multiple reasons, the most obvious being that now she’d be a fugitive for life rather than just serving her one-year sentence and then putting that past behind her, but this development does change the nature of the film as the stakes become higher with Tommy trying to hide his identity and find a way to free Kristen while exposing the corruption in the prison, all the while the inmates are getting more restless and a riot is brewing.

The ending makes no damn sense, it’s supposed to be a happy one but that falls apart with just a second of scrutiny. So why is this film a favorite of mine? I don’t know. Despite the flaws, I just like it. Call it a guilty pleasure. I think it mainly falls on the performance of Kristen Cloke, whom I’ve continued to enjoy in every role I’ve seen her pop up in over the years (I guess I should say decades), from Space: Above and Beyond, to the first Final Destination film, to Pretty Little Liars. She’d only been acting professionally for a year at this point, it was her 5th professional acting role and first starring one, and she already showed a lot of potential, playing her character as both vulnerable and tough. And David Keith was also very good and I took special notice of Rick Dean, who played his character with an appropriate level of sleaziness that made him the perfect movie villain.

Oh yeah, and there’s also a very brief cameo of Jani Lane, the lead singer of 80’s hair band Warrant, playing himself. No, there’s no point to that, but it’s cool, I guess.

Caged Fear may not win any awards, but it’s a dramatic film that tries to do something different in its genre.

Chacebook rating: FOUR STARS


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