A young, naïve college student ends up on the wrong side of the law and trades his schoolbooks for prison stripes for an education in shanking and sodomy in the rare Canadian MIP (men in prison) film.
For a college kid, young Elliot Markham (Ross Stephenson) ain’t all that bright. He agrees to play getaway driver in a bank robbery only to be tossed out of the getaway car when he swerves to miss some school children at a crosswalk. His wrong-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend Sherri (Maureen McGill) has another guy on the side – Andre (Paul Kelman, MY BLOODY VALENTINE) – plotting with her to divest Elliot of his share of the money. When Sherri discovers that the bust went bad, she tells the police about Elliot’s involvement and he gets sentenced to two years in prison. During the introductory strip-search and cavity-search, Elliot is ear-marked by sadistic guard Turner (Anthony Weaver) and leering inmate Evans (Jeremy Hart, HEART OF THE SUN) for future plans. Dressed in a white jumpsuit – ostensibly to denote him as a “new fish” to the guards, but it also marks him as bait for the prisoners – Elliot catches the eye of several inmates, including Abdullah (WWE wrestler Abdullah the Butcher) – who “auditions” musical talent – and drag queen Banjo (Richard Gishler). Elliot’s cell mate Yurik (Edward Blessington, SANDRA: THE MAKING OF A WOMAN) gives him a less than warm welcome, telling him to “do your own time” and stop trying to make friends. In the shower, Evans is friendlier and does Elliot a favor in getting him a job in the prison library. Elliot makes friends with the librarian Josie (Don MacQuarrie, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE), who warns him that Evans is a psychopath and that he especially likes to degrade college boys. Tired of being harassed by Banjo, Yurik beats him and gets ten days in solitary and ten strokes of “the lash.” While Yurik is in solitary, Sherrie visits Elliot and tries to get him to reveal the location of the robbery money (which was never found). Angered by “money hungry broads,” Elliot returns to his cell to find Evans staying there while his cell is supposedly being painted. Elliot is on to Evans intentions, but his violent rebuffing of Evans advances gets him reassigned to laundry duty where he is more vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of guard Turner.
For the bulk of the running time, CAGED MEN (aka CAGED MEN PLUS ONE WOMAN aka I’M GOING TO GET YOU… ELLIOT BOY!) is a predictable pile of prison movie clichés – prison shower scenes, drag queens, sadistic guards, ritualized corporal punishment, chain-smoking, the drug trade with the corrupt guard in on the action, and the prisoners rallying together when the authorities go too far – although many of these may not have been cliché in 1971 (although 99 WOMEN had come out about a year before, Jack Hill’s Filipino-shot WIP films were in-production when this one was released). The main problem with the film is the Elliot character, who is too ridiculously naïve to be sympathetic. He enters the prison like a freshman first arriving at a dorm, and is really bad at reading people. He seems to have never seen a drag queen before, expects to make friends by shaking hands, and doesn’t notice that he is being ogled in the shower. Perhaps the Josie character may have been scripted to be more convincingly female; but Elliot’s look of surprise when Josie reveals his prison jumpsuit beneath his blouse will have viewers guffawing (the Josie character is there to explain that Evans is not a homosexual, but a criminal psychopath who does what he does to degrade others and not for sexual pleasure; however, the script’s definition of homosexuality is the woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body and vice versa explanation).
Also ludicrous is the midget character Kovick (Donald Cook), whose reign on the prison’s marijuana trade is enough for him to humiliate a guard in front of the other prisoners and burn hulking Abdullah with his cigar without reprisal. It is also hard to imagine that the SPARTACUS scene late in the film provoked a rallying reaction from the audience. Far more likely to garner audience sympathy is the Yurik character whose torment under the lash is more explicitly rendered onscreen than Elliot’s rape (which is intercut with the prison band entertaining Abdullah and Kovick). Yurik’s broken psyche in the aftermath is also given some screentime; whereas the film cuts away to a month or so later after Elliot’s rape with the comment that he’s been sitting around disengaged for approximately that amount of time. The last ten minutes of the film do manage to wring out some suspense because we do not know whether Elliot is being cunning or walking blindly into another setup. Director Edward J. Forsythe moved onto more conventional exploitation fare after this with Crown International’s SUPERCHICK, INFERNO IN PARADISE and CHESTY ANDERSON U.S. NAVY before moving onto television and documentaries.
Code Red’s DVD features a dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 encoding of a print element that looks great for a barely-released Canadian tax-shelter film. Apart from some image trembling, a scratch or two, and green reel change marks, the image looks great. The mise-en-scene is largely muted grays and blues, but blood and the red spines of books (as well as the psychedelic lighting in Sherri’s apartment) stand out boldly. The Dolby Digital mono audio track is also in good condition. The film is playable with optional wrap-around segments with hostess Maria Kanellis (here cuffed to a chair and forced to watch the movie). The first audio commentary features Alonso Duralde (author of 101 Must-See Movies For Gay Men) and David White (Duralde’s co-host on the “Linoleum Knife” pod-cast) and is spent mostly poking fun at the film’s lack of subtlety.
The second audio commentary features Nathaniel Thompson and David DeCoteau (who also moderated commentary tracks on Code Red’s JULIE DARLING and MARCY). DeCoteau suggests that the film was possibly mounted as a competitor for the film adaptation of the Canadian stage play FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES – like CAGED MEN, the former film was also a U.S./Canadian production directed by an American (Harvey Hart, THE PYX) – and briefly discusses some plot similarities. Thompson points out other plot similarities to Joseph Losey’s THE CRIMINAL. DeCoteau also gives some of his experience with labs and missing elements that gives the listeners a picture of how films like this can slip through the cracks and resurface unexpectedly (Thompson extends that discussion to the frustration of looking for surviving elements for Canadian tax shelter films), as well as some information on Canadian tax shelter productions (like how most of them take place in a snowbound Canada because the money had to be spent before December 31st). Neither track really gives you a lot of info about the film itself, but director Forsythe is no longer with us and most of the cast are no longer working (although DeCoteau mentions that camera operator Albert J. Dunk – who shot the handheld footage for BLACK CHRISTMAS – is now a prolific cinematographer). Both tracks give a rundown on Hollywood’s attempts to safely exploit the gay cinema scene without offending the larger demographic. An “Unmatted Nude Scene” (2:13) features frontal nudity during the shower scene. The included theatrical trailer (1:27) bears the ELLIOT title and heavily emphasizes the male nudity and sexual sadism (the rape and lash sequences) in still frames. Maria’s “Fantasy” music video (5:33) and a selection of Code Red trailers (not all Maria titles) – including STANLEY, CUT THROATS NINE, LOVE ME DEADLY, SCREAM, THE LAST CHASE, and SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS – round out the extras. (Eric Cotenas)
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