There are certain places in the wild world of cinema where you find yourself looking into an abyss, where exploitation cinema seems to become more than a marketing concept and life looks as cheap as a movie's budget might be. It's a quality that Cannibal Holocaust captures and satirizes perfectly in its portrait of filmmakers dedicated to capturing barbarism on screen who actually perpetuate it. A lot of films made in the late 1970s and into the 1980s had this quality of barely repressed atrocity, or aspired to it, from Apocalypse Now at the summit to a bunch of post-apocalypse knockoffs, mercenary movies, and women-in-captivity flicks from around the world. You know that morbid quality when you see it; it might make you feel dirty watching such a film, or you might walk away thinking you've seen a glimpse of the end of the world, or of civilization.
Cirio H. Santiago worked in that vein fairly often in his long career, which ended with his death last year. The results were hit or miss, but many of his films that I've seen have that flavor of a director simply finding someplace in a state of social or moral collapse and setting up his camera. Women of Hell's Island, for instance (also known as Hell Hole or Escape From Women's Hell Hole), is consistently sleazy and brutal, though not as intensely so in either case as some might want. To an extent the effect is undercut by some really bad dialogue and other inanities, but these can also be seen as typical of a band of barbarians trying to make a movie like civilized people. I don't mean that as a reflection on the Philippines, though it might be a fair hit on that country's exploitation film industry. You could say the same thing about Italians, Japanese, and others, -- including the enterprising Americans who often allied with Santiago.
Women of Hell's Island follows a pretty simple formula: take a bunch of pretty women, kidnap them, and put them together in a fate-worse-than-death captivity scenario. After a pre-credits opening showing a failed escape attempt, we're introduced to several women -- a stripper, a jogger, a British journalist's girlfriend -- who are promptly kidnapped. They are all taken to an island compound operated by "The Lady," who runs a network of mercenaries and assassins. "There seems to be more call for mercenaries these days," she notes happily. The kidnap victims are going to be sex slaves for the mercs. The Lady's assistant questions the practice. "Kidnapping women isn't exactly the same as buying a steak," he explains, "Beautiful women don't just disappear. People look for them." Well, we'll see about that.
The sex-slaves are put under the command of a redneck American warden whom we only ever know as "Warden." His attitude toward his charges is summarized in his appraisal of the new captives: "Not bad for a bunch of sluts!" He doesn't take any crap from them. When one fails to respond promptly to her number at a roll call, he guns her down in cold blood.
The newbies meet some veteran prisoners, including the standard-issue tough black chick, Maggie (Ingrid Greer) who sneers at the idea of tunnelling out of their vast cavern dungeon. They quickly learn the routine. They are to be showered, drugged up with a powerful aphrodisiac, and as one veteran puts it, "from then on it's a matter of survival, every girl for herself." This is illustrated in a nasty montage of several women servicing various killers in erotic slow motion while Nonang Buencamino's music goes all trippy. Santiago is daring you to be appalled and aroused at the same time. You wonder whether the target audience would actually feel appalled.
Then it's explained that the aphrodisiac has nasty side effects. Constant dosage eventually fries the girls' minds. This is illustrated by one woman going berserk after sex and throwing herself out a window. Later, another traumatized prisoner throws herself onto an electronic fence rather than go through another round of manhandling. "Shut up and give us a hand with this dumb bitch," Warden tells his minions afterward. While they deal with the corpse, some of the women exploit their preoccupation to climb out of their outdoor pit and run for it. Land mines and other booby traps take out most of them, with one surviving to be thrown into The Hole.
The prisoners are split between the tunnelers and Maggie's faction, which wants to get weapons and bust out in force. She gets her chance, but ends up outgunned by the guards. She survives to be flogged by Warden. Santiago shoots this scene from multiple angles so he can cut rhythmically with every crack of the whip. It's an odd note of artistry in such a film.
Warden has a lot of pent-up energy left over from the whipping ("Hell, I didn't hurt that broad that bad, anyway"), so he decides to partake from the prisoners himself. This goes badly, and here's a lesson if you're ever in charge of a sex-slave compound. It may be advisable to keep a knife at hand when you want to rape a prisoner, but you shouldn't leave it someplace where the woman can reach it before you can. Don't end up like Warden. The extent of his injury is left vague, but we get a shot from the rear (which I've spared you) of blood apparently streaming from his crotch. Later, he suffers taunting from the compound doctor, to which he ripostes cleverly, "fuck you!" The doctor's comeback: "You couldn't even if you really wanted." But it can't have been that bad, because he's up and about and just as mean by the time we're ready for the finale.
Maggie's failure and her punishment has brought her around to the tunnel approach. But when the prisoners break through, they end up having the best of both worlds. After somehow managing to take out some guards more or less bare-handed, they have guns to blast a path to the airstrip with. Much payback ensues. It all makes me wonder whether The Lady was wasting her resources. Given the way the women show instant competence with machine guns and automatic weapons, the way they rout the mercenaries, and the way one of them can fly the rest to freedom, I'm thinking that it might have made more sense to kidnap beautiful women and just train them to be mercs and assassins. But wouldn't they want sexual satisfaction, also? Well, that would be another story, and maybe we'd need Jess Franco to tell that one....
Women of Hell's Island provides the occasional depraved thrill, but it's pretty flawed. It includes an ultimately pointless sequence in which Madden, the British journalist whose girlfriend Cindy was kidnapped, goes to the U.S. embassy to complain about the local government's failure to investigate the case. This leads you to think that Madden is going to take some action to rescue Cindy, and the scene drops a hint either that the Americans are going to attack the island themselves or that they're complicit in the activities there. But none of this is followed up on, and we never see Madden again. Aesthetically, it just didn't look right to have a gang of sex slaves wearing what look to be standard gym-class uniforms down to the sneakers -- sans bras, of course. The ladies jiggle well enough in these outfits, but the circumstances seemed to demand something less perky looking -- depending on your meaning of perky. On the other hand, I thought it was a clever touch that the only catfight in this women-in-prison movie is a hoax staged by the women to divert Warden's attention from the tunnel. That's in keeping with the paradoxical female-empowerment theme of many such films, though the charm (if you can call it that) of the genre is its ability to have it both ways, combining empowerment and abject subjugation in an attempt to please everyone but the fastidious. This movie never rises or sinks to real extremes, but people looking for a little flesh and a little blood and a few explosions should find this a diverting hour and a half -- approximately.