Dave embarks on a quest to find Bobby Houston, the elusive director of a not-so-sordid women-in-prison film.
The gurning leer of a prison guard gazing into a densely populated women’s shower block is catnip to anyone with a penchant for penitentiary porn, and although it’s a little passé in the age of the word ‘problematic’, the lurid exploitation of a women in prison movie is irresistible.
The first wave of WiP’s in the early ‘70s seduced me: primo Filipino sleaze like Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1971); Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama (1973); and Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974) — which, even today, remains the king of the genre and a boner fide critical and financial success for wily producer Roger Corman. It would be nearly two decades before the genre resurfaced with any force, and as expected Corman was there, seizing the opportunity to defile Mom n’ Pop video stores across the land with barely clad babes behind bars. However, his inevitable sequel to Demme’s triumphant film, Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom (1994), was merely a twinkle in New Concorde’s eye when the barely seen CAGED FEAR (1991) came to town.
I had missed it back in the day when it surfaced on UK tape under the title ‘Innocent Young Female’, which positioned it neck and neck with Lethal White Female (1993) in the race to dupe renters into thinking they were going home with Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Caged Fear also had a predilection for attempting to go straight, cropping up on MGM HD in the last decade or so under yet another pseudonym, ‘Hotel Oklahoma’.
Such chameleon-like behaviour needed more investigation. After all, in parts of Europe it was even masquerading as ‘Chained Heat II’, and its homeland Caged Fear box art made no apologies for teasing its prison-set promise. Oh, and it was written by Lisa Comshaw (as ‘Lisa Sutton’), who went on to be a fetish performer (Lair of the Bondage Bandits (1992)), and who carved a neat sideline as a wrestler under the alias ‘Tori Sinclair’ before her descent into the mundanity of real estate, where she resided until her tragically early death at the age of 55.
I had to know more.
But I needed a route in.
The director of the movie was one Robert Houston. He’d dabbled with acting in the late ‘70s, most notably as Bobby Carter in Wes Craven’s seminal The Hills Have Eyes (1977), before achieving infamy when he and producing partner David Weisman spliced together the first two Lone Wolf and Cub pictures to make cult favourite Shogun Assassin (1980). A couple of features followed in the ‘80s, but in the wake of Caged Fear, Houston found his calling in life as a documentary filmmaker, winning the Best Documentary short at the 2005 Academy Awards for Mighty Times: The Children’s March.
I had an email address for him on file for his production company, Tell the Truth Pictures, so I fired a few words over in the desperate hope that an Oscar-winning documentarian would want to reminisce about a cheap DTV’r that he made thirty years ago. Minutes later I had my answer:
“Address not found”.
Feeling a sense of relief that I hadn’t managed to ruin some guy’s day by taking him back to an era that he probably wanted to forget about, I decided to give the film a spin again. Caged Fear is a strange beast far removed from the standard WiP template, as Kristen (Kristen Cloke) takes the fall for her boyfriend, Tommy (David Keith), and finds herself in a clink that comes with a gnarly reputation. So far so good — until a chance (and eye-rolling) encounter sees Tommy assume the identity of the incoming warden (Ray Sharkey), before then infiltrating the prison under his new guise in order to break out his lover.
It’s a fanciful fantasy, and one that rebuffs the need for any of the key ingredients for ribald reformatory action: no sex, no nudity, and very little violence of note. Like a western without cowboy boots or a horror without claret, it’s a perplexing and decidedly innocuous ninety minutes, albeit one that pops with gusto.
That was it: I had to find Houston.
He’d been quiet on the film front for a couple of years now, since co-producing Dreaming of a Vetter World (2018) with Steve Buscemi. Absent from social media, I got a lead from a locally owned, regional publication based in Massachusetts called The Berkshire Edge, where, over the last few years, a contributor by the name of Bobby Houston had put his name to a host of articles that touched upon politics and the arts. Could it be him?
I emailed the editor, David Scribner, wondering if he’d open it with a weighty sigh and add it to the mountain of Shogun Assassin / The Hills Have Eyes fan mail that clogs up his inbox with the frequency of a Nigerian phishing scam.
“Dave! I’d be happy to forward this on to Bobby,” came the swift response. “And good luck with Schlock & Awe.”
A break! But surely a false dawn? After all, I’d seen the movie and I knew if there was anything for him to add, it’d merely be with an affectionate platitude or a subject swerving anecdote of avoidance. Then this:
“It’s Bobby! Let me know how I can help!”
“I’m sure you’ve moved on,” I replied, with a reluctant shrug and a virtual swing of my arms towards an exit door from which he could escape.
“No, I’d love to talk about this!” Houston insisted. “Do you know this ranks as the only women-behind-bars film that doesn’t go for sexploitation? Imagine that! We can type like mad on email I guess, or… I know, I’ll send you a chapter of my unpublished memoir. That will make it easier.”
Is he crazy? I’ve been chatting to the guy for five minutes! Not that I was complaining as the enviably well-titled chapter, Kittens in a Can, dropped into my inbox. Besides, I’ve no doubt that Houston is a consummate pro who simply detailed his production diary with an informative yet matter-of-fact delivery.
I opened the file.
“What was I thinking?” read the first line. “Why on earth would I say yes to a prison movie?”
The first two sentences alone set the tone for sixteen pages of hilarious recollections about a wild shoot that, at times, left my jaw on the floor.
It felt like an intimate confessional diary as he goes on to bemoan how “it was dreck, but Hollywood has a long tradition of sifting through dreck, looking for talent.”
Houston was under no illusions about what he was making, and if he was, then the producers made it abundantly clear what they wanted.
“We want a movie that’s ‘fun”’ demanded the financier. “A grindhouse movie about incarceration, abuse, and rape that’s ‘fun’.” They never wavered on this either, recalls Houston, with frequent reminders of “Don’t forget about the fun, Bobby!”
Having said that, it’s clear that Houston found comfort in the creativity of his writing partner, the aforementioned Sutton. Their friendship makes for one of the most warming paragraphs in the chapter, and one that offers a glimpse into the reasons for Caged Fear having the tone it does:
“I wrote the script with a partner, an imp named Lisa Sutton. Lisa was hilarious, cynical and gay and I adored her. We spent half our time talking in funny accents, and together we subverted all the conventions of the genre as we scribbled away: no butch matron, no rape scene, no deshabillé in the ladies’ showers. In our script, the matron was a former corporate exec in a Donna Karan suit, who runs a special dorm for lipstick lesbians. Our rape scene ends with the rapist kneed in the balls and bleeding from a bite on the lip. Our lesbian inmates run a vegetarian feminist focus group. It was all pretty meta – the gay writers basically went rogue and had the inmates running the asylum.”
“And for three months we laughed our asses off, breaking all the rules as we spit-balled and typed and fretted and frowned, trying to figure it out: how to make a hackneyed, violent and misogynist sex fantasy into something fresh and respectable, and yes, PC.”
And with that, I understood.
This sleaze-free, innocuous slice of celluloid with a desert dry wit suddenly made a lot more sense, and it was joined with a swelling pang of compassion for what Houston had to endure – specifically with his lead actor, about whom he never refers to by name.
“A southern charmer with a famous dimple in his chin,” wrote Houston. “A strapping specimen with a honied voice. Let’s call him Ken Tucky. Ken for short.”
“Ken had a real sparkle, a wicked gleam in his eye. Turns out this was entirely looks. He did not sparkle in his heart. Ken had been second fiddle in several Big Movies that you’ve heard of: he’d been first fiddle in some smaller movies, and now he was ready to be the only fiddle in a truly small movie.”
“I flew to Louisville to meet Ken in person. He met me at the airport in his blacked-out Lexus with a big hug: ‘Well hey Bawby! Are we gonna have some fun or what?’ He took me back to his parents’ house where he showered and had his morning coffee. It was 12:30. His parents were watching a Christian game show in the kitchen. ‘Don’t mind them,’ he drawled, ‘Thas’ just mah parents. C’mon in here.’ He was living in their master bedroom. They were fine with it, their boy was a movie star and anyhow he was larger than either of them, he needed the room. Plus he was on location so much of the time – sometimes twice a year. There were vodka bottles on the dresser.”
“About one pm, now properly awake and incognito in a baseball cap and shades, Ken T jumped in his Lexus with an open bottle of Popov vodka and took me to his ‘ranch’ which was actually some raw land about half an hour outside of town. We switched into a raucous 4WD something, it was beyond a Jeep, something he bought from military surplus ‘offa Top Gun.’ For the next three hours I was basically a hostage as he rocketed and buffeted around his acreage, in ditches, kicking up dust and giving me a migraine. Then he had a beer and I made a late-afternoon flight. Evidently, Ken felt assured that I was man enough to direct him and he committed to the movie, which was suddenly a ‘go.’”
This was a first of a handful of issues that Houston encountered with his leading man, the rest of which I’ll leave to him to publish for fear of an army of Hollywood lawyers descending on Liverpool any time soon. Thankfully, the rest of his ensemble suited him to a tee as Charlie Spradling (“a gorgeous Texas girl, full of fire and happy to show her tits; after all, she paid for them and they were awesome.”), Loretta Devine (“a Broadway star from the original Dreamgirls – a powerhouse singer, actor and a truly old soul”) and Karen Black (“I’d write a small part for her in every movie, because she had a mad sense of humour and loved to work”) settled soundly in Oklahoma (“they say it’s the meanest state, because it’s Texas without the money”) for the shoot.
The whole endeavour took Houston away from Los Angeles for four months, and it’s clear to see it soured his love for making drama. But then without it, would he have gone on to be an Oscar winner telling the stories of HIV+ sailors in Rock the Boat (1998) or racial intolerance in The Legacy of Rosa Parks (2002)? Perhaps it was an experience that changed his career for the better?
Signing off, Houston responded with a perfect summing-up of the whole undertaking:
“Lisa and I are both gay, and we managed to do the unthinkable – we wrote a film that had some lesbian consciousness amidst the genre conventions.”
And for that, they should be very proud.