(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR! She’s got over 170 films to watch before the end of 2017! Will she make it? Who knows? She recorded 1983’s Women of San Quentin off of Retroplex on January 25th.)
For some reason, back in January, I felt the need to record several prison movies off of cable. I’m not sure where my mind was at that I would see a title like Women of San Quentin listed in the guide and think to myself, “That’s something I definitely need to record.” Maybe I was thinking of pursuing a career as a prison guard. That seems to be the easiest way to get a show on A&E nowadays.
Anyway, I imagine that anyone reading this review is looking that title and considering the VHS cover art and they’re probably assuming that Women of San Quentin is some sort of Cirio Santiago-directed women in prison film. And then consider the film’s cast: Amy Steel is best known for Friday the 13th Part II and April Fool’s Day. Stella Stevens is an exploitation film vet. One of the prisoners is played by Rockne Tarkington, who starred in a handful of blaxploitation films. William Sanderson, star of the infamous Fight For Your Life, has a small role. Yaphet Kotto plays a prison guard here but he’s best known for playing the villain in Live and Let Die. Gregg Henry plays a sociopath. Hector Elizondo and Debbie Allen play sympathetic guards. Even Ernie Hudson, a now-respectable actor with several less-than-savory films on his resume, shows up. Finally, consider this: Women of San Quentin was written by Larry Cohen, the man who directed both Black Caesar and It’s Alive.
However, despite all of that, Women of San Quentin is not an exploitation film. Instead, it’s a made-for-TV movie. (Director William A. Graham has over a hundred TV shows and made-for-TV movies to his credit.) It follows several storylines. Lt. Janet Alexander (Stella Stevens) is the tough-but-fair captain who is in charge of one of San Quentin’s most intimidating cell blocks. She’s great at her job and she has a vaguely romantic relationship with Hector Elizondo but she’s also tempted to find a new career. Charles Wilson (Ernie Hudson) steps up to lead the prison’s black inmates after another activist is assassinated. Meanwhile, the leader of the Mexican Mafia plots a prison riot and Yaphet Kotto and Debbie Allen use any means necessary to discover what’s going to happen.
And then there’s Liz Larson (Amy Steel), the newest prison guard who struggles to prove that she belongs in San Quentin. Sexist colleagues play cruel pranks on her. The prisoners shout at her whenever she walks past their cells. When she has to use a gun to break up a fight, she hesitates just a second too long. Will she be able to step up when real trouble breaks out? Among horror fans, Amy Steel is remembered for “surviving” several slasher films. (Her performance as Ginny in Friday the 13th Part 2 largely set the standard for which all final girls are judged.) Steel does a pretty good job as Liz but, actually, the entire movie is well-acted. The script is frequently rudimentary but the cast is full of unique talent and it’s always fun to watch so many good actors playing opposite each other.
I assume that the Women of San Quentin was meant to be a pilot for a TV show or something. It just has that feel to it. If just for the cast alone, I would recommend watching Women of San Quentin if you get a chance. I’m as surprised as anyone but, after all, where else are going to get a chance to watch Hector Elizondo, Yaphet Kotto, Stella Stevens, and Amy Steel all hanging out in a bar together? There are certain opportunities that you just don’t miss.