The SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS bust out in high definition on Code Red's Blu-ray upgrade.
Frank (Gary Kent, THE FOREST) lives with his brother Johnny (John Stoglin, THE LOVE BUTCHER), an asylum escapee who has the mind of an eight year old, under the thumb of their clingy and domineering mother (Greta Gaylord) in an isolated house on an orange grove. Having been raised to believe that women are evil and should be caged, the brothers stalk the highway to abduct women and imprison in the basement for Johnny to "play doctor" with and Frank to punish at his mother's command. Of their current stable, Stevie (T.R. Blackburn) is too sick to play with Johnny and Ginger (Suzanne Lund) favors Frank in the hopes of reasoning with him to let them go. After Frank "breaks" new toy Sue (Merrie Lynn Ross, BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW) when she tries to escape, Johnny sets his sights on college student Bonnie (Cheryl Waters, MACON COUNTY LINE) – the only "schoolgirl" and never in chains – but her disappearance may lead draw attention to the brothers and their mama when her psychology teacher boyfriend Robert (Stafford Morgan, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA) starts investigating.
Although the title and the content superficially brings to mind a Harry Novak Box Office International property, SCHOOLGIRL IN CHAINS in its favor lacks the detached feel of such product due to the sober treatment of the subject, the measured brooding performance of Kent, and the film's overall technical slickness. The film keeps its violence and nudity within the bounds of an R-rating and seems tame (compared to, say, THE SINFUL DWARF) but it never trivializes the girls' ordeal for audience titillation. The scenes set in the house, the basement, and the sprawling orange groves are suitably claustrophobic and the film only truly falters when it tries to open up with hastily shot exteriors and scenes shot at UCLA where we hear voiceovers from Robert's classroom lecture over shots of him walking around the campus (presumably it was the hiring of extras for a classroom scene that was more cost-prohibitive than additional shooting on the campus) while an extended flashback revealing the nature of Frank's relationship with his mother when he introduces her to his fiancée (Mady Maguire, THE JEKYLL & HYDE PORTFOLIO) stops the film dead (not unlike Kent's lengthy explanatory flashback in Jones' later film THE FOREST which also featured Morgan). The ending is saved from being perfunctory thanks to a moving extended closing shot. Although director of photography Ron Garcia is known for loftier projects like TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (as well as the show's pilot) and more recent mainstream TV shows, he got his start in exploitation as a cinematographer and art director (including HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES which was shot by Jones) – as well as directing THE TOY BOX and INSIDE AMY – and gives the film a professional sheen while Josef Powell's score features a lyrical title track and interjects a chanting chorus into an early chase scene.
SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS was released theatrically by Mirror Releasing – although it seems like prime Box Office International fodder – and by Mirror's successor company Saturn International as COME PLAY WITH US, and on home video by World Premiere Home Video in the US under the SCHOOLGIRLS title and by the same company in Canada as LET'S PLAY DEAD. During their Media Blasters days, Code Red first released the film on DVD as GIRLS IN CHAINS (presumably for the same reason it was retitled in Canada) in 2008 with a widescreen transfer blown up to 16:9 from a 2005 fullscreen transfer (with a widescreen transfer created by cropping the fullscreen transfer since the film elements were not suitable for another telecine) and three audio commentary tracks. Code Red reissued the widescreen version when they were being distributed by Navarre in a double feature with TERROR CIRCUS that dropped one of the commentary tracks (Code Red/Navarre also issued TERROR CIRCUS as BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD in a double bill with SCREAM/THE OUTING). Transferred from a newly-recovered negative, Code Red's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray looks brighter, crisper, and more colorful than before, lending a lush look to a film that once looked quite scuzzy (clips in the disc's interview featurette should give viewers an idea of what the film looked like on DVD).
Audio Commentary by director Don Jones and R.A. The Rugged Man hosted by Lee Christian. Jones reveals that the project was initiated when DP Garcia got funding for two films (one of which he was to direct) and that Jones developed the idea from a newspaper article about a car found abandoned on the side of a road with no sign of its young female owner. The dolls seen under the opening credits were from the collection of the location house's owner. He reveals that he wrote the script (in three days) with Stoglin and another actor in mind before production manager Kent wanted the role of Frank and that he selected actresses from stage rather than film because he felt that they would focus more on their performances than how they looked on film. Jones also reveals that the shooting title was BLACK WIDOW (referring to the mother) then PLAY DEAD, LET'S PLAY DEAD, and finally SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS stateside and ABDUCTED overseas. They also note that the commentary was recorded after the one for THE LOVE BUTCHER (the Media Blasters disc of SCHOOLGIRLS was released in 2008 while THE LOVE BUTCHER did not make it to DVD until 2013 and Blu-ray in 2015). Jones returns on a commentary track with actor Kent who provides some supportive comments to some of the production anecdotes Jones reiterates from the other track while also discussing his work on-camera and behind it. He expresses discomfort with the rape scene but also notes that it is not presented in a sexualized manner. He also reveals that he had a relationship with co-star Ross before she went on to work as a producer and married Mark Lester (TRUCK STOP WOMEN).
Jones also appears on a track with cinematographer Garcia in which they discuss the Redlands locations and the luck of finding the location house, lighting and shooting the basement scene (trying to get back far enough while not using a lens wide enough to distort perspective) as well as the state of the element used for the earlier transfer. He also regards the title change with distaste (noting a similar occasion where he worked on Paul Hunt's MACHISMO which Harry Novak changed to 40 GRAVES FOR 40 GUNS). All three tracks note the crew members who went onto bigger work. Make-up artist Ron Foreman also worked with Jones and Kent on HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES but went on to a career as an art director and production designer on films like ROCKY III and THE ICE PIRATES, sound mixer Mike Hall worked prolifically with PM Entertainment in the eighties and nineties, and gaffer Ron Batzdorf served in the capacity on other genre films like TOURIST TRAP and BLOOD BEACH before becoming a still photographer on bigger productions like PRETTY WOMAN and APOLLO 13. The interview featurette with Jones and Kent (11:33) carried over from the DVD addresses some of the same topics in a more focused manner. The film's theatrical trailer (2:07) is also included. (Eric Cotenas)
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