Life on the inside of a female prison a half-century ago is the subject matter for this homage to the genre. Shot in wondrously-grainy black-and-white and with a bevy of cool-jazz musicians (the muted-trumpet is superb—Rob Kleiner’s original score is responsible for much of the delectable mood and feel), there’s a lot more to this production than taking a walk down death row for babes.
At the centre of everything is the buxom, doting-daughter, Daisy. Starina Johnson serves up the role with a convincing metamorphosis from caring provider (works all day then tends her ailing mother) to leader of the Stone River prison’s quartet of murderous women. Daisy ends up amongst their stereotypical number after a failed intervention in her mother’s wanted-suicide is witnessed by a neighbour who only sees half of the scuffle.
Dutch (a curiously Joanne Worley lookalike, Pleasant Gehman, is appropriately sultry and tender as required) is happy to have “a new skirt” to ogle; bible-thumper (and cop-killer—it’s really just a misunderstanding over taxes) Esther (Mink Stole prays with the best of them) is the constant reminder of souls in peril—on both sides of the bars; husband-slayer MeMe (Susan Traylor) is now devoted to her girl, Princess (Jane Wiedlin, marvellously disturbed) who is in a perpetual state of childhood, having snuffed out the young life of one of her own.
Keeping sarcastic and brutal watch over “my girls” is Amazon (much better at meting out discipline than burning up over taunts is Stacy Cunningham) as the in-your-face guard while the ever-silent warden (Betti O) watches the comings, goings and shower-stall action on closed-circuit TV.
The film only works because of Karen Black. Playing the next-door neighbour whose eye-witness testimony puts Daisy on a fast-track to the gallows, the lonely old woman begins to have doubts about what “I know I saw.”
It is this inside/outside tension that director Steve Balderson exploits to excellent effect. From the small details (juxtaposing an ever-innocent music box with a wall covered in the gruesome results of state-sanctioned executions; revealing a whimsical x’s and o’s game that seems oblivious to the rules in Princess’ cell wordlessly speaks volumes) to the central question (Will a young, innocent victim lose her life or will her accuser recant?), the temperature heats up steadily.
Perhaps too-clever-by-half, those without the patience to let the story unfold (and wonder why there’s so little skin on display) will likely miss the unforgettable final frames where crisis and climax combine in a single gesture. Cinematic moments like that are as rare as the overturning of wrongful convictions. Stuck! delivers far more than its sensational hype. JWR