Release Date(s)1986 (April 26, 2022)
Studio(s)New World Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A-
Cult movies are usually born, not made, but that’s never stopped anyone from trying, and Reform School Girls is an example of a film that was created and marketed to become one. The brainchild of veteran adult film director Tom DeSimone, who had made some much more serious women-in-prison films like The Concrete Jungle, Reform School Girls is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre, though it’s not quite the parody that DeSimone intended it to be. Naturally, he took his idea to New World Pictures, which had distributed similar films like Caged Heat back in the Seventies, and they enthusiastically embraced the concept. Yet they also dialed some elements back, like DeSimone’s desire to shoot the film in black-and-white, so what’s left is safer and less ambitious than it could have been.
DeSimone wrote the script, with dialogue punch-up by Daniel Arthur Wray and Jack Cummins. The story is standard women-in-prison fare, and it explores all of the tropes of the genre without really subverting them. It has young innocents (Linda Carol and Sherri Stoner) thrown into this perverse world, a vicious leader of the dominant clique among the inmates (Wendy O. Williams), and a sadistic head matron (Pat Ast) who works for a domineering warden (Sybil Danning). There’s even a helpful psychiatrist (Charlotte McGinnis) who wants to expose the abuse taking place at the prison.
That’s perhaps that strangest aspect of Reform School Girls: it’s a satire without any jokes. There’s plenty of outrageous behavior on display, especially from Williams and Ast, both of whom chew scenery with reckless abandon. (Real abandon in the case of Williams, who threw herself fearlessly into her own stunt work while wearing nothing but her leather bra and panties.) The humor in the film comes from how ridiculous and over-the-top everything is, rather than from any conscious attempt to parody any specific elements inherent to the genre. As a result, Reform School Girls is fitfully amusing, but it’s filled with missed opportunities. The late great Williams alone is sufficient reason to watch the film, of course, but it’s hard not to wish that DeSimone had done more with the material.
Cinematographer Howard Wexler shot Reform School Girls on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray uses a new 2K scan of the interpositive, and it’s a definite step up from older home video releases. It’s fairly clean, and while there’s speckling and small scratches throughout the film, they’re more visible in freeze frames than they are in motion. (There’s a dropped frame in the shot of Williams driving a bus at 1:27:30, but it’s not clear if that was a jump cut during production, or damage on the IP.) The grain is heavy but even, and since the film runs at a high bit rate despite the quantity of extras included on the disc, there aren’t any noteworthy compression artifacts. Color, contrast, and black levels are all good, with natural flesh tones—even the weather-beaten look of the skin on Williams.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. While Vinegar Syndrome and other sources describe it as a stereo soundtrack, it’s effectively mono, with the music and effects both focused on the center channel. Yet it doesn’t decode cleanly to the center like a true two-channel mono soundtrack would; instead, there’s some bleed in the left, right, and surround channels. There aren’t any Dolby Stereo or Ultra Stereo logos during the closing credits, so it may be that New Line did a mono mix and then processed it slightly to simulate a surround mix. The dialogue is clear, though it sounds a little hollow, and it has excessive sibilance. There’s decent low-end extension in the score by Dan Siegel, as well as the various songs used throughout.
Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray release for Reform School Girls includes an insert with the primary Pat Ast poster artwork on the front, and alternate Sybil Danning poster artwork on the reverse. There’s also an embossed slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 5,000 units, that was designed by Earl Kessler, Jr. The following extras are included:
- Archival Audio Commentary with Tom DeSimone and Martin lewis
- Audio Commentary with Elizabeth Purchell
- So Young, So Bad, So What (HD – 54:26)
- Pat Ast Superstar (HD – 7:34)
- Ode to Wendy (HD – 6:44)
- Video Footage from “Women Behind Bars” (SD – 72:07)
- Original Trailers (Upscaled HD – 2 in all – 3:35)
The commentary with Tom DeSimone was originally recorded for the 2004 Anchor Bay DVD. The track is actually moderated by humorist Martin Lewis, though that isn’t mentioned on the packaging or anywhere on Vinegar Syndrome’s website. DeSimone describes Reform School Girls as the most fun experience that he ever had making a film, and the tone of the whole commentary is suitably jovial (even if Lewis isn’t quite as funny as he thinks that he is). DeSimone explains why he made a parody of the women-in-prison genre, and how his original concept for the film changed after New World backed it. They nixed shooting it in black-and-white, but let him bring Wendy O. Williams on board. Williams insisted on wearing her own wardrobe, and wouldn’t take her boots off even during the shower scenes. A lot of the joking between Lewis and DeSimone was a little cringeworthy in 2004, let alone today, but there’s still some useful information on this track.
The second commentary features queer historian and filmmaker Elizabeth Purchell, who is the curator of the Ask Any Buddy multimedia film project. Purchell analyzes the career of Tom DeSimone, including DeSimone’s time in the gay adult film industry, and looks at the film itself, which she describes as being both of its time and ahead of its time. She provides an extended history of the women-in-prison genre, as well as plenty of details regarding the making of Reform School Girls. She doesn’t shy away from some of the darker sides of the production, like the conflict between DeSimone and some of the cast over the way that the shower scenes were shot. Purchell also intermingles personal autobiographical details with stories about the film, including her coming out as trans. It’s an interesting commentary from an outsider perspective, one that puts more thought into the film than its own director did.
So Young, So Bad, So What is a four-part documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew members including DeSimone, Howard Wexler, Dan Siegel, Darcy DeMoss, Tiffany Helm, and many more. While it provides plenty of details regarding the conception, production, and release of Reform School Girls, it’s also a broader look at the camp culture surrounding the film. Michael Varrati and Peaches Christ are present to provide perspective on why the film appeals to queer people, and recap the history of the women-in-prison genre. It’s not really a typical making-of documentary, and that’s why it’s so interesting.
Pat Ast Superstar is an interview with theatrical producer Alan Eichler, who gives background on the play Women Behind Bars, and how Pat Ast became such an integral part of it. He also recaps some of the highlights of Ast’s film career, including Reform School Girls. Ode to Wendy is an interview with author and critic Breanna Whipple, who offers an appreciation of Wendy O. Williams and her band, The Plasmatics. The Video Footage from “Women Behind Bars” is a recording of a performance of the original run of the play, starring Pat Ast. It’s in pretty rough shape—this appears to be a VHS tape that was recorded off a black-and-white monitor, so it’s soft, unstable, and filled with artifacts. It’s still a priceless document of the play, but the quality makes it hard to watch.
Like many projects that intentionally try to become camp classics, Reform School Girls doesn’t quite seem to hit the mark, though it’s developed a cult following anyway. After watching the affectionate collection of extras on Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray, it’s easier to understand why. This is one of those great packages that’s worth watching even if you’re not a fan of the film, as it will enhance your understanding of Reform School Girls, if not necessarily your appreciation for it. The extras alone are worth the price of admission, and it’s an impressive visual upgrade for the film itself.
- Stephen Bjork