Reform School Girls (1986) is a brutal story of survival and revolt in a prison for wild wayward girls, a savage tale of an innocent girl tormented by vicious matrons, a coldly sadistic warden played by Sybil Danning, and the tough-as-nails leader of a pack of teenage hellcats, in the person of punk goddess Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics. The movie climaxes with a full-on riot and Wendy O. riding the roof of a flaming schoolbus into a blaze of twisted suicidal glory.
This is not that movie.
Rather, Reform School Girl (1994) (singular “girl”) is a tepid straight-to-cable remake of a tepid 1957 drive-in flick, and it’s neither sleazy enough to be fun nor well made enough to be redeeming, though it tries its damnedest to be both. It ends up, really, resembling nothing so much as an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi gone horribly wrong.
Sometime in the ’50s, 16-year-old Donna Patterson (Aimee Graham, sister of Heather) is a good girl trapped in a bad situation. Orphaned, she and her younger sister Kathy (Ashley Lister) are in the custody of a drunken, pervy uncle who tries to feel Donna up at every opportunity and is certain to do the same to Kathy any day now. Donna waits tables after school to save up enough to get the two of them out of there and in the meantime nicks out of the house whenever she can. She hooks up with Vince (Matt LeBlanc, just before Friends pulled him out of bad-movie limbo and eventually landed him in bad-spin-off limbo), who beats up the pervy uncle and whisks her out for a joyride in a stolen big-finned Chrysler. After Donna refuses to put out for Vince he goes on a tear through the streets of L.A. and accidentally runs down a pedestrian. They flee the scene but the cops nab Donna. Unable to provide any information beyond Vince’s first name, she takes the fall for the hit-and-run and is sentenced to a year at the McCarthy Reform School for Wayward Girls.
That’s apparently the Jenny McCarthy Reform School, as Donna’s fellow inmates are all pretty, toned, and have unlimited access to cosmetics. Otherwise it’s hell, what with the communal showering, the forced hard-labor of mopping, a truly savage pudding fight, and the timid advances of the school’s resident psychiatrist. Hell, I tell you. But Donna soon discovers a way out.
The school’s headmistress/warden Mrs. Turnbull (Carolyn Seymour) is, as it happens, a former Olympic gold medalist in track, and she gives special dispensation to the girls on her track-and-field team. Said girls are training for the big annual competition with the snooty prep school down the road (exactly why a private girls’ school is forced to compete with a state correctional facility is unclear; alas, there is no commentary on the DVD to shed light on this and many other questions). Eager for any chance to shorten her sentence and rescue her sister before Unc gets around to molesting her, Donna reveals a heretofore-unseen talent for distance running and joins the squad.
Reenter Vince, who shows up to warn Donna about fingering him to the cops for the hit-and-run lest he do harm to Kathy. Apparently Vince forgot that it was Donna’s inability to finger him in the first place that landed her in stir, but then Vince is one of LeBlanc’s patented Italian lunkheads, only evil this time instead of goofy and lovable. Desperate, with nowhere to turn, Donna finds solace in the arms of bad-girl Carmen (Teresa DiSpina), who is the fastest runner in the school but refuses to become obligated to Turnbull by joining the team. The two girls have a foot race into the woods at the end of which they reenact everyone’s favorite scene from Personal Best (1982). This lesbian subplot is soon derailed though, as Carmen is thrown into solitary for “sexual perversion,” leaving Donna free to concentrate on the big climactic race that will determine her future, her identity, and other burning issues that are suddenly introduced in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all, however, is why this film needs “issues” in the first place. Granted, the director, Jonathan Kaplan, has some heavy stuff on his resume, notably The Accused (1988) with Jodie Foster and many episodes of ER, but this is not exactly The Shawshank Redemption (1994) here. It’s a made-for-the-lonely-wee-hours-of-cable flick about hot chicks in reform school, and it would have been best served by allowing it to be that. Ultimately Reform School Girl dithers where it should shock, as Kaplan was apparently unsure of what kind of film he wanted to make.
In the history of exploitation films, which is about as long as the history of cinema itself, there are few genres as reliable as the Women-in-Prison picture (or WiP, as it’s known by Psychotronic magazine readers everywhere). There have been enough of them over the decades that there exists a clear spectrum of value, from good to bad to awful and from campy to horrific, and the genre has its own complex of recognizable tropes and motifs. In a WiP, there will always be a cruel and corrupt warden (a Mary Woronov or a Sybil Danning or, at its worst, Dyanne Thorne of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS  infamy) against whom the wrongly accused heroine will face off. There will always be one male on the premises who appears to befriend the heroine but only for his own selfish ends. There will always be an inexplicable lingerie scene and at least one nude shower scene. Gratuitous bondage is optional, but enough lesbian subtext to sink a battleship is not. Embrace or avoid them, WiPs are, by definition, unapologetic hetero male id-candy.
They do not have “issues.”