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[synopsis / 40 words or less]
Christine Parker, a fourteen year-old runaway, is abandoned by her parents and made a ward of the courts, who sentence her to time in a reform school for wayward girls, where she must confront verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
[review / 500 words or less]
In the early 1970s, the women-in-prison genre (or WIP, as it later became lovingly referred to by fans) became a popular staple in drive-ins and gridndhouse cinemas, with films like Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) and Jonathan Deme’s Caged Heat (1974) entertaining audiences with a heady combination of action, violence and sex behind bars. Fresh off her success in The Exorcist, Linda Blair was too young to be a fully fledged (and fully unclothed) WIP performer in 1974 (she would have to wait until her notorious 1983 film Chained Heat to accomplish that). But the NBC network managed to achieve the next best thing, casting the hot young star in Born Innocent, a telemovie about reform school girls which became the highest rated television movie to air that year, thanks in no small part to the well-placed publicity generated by the film’s theme and some of its more controversial elements.
A rather involving and surprisingly downbeat teen drama, the bulk of Born Innocent’s notoriety revolved around one scene: the infamous moment when Christine Parker (Blair) is confronted by several of the inmates in the shower stall and raped with a broom handle. It’s impact is not overstated - it is an intense, brutal and disturbing sequence, especially considering it was filmed for network television. After it was blamed for inciting the rape of a nine year-old girl (who was attacked with a glass soda pop bottle by several of her peers), the rape scene was subsequently cut from later re-airings of the movie in the USA, although it was re-instated for its home video release in the eighties, and the sequence was intact whenever I caught it on Australian television (including some airings in the midday movie slot).
In many respects, Blair’s performance is even more impressive here than it was in The Exorcist, as she does not have the crutch of Dick Smith’s prosthetic make-up or the vocal dynamics of veteran radio actress Mercedes McCambridge (who provided Blair’s demonically possessed voice). Strong support is given by Joanna Miles (as the one truly caring counsellor), Richard Jaeckel as Christine’s highly strung, borderline incestuous father (the leering way he talks about his daughter’s tight jeans is quite creepy), and Kim Hunter (Zira in the Planet of the Apes films) as the mother and wife who has drunk herself into ignorance. The reformatory girls are all played by unknowns whom you may recognise from the odd episode of Mannix or Harry-O, but they all have interesting faces and handle themselves quite well under the guidance of director Donald Wyre (1978's Ice Castles).
Born Innocent is that rare telemovie that succeeds both as an affecting drama and a piece of grimy exploitation. It all depends on which set of eyes you watch it through. Released on VHS by several labels during the 1980s, it is currently available on DVD from Hen’s Tooth Video. A paperback tie-in novelisation, authored by Bernhardt J. Hurwood, was published in the US by Ace Books in 1975
Review by John Harrison