Caged Heat (1974)
Jonathan Demme is a director that more people outside of those that follow movies should know. He was the director of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I still consider my favorite of all time. However, he had a long and varied career. He won an Oscars for both that film and Philadelphia, one of the early mainstream films to to tackle the AIDS crisis. In addition he directed Stop Making Sense, which is one of the best concert films ever made, as well as shorter concert films such as Storefront Hitchcock. He had comedies, dramas and just about everything under his belt - including this tongue-in-cheek women in prison film.
Caged Heat was his first movie as a director. He had written The Hot Box and Black Mama White Mama, among other similar exploitation films for Roger Corman, so it was no surprise that out of the gate he would do a similar type of film. However, in this case, he brought it back to the United States and set it in the South. He also didn't make any effort to hide the fact he knew he was making a trash film and decided just to have fun with it.
Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) is imprisoned after a drug deal gone wrong when one of her partners shoots a police officer. She soon runs afoul of Maggie (Juanita Brown), one of the other prisoners, but befriends Pandora (Ella Reid) and Belle (Roberta Collins), another pair of inmates who make sure she is protected.
It is not the other inmates that she has to worry about. The prison is run by a sexually repressed, wheelchair bound Superintendent named McQueen (Barbara Steele). She takes delight in acting out her frustrations on the prisoners, particularly after Pandora and Belle put on a bawdy show for entertainment. There is also Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller), who has his own sexual issues, but also likes to use electroshock therapy to handle behavioral issues as well as use the prisoners as his lab rats. Maggie and Jacqueline do manage to escape, but not before realizing that Belle has fallen into Randolph's hands, and after a successful heist make plans with Maggie's friend Crazy Alice (Crystin Sinclaire) to break back in to get Belle, Pandora and their other friend Lavelle (Cheryl Smith).
The whole thing is ridiculous, from the women wearing street clothes in prison (including various accessories that could be used as weapons) and being thrown naked into solitary confinement when they cross McQueen. There are numerous scenes of the ladies showering (even though it is a cover for Belle to help Pandora when she gets thrown in the hole) to make sure the nudity quotient is filled. So far it is all typical women in prison plotting, but Demme decides to subvert the expectations.
One of those subversions are numerous dream sequences. Belle is barely holding it together as reflected in her early introduction, while Jacqueline is longing for freedom. McQueen, on the other hand, has one that is quite strange, showing her envy of the prisoners. The experiments that Dr. Randolph performs almost take it into horror or metal hospital exploitation realms, while the dialogue (with some great lines, even if not always delivered perfectly) making it clear that nothing in the film is to be taken seriously. Many of these movies can get rough, but Caged Heat stays on the light side, and even saves some of its best (and strangest) scenes for after Jacqueline and Maggie break out.
The women playing this are all veterans of these types of movies, many having played similar roles in the movies Demme wrote for Corman. While there is nothing that could be considered outstanding acting they are all comfortable in performing in this type of exploitation film. As for Demme his directing style is already quite well formed, with a number of artistic shots that hint he was already pretty much to good for doing a movie like this. However, these movies inevitably made money on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit, and he used this and a few more movies made with Corman to jump start his eclectic career.
Caged Heat is not an essential movie, except for the fans of Jonathan Demme's work, but it is quite fun and, even if women in prison films aren't a favorite, most viewers will be okay with this one. Demme's directing quirks, the strange humor and the surprising feminist turn the movie takes will definitely have its appeal despite the fact that everything else in the movie makes it clear that it was, and still is, of its time.
Caged Heat (1974)
Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Erica Gavin, Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Ella Reid, Cheryl Smith, Barbara Steele, Warren Miller
Director: Jonathan Demme