CAGED HEAT D USA (83 mi) 1974 d: Jonathan Demme
White-hot desires melting cold prison steel! —promotional movie poster
Among a grouping of the most unbelievably bad movies ever seen, no getting around it, something of a cartoonish mess, despite the accolades this film received and its attempt to subvert the genre, removing all aspects of eroticism, considered one of the early American films that actually created a genre for this kind of thing, where the 70’s were filled with Women in prison film, aka Sluts-in-the-Slammer or Chicks-in-Chains movies, where you can expect to find cheap, low-budget, B-movie exploitation values worthy of the grindhouse market and drive-ins, where naked female flesh is the driving force, where you’ll find plenty of naked lesbians in prison, often resorting to cat fights, with inevitable shower scenes and typically sadistic prison guards or wardens punishing them for the most trivial of offenses, where rape or even gang rape is considered entertainment in this genre (though thankfully missing here), along with other naked work detail rituals, including a mandatory strip search upon entry into the prison. Voyeur films prey upon than the criminal population of women, often racially mixed, already identified as bad girls or outsiders, so at least in men’s eyes they make easy targets to objectify and demean. What distinguished this particular film was the loosening of the 1930’s Hays Code censorship laws in place since 1934, suddenly dropped in 1968 where no subject was taboo, allowing filmmakers to take liberties with more extreme graphic detail, often expressed through fantasy sequences, and the fact that the director went on to win a Best Director Academy Award for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), which is a variation on the prison movie, delving into the crudely disturbing aspects of psychological horror. The primary driving force here is a misogynistic market for leering male eyes, driven by sadistic naked sex fantasies that include a humiliating degradation of women, including plenty of physical abuse, so pornographic women in prison may include Nazi-style guards implementing their own brand of terror. Whether or not this works for you is highly subjective, but it seems to represent the epitome of bad taste, violating every moral instinct of the viewer. Enter Roger Corman, independent American director/producer and the schlockmeister king of exploitation sleaze, who was himself awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2009 for his lifetime achievement, introducing young filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, and Ron Howard, all working with miniscule budgets, instilling in each of them the need to stay on schedule and on budget, as otherwise they’d be replaced. Demme studied Veterinary Medicine at college while writing movie reviews for the school newspaper, developing a background in publicity, commercial production, and some film writing, where Corman gave him the opportunity to write a biker picture, co-writing and producing ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME (1971) before being given the opportunity to direct three films for Corman, the first of which was CAGED HEAT, shot by Tak Fujimoto, distinguished more than anything else by a bluesy musical score written by ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale, much of it percussive, played during extended sequences, while featuring the guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield.
While all of those standard elements are contained within this film, released during the height of the Watergate era, with a prominent photo of disgraced President Richard Nixon hanging next to the American flag on the prison warden’s wall, it wouldn’t be a product of the times if there weren’t rebellion issues, where women get fed up with their mistreatment, fighting back against the largely patriarchal male systems of brutal domination, which some may view as feminist, but that’s a stretch, though true to the Corman format, adding social commentary was a key ingredient, where in recent years over-the-top stars like Pam Grier and Linda Blair played upon their iconic movie star status to produce female dominated RAMBO-style films, seen fighting against the corrupt forces of oppression, suggesting female empowerment, yet they typically are still leered at and exploited onscreen, exactly as the genre requires. In that vein, Demme’s film is viewed as pro-feminist, and multi-cultural to boot, as, unlike male prison films, race is not really an issue with female prison inmates, aligning forces against entrenched bureaucratic evil is more their style, with women joining forces to kick major butt, actually achieving their goal of breaking out to freedom, even if the cheesy production values leave something to be desired, shot at the Lincoln Heights jail near downtown Los Angeles which had been closed for several years, made on a shoestring budget of $180,000. Of course, who should star in the show, none other than topless Hollywood dancer Erica Gavin as Jackie, star of Russ Meyer’s VIXEN! (1968), seen getting arrested in a bullets and blood-riddled opening drug deal gone wrong and sent to the slammer, run by horror “scream queen” Barbara Steele as McQueen, a sex-deprived wheelchair-bound warden who believes sex is the driving force behind female criminality, hiring all-black matrons in uniforms as prison guards, allowing inmates to strut around wearing skivvies, hot pants and revealing halter tops. Jackie’s cell mate is B-movie darling Lavelle (former Penthouse Pet of the Month, Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith), introduced in an opening dream sequence being felt up behind bars by a mysterious stranger that she quickly assaults with a gigantic knife (perhaps a reference to the crime that landed her in the slammer), while other prominent inmates include Pandora (Ella Reid), a tough-talking black chick, her loyal friend and lesbian cell mate Belle (Roberta Collins, appearing in several of Corman’s Women in Prison films), and all-around bad-ass, renegade prison enforcer Maggie (Juanita Brown), appearing with Blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974) released a month earlier. When Belle and Pandora go showbiz, performing a bawdy, full drag burlesque review in front of the warden and all the howling inmates that is X-rated, filled with lewd sex jokes, so it’s shut down prematurely, as the warden finds the material offensive, though back in her room, McQueen has a curious dream where she plays a sexy, Dietrich-like cabaret performer, revealing her sexually repressed inner diva. Nonetheless, Pandora is reprimanded and sent to solitary confinement, served naked, of course. In solidarity, Belle cleverly sneaks through the ventilation ducts bringing her food stored by the kitchen staff, while Jackie and Maggie get into a catfight on the shower floor, severely punished by “CPT,” or corrective physical therapy, where a demented prison doctor (Warren Miller) administers heavy doses of electric shock treatment shown in extended close-ups. Can you believe this was released on a DVD by Disney? (Caged Heat : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video, although 4-minutes have been inexplicably cut)
While there are several obligatory shower scenes, which are just an excuse to parade naked female bodies in front of salivating male viewers, the oppressive atmosphere of sadism and mindless cruelty runs deep through this picture, eliminating any enjoyment factor, despite occasional quirky moments, where they are transported to outdoor work detail described as “Agricultural Therapy,” with no one breaking a sweat, but outside the prison, all the guards are buffoonish redneck stereotypes, dumb as rocks, getting sidetracked by leering at the girls, where a diversion allows Jackie and Maggie to escape, once arch enemies, now friends and collaborators in freedom, taking refuge in the Academy of Sexual Satisfaction, a brothel where men can get down and dirty and wrestle with the scantily clad girls, with promises of much, much more, where they meet Maggie’s sister-in-crime, the extroverted Crazy Alice, Crystin Sinclaire making her debut, showing a fierce independent streak and a sassy sex appeal. She’s all-in on Jackie’s plan to break back into the prison to liberate their cohorts, even convincing the stubbornly disinterested Maggie, but they make a stop along the way, among the few original moments of the film, where they rob a bank only to discover incredulously that it’s already being robbed. Scored to jug band music, with the women dressed to the nines, resembling that trendsetting, fashion conscious bank robber Patty Hearst, wearing that infamous Bonnie Parker beret, they find the money easy pickings, with the original robbers pursued by police, allowing them a clean getaway. The dramatic emphasis however is reserved for Belle, caught smuggling food for her friend, surprising one of the kitchen matrons who drops dead on the spot from the shock, immediately blamed for her murder. McQueen has a special treatment plan lying in wait, a prison lobotomy performed with a Black and Decker power drill in the psycho-surgery ward. That should cure her aggressiveness. But the doctor does creepy things with her first, staging naked Polaroid photos of an unconscious prisoner, fondling her, while kissing her endlessly. Can our girls get there in time? All of which leads to a big shoot out spectacle at the end, where, treading new ground, and in stark contrast to the nihilist ending of Jules Dassin’s prison movie Brute Force (1947), for instance, this suggests an open revolt, where sisterhood is powerful, as there are no inmate casualties, only the prison staff get killed (shot by their own guards), creating an illusory picture of liberation. While heavy doses of nudity may have been a cultural revelation, a loosening of moral restrictions, but the cavalier degradation of women is such an overriding dynamic in a genre associating nudity with female abuse, one can’t help wondering why these revolting films were even being made in the first place. Just who exactly found them entertaining? Don’t they normalize a sociopathic mistreatment of women with sadistic cruelty, instigating more harm than good? The large majority of the population never crossed paths with movies like this, so its influence was negligible, only appealing to lovers of high camp and degenerate trash, where this all may look entirely different under the influence of drugs, where dreadfully bad films can become a laugh riot, much like the underground popularity for the ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975) series starring Dyanne Thorne as a Nazi prison Kommandant, a European counterpart released the following year, with Chicago film critic Gene Siskel describing it as “the most degenerate picture I have seen to play downtown.” These films call attention to the barbaric medical experiments performed on prisoners, targeting the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged, implemented by the most abusively evil and deranged authority, but these are among the earliest films specializing in sadistic torture porn, which are all the rage right now, invading the mainstream, shown at the local Cineplex, even on television, now given high-end, sophisticated production values.