Caged Heat (1974)

Never forget that acclaimed director Jonathan Demme’s debut was a women-in-prison film from 1974 with gratuitous nudity, bloody mayhem, and a gonzo style which indicates to the viewer that all the trashiness just might have quotation marks around it. Which is not to say that it doesn’t work on a pure exploitation level; quite the contrary. Like the films of Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters), Russ Meyer, and Roger Corman (whose factory spawned this film), Caged Heat aims to make crowd-pleasing entertainment that gooses every thrill for all it’s worth. Erica Gavin, who made significant impressions in Meyer’s sleeper hit Vixen (1968), as well as his legendary big-studio con Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), has a rare and welcome starring role as Jacqueline Wilson, arrested at the film’s outset for assault of a police officer during a failed robbery, and sentenced to 10-40 years at a women’s penitentiary. Demme establishes the prison with a virtuoso tracking shot from one open, grimy cell to another, the women half-dressed and gambling, reading, pissing, fighting; we briefly glimpse our surrogate, Jacqueline, getting told off by her new roommate Lavelle (Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, Revenge of the Cheerleaders), a young but tough-talking girl given to hallucinatory fever dreams. “Tow the line and avoid trouble like the plague,” advises the severe-looking warden (Barbara Steele, Black Sunday). “You’re in a house of desperate women here, and a long, long way from home.” We’re deep into the territory of a tawdry pulp paperback.

Barbara Steele as McQueen, the sadistic prison warden.

McQueen’s principal arm of punishment is Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller), whose experimental “psycho-surgery” is ostensibly a rehabilitation treatment, but in fact is little more than an excuse to sedate, sexually assault, and then lobotomize the female prisoners, a fact which Lavelle discovers while spying with fascination through a peephole. Jacqueline also meets Pandora (Ella Reid) and Belle (Roberta Collins, The Big Doll House), two devoted inmates who cross-dress to entertain the prisoners with some bawdy vaudeville humor that unnerves the sexually-repressed McQueen. When Pandora is sent to solitary, it’s Belle – a kleptomaniac – who sneaks through the ventilation shaft and into the prison kitchen to steal her some food. There’s also Maggie (Juanita Brown, Foxy Brown), who manages a successful escape with Jacqueline in tow. The two hit the road on a crime spree with “Crazy Alice” (Crystin Sinclaire), a down-on-her-luck gal who would gladly give up her wrestling-prostitute gig for some bank robberies. But forever loyal to their friends in lock-up, the girls decide to stage a break-in…just in time to rescue Lavelle and Belle from the cranial drill of Dr. Randolph. A car chase and a bloody showdown with the cops ensues.

Erica Gavin as Jacqueline Wilson

From its breathless opening foot chase to its closing passages of the female convicts blasting bloody holes in the cops cornering them on a dusty road, Caged Heat follows the Corman-brand formula of exploitation and strikes every chord as hard as it can. There is an evident edge of satire, but little is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Instead, Demme – directing his own script – signals the larger-than-life qualities of the material with comic book swipes between scenes, plot points just tawdry enough to crack a smile, and a few overtly-stylized sequences, such as absurdly lurid dreams and an opening court sentencing with Gavin facing the camera – and the booming voice of the unseen judge – while standing in a black void. At the same time, he makes you care about these women. It’s the damnedest thing. He moves just enough in the direction of three-dimensional characterization that you’ll be forgiven if you don’t notice that those elements, too, are clichés happily imported from a hundred crime films gone before. The reason is that the clichés work, and Demme knows it. It’s a women-in-prison movie; you’re bound to sympathize when they’re tortured, abused, and locked naked in solitary. You’re bound to root for them when they finally get a chance to bust loose, when a hand finds purchase on a weapon. And it’s in those moments that Demme pushes his exploitation movie for all it’s worth. Spoilers: these women get their revenge.

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