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.
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.
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.