A lot of directors did their first films for Roger Corman during the 1970’s. The budgets and the schedules were tight but he had no problem drawing talent for a few reasons. The first was that he’d take a chance on new talent, allowing them to take the reins of an entire feature film that would be guaranteed to play theaters. Better yet, he would stay out the way of his directors as long as they delivered the required exploitative content on time and on budget. If you could obey those rules, you had a lot of leeway to do what you wanted otherwise.
The smart young directors took this opportunity and ran with it. For illustration of how this could work to the director’s advantage, you need look no further Jonathan Demme and his debut film, Caged Heat. It delivers all the expected women-in-prison genre goods and moves with the snap of a good exploitation film — but it’s also distinctly its own animal and unlike any other women-in-prison outing you can think of.
The premise for Caged Heat seems to be standard stuff: Jacqueline (Erica Gavin) is sent to the clink after getting mixed up with some crooks who shoot it out with the cops. The superintendent of this institution is McQueen (Barbara Steele), a wheelchair-bound prig who is as repressed as she is judgmental towards the inmates. Jacqueline runs afoul of queen bee prisoner Maggie (Juanita Brown) but finds friendship with Belle (Roberta Collins) and Pandora (Ella Reid).
Unfortunately for Jacqueline and her fellow cons, no one gets to do easy time in this institution. McQueen cracks down on them too hard, giving electroshock therapy to Jacqueline at one point, and a creepy doctor (Harold Miller) uses his position to mistreat and molest the women, taking a perverse interest in Belle. Jacqueline and Maggie bust out of the joint during a work detail but they don’t try to flee the country — instead, they hatch an against-the-odds plan to free their pals and deal out some backstreet justice to McQueen and her evil crew. Cue the fast-shooting, car-crashing femme revenge.
However straightforward the above plotline might sound, the treatment it gets from the filmmakers is anything but. Demme infuses the narrative with oddball humor and dream sequences that no other women-in-prison flick has. Better yet, he backs up his offbeat approach to narrative with a sense of technique that is similarly experimental. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is fluid and inventive (take note of those dazzling dolly shots capturing prisoners on the yard and in their cells). Clever sound editing allows background sounds to comment on foreground action while the film editing can has a flashy verve to it, deploying lots of unusual wipe and iris effects between scenes.
Caged Heat also boasts a smartly-selected cast that mixes veterans with some unique choices. Gavin, a vet of Russ Meyer films, is interestingly cast against type as the wide-eyed novice prisoner and does well, using her expressive eyes to great effect. Horror film icon Barbara Steele is also quite striking in a non-horror role as the superintendent, selling the character’s mix of superiority and sexual repression with quiet intensity: her dream/fantasy, in which she gets up from her wheelchair to dance for the inmates while chastising them for their sinful ways, is one of the film’s highlights.
Elsewhere, blaxploitation regular Brown adds righteous fury as the toughest of the cons and New World vet Collins adds humor and warmth as Jacqueline’s best pal behind bars. Reid lends an authoritative performance as Pandora, which makes it unfortunate that she didn’t do more films. Miller also deserves notice for his turn as the sleazy doctor as he creates the most disturbingly convincing version of this prison-flick archetype. Finally, exploitation film fanatics will enjoy seeing Rainbeaux Smith giving a distinctly blissed-out performance as the hippie girl amongst the prisoners (she gets the first of the dream sequences and it opens the prison-set footage with a bang).
In short, Caged Heat is a good example of what enterprising filmmakers could do with b-movie programmer material at New World. Demme’s treatment of the genre has the energy and excitement of someone getting to test out all their references and offbeat ideas for the first time — and that approach ensures Caged Heat remains great fun for exploitation-flick devotees decades after the fact.