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.

Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat [Double Feature]

Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat [Double Feature]

Jackson County Jail: A young wom­an trav­el­ing cross coun­try finds her­self strand­ed in a remote town after two psy­chotic hitch­hik­ers steal her car. She seeks refuge in a local bar and is thrown overnight in jail where things only get worse. Caged Heat: Traditional sex-and-vio­lence for­mu­la of babes behind bars, gra­tu­itous nudi­ty and a cor­rupt pris­on sys­tem trans­formed into rebel burst of girl pow­er! Director Jonathan Demme’s first film.