Caged Heat is a first for Your Stupid Minds, as never before have we reviewed the movie of a director who went on to win an Oscar (for those of you living in the future, this was before Uwe Boll swept the 2015 Oscars). In 1970, B-Movie icon Roger Corman opened New World Pictures as a studio devoted to making exploitative genre movies on the cheap. Corman hired several young up-and-comers including Jonathan Demme, who, after writing two films for Corman, took a shot at directing Caged Heat in 1974 at age 29. 17 years later, Demme would direct Silence of the Lambs, earning a best director win on his very first attempt. His output since then has been mixed, but 2008's Rachel Getting Married was one of the best movies of 2008. And he got his start right here, directing chixploitation!
We start at a drug bust, where Nick's giiiirlfriend Erica Gavin (star of Vixen!), aka Jacqueline, gets busted. Her eyebrows look less crazy, but her jaw has visibly narrowed, something that doesn't tend to happen outside of eating disorders, drug addiction, or being Russell Brand. Gavin struggled with two of those three problems and would not work again in film for 34 years.
Jacqueline enters the prison where she is strip searched in an obligatory Women In Prison (WIP) scene. Then, instead of seeing a brutal gang beating, everything is actually pretty chill. The women seem to get along, and put on an amateur improv show, even inviting the doctor and the warden (Barbara Steele). The warden is an incredibly good-looking woman confined to a wheelchair, wearing Lynda Carter glasses and a tight bun so we know she's a repressed NERD. The warden leaves when the show gets too bawdy, and has a dream sequence where she dresses like a magician's assistant while explaining the evils of sex to a cheering prison population. This movie has a lot of bizarre dream sequences.
Apparently I spoke too soon about the prison not being so bad. The warden gives Pandora, the creator of the improv show, solitary confinement and suddenly things turn mean. This leads us to some obligatory scenes, namely a shower scene, and a new girl gets attacked for no apparent reason. The warden then gives her the standard straighten up/fly right speech to Jacqueline.
Shockingly enough, it doesn't take. Maggie, the bully who picked a fight and Jacqueline are in the kitchen together when a prison guard prank causes the bully to start a fight and a fire, leading to a total failure of an attempted breakout. In the meantime, Jackie tries to save the guard from the fire, but is rewarded for her efforts with electroshock therapy before Jacqueline can even talk to the warden. She should file a habeus motion!
Instead, she is released back into the general population looking shell-shocked. The unlikely duo of Maggie and Jacqueline team up to escape the repressed warden and her unethical doctor lackey, but will they find true friendship out on the road, or will they end up back in the slammer? Will Pandora and Lavelle ever do an encore improv show? Will the warden shake her hair loose and suddenly recognize she is incredibly hot? (No).
Caged Heat is an interesting paradox. It reflects the low production values and a number of the ridiculous stock scenes expected of the genre, but it does them with little relish compared to the rest of the film. It brings in about three bizarre dream sequences in the first act, then never really comments on them again: I was half sure the roach/fire misunderstanding was a dream until it kept going. The acting ranges from decent to forgettable to hilariously poor, but Barbara Steele is a stand-out as the warden.
He's used to this sort of thing.
The warden is a surprisingly interesting character, and not just because Barbara Steele is gorgeous. She's repressed and sometimes cruel, but there isn't any of the "corrupt warden" we all picture ever since that one Tim Robbins movie, nor is she the lecherous voyeur (although that role is filled by the psychopathic doctor). Instead, she's a believer in rules who does her best and is surprisingly sympathetic: the fact that she's in a wheelchair helps, too. I think it's one of the biggest flaws in the film that she never gets a "come to Jesus" moment where she comes to understand the central characters in their friendship with one another. Also they send a character named Pandora into solitary (a box), then never make a joke about it? Come on, movie!
I love Juanita Brown's delivery on so many lines, but this is my favorite.
Also I think this movie sets the record for chixploitation month for least amount of sexual content. There's a couple of shower scenes and two different dreams and a scene with implied masturbation before it's revealed Pandora is playing dice, but there's not a single conscious sex scene. And while the story encourages sororal friendship, it is a friendship sans benefits. Additionally, hardcore fans of the WIP genre may not enjoy this as much, as there's not really any of the humiliation and bizarrely specific fetish staples (like spraying girls with a fire hose) outside of a couple of nods to the genre early on.
Overall, it's a lot of fun, with occasional flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately the flashes show a lot of wasted potential, something that's not particularly surprising when dealing with a very limited budget, a genre story, and a bunch of actresses of varying quality.
Maggie: If she rips me off one more time I'm gonna open a bag of kick-ass all over her butt!
Maggie: I'm gonna knock your pretty little teeth so far down your throat you're gonna get a picket fence around your asshole!
Maggie: Say, can you read lips?
Maggie: (mouthed) Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck Youuuuuuuuu!
Lavelle: (To an old woman) I won't hurt you! *accidentally kills her*
Policeman (while smoking a cigar): Hey punk! Where's the john?!
Station Mechanic: Right around the corner! Just follow your snout.
Policeman: Smartass punk!
Crazy Alice: My name's "Crazy" what's yours?
Bernice: I'm B-Bernice.
Crazy Alice: Two choices, Bernice. You start doing exactly what we say right now, or you say goodbye to the world!
Bernice: I'll take the first choice.
Where to Get it:
It was released this very week on Amazon as part of a two-pack called "Roger Corman's cult classics" found here.