Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Caged Heat (1974)

Directed by Jonathon Demme
Starring Erica Gavin, Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, Roberta Collins, Juanita Brown
Rated R

"I'm already on double parole!"

Jonathon Demme was one of the many soon-to-be Hollywood moguls who got his start in Roger Corman's dimestore dream factory. Decades before Silence of the Lambs, Manchurian Candidate, Philadelphia, Something Wild, before all of that bullshit, he cut his cinematic teeth on this crowd-pleasing Women in Prison micro-epic.

The story, in keeping with Corman's cheap n' dirty template, is bare-bones: Russ Meyer girl Erica Gavin (Vixen, 1968) is Jackie Wilson, a rich girl with a sleazy boyfriend who gets her caught up in the glamorous world of armed robbery. She gets popped on a caper and, since she won't rat out on her man, gets tossed into a grungy women's prison.

Former 60's horror queen Barbara Steele is Superintendent McQueen, a wheelchair-bound sadist who doles out brutal punishment to satisfy her own twisted cravings.

The inmates are a fleshy grab-bag of exploitation vets, including good girl gone bad Belle (Roberta Collins, Hardbodies,1984; Hardbodies 2, 1986; Death Race 2000, 1975; Vendetta,1986; etc. etc), stunned angel Levelle (Rainbeaux Smith, Swinging Cheerleaders, 1974; Revenge of the Cheerleaders, 1976; Slumber Party '57, 1976; etc.) and queen bee Maggie (Jaunita Brown, Willie Dynamite, 1974; Foxy Brown, also 1974 - she had a busy year!).

Jackie does her best to fit in. At first, things do not go well. She ends up wrestling naked with Maggie in the shower, and, as punishment, both girls are shocked into a stupor by the wacko prison doctor. And so on. You know how it goes in lady jail, man.

Eventually, Maggie and Jackie can bear the beatings, humiliation, and shock therapy no longer, and they make a break for it during outdoor work routine.

They manage to escape in a prison truck and quickly vanish into the ether. Maggie hooks up with her old pal Crazy (Crystin Sinclaire, Hustler Squad, 1976; Eaten Alive, 1977), and the trio knock off a bank - or, more accurately, the rob a couple of Disney-mask wearing bank robbers, when they accidentally show up at the same branch Mickey and Donald are holding up.

The plan is to split the dough and then split up, but Jackie feels pangs of guilt for leaving their cellmates behind, so naturally, the two escaped inmates and the crazy girl named Crazy plan a daring prison break.

An enduring drive-in classic, Caged Heat is a violent, nihilistic 70's action flick that's tempered with tongue-in-cheek melodrama. There are a few misfires along the way -the prison 'talent show' - including Barbara Steele's kicky dance sequence - is like some never-ending anti-comedy purgatory, the soundtrack and camera angles often veer into useless arthouse excess, and it takes a good half-hour to get moving, but c'mon...what other movie gives you vicious girlfight and a tits-out shower scene - at the same time?
A must-see for B-movie buffs, Caged Heat provided the blueprint not only for it's own series of sequels and spin-offs, but also for the dozens of similarly-themed Women in Prison flicks that followed in its wake.

Demme, of course, went on to become a wildly successful Hollywood director. The cast, unfortunately, were not so lucky. Jaunita Brown stopped acting soon after. Caged Heat was also Erica Gavin's last film for 34 years. Rainbeaux Smith - one of the all time greatest 70's B-queens - quit acting in the early 80's, and, tragically, died of Hepatitis in 2002. Roberta Collins left the business in 1986 and died of a drug overdose in 2008. But I'll tell you this much: they were both crackling with life in 1974.

- Ken McIntyre

1 comment:

  1. I saw this a long time ago. Memorable movie.


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