Sunday 22 February 2015

The runaways… Caged Heat (1974)

This is a Roger Corman-produced exploitation flick from the “women in prison” genre (I never knew there was one… although it seems to have been quite a thing…) which is notable for having been written and directed by Jonathan Demme. Now, Mr Demme may well have directed Silence of the Lambs and many others but he also directed Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense which has to be one of the best concert films ever made.

Erica Gavin
This was a full decade before that film but Demme was still cool enough to have one of the Velvet Underground, John Cale, provide the soundtrack for Caged Heat – was this enough to save him from producing another formulaic chunk of Corman cheesecake? From what I saw the answer is a qualified yes, the film is pacey and raw and doesn’t linger too long on the pulchritudinous prisoners… then again the version I watched is 79 minutes long versus the full-length 83… what happened in those missing four minutes?

The Doctor greets his new patients...
Whatever, this film has a decent pace and plot and features some good performances throughout its large cast, Demme had to work hard to persuade Corman to make another prison chick flick but the latter agreed on the condition that his director produced something novel… just so long as there was enough sex and violence to keep the punters happy. And Dame duly obliges with a film that has something for liberals as well as lechers… these women are victims as much as their, er, victims and they are punished too harshly by an unforgiving system that revels in their suffering.

Pandora protects Belle from Maggie
There’s something of the humour of Russ Meyer aided by the presence of Vixen herself, the excellent Erica Gavin, but the film doesn’t treat its women as objects in the same way and there’s more characterization and believability than in a Meyer boob-fest.

The story begins in breakneck fashion as a woman and two men try to evade the police after a botched drug deal. They are pursued by a long-haired cop dressed up to match his prey... he downs one of the men and, as the other escapes, traps the woman, Jacqueline Wilson (Gavin).

Cheryl Rainbeuax Smith
The scene shifts to a prison and a sexual dream of one inmate Lavelle (Cheryl Rainbeuax Smith) which ends with her trying to knife her lover through the prison bars… ooer this is going to be complicated and steamy… but, in truth the heat kept within this cage is more driven by resentment and anger at the treatment than any suppressed sexuality no matter what the salacious trailer says.

Dream sequence for Miss Wilson
Of course the women are frustrated but they are also abused by comedy guards resembling extras in Smokey and the Bandit as well as short-haired butch women officers and a wheelchair-bound governor who is deeply imprisoned by her own denial. Barbara Steele plays this role with tongue ever so slightly in cheek, clearly relishing the chance to play the baddie after surviving so many Hammer horrors as the victim. Mr Demme is no fan of authority figures and the Governor is clearly taking out her own physical and mental inhibitions on her inmates.

Two sides of Barbara Steele
But she’s not the weirdest oppressor in the Connerville Institute for Women, far from it as the prison Doctor (Warren Miller) uses his situation to conduct illegal experiments on the inmates and to fulfill his twisted impulses… a genuinely creepy turn from Mr Miller.

Jacqueline Wilson arrives to face the well-worn dehumanization of prison regime as the new inmates remove their clothes and leave dignity at the door for their first strip-search. Once inside she finds her new roommate Lavelle unwilling to talk but neighbours Pandora (Ella Reid) and her best buddy Belle (Roberta Collins) are full of useful tips on survival.

Roberta Collins and Ella Reid
Jackie’s no push-over though as she demonstrates in her first encounter with Maggie (Juanita Brown) the toughest nut in Connerville. The two clash after Demme’s camera manages to drag itself away from the bodies in the shower room. The guards stop the contest before too long and the combatants claim they both slipped in front of the governor… you sense the old routines of solidarity in the face of the screws will get them through…

Show time...
The only light relief comes from a show in which Pandora and Belle perform in drag – they’re a knockout but go too far for the Governor who withdraws in shock, then falls asleep to reveal her own frustrations in a memorable dream sequence, unleashing her possible self with a leggy cabaret show for her inmates.

Life moves fast in the prison, Pandora ends up in solitary for her exhibition but Belle works out a way of sneaking her food in one of the lighter moments. Jackie gets caught up in Maggie’s attempted escape and both end up in barbaric “correction” – electric shock treatment from the Doctor… His treatments have broken many women before them and he’s itching to try his revolutionary lobotomy treatment on someone but only after he’s drugged and molested them.

The Doctor's unethical treatments are exposed
There has to be a way out of here… and Maggie makes a desperate break for freedom in the middle of their closely guarded "agricultural therapy”… Jackie hitches a ride after one girl gets killed and she realises she cannot face anymore “correction” and punishment…

The two ride off but will it be that simple to escape both the prison itself and their responsibility to their fellow inmates… I think you know what the answer might be.

In front of the flag
Dusty verdict: Caged Heat is about friendship in the most difficult of circumstances and, whilst there is some sexual content, the overall feelings between the girls are loyalty and solidarity. As Maggie reveals to Jackie, she tried to make herself the toughest person she could be because she had to – that was the only way to survive.

Maggie gets a gun
They are exploited by a system only designed to punish and to remove their potential for further wrong-doing – literally in the case of the bad Doctor and the only sensible route forward is rebellion and escape. The kind of escape and second chances everyone dreams of… whatever their personal “prison”. So far so seventies… but so what it is good fun and well-acted by its committed cast.

Erica gets ready to drive
Juanita Brown is a force of nature, fierce and yet with a heart of gold whilst Ella Reid and Roberta Collins are the films’ Redford and McQueen. Erica Gavin is the audience’s route into this world and she shows how good an actress she is as you quickly forget the excesses of her earlier work and you root for them all.

Caged Heat does not live up to its title and it’s all the better for it! It’s available on DVD from the usual sources and well worth watching for all the right reasons.

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