Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WIP Wednesday: "Caged Heat" (Jonathan Demme, 1974)

Anyone who thinks exploitation and Roger Corman won't get you anywhere does not know a) Jack Nicholson, and b) Jonathan Demme. Demme wrote and directed Caged Heat before going on to some films you might have heard of; Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate (2004 remake), and a little film called Silence of the Lambs.

Caged Heat has a few of my favorite exploitation starlets, most notably, Russ Meyer babe Erica Gavin (Vixen, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and exploitation regular Juanita Brown (Foxy Brown). Then there are:
  • Roberta Collins (Death Race 2000, Hardbodies)
  • Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (The Swinging Cheerleaders, Fantasm Comes Again)
  • Barbara Steele (The Pit & the Pendulum, , She Beast)
  • Mickey Fox (Big Bad Mama, Blood Beach)
So, this film has quite the exploitation pedigree, but how does it stack up as a Women in Prison film? Certainly Corman is no stranger to the genre, having produced an armload of Filipino WIP films. However, Corman does like to break the mold, as he did with the Sword & Sandal WIP, The Arena (1974, Pam Grier and Margaret Markov).

The first place to look when dealing with Roger Corman is the poster. Corman is known for developing a great poster, then building a movie around it. His philosophy is, if it is on the poster, it is in the movie. So, what do we have here?
  • Numbered inmates, sans pants
  • Concrete walls and a cheap cot
  • A racial mix
  • Bullet effect star-bursts
  • "Women's Prison USA - Rape, Riot & Revenge!"
  • "White Hot Desires Melting Cold Prison Steel!"
  • Rated R
Sounds like a perfect WIP setup to me. Let's see how well Demme pulled it off.

Things start out simply enough. Jacqueline Wilson (Gavin) is involved in a drug deal where a cop is killed. She is sentenced to ten-to-forty years for not giving up her partners. She gets to prison, and the obligatory strip search and cavity inspection. Jacqueline meets Belle (Collins) and Pandora (Ella Reid) who befriend her and show her the ropes. They don't, however, introduce the HBIC.

On her first night in prison, Jacqueline takes an unexpected turn from the standard WIP by dreaming of a man who has come to rescue her. The dream sequence is rather surreal for such a formulaic genre picture. First, he is a Legionnaire, then a detective type. They are fleeing a gang of misty authority figures (one of which is clearly religious yet carrying a gynecological tool) who chant "you're busted," the words of one of the arresting police.

Next morning it is off to the prison farm for labor, then back to meet the Superintendent, McQueen (Barbara Steele), and a prisoner talent show staring Belle and Pandora... McQueen is disturbed by the blue humor. She is a pious type, and wheelchair bound. McQueen places Pandora in solitary as punishment for the bawdy performance. Then, the shower scene. We seem to be back on track.

Here, Jacqueline and HBIC, Maggie (Brown), come to blows. Maggie, as is the HBIC's normal motive, does not want the boat rocked and warns Jacqueline to quit complaining about Pandora's punishment. The antagonism does not last long though. When one of the bulls begins messing with the prisoners' food, Maggie puts the beat down on her which leads to a general lock-down and Jacqueline and Maggie going for "CPT" - a fancy acronym for shock therapy. That is the last straw for Maggie. She and Jacqueline break away while on agricultural detail, leaving Pandora behind, and Belle in line for a lobotomy, but not before the prison doctor takes some sexual liberties.

From here, things get a little weird. Jacqueline and Maggie go to rob a bank, but it is already being robbed. So, they rob the robbers and let them take the heat. Then, Jacqueline decides to break Pandora and Belle out of prison... Pandora and Lavelle (Smith) decide to free Belle... Fortunately, the two escape attempts occur simultaneously, and all the girls get away.

One of the oddest characters, as well as portrayals, was Superintendent McQueen, played by horror queen Barbara Steele. Here, Steele is always in a wheelchair with her hair in a bun and sporting grandma glasses. She is an odd character for "the warden" in a WIP, and you are not made to be entirely unsympathetic toward her. She is pious and self-righteous, but also swayed by the pervy doctor in regard to treatment. It is possible that she is actually concerned about her prisoners' well being. Steele plays her very well, adding some much needed acting skill to the film. Most of the other actors are pretty flat. Juanita Brown just shouts, Tura Satana-as-Rosie style, and Erica Gavin mostly walks through the lines. Steele puts a lot of effort into the character, as well as the character's disability.

So. All in all, how does this one stack up? It has most of the WIP qualities in place. It is far less brutal than most, leading one IMDb reviewer to call it Camp Cupcake. The film's variation from the norm is two sided. In one way, it makes it more interesting. Another, it makes it more confusing. I like that our good girl (Jacqueline) is not really a good girl. She is an actual criminal, and unrepentant. Our HBIC is not the sadist we are used to, and does not really have it much better off than the other prisoners. The only real benefit for Maggie is that none of the other prisoners give her any grief.

As for the Corman aspect, it does what it says. Shower scenes, gun fights, hard prison life, and naked chicks abound. If nothing else, Roger Corman is honest.

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