Caged Heat, 1974.
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Starring Juanita Brown, Erica Gavin, Roberta Collins, Cheryl Smith, Barbara Steele, Warren Smith.
Inmates in a women’s prison rebel when the prison doctor begins experimenting with electric shock therapy to control their behaviour.
It is often interesting to go back through the career of a big-name director and see where they started out, especially when said director was part of B-movie legend Roger Corman’s rich stable of talent back in the 1970s, because we often know what sort of movie that will entail.
And whilst Jonathan Demme may be better known these days as the director behind such golden Hollywood greats as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, it was with the much-maligned women-in-prison movie that Demme, following in the footsteps of Jack Hill who was also under Corman’s tutelage, got his first director’s credit. So looking at 1974’s Caged Heat now is it obvious that this was the filmmaker who gave us Anthony Hopkins in his most iconic role a quarter-of-a-century later?
Not really, but don’t be put off because Caged Heat – with all its genre trappings – is a slightly more nuanced experience than the sleazier Jack Hill movies such as The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage from a couple of years before. Whereas Hill’s movies were more straightforward action featuring women prisoners whose clothes seemed to fall off for no real reason other than for titillation, Demme – who had previously written The Hot Box and Black Mama, White Mama, so he had experience within the genre – takes a lighter approach, knowing that audiences likely to go to the cinema to watch his movie will expect certain things but also not just want to watch the same thing over and over again (because movie fandom can be like that sometimes).
Demme achieves this by adding some healthy doses of humour amongst the exploitative violence, which may not sound like much but it does give the actors a bit of room when delivering their dialogue, which is less progressive in certain areas but, ultimately, this is a 1970s women-in-prison movie so what do you expect?
Despite Demme’s injection of humour, Caged Heat does tick all of the boxes for what you would want to see, including totally gratuitous nudity, bad language, sleazy guards and bloody violence, not to mention a silly plot about women being treated like cattle by a sadistic warden (in this case, a sexually repressed, wheelchair-bound governess called McQueen, played by the wonderful Barbara Steele), but the director also gets to play with a weird dream sequence during the first 15 minutes that does feel a little out of place considering where we are heading.
However, if nothing else it does show a little ambition on Demme’s part, even if Roger Corman likely put his foot down about such matters (which he does allude to in the special features interview). But other than Jonathan Demme’s forays into arty dream sequences and some light comedy (often scored with jaunty pieces of music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Carry On… movie), Caged Heat can proudly sit amongst the women-in-prison connoisseurs’ collection as one of the higher-end movies of the genre.
The presence of Barbara Steele adds massive weight to the production, even if the generic plot of women being bitchy to each other and then teaming up during an escape does not, and the main plot device about the prison doctor – who may as well be played by Leslie Phillips, given that he is obviously attempting to look dashing with his neatly trimmed moustache and his dialogue is mainly innuendos, or just plain wrong (“Listen, I don’t enjoy this ritual any more than you do. Now, what we’re going to do now is some callisthenics…” he says to some new female inmates he has just asked to strip naked) – performing electric shock therapy to make the prisoners more docile is treated with all the care and attention such an act deserves, thankfully.
Coming backed with an archive audio commentary with writer/director Jonathan Demme (who sadly passed in 2017), director of photography Tak Fujimoto and actress Erica Gavin, and a short interview with Roger Corman about how Jonathan Demme came to direct the movie, Caged Heat looks probably as good as it ever will thanks to a 2K scan that doesn’t do much to lift the grim prison setting but once the prisoners have escaped the outside scenes look nice and bright, with a lot less grain and more detail that you would not have seen on previous releases.
But whether Caged Heat is a movie you wish to pick up is a matter entirely for your own conscience as family viewing it is not. Given the amount of full-frontal female nudity – which occurs pretty much every couple of minutes – it would be wise to choose your moments to watch it if other people around you aren’t quite so open to its charms, but seeing as it looks a bit tidier and slightly – only slightly, mind – more polished than other movies of this ilk, you could always use “It’s from the director of The Silence of the Lambs so I thought I’d check it out” as an excuse if you get caught. Might work…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★