Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

I don’t think anybody likes a good seventies exploitation movie better than I do. Quite honestly I don’t think that exploitation has been done even close to right since that sick 70's decade ended. Then I get my hands on a copy of ‘Caged Heat’ which is  70’s exploitation in spades since it’s a women in prison film, which we know full damn well is going consist of a lot showering, and was also written and directed by one Jonathan Demme. You mean the Jonathan Demme that has a gold statue on his mantle for guiding Hannibal Lector and now exercises his creativity by crafting biographical documentaries? That Jonathan Demme? So with the legendary Roger Corman producing, Jonathan Demme directing, and a host of women who must stay dirty because they spend an awful lot of time taking showers, how in the world did this movie manage to suck so bad? And more importantly, how did this flick get to wear the mantle of being the ‘Best Women in Prison Movie Ever’? These people obviously haven’t seen ‘Black Mama, White Mama’ or ‘Naked Warriors’. The nerve!

As the film opens a trio of bell bottom sporting, bad haircut possessing, leisure sport jacket wearing pigs are busting in on three drug dealing criminals trying to ice a score. One of the pigs gets blasted while our trio of dealers makes a break for it with the other two cops in hot pursuit. Two of the perps manage to escape with the lone exception of the lovely Jackie (Erica Gavin) who gets all hemmed up, and considering that a pig got whacked in her escape attempt, she gets the book thrown at her and gets her ass carted off to prison for an extended stay in the clink.

Now once in jail Jackie is subjected to the prerequisite full cavity search as performed by the lecherous Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller) and now it’s time for some women in prison action. Of course women in prison action consists of the occasional shanking, along with the brutally unpleasant guards who carry guns in the prison, which I didn’t think was allowed, and all things considered is probably a really bad idea. We also have

the sadistic wheelchair bound warden McQueen played by Barbara Steele – who also fantasizes herself as a showgirl and commissions unauthorized lobotomizing shock treatments on her more unruly residents. Then there is the incredibly tough Maggie who is the queen of the block and who immediately takes a strong disliking to Jackie, and most importantly we have lots and lots of dirty girls getting clean. There’s also an incredibly improbable prison break which briefly turns our prison movie into an old school Thelma and Louise chicks on the run committing crimes type of movie, but these girls on the lam aren’t content just to be free, they want freedom for the sisters they left behind, so it’s back to jail – which is just plain nuts – to set some things right.

As I detailed earlier there are a number of reasons that made watching ‘Caged Heat’ a priority as I read in more than a few articles how Jonathan Demme’s genius was obvious even at this early stage of his career. Clearly these individuals have a way more critical eye than I do and are way more observant than I could ever hope to be because what I saw after sitting through ‘Caged Heat’ was a disjointed sloppy over lit mess. Disregarding the scene where the boom mic guy is trying to get out of the shot it appeared to me that ‘Caged Heat’ vacillated between trying to be a ‘real’ movie while also trying to be an exploitive women in prison movie and as such it ended up being neither. I mean Barbara Steele’s wheelchair bound Superintendant McQueen wasn’t really all that sadistic, and except for commissioning the occasional brain shock treatment lobotomization, she seemed to have the best interest of her inmates at heart and even the lobotomization was just some new age style behavior modification type stuff. What’s wrong with that? And it’s not like my heart was going out to our heroine Jackie because she was pushing dope and did participate in the wasting of a pig and could have probably used some brain rearranging shock treatment. Then there was the young lady who killed the food services worker, though it was on accident and she was a sweetie and all, but still, girlfriend needed to get her ass in the chair and get her brain electrically rearranged. On top of that the movie just wasn’t sordid enough or outrageous enough. There were plenty of scenes of a crap load of women taking plenty of showers, but that was pretty much it. When I think of ‘Women in Prison’ and 1970’s, I’m generally thinking of way worse than I got here.

Jonathan Demme is certainly one the true grand masters of modern cinema but from my perspective he has managed to become a success in spite of ‘Caged Heat’ and not because of it. The words ‘women in prison’ and ‘good movie’ are generally mutually exclusive, but still, there are better ones out there than this one.

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