What a piece of trash. I’ve written before that it’s folly to impose present morality on the past, and that includes living memory. But in this day and age, should someone try and make a film like Caged Heat, they might end up having to register as a sex offender. At the very least, Twitter would be apoplectic…for perhaps a week, before moving on to the next outrage.
From 1974, Caged Heat was future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme’s first foray in the director’s chair. Before this, he had written and produced a pair of exploitation flicks for Roger Corman and New World Pictures. This flick is also part of the Corman stable, although one won’t find his name in the credits. His fingerprints are all over it, though. From the gratuitous nudity that crosses over into crudity, to the pervading cheapness in fealty to ruthless cost-cutting, this is as much a Corman as a Demme flick.
Also written by Demme, Caged Heat follows the trials and tribulations of the inmates of the Connerville Correctional Institute for Women. Demme may have ‘written’ a ‘screenplay,’ but putting any effort into following the plot is a waste of time for the viewer. The story is just about the least important and engaging aspect of this flick. The purpose of this film was to make a quick buck by satisfying the more animalistic desires of its viewers. There is plenty of full-frontal nudity to satisfy all the young, teenaged boy’s desire for the female figure, should they not have had an older brother with a Penthouse stashed behind his headboard. I counted four(!) shower scenes. Of course, I’m writing of the past. The internet has made pseudo-smut like this unnecessary, and somewhat quaint.
The film stars Erica Gavin, Juanita Brown, Ella Reid, Rainbeaux Smith (how precious), and Roberta Collins as the main prisoners, with Barbara Steele playing the warden. Steele was the only one of the bunch with any sort of CV or acting talent, and it shows. She’s also the only female in the main cast who doesn’t get naked. Such are the perks of experience.
I didn’t bother to give the prisoners’ names above because there’s no point. Each character kind of blends into one another, and all of them adhere to women in prison tropes. I’m sure they tried hard, and couple of the actresses even seemed earnest, but even Meryl Streep couldn’t raise this flick an inch out of the gutter.
It’s the utter shamelessness of the whole film that makes Caged Heat an incredible shitty movie. We’re not supposed to find dreck like this entertaining anymore, but guess what? It still is. It’s cheap and it’s stupid, but Demme also threw in a fair amount of cynicism and absurdity into his film. In the opening scene there’s a commercial for a funeral home playing over a radio that will make viewers do a double take. It’s an indication not to take anything in this film seriously. We start seeing cast members mere seconds later and I thought this might actually be a comedy. It’s not, but Demme also never treats the material with seriousness.
Take the prison. The former Lincoln Heights Jail in Los Angeles played the prison, so it’s not the location that was absurd. Rather, it’s the prisoners. One of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of prisons is prison clothes. Jumpsuits, stripes, whatever. Prisoners wear uniforms. Not in this flick. It looks like costuming wasn’t in the budget, so Demme just had his cast and his extras wear their street clothes (when they wear clothes at all). The total lack of effort in costuming his cast is an amazing new height in shitty filmmaking that I had not thought was possible. Sure, John Carpenter didn’t have the money for costumes in Halloween, so Jamie Lee Curtis had to dip into her own closet, but that movie didn’t take place IN A PRISON.
Then there’s the violence. These chicks are tough, man. They don’t take shit from nobody, and like all the best shitty crime films, the criminals are reckless and lack any ability to plan. Everything in this flick is caricature — cliché stripped of all subtlety. Corman demanded, and Demme delivered, a stripped-down, exploitative piece of sleaze that is only slightly more redeeming than pornography. The only reason I can think of for Corman not just producing porn is he must have thought porn would make him less money. That’s the vibe of Caged Heat. It’s outrageous, offensive, will make one close the curtains when watching, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and will make one feel guilty for enjoying it. From an objective standpoint, Alien: Resurrection is a better movie, but that flick didn’t have a single shower scene.