Caged Heat is the earliest example of Demme elevating boilerplate material to a thoughtful, eccentric higher level.
Founded in 1970 after his departure from legendary B-movie studio American International Pictures, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was a second beginning for the celebrated shlock-meister, who continued to meet a high standard of seamy, no-holds-barred content produced on the cheap, giving fresh young directors their start in the process. The stable of budding talent at NWP never came close to the bumper crop of future auteurs yielded by AIP, but it did provide a launching pad for Jonathan Demme, who’d go on to follow a ramshackle career path loosely predicted by journeyman work here, stamping a wide range of different material with a distinctive personal mark. Viewed through this lens, 1974’s Caged Heat is the earliest example of the director elevating boilerplate material to a thoughtful, eccentric higher level, one in which humanistic compassion and a near-surreal heightening of realist, Americana-focused incidental detail exist side by side.
In this case, the material being elevated is a script written by Demme himself, albeit within the confines of Corman’s factory-esque production outfit, which specialized at mining a few specific veins of gritty licentiousness. Here it’s the venerable women-in-prison genre, a sapphic-toned tradition whose history stretches back to ‘30s-era pulp fiction. Characteristically centered on an interwoven network of female inmates, all of them ripe for rampant objectification, Caged Heat is on the surface about as coarse and exploitative as movies get. Years before Orange is the New Black would invert the inherent male-gaze focus of this salacious style, Demme’s take amplifies the scuzzy semi-feminist themes found in much of the era’s action output, its women invariably sexualized as a means of further asserting their abundant, ass-kicking humanity. These qualities are further accentuated by the film’s narrative bent, which concerns the prisoners’ abuse at the hands of a corrupt system, one whose specific ills connect to the sexual threat these powerful women represent.
Things kick off with a drug deal gone wrong, the prospective buyers turning out to be a cadre of undercover cops. Voluminous gunfire ensues in the first of many vibrant, staccato sequences featured in this freewheeling barnburner of a movie. The only member of her gang taken alive, Jacqueline Wilson (Russ Meyer regular Erica Gavin) is booked and shipped off to prison, a grimy yet fantastical place introduced by a few cursory shots of the yard, where a bevy of statuesque ladies amble about, sporting full makeup and suspiciously sexy outfits. Tossed in among the wolves, Jacqueline appears bound to suffer through a repetitive string of catfights and lurid shower scenes, yet while both of these tropes are present, the story that contains them is cut through with countervailing subversive content.
Instead of presenting internal divisions and power struggles to leering, uncritical ends, the film minimizes them to detail a concerted effort by inmates to band together against the corrupt prison administration, headed by the twin figures of lascivious Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller) and the repressed, Nurse Ratchet-esque Superintendent McQueen (Barbara Steele). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seems like such an obvious source of cinematic inspiration that it’s surprising to remember that Caged Heat actually came out first. Despite the cultural gap between them, the two films ultimately share similar aims, both concerned with how societal structures derive their power through repression and control, even if this one remains consistently hampered by its need to accommodate certain instant gratification impulses, rife with gross-out gags, sordid violence and repeated, laughable instances of needless nudity.
The weird resulting mixture of objectification and empathy in some ways makes the film even more interesting, a piece of genre trash with high-art aspirations repeatedly dragged downward by its mandate toward highlighting flesh and feuding. In this sense, it shares something with another film covered in this series – Pedro Almodóvar’s sexy nuns’ melodrama Dark Habits – which also featured a young director attempting to chase his creative ambitions while parrying the indulgent intrusion of a hands-on producer. Caged Heat, for all its faults, remains fascinating throughout, shot and edited dynamically and cut through with vivid strangeness. For a director who would go on to bigger and better things, it stands out as an appropriate starting point, an at-times heartwarming story of female bonding and cultural rebellion cloaked in a sleazy exploitation housing.