Oh baby do we have lots to talk about today, my dear Enemaniacs!
This week’s B-Movie Enema is Caged Heat. It might, at first, come off as just a run of the mill, women-in-prison flick from the mid-70s. It might even come off as some of that sleaze Roger Corman was trading in during the 70s as well. To a very minor degree, I’d say you’re right about both things.
But… there’s a twist. You see, Corman wasn’t happy with the women-in-prison flicks previously released by his New World Pictures. He thought they were maybe missing something, something important, something fresh and new. So he tapped a producer at the studio to see what life can be breathed into this subgenre of exploitation. Enter Jonathan Demme. He had produced a previous Corman women-in-prison release, The Hot Box. This time, though, Demme wasn’t going to settle as a writer or producer. He wanted to direct.
But because Corman had issues with past women-in-prison flicks and thinking the subgenre had peaked already, he didn’t want to give Demme the money. Demme was tenacious and was able to get the financing himself. Corman then gave him the marching orders… Try to find something fresh and new in the genre, but make sure you keep all them tits and violence in there. Demme came back with Caged Heat something that did indeed bring new ideas to the genre and ultimately kick-started it back into popularity for a few more years. We’ll get to that business a little later when I dig into the movie.
Demme is one of those directors who quietly mentored and influenced a great deal of directors. Of course, he’s best known for directing 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. That’s a movie that, when asking people of a particular age, has come to be known as one of the finest movies made in the last 30 years or so. So highly thought it is, it is among only three movies that have ever won what is known as the “Big 5” at the Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one of the Screenplay awards. The other two movies that meet that criteria was 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
B-Movie Enema fact, everybody… One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the greatest film ever made according to this guy.
Another interesting fact about the three winners of the Big Five, none of them won more than those five. In fact, while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were nominated for 9 and 7 awards respectively, It Happened One Night had only those five nominations making it one of the very few movies to sweep all of its categories it was nominated for. Additionally, all three of the movies were Adapted Screenplay winners. The Big Five ain’t got no room for originality, muthafuckas!
Where The Silence of the Lambs breaks from the other two is that Jonathan Demme directed a 70s exploitation women-in-prison flick and that’s what we’re here for right now.
(Although, if Milos Foreman or Frank Capra made a sleazy exploitation flick about babes behind bars, please let me know and send it to me.)
Alright everybody, hands off cocks, on with socks… Let’s dig into Caged Heat. The movie opens with what appears to be a dirtbag in a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts on a detective sting. When he’s about to bust into some perps’ motel room, two guys and a lady run out past him. One of the guys shoots a cop in his neck. The girl, Jacqueline (Erica Gavin), ultimately gets caught and, not cooperating with the state, gets 10-40 years for possession of drugs and as an accessory to that cop getting shot.
After the credits, we meet Lavelle (Rainbeaux Smith). Lavelle is having a dream in which the warden brings a guy in and he fondles and kisses her through the bars while she plays with a giant butcher knife like a crazy person. I don’t want to speak too soon, but we may have found the girl I’ll be rooting for throughout this movie.
I do like ’em crazy.
The ladies of Cell Block 11 get their chance to go outside, hang out in the yard, and smoke cigarettes or talk to each other or whatever, but all the girls have normal street clothes on. Did women’s prisons not have a normally, standard, state-issued outfit? Do they get to wear jeans and dresses and stuff? The guards, of course, have uniforms, but what gives with the prisoners?
Anyway, who cares. Jacqueline is brought in on as a new arrival with a couple other ladies. Jacqueline gets her cavities searched. After, in the mess hall, she meets Belle (Roberta Collins) and Pandora (Ella Reid). They teach her the ropes a little bit and warn Jacqueline what will happen if things get too claustrophobic for her as they point out another prisoner who mostly just drools and stares off into nothingness. Before lights out, we also meet Maggie (Juanita Brown), who is something of an antagonist as she gets rightfully pissed off at Belle thieving her cigarettes. She slaps Belle and gives her one last warning about that kleptomania problem of Belle’s.
That night, Jacqueline has a nightmare and wakes up screaming – which makes everyone else scream at each other like shitty city neighbors to shut the fuck up. In the morning, the girls are taken to the agricultural training facility to pluck lemons. Later that day, the girls gather in the mess hall to watch a comedy performance by Pandora and Belle dressed as a couple vaudeville comedians – with a little extra saucy jokes. It’s charming. I like that you actually get to see the personalities of the girls that make up the prison population. There are times when tempers flare, but this is ultimately a small community.
We also meet our majordomo villain of the movie – Superintendent McQueen played by the incomparable Queen of European horror, Barbara Steele. She’s in a wheelchair and silently judges the performance with her staff. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun and she sits stoic and stern. When she rolled into the mess hall eyes were on her. She’s so perfectly put together as a warden, she almost resembles a Nazi officer. It’s a striking contrast to the girls in the prison as they seem loose and almost fancy free and she is so cold and rigid.
As I mentioned, Steele is an undisputed Queen of horror. She starred in a ton of European horror movies. The one she is most noted for is Black Sunday, directed by Mario Bava. It is considered the crown jewel of horror in Italy. To this day, it’s looked at on a scholarly level. She’d go on to be in Nightmare Castle, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, The Long Hair of Death, The Crimson Cult (with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee), and Fellini’s 8½. That’s just to name a few. The point is, by 1974, she was already a legend.
I just made a couple points that are important to call out when it comes to Demme’s script and vision for Caged Heat. First, there’s that communal idea that doesn’t rely on the girls constantly scrapping or having lurid sex scenes with each other. It almost feels like a real prison because it’s a lot of gambling before bedtime, milling around, talking, frustration at the situation, etc. The other big point is that this is the movie that set into motion a recurring theme of female, hard ass wardens. Prior, it was men doing shitty things to the girls. Now, it’s a woman who is near sadistic, but also using that to instill fear while her body is broken. It’s a fairly classic trope of the physically weak or injured person putting on the big front with henchmen to inflict harm on the prisoners.
But there’s more to the warden…
You see, when she ends Pandora and Belle’s performance for having enough of the lewd jokes being told, she returns to her office where she has pictures hanging of a happy family. Where she has to struggle to pull herself out of the wheelchair she’s attached to. Where she sleeps on an uncomfortable couch. Where she dreams… Yes, dreams and nightmares play a huge part of this movie. In the warden’s dreams, she’s beloved by the inmates. She proselytizes to them about how sex got them into prison while dressed like a sexy cabaret act. The inmates cheer her and hang on her every word.
And dressed like that, I can see how people would hang on her every word.
The following day, she scolds Pandora and Belle for their show. She lands on the idea that it must of been Pandora who came up with the content and decides to toss her into solitary confinement without clothes. Now we get to what I assume is the “Make sure you give Roger what he wants” portion of the movie because it’s shower time for the ladies. It’s boobs, it’s bush, it’s skin. Jacqueline gets a warning from Maggie to not stir up any shit with McQueen, this leads to a good ol’ fashioned cat fight in the showers. Clothes getting wet. Boobs getting wet. Things getting wet.
When brought in for a discussion with McQueen, Jacqueline is told to fall in line and stop with the bullshit questions about what correction is vs. punishment.
Meanwhile, while the girls shower, Belle has been sneaking off through the vents to make sure Pandora has food in solitary. It nearly backfires when she gets back almost too late before the guards decide to bust her up. Elsewhere, Maggie has a run in with a guard who is dropping roaches into a pot that is being used to cook food for the inmates. When Maggie fishes it out and throws it on the guard’s shoe, it leads to a tussle and Maggie getting a gun while another prisoner grabs a cleaver. She asks Jacqueline if she’s coming with them or not, but she stays behind. While Jacqueline is guilty of being part of a major crime that lead to a cop getting shot, she’s a good person. She tries to help get the guard out of the kitchen that Maggie lit on fire. Naturally, this looks like she’s accosted the guard. The other prisoner brandishing a cleaver is killed. Both Jacqueline and Maggie are put into detention and given electroshock therapy.
When Jacqueline pleads for it to stop, she gets gagged by the doctor and continues the punishment. It’s actually a difficult scene to watch. Maggie probably could have gotten shot, and kind of deserves some sort of severe punishment for starting a fight and taking a guard’s gun. Jacqueline gets punished without even a chance to explain herself. She was doing the right thing, even if she knocked the guard out originally to stop her from shooting Maggie, but she was still making sure that guard wasn’t going to die in a fire. It definitely helps illustrate that a women’s prison, at least THIS women’s prison, is a completely different beast than a man’s jail.
There are two readings on this. First, women are more harshly punished in jail because they are held to some sort of standard that they should be quiet, obedient, and less rebellious. On the other hand, the other reading is of a more positive, feminist angle that despite the prison’s best attempts, the girls’ wills are not broken and they fight for freedom at all costs.
Belle tells Jacqueline about a plan to escape before they go to sleep for the night. The next morning, though, things go south. Maggie and Jacqueline are called for additional shock treatment after the agricultural activities. Belle is sneaking around trying to get more food for Pandora. When the lunch lady sneaks up on Belle, she accidentally kills her with a blow to the head. She’s tossed into solitary.
While at the lemon farm, Maggie jumps a guard and steals a truck. She takes Jacqueline with her. They almost get caught at a gas station when a cop shows up looking for the toilet. While the service station guy works on the truck, and the cop is in the john, the girls take off with the cop’s car. They use the car to pull over a couple so they can carjack him. They end up at a brothel to meet with a friend of Maggie’s. Again, they almost get arrested by a john on an undercover operation, but they bash the shit out of him to escape.
While Maggie and Jacqueline try to procure some guns and a car, McQueen talks to the prison psychiatrist and he comes up with a plan to perform surgery on Belle in exchange for parole as no longer being a threat to society. However, the surgery he will perform is a little bit of gropin’ and a lotta bit of lobotomy. Lavelle, now working in the clinic for her part in initially trying to run with Maggie watches as the doctor takes Polaroids of Belle and possibly rapes her while crying his eyes out? Nothing like sex with tears. We’ve all been there before, amirite?
On the outside, Maggie, Jacqueline, and Crazy Alice are knocking over banks, but Jacqueline wants to go back to get Belle and Pandora out. Meanwhile, inside, Lavelle learns more about what the doctor plans to do and tells Pandora. They concoct a plan to save her. The trio on the outside hijack the prisoner transport truck, but Maggie takes a bullet in the arm.
Back at the prison, Belle is about to go under the knife. Pandora cuts herself to go to the infirmary where she’ll meet up with Lavelle to bust Belle out. What they don’t plan for is McQueen to also show up. They also don’t expect Jacqueline and Crazy Alice to show up. They have McQueen make a call with a set of demands so they can get out. The doc wakes Belle up. Unfortunately, they spend a little too much time getting out because it allows for McQueen’s assistant to get guards lined up and ready to stop the girls.
The girls leave, but are headed toward an ambush that only Maggie could see from the position she was going to meet them at. When Crazy Alice sees what’s up, she tries to drive out of it but can’t. The truck gets shot up and kills the doctor and fatally wound McQueen. The girls barely make their escape without any of them getting hurt.
This is a fine example of how a sleazy women-in-prison movie can be made not so sleazily and actually attempt to tell a story with interesting characters. As mentioned earlier, Demme had a plan to have a different take on the genre. While there is the one doctor guy who was a total turd, for the most part, the guys were either stupid or cartoonishly villainous. The real characters came through in each of the girls. It’s interesting to see how some girls were nihilistic in accepting that McQueen’s word was law and there wasn’t anything you could do about that. Others had ambition to be more than just a rat in a cage. Others, like Lavelle for example, seemed to find courage after a string of not so great things unfolded before her eyes.
While this isn’t quite the sleazefest you would expect from women-in-prison movies, this is likely the gold standard of the subgenre. It was conceived, written, and directed by a filmmaker with a real vision for how he likes to tell a story – particularly with female characters. The best example of how this movie works so well is the scene in which Pandora and Belle were performing their comedy act with the prisoners, and prison staff, watching.
Alright, let’s wrap this up for this week, yeah? Okay. Next week, I have a movie that not only has good reviews, but also has a handful of names we recognize. Directed by Tobe Hooper, starring Mädchen Amick, Anthony Perkins, Dee Wallace, and R. Lee Ermy… I’m gonna talk about I’m Dangerous Tonight! See you then!