Oh, yeah another cult classic featuring a bevy of Z-movie actresses that I’d never gotten a chance to see until now. This is possibly the best Women In Prison movie every made. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually good, based on the piss-poor quality of the entire genre. But this one is famous for being directed by frigging Jonathan Silence of the Lambs Demme. So we’ve got to check this one out, right?
Caged Heat (1974)
This wasn’t the first WIP movie but certainly one of the strangest and most influential. Even if it didn’t innovate the formula for these movies, it created a template that became widely imitated for years to come, including the amusing Alley Cat which I watched recently on Amazon Prime.
What the Women in Prison genre is about is a lot of babes wearing skimpy prison outfits getting abused and dehumanized for about two hours until they briefly turn the tables on the evil prison warden and guards and escape for some sort of very minor victory, if you ignore the months of suffering and abuse they will need to get over following the end of the movie. And when you get down to it, Women in Prison movies are really about group showers. Lots and lots of very clean actresses with 1970s era hairstyles upstairs and down.
The better Women in Prison movies feature tough and spunky heroines who have agency and take matters into their own hands. In this one they’re played by obscure cult actresses Erica Gavin, Rainbeaux Smith, Roberta Collins, and Juanita Brown. Because this movie was written and directed by a very young Jonathan Demme, there’s a lot of creativity and crazy moments to liven up the dreary subject matter.
So we open with Erica Gavin and her two buddies robbing a bank, in a pretty well-shot chase and shoot-out with police, especially considering the micro-budget. Erica Gavin is abandoned by her male partners in crime and she’s sent up the river. Incarcerated in a very strange prison, she meets a motley crew of off-beat personalities. There’s a tough chick, the weird blonde kleptomaniac, the strict warden in schoolmarm glasses and prudish wardrobe even though she’s played by cult horror movie mega-babe Barbara Steele.
The plot is non-existent: the inmates have a hard life in prison for a while where they endure humiliations, tortures, and assaults, and then they escape. After about a dozen mass showerings, of course. Demme’s main contributions to the genre are strong female characters, a bizarre sense of humor and perversion, and a wandering camera contributed by legendary cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who composes interesting shots and keeps the camera moving. Demme’s other contribution is hiring a crazy costume designer, so that all the women are wearing individualized outfits in prison rather than your standard gray or orange prison uniforms. There’s also bizarre hallucinatory dream sequences and a terrible vaudeville drag sketch that goes on for what feels like hours. If you read the IMDB plot synopsis to the movie, it says that this risque drag number gets the girls in hot water with the Warden, but this inciting incident happens 3/4ths of the way through the movie.
So Erica Gavin and Juanita Brown escape the prison and they team up with the awesome Crazy Alice, who we’re introduced as some sort of prostitute, who wrestles men in her underwear for money. She’s played by the terrific Crystin Sinclaire, who sadly didn’t have much of a career after this. So they return to rescue their buddies, and manage to save Roberta Collins from a lobotomy by the scuzzbag rapist prison doctor. Then there’s a really well-executed getaway and shoot-out with the goofy prison guards, one of whom deservedly takes a bullet in the ass.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So yeah, there’s not much to this movie. There’s certainly no plot for about 90 minutes before there’s suddenly a whole lot of plot. There’s a heavy dose of perversion and exploitation showers, but otherwise it’s a pretty decent little action/prison movie. I’d much rather watch this than Brawl In Cell Block 99 again. Give me Erica Gavin, Rainbeaux Smith, Juanita Brown, and Roberta Collins taking showers and blasting jive turkeys over a pasty, bald Vince Vaughn getting strip-searched any day.