Buena Vista // 1974 // 83 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ian Visser (Retired) // May 5th, 2006
"White Hot Desires melting cold prison steel!"
Something of a cult classic, Caged Heat proves to be a lot more "cult" and a lot less "classic."
Jackie Wilson (Erica Gavin, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is in deep trouble. After taking up with some ne'er-do-well scumbags, she is caught in a running gunfight with police and sentenced to prison. Under the direction of Superintendent McQueen (Barbara Steele, Your Money or Your Wife), the hoosegow in question is a demented house of madness, with a lecherous staff, a bevy of tough-talking mamas, and an every-girl-for-herself policy.
During a prison work detail, Wilson jumps the chain gang with fellow prisoner Maggie (Juanita Brown, Foxy Brown) and high-tails it to town. The duo enlist fellow bad girl Crazy Alice (Lynda Gold) and after a successful bank job decide to head back to the prison to break out their friend Belle (Roberta Collins, Hardbodies), now in the hands of demented prison physician Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller, Beloved).
It has been claimed more than once that Caged Heat is the best of the "women in prison" genre of films. But is that anything approaching a compliment? Praise like that strikes me as being akin to saying Stalin was the "best dictator," or Play-Doh is the "best tasting" material in the clay genre. It may be praise, but it's faint, at best.
A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years as low-budget master Roger Corman's films get newly released on DVD, and hungry film school students desperately search for new thesis topics. This unfortunate combination has led to a lot of speculation about the genre, and how it represents this and that, and indicates such and such, and how the cutting-edge filmmakers of the 1970s captured the rising spirit of the women's movement and empowerment and so on.
Phooey, says this judge.
Corman (The Fast and the Furious) shot cheap, fast movies that could be sold to theatres at low cost. If Corman has had a best friend throughout his career, it's been the guys who designed his film posters, each rife with as much sexual suggestion and cheap violence as could be crammed into a one-sheet. Corman was a marketer, and his films were produced to make money, and in turn, make more movies. As a result, the films in question were as cheap as the investment that was made. Seeing this DVD on your local video store shelf may spark some fond memories of 1974, but sitting down and watching the film from end-to-end is more likely to result in a new awakening to its bounty of flaws rather than anything more significant.
And flaws are what this film has in spades. It's hard to imagine any particular force of talent over-coming the hurried writing, shooting, and editing pace demanded by Corman's brand of filmmaking. Director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) certainly has become of the most renowned auteurs of our time, but I doubt he got much of a chance to hone his skills during the production of Caged Heat. And while Demme's script does attempt to layer on some complexities of character, they are inevitably lost in the terrible delivery of dialogue and ham-handed acting attempts by the inexperienced cast.
Not that much is actually demanded of the cast. Young? Pretty? Got boobs? Welcome to the world of filmmaking! Please step into this shower, won't you? While B-movie veterans Juanita Brown and Cheryl Smith (Up in Smoke) deliver some sass and sugar as prison bad-girls, only Corman-regular Barbara Steele manages to do much with her role. Her portrayal of the straight-and-proper warden confined to a wheelchair is the closet Demme manages to come in creating character, but even Steele's best efforts can't overcome the slapped-together nature of the role.
Much has been made of the sexuality in Caged Heat, but I suspect there is far less T&A here than most people would recall. If anything, the half-hearted nudity and depravity on display only serves to drag the pace of Caged Heat down to a crawl. The film works best when the women are actually doing something, whether robbing a bank, shooting guards, or busting back into prison. When the film does slow down to consider the character's situation, mistreatment, or bust-size, the viewer begins to notice how uninteresting the whole experience really is.
And that's the real crime of Caged Heat. It turns out the slap-and-tickle actions of prison ladies and their sadistic torturers just aren't that much fun to watch. Perhaps in 1974, in a more restrictive and mainstream society, this kind of titillation was worth a drive-in ticket. In today's "all porn, all the time" environment, however, the portrayal of sin and vice in Caged Heat is more clinical than anything else.
Presented in its original full-frame aspect, Caged Heat is blessed with a decent transfer. Sharp and clear with a great color balance, this is probably the best that the film has looked in a long time. There is some occasional dirt visible, but it is not distracting. The Dolby Digital mono audio mix is also quite good, although the lack of subtitles is a disappointing oversight.
Special features are a limited bunch. Viewers get a short interview of Roger Corman touching on various aspects of the production, a series of bios for the cast and crew, and the original trailer. The trailer is the real gem here, full of the typical tease and sleaze that got butts into theatres for Corman's films. In fact, I found the trailer more entertaining than the film itself.
Yes, yes, the Judge can hear the crowd hissing from the public galleries. This is a Corman movie, so it has guns, gears, and girls, and it's all done on the cheap and with a big wink and a nudge. This Judge is willing to concede that Caged Heat will sustain anyone for an evening if they are a) drunk, b) in the mood for this kind of thing, or c) in the process of losing a bet. But don't try to convince me this is great art, important politics, or even decent filmmaking, and I won't try to convince you that Corman was a hack out for the money.
Caged Heat gets marks for a good transfer, but it's just sweet frosting on an otherwise rotten cake. Fans of the movie or Corman's style should be happy with this effort, but those looking for exploitation or camp can find films that have better elements of both.
Guilty. Throw this one back in prison and take away its robe!
Review content copyright © 2006 Ian Visser; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast and Crew Bio Files
* Interview with Roger Corman