Jonathan Demme is known to most as the director of mainstream classics like Something Wild (1986), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), but Demme actually got his start working for Roger Corman in the world of 70s Exploitation. After making his debut with Caged Heat (1974) he went on to make two more cult classics, Crazy Mama (1975) and Fighting Mad (1976).
After a robbery goes bad and her two accomplices are shot by the police, the female of the gang, Jaqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) is arrested and sent off to Connorville Women's Prison (which is also an agricultural farm). The film begins with some great lines from the Prison's resident physician Dr Randolph (Warren Miller): "Girls, this isn't something I enjoy either but I need you to get undressed....now we're going to begin with some calistenics...I want you to do some deep squat thrusts...". Yep, the Exploitation starts very early here!
Exploitation film fans will be thrilled to see none other than Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith as one of the babes in the prison. She plays Lavelle and is featured in an opening dream sequence being felt up by a mysterious stranger.
Jaqueline meets the other gals in the prison including Belle (The Big Doll House's Roberta Collins) and Pandora (Ella Reid). The girls give Jaqueline the rundown of what to watch out for. The main troublemaker in the place is Maggie (Foxy Brown's Juanita Brown). Maggie doesnt take shit from anyone and we see this when her cigarettes are stolen by one of the girls. She walks right into the cell, tosses the belongings around then finds the cigarettes and proceeds to bitchslap her. Ahh, prison life is so grand.
The warden of the prison is Superintendant McQueen (the beautiful Barbara Steele). McQueen is handicapped, so she drives around in a wheelchair. During a stageplay put on by Belle and Pandora, McQueen is offended by a sexually explicit part of the show, so to punish the girls, she puts Pandora in solitary confinement. Of course, her clothes are taken away and shes thrown in the cell naked. Belle feels responsible for Pandora's predicament, so during the daily showers, she climbs through the prison's air ducts and steals food from the lounge room and throws it into Pandora's cell from above. Those solitary confinement cells sure are tightly sealed!
Meanwhile, Jaqueline gets into trouble herself for fighting with (who else?) Maggie. Instead of being thrown into solitary, McQueen decides Jaqueline needs something to help change her bad attitude so she is given shock treatment. The perverted Dr Randolph also drugs Belle and basically rapes her, taking pictures of her and things of that nature.
During some agricultural work out in the orchards, some of the girls decide to make a break for it (think a female version of Cool Hand Luke), but the only ones to make it are Maggie and Jaqueline. They steal one of the prison trucks and the two decide to throw their differences aside and work together to stay out of prison for good. Will they make it on the outside without being caught again?
Caged Heat is pretty much your standard WIP genre film on the surface. All the ingredients are here: Nude shower scenes, girl fights, an evil, sexually repressed female warden and an explosive break out. For his first feature film, Jonathan Demme made Caged Heat a rollicking, sexy, humorous work of cinema with lots of action with his own personal artistic flourishes.
Reviewed by Popeye Pete - 2007