It’s hard to believe the same man who wrote the line “I’m going to knock your pretty little teeth so far down your throat you’re gonna get a picket fence around your asshole” went on to become one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last 25 years.From the opening sequence of Caged Heat, an energetically staged, squib-happy chase between cops and drug dealers, it’s clear that Jonathan Demme was meant for better things than low-budget exploitation flicks.
Which is exactly the problem of the overly competent Caged Heat – it’s not bad enough to be a good woman in prison flick.
A product of Roger Corman’s newly formed New World Pictures, Caged Heat marks Demme’s directorial debut after cutting his teeth by producing the Corman biker flick Angels Hard as They Come and penning the women in prison flicks The Hot Box and White Mama, Black Mama.
Despite the film’s cult reputation, Caged Heat is somewhat of a disappointment, well behind the first efforts of Corman protégés Peter Bogdanovich (Targets), Joe Dante (Piranha) and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), though certainly superior to the Corman films of Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) or James Cameron’s (Piranha II).
One of the few Babes Behind Bars flicks set in the states instead of the Philipines or some other swarthy, sweaty locale, Caged Heat begins with the arrival of drug dealing bad girl Erica Gavin to a prison were unruly inmates are subjected to electro-shock treatments on the perverse whims of repressed, wheel-chair bound warden Barbara Steele and perv doctor Warren Miller.
Gavin’s fellow inmates include kleptomaniac Roberta Collins (a veteran of woman in prison flicks The Big Doll House and Women in Cages) and resident bad ass Juanita Brown, whose breasts are entirely too unimpressive for her not to be a better actress.
After initially tussling (naked in the shower, no less), Gavin and Collins join forces and bust out of the big house, embarking on a pedestrian bank robbing spree before returning to break their sisters in arms out of the slammer.
Demme meets all the genre’s prerequisites -- the random shower scenes, the catfights, the sexual degradation -- but does so with his typical avant-garde style instead of the camp the genre requires, including in a series of bizarre, violin-scored dream sequences that simply have no place in a genre this trashy.
As with all of the best Corman films of the era, Caged Heat slips in a hint of liberal social commentary amongst the nubile naked breasts and badly choreographed action sequences.Demme’s script takes a genre that objectifies women as blatantly as any in film history and turns it into a story of female empowerment, but without doing so in a manner that pushes the film’s arty pretensions so far down your throat that a picket fence develops around a certain orifice.