Time and again we’re told we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. How often do we really heed that advice, though? Does experience generally show the old adage to be true? I could almost certainly list dozens of works that were neither more nor less than the image on which they were sold. When it comes to exploitation movies, things get a little thornier. Not judging by the cover implies there might be more to the work than the cover suggests, but more often than not a movie poster – particularly that of an exploitation movie – tends to promise considerably more than is actually delivered.
With this in mind – let’s take a moment to ponder the poster for Caged Heat. No, really, take a moment. Click on the poster to see it full size. Drink that image in. Yes, as movie posters go, it’s a pretty fucking great one. That title; those taglines; that exclamatory, star-spangled font. And, of course, those five smouldering females, their eye-popping bodies barely contained within those miniscule black onesies. It’s a photograph too, and a pre-Photoshop job at that, so you know that there’s no exaggeration going on here. Well, okay, the cast of Caged Heat never actually wear those teeny-weeny black unitards in the movie, so maybe there’s a little exaggeration, but even so: you see that poster, you expect a film that contains hot chicks regularly getting naked and getting violent, and Caged Heat certainly delivers on this. However, that’s not all that’s on the menu. If you’re paying primarily for thrills, don’t fret, you’ll get your money’s worth, but you’ll get a little extra to wash that cheap taste down, something – dare I say it – a little more sophisticated. So that’ll be a Big’N’Fat Burger and a Beaujolais Nouveau to go, please.
Consider the pedigree of talent here. A glance at the cast, and the knowledge that it’s a Roger Corman production, screams B-movie central. You’ve got Erica Gavin, star of Russ Meyer’s groundbreaking Vixen and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in her only non-Meyer role of note; there’s Rainbeaux Smith, drive-in startlet and rock chick who went on to roles with Cheech & Chong, and the Cheerleaders movies; then there’s Ella Reid and Juanita Brown, neither of whom had careers beyond this film (Brown’s role in Foxy Brown aside) and Roberta Collins, veteran of Corman’s Women in Prison films, having bitch-slapped and mud-wrestled her way through The Big Doll House and Women In Cages. Not on the poster, but equally integral to the movie’s cult appeal is Barbara Steele, passing gracefully from her iconic scream queen phase (Black Sunday, The Pit and the Pendulum) to her prominent supporting actress phase (Shivers, Piranha). So far, so low brow. However, this is also the feature debut of Jonathan Demme, the director who would years later tuck away Ted Levine’s tackle and give Tom Hanks AIDS. It’s also an early work of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Demme’s long term director of photography, with the likes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Gladiator and The Sixth Sense filling out his CV. And who should be hired to do the soundtrack but John Cale, avant garde noisesmith behind the discordant soundscapes of the first two Velvet Underground albums. Nary a hint of Pam Grier brassily belting out “I’m A Long Time Woman” here, I’m afraid. These should serve as our first hints that Caged Heat steps up with slightly loftier intentions than merely a bit of blouse-ripping, titty-twisting action.
We’re accustomed to puritanical wardens in prison films, but rarely are they female, and surely nowhere else do they have dream sequences in which they proclaim their message of repentance and contrition in a showgirl outfit and top hat. We don’t often see the inmates acting out fantasies in which they’re rescued by a man who turns from a French legionnaire to a pin-striped suit mobster, whilst stalked by a slow-moving stream of oppressors including a narc who looks spookily like David Crosby and a white-suited surgeon reaching for her skull with a pair of forceps. Nor do we often see the members of a prison board, in the face of something that offends their delicate sensibilities, all at once make the classic monkey see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil pose.
No, not all of this is going to be to the taste of the grindhouse connoisseur, but it does use the Women in Prison genre to a clearly applicable purpose that few of them ever attempt: to craft a genuine allegory about freedom and oppression. If Jack Nicholson had a cracking pair of knockers and showered marginally more often than was strictly necessary, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest might look something like this. We’ve got a prison doctor, outwardly respectable but inevitably a power-crazed egomaniac, ready and willing to dish out electro-shock treatment and lobotomies to whoever steps out of line, and if he gets to molest a few incapacitated ladies in the process, that’s a double-win for him. Stepping out of line can be as basic as having a photograph of your lover, or performing a bit of amateur dramatics that doesn’t quite meet standards for taste and decency. All over the prison are constant reminders of the line that must be toed: yard walls marked ‘no laughing,’ dining hall walls marked ‘no food throwing’ (covered in all sorts of shit, naturally).
Sure, none of these women are exactly helpless and innocent, but rarely if ever does the punishment seem to fit the crime. Take Erica Gavin’s character, Jacqueline Wilson (a rather amusing choice of name for British audiences, as it’s also that of a prominent children’s author), who having refused to snitch on her friends is given 10 to 40 years for being an accessory to the non-fatal shooting of a police officer; “a most heinous crime,” as the ominous voice of an unseen judge informs us. Demme really seems to be tapping into the anti-authoritarian ethos of the 60s which, while less vocal by the mid-70s, was still around. And as if there’s ever any doubt as to where his sympathies lie, see how the movie ends – spoiler alert, naturally… with the wardens shot dead by their own belligerent police, and the prisoners freed. Viva la resistance, smash the state, fuck you I won’t do what you tell me, and so on and so forth.
But in case that doesn’t sound quite your cup of tea, don’t worry – Caged Heat also has lots and lots of tits. Big tits, small tits, perky tits, droopy tits, tits in the shower, tits in the bath, tits getting fondled, tits jiggling about, string vest sideboob, skin-tight T-shirt nipple erections, the works. With the exception of Barbara Steele and a few of the older prisoners, I think it’s safe to say that every woman in this movie gets ’em out, and more than a few of them drop their knickers as well. So there we go: a strong, politically-charged message, and loads of naked chicks. Caged Heat: now that’s what I call a film with something for everyone.