Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) is a petty thief on the run who is with her boyfriend and his accomplice when the law catches up with them. A chase ensues and the boyfriend is shot by the police while she is caught and sentenced to not less than ten and not more than forty years in prison for drug possession and being an accessory to murder. Sent to prison, the first thing that happens is that Jacqueline is strip searched, which sets the tone for the depressing time she is going to have there; in the canteen she strikes up a conversation with two fellow inmates, Pandora (Ella Reid) and Belle (Roberta Collins) who warn her to keep her head down and not get too claustrophobic or the medical team will "assist" her. But she will have trouble staying anonymous...
Caged Heat was the first of the films to be directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, and he wrote the script as well. He was no stranger to the women in prison genre, having previously scripted The Hot Box and Black Mama, White Mama, but this effort won him, and continues to win him, praise as one of the best of those female prisoners action strands that were a popular exploitation feature of the seventies. It was produced by Roger Corman, so by now audiences knew what to expect, but some commentators will have you believe that this was a strike for feminism.
However, you just have to watch a few of these type of movies to see that plenty of them contain strong women, who due to being criminals may not be obvious role models, but still aren't backwards about being forward and standing up for themselves. So in many ways, Caged Heat is quite typical, even if it does start out resembling a women in prison movie for the arthouse crowd. This is mainly due to the weird dream sequences we see the characters suffering (or enjoying), such a one where the wheelchair-bound warden, memorably played by Barbara Steele, imagines herself as able-bodied and performing a show for the jailbirds.
But after about fifteen minutes of such sequences and arty fades from white it's as if Corman said, "Alright, that's enough of that, back to business" because the traditional "we gotta get out of this place" theme begins to assert itself. The warden, McQueen, is incensed when a show put on by Pandora and Belle offends her delicate sensibilities - although the prisoners enjoy it well enough - and Pandora is put into solitary confinement as punishment for talking back when called to McQueen's office. To alleviate her time in there, Belle then takes to disappearing to the kitchens when she's supposed to be taking a shower and fetching food for her friend, which she smuggles into the solitary cell.
Meanwhile Jacqueline has made an enemy of Maggie (Juanita Brown), who's the top dog amongst the inmates and they end up having a fight in the shower. Rest assured, there's plenty of nudity, but surprisingly no lesbian subplot as the sexual aspect remains purely voyeuristic on the part of the male viewers, confined to seeing the actresses without their clothes. About halfway through Jacqueline and Maggie make an uneasy allegiance when they escape together, triggering rebellion, and the performances of the leads are pretty strong for the duration, making it frustrating when the always reliable Collins is drugged by the twisted doctor (Warren Miller) for the last part of her screen time. I don't know if Caged Heat is the best of the W.I.P. films but it is among the better ones - just don't expect it to live up to its groundbreaking reputation. Music by John Cale (yes, the Velvet Undergound John Cale).
[Caged Heat has recently be re-released in the Roger Corman Early Films Collection. This features a surprisingly clear 1.33 transfer along with Leonard Maltin interviewing Roger Corman, trailers and biographies.]
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.