Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jonathan Demme got his start grinding out a women-in-prison flick for Roger Corman

Illustration for article titled Jonathan Demme got his start grinding out a women-in-prison flick for Roger Corman
Screenshot: Caged Heat

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The new directorial debuts The Broken Hearts Gallery and Antebellum have us thinking back on some of our favorite first features.


Caged Heat (1974)

A-list movie directors do still rise out of the B-movie muck every once in a while. James Gunn probably wishes everyone would forget his time at Troma Studios, for example. But there are few periods in schlock cinema history as creatively fertile as New World Pictures in the 1970s, under the business-savvy watch of legendary studio head Roger Corman. Famously open to hiring film students and other up-and-coming talent, Corman gave quite a few iconic names their breaks in the industry.

He hired Joe Dante as a trailer editor, James Cameron as an effects artist, and John Sayles as a screenwriter. He nurtured a young Martin Scorsese, and took Ron Howard seriously as a director at a time when most people still thought of him as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. (Corman also hired women like Stephanie Rothman to direct New World projects, but the sexism of the era made it more difficult for them to level up to the major studios.) Among Corman’s most dazzling protégés was Jonathan Demme, who was working as a press agent and film critic when he penned his first screenplay for Corman, the biker flick Angels Hard As They Come, in 1971.

Three years later, Demme had proven himself enough for Corman to trust him behind the camera on Caged Heat. Demme had already written a couple of “women in prison” movies for Corman by this point, and while this one doesn’t stray from the subgenre’s general exploitation formula, it also shows glimmers of the humanism that would mark Demme’s later work. Caged Heat, which he wrote as well as directed, opens with a moment of weighty silence, as cops wait for the signal to move in and arrest Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) and her male companions on charges of drug trafficking and assault. A narrator reads the statement—“No less than 10 years, and no more than 40”—in voiceover as Gavin stands handcuffed against a black background, leading into the leisurely pans across a prison yard and down a hallway lined with cells that introduce the major players in the film.

“Women in prison” movies were primarily intended as vehicles for catfights, bare breasts, and scandalous intimations of predatory lesbianism. Caged Heat is no exception. Even though the film is relatively tame for the subgenre, de-emphasizing sexualized violence and playing up the inmates’ camaraderie and ingenuity, it’s a bit of a stretch to classify it as a work of feminist subversion. But it is one of the better executed and creatively conceived examples, full of sly gags and surreal dream sequences that add visual interest to the bleak, industrial prison setting. Demme’s casting of B-horror goddess Barbara Steele in the sadistic warden role is similarly cheeky, covering her celebrated beauty in military uniform and oversized glasses. She and Gavin are backed by an all-star cast of exploitation actresses of the era, including Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, and Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, all of whom serve up heaps of defiant attitude and hairdos that are impossibly perfect, given the circumstances.

Demme’s inexperience as a director is obvious in the action scenes, which are more effective when he adds a touch of comedy than when he’s trying to play up the audience’s sympathy for his characters. A madcap prison break midway through the film and an ill-defined sci-fi twist raise the question of what might have happened if he had been allowed to go fully satirical with the premise, although he’d eventually perfect the balance between pathos and eccentricity in Something Wild. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Chained Heat was in the partnership between Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; the duo met on this film and went on to collaborate nine more times, including on the Oscar darlings Philadelphia and The Silence Of The Lambs. Neither of those movies have naked shower brawls, but they do contain several Demme signatures—like the subjective shot of Gavin three minutes in—that originate with this film. It’s no Citizen Kane. But neither was Francis Ford Coppola’s film debut.

Availability: Caged Heat is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and can also be rented or purchased through the streaming service.