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A girl is caught in a drug bust and sent to the hoosegow. The iron-handed superintendent takes exception to a skit performed by the girls and takes punitive steps, aided by the sadistic doctor who is doing illegal electroshock experiments and raping drugged prisoners. After a while the prisoners put away their petty differences and plan the Big Prison Escape.Written by
Ed Sutton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Arguably the finest women in prison (WIP) film ever made, CAGED HEAT proves that even a trash exploitation film can aspire to decent artistic values. Jackie (Erica Gavin), an accomplice in a drug related crime, is sent to a southern penitentiary run by an oppressive, wheelchair-bound warden (Barbara Steele). Jackie's cell mate Lavelle (Cheryl Rainbeuax Smith) suffers from suicidal nightmares while another prisoner, Pandora (Ella Reid), is reprimanded for entertaining her fellow inmates with a mildly lewd vaudeville act and placed in solitary confinement. Her loyal friend Belle (Roberta Collins) begins sneaking through the ventilation ducts to bring her food from the kitchen until she's caught when she surprises an elderly staff member who abruptly dies of a heart attack. Meanwhile, the prison bully Maggie (Juanita Brown) picks a fight with Jackie and gets them both in hot water. Though the warden is a bit stern, the real threat turns out to be the demented prison doctor (Warren Miller). He subjects Jackie and Maggie to illegal electric shock therapy and prescribes a more permanent `cure' for Belle: corrective brain surgery, which he intends to perform with a Black and Decker power drill (!). Jackie and Maggie finally work out their differences and manage to escape in a highjacked prison truck. But Jackie can't bring herself to abandon Lavelle, Pandora, and especially the doomed Belle. With Maggie's help, she plans a daring prison break to rescue her friends.
Jonathan Demme's script provides believable characters and several imaginative dream sequences, and his direction is filled with impressive camera angles and novel wipes and dissolves. He even commissioned an appropriately down and dirty soundtrack from blues legend John Cale. Because of these frequent artistic flourishes, CAGED HEAT is one of the few WIP movies to win the respect of critics. In spite of the abundant exploitation and nudity, the film unexpectedly also won the approval of some feminist groups who praised its positive depiction of `Woman Power.'
A hugely appealing cast helps the movie immeasurably. Ms. Steele earned a reputation as the original `Scream Queen' with her edgy performances in horror classics like Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY and Roger Corman's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (both 1961). She's cast largely against type here as the prudish warden, but a dream sequence in which she performs a raucous Vegas style dance number wearing glittering tights and sheer stockings reveals her character's repressed eroticism, a quality Steele projected in all her roles. Leading lady Ms. Gavin made her screen debut several years earlier in one of the first hardcore adult features, Russ Meyer's VIXEN! (1968), which was a gutsy career move in an era when many actors were arrested for performing sex acts on film, then still a punishable crime. The petite Ms. Smith enjoyed a busy career in exploitation films during the '70s and early '80s; she tragically died of hepatitis in 2002. But beautiful blue-eyed Ms. Collins, who had already appeared in two previous WIP movies (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and WOMEN IN CAGES, both made in 1971), steals the show as the endearingly faithful Belle. The character takes considerable personal risk to help her friend Pandora and ultimately suffers for her effort. When we see her molested by the perverted doctor and learn that she's scheduled to become his next lobotomy victim, the news is genuinely shocking and upsetting, which nicely sets up Jackie and Maggie's race against the clock to save her. In other words, Belle ultimately becomes the emotional focus of the entire plot, and Ms. Collins handles the pivotal role with winning charisma and grace. She went on to appear in countless more cult B movies, including a fourth WIP film, VENDETTA (1986).
Demme of course went on to even bigger and better things, becoming one of the most successful directors of his generation. He won a Best Director Academy Award in 1991 for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which also won the Best Picture Oscar.
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