Sunday, August 12, 2012

Caged Heat (1974)

The director of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jonathan Demme, began his film career working for the legendary B-Movie producer Roger Corman. His first film with him was the exploitation classic of the women in prison genre Caged Heat (1974). It's earned it's status as a classic because it stands out far above all other films of its kind. 

The film opens with a chase. Three undercover police officers arrive at an apartment building to make an arrest. But the suspects decide to try and run away on foot. The men get away, but the woman is trapped on the side of a house by two of the officers and taken off to be booked on charges. During her sentencing (this all happens in seconds, because it's only the setup) the judge remarks that because she refuses to cooperate and give the names of her cohorts, she will be incarcerated for no less than 10 years and not more than 40. She puts her head down and the screen goes dark. This is where the fun begins- for the viewer at least.

It's fairly easy to describe the plot of Caged Heat or any women in prison film for that matter. Girl winds up in prison. Girl makes friends with a prison gang. Battle wages between the prisoners and the guards. That's pretty much it. However, the movie is a lot more fun than my description would lead you to believe. And this movie is way smarter than you would ever believe. The fact that Jonathan Demme went on to direct some really great films is no surprise. Even here we see his ability to tell a story with the camera. There are some nice tracking shots that go up and down the halls of the prison (We saw the same shot in The Silence of the Lambs). He shows us everything that's going on. There are also recurring dream sequences that are filmed in a way that is stylistically formula. They each start the same way and have some pretty surreal elements. But the dreams aren't all coming form the subconscious of the same person. All of the inmates are having nightmares. 

There is plenty of humor in Caged Heat as well. This is the first woman in prison film to make the guards female and the outrageousness of the characters is a laugh riot. Barbara Steele is amazing as the warden. 

The script works on two levels and will appeal to a wide array of viewers. There is the deeper level that takes on social issues like sexism and racism. But for those just looking to see boobies, there's plenty of that here too. This movie is definitely not in the so-bad-it's-good category, most of it plays more like satire, but it's subtle. There are moments of grave seriousness that make it very nuanced. 

One thing I've never understood about these films is why all of the prisoners are allowed to wear their street clothes. I don't think that has ever been protocol in any prison anywhere. But it's a small gripe. Not even a gripe really. Just an observation. This movie is great and it's bound to be around for many generations. 

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