Shout! Factory continues to mine the best of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and this latest installment of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” is no exception. CAGED HEAT is perhaps the greatest send-up of the women-behind-bars genre ever made. Not only does it take inspiration from old-time Cagney films and 1950’s CAGED, but also the early 1970s Pam Grier action flicks, many of which were released by New World. Long Island-born director Jonathan Demme labored under the school of fast and furious filmmaking that became the workshop for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola.
CAGED HEAT immediately commences with a chase and a bust, as a couple of narcs arrest a relatively innocent girl named Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin, VIXEN, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). Wilson is sent to confinement at a women’s correctional facility, which is under the supervision of a wheelchair-bound, repressive warden named McQueen (Barbara Steele, BLACK SUNDAY), who administers punishments and derives pleasure from her authority over the lives of the helpless females that she governs. There’s also a slimeball, pipe-smoking doctor (Warren Miller, TWO-MINUTE WARNING) who want to perform electroshock treatments, and ultimately lobotomy experiments on the prisoners.
Within the penal hell of Connorville, Wilson gets into various mishaps, even though she tries her best to stay out of trouble, forming a rivalry with a hardened African American inmate named Maggie (Juanita Brown, FOXY BROWN). Though Wilson and Maggie are constantly at each other’s throats, a chance to escape in a transport truck brings them together, and they soon find themselves on the outside. Teaming up with another gun-toting chick appropriately named Crazy Alice (Crystin Sinclaire, here billed as Lynda Gold, EATEN ALIVE) they hold up a bank and later bust back into the prison to rescue their former cell mates once and for all.
Although Demme had already produced two typical exploitation pictures for Corman (ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME and THE HOT BOX), CAGED HEAT was offered to him for his directorial debut, and his attempts at bringing something fresh and intriguing to the already cliché-ridden women-in-prison genre is honorable. Working on the usual Corman threadbare budget, Demme shows astute judgment in the film’s casting and especially in his script that keeps the camp sensibilities from spilling over too much, creating believable characters within the framework of the prison genre, but never shying away from non-stop action, violence and frequent female nudity. Actresses like Gavin and Steele are showcased in a way unique in their careers and it shows their trust in the fledgling talent of their director. Two of the 1970s most revered drive-in queens, the late Roberta Collins and the late Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, are given a chance to shine as a pair of the more sympathetic inmates, with their characters being more than just pretty faces and beautiful bodies.
The gritty reality of being deprived of male contact as well as the violence the women inflict upon each other is well realized and sent up within the conventions of the exploitation genre. The film does not miss an opportunity to address this whether it be in the showers, in the lock-ups or in solitary. Many other sequences not only establish the frustration of being confined and punished in a system that disregards the individual and the psychological harm that results, but wisely uses humor to balance the violence culminating in the final breakout. Most of the main female characters are given their own dream/fantasy sequence, with McQueen’s (Steele’s) being especially memorable, with the character doing a sexy cabaret number in a lavatory, liberated of her handicap and masculine appearance. The unusual harmonica and viola soundtrack is performed by John Cale, a former member of The Velvet Underground and the fine camerawork is by Tak Fujimoto of DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) and later, Demme’s mainstream hits THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and PHILADELPHIA (1993).
Another Roger Corman New World production, 1976’s JACKSON COUNTY JAIL concerns LA TV executive Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux, THE TIME MACHINE), who takes off for a new career in New York after being ridiculed at her job and cheated on by her husband for the last time. During a long car ride, she is abused by nearly everyone that she runs into. Along the way, she picks up a seemingly nice young couple who end up stealing her car at gunpoint and leaving her in the woods of the most backward hick county. Going to a honky tonk for help, the owner tries to assault her just before a cop arrives. The officer totally disregards her plea, and throws her in the slammer for vagrancy.
Without any identification, she is forced to spend the night in the small jail right next to the cell of comely thief Coley Blake (a pre-stardom Tommy Lee Jones, ROLLING THUNDER). The repulsive overnight officer decides to have his way and violently rapes her. In a fit of rage, she repeatedly bashes him over the head with a stool, killing him. Coley grabs the keys and convinces the hapless heroine that she has no other choice than to become a fugitive with him.
With a fine line between exploitation and drama, it's easy to see why JACKSON COUNTY JAIL is such a cult favorite. Jones and Mimieux carry the events well as two characters from totally different worlds, on the run and sweating through turmoil together. Director Miller re-edited/remade the film two years later for television as OUTSIDE CHANCE. Film and TV buffs will have fun seeing such stars as Howard Hesseman (“WKRP In Cincinnati”), Betty Thomas (“Hill Street Blues”), Robert Carradine, Mary Woronov, Britt Leach, Severn Darden (as the sheriff!) and Hal Needham playing a police chief and also doing some of the stunts. Not nearly as crazy as say, a Jack Hill film, but still a worthwhile drive-in flick, and the performances are mostly top notch.
Both CAGED HEAT and JACKSON COUNTY JAIL had been previously released on DVD, both in boxy full frame transfers which did the films no favors. CAGED HEAT is presented here in a new anamorphic transfer with a fitting 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Colors are very strong, and even with some occasional speckling on the print source, the image is very clean overall with nice detail. The mono English audio is acceptable, showing its age with some scratchiness and hiss intensified briefly during reel changes. JACKSON COUNTY JAIL is also presented anamorphic in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and film must have been sourced from the original elements, as it looks absolutely flawless. Colors and detail are impressive, and although the elements showcase occasional grain, there are no blemishes to be found. Mono English audio likewise holds up to the quality of the visual.
Shout! Factory has furnished both titles with all-new audio commentaries. CAGED HEAT features director Jonathan Demme, director of photography Tak Fujimoto and actress Erica Gavin. Much is discussed about the $180,000 budgeted effort, with Demme revealing the film’s various homages and inspirations, as well as pointing out the numerous cameos by various New World personnel. The commentary for JACKSON COUNTY JAIL features director Michael Miller, producer Jeff Begun and director of photography Bruce Logan. The discussion starts off with a lot of dead silence, but Bill Olsen comes in unannounced about 28 minutes in to moderate, and things get a bit busier and more on track, making for an enjoyable listen. Both titles include their original trailers, photo galleries, and the appropriate decade-old “Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman” segments (for JACKSON, Corman claims it was Tommy Lee Jones' first film; it wasn't). Trailers for other New World titles (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, BIG BAD MAMA, PIRANHA, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) can be played as part of a “Grindhouse Experience” with several concession stand shorts thrown in. (George R. Reis)
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