When Roger Corman left American International Pictures to form New World, he joined the ranks of ’70s drive-in impresarios making harder-edged exploitation films, teeming with sex and violence. But while Corman was always a shrewd businessman, his heart was never in smut, per se. After New World made piles of money on sweaty, lurid women’s-prison films shot in the jungles of the Philippines, Corman asked one of his young writer-producers, Jonathan Demme, to make his directorial debut with 1974’s Caged Heat, and suggested that Demme do what he could to lighten up the genre. The result was a movie closer to the Corman ideal: an exciting, clever low-budget picture that delivered all the nudity and punch-outs that audiences demanded, but still had a sense of humor, a point of view, and the flavor of Americana.
Shout! Factory recently packaged Caged Heat as a “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature” alongside Jackson County Jail. Both movies feature a female protagonist dealing with the cruelties of incarceration, but Jackson County Jail is markedly different. Written by Donald Stewart (later an Academy Award winner for Missing) and directed by Michael Miller, Jackson County Jail is more of a straight drama, with a few action elements. Yvette Mimieux plays a cultured, self-assured Los Angeleno who gets stranded in a small town when two hitchhikers beat her up and steal her car. The local rednecks molest her and toss her in jail, where she meets aloof, embittered crook Tommy Lee Jones. Together, they bust out and have a short, passionate run from the law.
There isn’t much plot to Jackson County Jail, and it’s slow-paced and dreary in the early going, but Stewart and Miller have fleeting moments of inspiration. Mimieux’s indignation over being shortchanged in a diner, for example, says more about her character than any self-actualization speech could have. And Jackson County Jail contains other evidence of smart filmmaking: Robert Carradine’s off-kilter performance as a vicious hitchhiker with a gratingly giggly girlfriend; the way Mimieux’s rapist withdraws in self-disgust after he’s finished; Jones’ philosophizing about what it means to be a criminal when “this whole goddamn country is a rip-off”; and an exciting climactic chase, shot with handheld cameras and ending in the middle of a Bicentennial parade.
Unlike Jackson County Jail, though, Caged Heat is inspired from start to finish. Granted, Demme is somewhat limited by the requirements of the women’s-prison genre. Erica Gavin plays a new inmate who’s hassled by vindictive, wheelchair-bound warden Barbara Steele, in a story that hits all the standard beats—right down to the requisite shower scenes and escape attempts. But Demme fashions this material into a loose-but-powerful feminist statement, as Gavin and her mates find ways to help each other on the sly, while steering clear of authorities who handle upstart women by lobotomizing them. Even the villainous Steele is presented as a victim of the system, handicapped both literally and metaphorically.
Beyond the theme, though, Caged Heat’s style is striking. Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto move the camera frequently and dynamically, and use expressionistic lighting to accentuate the movie’s multiple dream sequences. John Cale’s minimalist violin-and-harmonica score creates a mood halfway between “down home” and “fever dream,” while Demme’s script works in dirty jokes and multiple absurdist touches, like the greenish slop the inmates are forced to eat for their meals. Altogether, this is more art than trash, and though Corman had no mandate to produce masterpieces, he stood apart from others of his ilk in that he didn’t mind his employees showing off their genius, so long as they did it cheaply and turned a profit.
Key features: Two short Corman interviews (conducted by Leonard Maltin), and two commentary tracks: one with Demme, Gavin, and Fujimoto chatting warmly about Caged Heat, and one with Miller talking Jackson County Jail with producer Jeff Begun and cinematographer Bruce Logan.