Retrospect can be dangerous when writing about cinema, because critics and scholars occasionally color readings of vintage films with considerations that weren’t relevant at the time the pictures were released, thus arriving at a skewed sense of significance. To see how the process works, consider Caged Heat, a grimy women-in-prison picture issued by Roger Corman’s B-movie outfit in 1974. The flick is just as sleazy as any other entry in the genre, but because Caged Heat’s writer-director, Jonathan Demme, subsequently became respectable, there’s a temptation to scrutinize the picture for signs of artistic merit. And, indeed, one could offer an extraordinarily generous reading in which Caged Heat becomes a quasi-feminist statement about oppressed women breaking the bonds of patriarchal society. What that reading sidesteps, of course, is the actual content of the movie—the endless shower scenes of attractive women soaping their erogenous zones, the unpleasant sequences of half-dressed and/or naked women getting tortured, and so on.
Therefore, in order to accept the categorization of Caged Heat as an important early work by Demme—whose later films are generally quite sensitive to gender issues—one must pretend the picture was made entirely with good intentions. And while I have no doubt that Demme was as humanistic an individual in the mid-’70s as he is today, it’s inarguable that Caged Heat was, at the time its release, simply the latest in a cycle of revolting grindhouse offerings about chicks doing lurid things behind bars. Furthermore, Caged Heat has even less of a narrative than many other entries in the genre, because the movie gets mired in such pointless sequences as a talent show put on by the distaff inmates.
Anyway, here’s the story, such as it is. After Jacqueline (Erica Gavin) gets bushed on drug charges, she falls prey—along with her cellblock sisters—to the perverse machinations of Superintendent McQueen (Barbara Steele), the prison’s butch, wheelchair-bound warden. Breakout attempts and loss of life ensue. Along the way, Jacqueline fades into the background while fellow inmate Belle (Roberta Collins) emerges as the picture’s dominant character. Even though it’s only 83 minutes long, Caged Heat is boring as hell thanks to Demme’s meandering script and the weird tension between his professional obligation to deliver the T&A goods and his apparent desire to imbue the picture with redeeming qualities. In the end, Caged Heat isn’t lighthearted enough to qualify as escapism, and it isn’t substantial enough to quality as anything else—except, perhaps, a distasteful footnote to the career of an acclaimed filmmaker.
Caged Heat: LAME