Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For the month of romance, we celebrate the birthday of the late great Jonathan Demme, whose output was as eclectic as it was empathetic. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Hey, we all gotta start somewhere, right? Not every director can be Ari Aster, knocking it out of the park with their feature debut. William Friedkin’s first film was Good Times, a comedy musical starring Sonny and Cher. John Landis’s was a King Kong rip-off called Schlock. James Cameron’s was Piranha II: the Spawning, which sells itself right there in the title. So let’s go easy on the late Jonathan Demme for making his debut as a director with the 1974 women in prison flick Caged Heat.
You might think it puzzling that the future director of Silence of the Lambs and Beloved would start his career with writing and directing an exploitation film, but it was the early 70s, and women in prison movies were an overwhelmingly popular B-picture genre, with more than 25 released just between 1970 and 1974 alone (including the 3-D Prison Girls, which Roger Ebert reviewed despite one of the lenses falling out of his 3-D glasses).
Demme wanted to try something a little new with the genre, and Roger Corman, for whom Demme produced an earlier women in prison movie (1972’s subtly titled The Hot Box), was willing to distribute it, provided it still had plenty of nudity and violence. What resulted was a baffling mix of drama and comedy, a feminist revenge flick in which basing a drinking game on how many bare breasts are shown on camera would result in alcohol poisoning within the first half hour.
Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) is imprisoned after a drug deal gone wrong. She’s sent to a prison camp where the mostly female guards have to wear shapeless, frumpy uniforms, but the inmates are permitted to stroll around in hot pants and halter tops (Jacqueline is allowed to keep her chic neckerchief). The prison is overseen by the wheelchair-bound Superintendent McQueen (60s horror icon Barbara Steele), who comes off like a lesser Bond villain and sometimes punishes unruly inmates with “corrective physical therapy,” which is just plain old electroshock therapy. Particularly stubborn cases get lobotomized with a power drill, referred to as a “medical drill” because it has a red cross painted on one side.
Tired of the abusive treatment they receive, Jacqueline and another inmate, Maggie (Juanita Brown), escape, then eventually break back in to rescue the other girls. That’s pretty much the entire plot, and even at less than an hour and a half it feels stretched so tight you can almost hear the boinnnnng sound of a rubber band snapping. Regardless, Demme was definitely trying things that hadn’t been seen in women in prison movies before, like artsy dream sequences, and a drag king cabaret show, complete with props and costumes. There’s also an interesting, albeit clumsy and unsubtle focus on how the mundanity of prison life (even if you’re allowed to dress like you’re hanging out with Truman and Andy at Studio 54) can drive you insane. The “feminist” approach Demme took was exhibited in Caged Heat’s refreshing lack of on-screen rape and male gazey lesbianism.
Demme was definitely trying things that hadn’t been seen in women in prison movies before, like artsy dream sequences, and a drag king cabaret show, complete with props and costumes.
Now, does that mean Caged Heat is a good movie? Oh, hell no. While it commendably omits rape as a cheap but titillating shock, there’s plenty of gratuitous nudity and cat fights (sometimes while soaking wet), and apparently all bras have been confiscated and burned at some point. Not that anyone should expect Shakespeare in a women in prison movie, but the acting here is particularly stiff, with some of the characters all but reading off of their hands.
Tonally, it’s a mess, with serious moments interrupted by weird, labored comedy, such as when Jacqueline and Maggie escape and take refuge at a brothel called the “Academy of Sexual Satisfaction,” or a ludicrous, Coen Brothers-esque sequence in which they enter a bank to rob it only to find that it’s already being robbed. It doesn’t help that the comedy bits are scored with “things are really wacky now!” jug band music, composed, implausibly, by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.
I would love to tell you that, as with Martin Scorsese and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, or Jim Jarmusch and Permanent Vacation, you can see some signature Jonathan Demme touches early on in Caged Heat. Alas, other than a slow corridor tracking shot reminiscent of when the audience is introduced to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (shot by Tak Fujimoto, who would be Demme’s cinematographer for ten films), there’s nothing particularly notable worth mentioning. One could make the argument that the jarring mix of comedy and violence (such as when a bunch of bumbling prison guards fire wildly into a van full of hostages, killing most of them) would show up again in Demme’s films later, predominantly Something Wild and Married to the Mob, but it would be a stretch. A big stretch. A big, long, luxurious hot yoga stretch.
Demme would remain in the action-exploitation trenches for a few more films before making a hard right turn into folksy comedy-drama with the critically acclaimed Melvin and Howard. A decade after that, he won a Best Director Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, the first (and to date only) director of a women in prison movie to do so. Fascinatingly sleazy, Caged Heat was nothing for Demme to be embarrassed about — for one thing he didn’t get stuck directing its unofficial sequels, Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom and Caged Heat 3000. For another, like graduating from working at Blimpie to executive chef at French Laundry, Demme’s was the kind of success that could only be achieved by diligence and not thinking he was better than anyone else. To watch Caged Heat is to be weirdly inspired — from garbage can eventually come greatness.