Caged Heat / Jackson County Jail Jonathan Demme / Michael Miller

Caged Heat / Jackson County Jail Jonathan Demme / Michael Miller
Of the many gloriously sleazy genres that Roger Corman and company exploited for drive-in fare during the '70s, the only one that hasn't had any sort of 21st century revival (ironic or otherwise) is the women-in-prison picture. That's right, the only film genre that revolves entirely around female nudity, abuse and empowered escape. It's undeniably a curious by-product of the '70s, a time when porn was cool and lady nudity was viewed as the primary selling point for R-rated movies. There was a curious push-pull between female exploitation and empowerment in female prison films, the weakest of which have justifiably vanished into obscurity for their uncomfortably misogynist filmmaking. But a few of the boobs-behind-bars flicks were actually pretty interesting and worthy of rediscovery, the most notable being Jonathan Demme's directorial debut, Caged Heat. In the ensuing years, Demme has come quite a ways in his career and is certainly the only women-in-prison director to win an Oscar. However, that's not to say his first movie is completely disposable trash. Far from it, the film is actually one of the best titles released under the New World Pictures banner, capable of standing comfortably alongside cult classics such as Piranha and Death Race 2000. Demme's movie offers all of the gratuitous nudity, cruel abuse and goofy violence demanded from the genre while also adding in knowing humour, social commentary and expressive cinematography (courtesy of Demme's long-time cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, fresh off of Terrence Malick's Badlands) to raise it above the pack. Demme has always been somewhat of a journeyman director, adding his personal touch to whatever genre he's taking on at any given time. In that respect, Caged Heat fits in well with his filmography, offering the non-judgmental humanism and strong female protagonists that have defined his movies ever since (Melvin And Howard, Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.). Though it would be a pretty big stretch to call Caged Heat "feminist," it certainly presents its female protagonists as badass action heroines who triumph over adversity. The film may be trash, but most movies are and guilty pleasures don't come much sweeter than this. Caged Heat comes to DVD courtesy of the Roger Corman Cult Classics line of double bill DVDs, packaged with Jackson County Jail, a solid low-budget effort best viewed as a special feature. It's a rape/revenge movie revolving around a wrongfully imprisoned lady and some dirty cops. It's pretty standard exploitation stuff, notable only for an impressive performance from a young Tommy Lee Jones. It's a shame that another more entertaining female prison movie wasn't included, like Demme-penned Pilipino prison flick The Hot Box. The DVD also features a collection of amazing New World Pictures trailers (most of which were edited by Joe Dante, at the time and were always hilariously hyped up, guaranteed to be better than the films they advertised), interviews between Leonard Maltin and Roger Corman, and audio commentaries for both features. Demme, Fujimoto and star Erica Gavin pop up for a jovial commentary track on Caged Heat, giving the impression that they are all quite fond of the movie. Amusing anecdotes include a reveal that both Demme and Fujimoto have cameos in the female wrestling brothel sequence (don't ask, just watch the movie and thank me later). This DVD is another strong release from Shout! Factory, who have done an amazing job presenting New World gems with handsome, special-feature packed DVD editions that most likely cost more than the movies themselves. (Shout! Factory)