I just watched Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974). It’s supposed to be one of the better women-in-prison exploitation films. Demme, of course, went on to critically acclaimed movies like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. I never much liked Silence of the Lambs, with its reflexive serial-killer mythologizing and pompous psychobabble, and Philadelphia is, as they say, a complete piece of shit. But I had hopes that Demme’s earlier efforts might be better.
And Caged Heat is, in fact, better than either of those other two movies, though it’s still something of a disappointment. So far I’ve seen three women-in-prison films — Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House, Edward Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama, and Caged Heat – and, of the three, Caged Heat is easily the least interesting.
I can see why it’s generally rated high. There are a bunch of artsy dream sequences in the first third or so of the movie. The villainous matron (Barbara Steele) is granted more of an inner life than seems to be quite the norm — she fairly quivers with repression behind her glasses. There are a couple of tricky moments in which ambient dialogue floats into and out of hearing as the camera pans around the cell blocks, and some conflicts are shot with odd-angled shots, giving the cat-fights a nighmarish patina. In addition, the imprisoned women are for the most part straightforwardly sympathetic. Though there are some fights and intra-prisoner squabbling, everything resolves fairly easily, and none of the prisoners ever attacks anyone who doesn’t deserve it. When Belle kills an elderly prison matron, for example, it’s very clearly an accident. The bad guys are thoroughly bad , the good gals are good, and there’s a happy ending, with the women triumphant.
So, basically, this is well-liked for the same reason Demme’s other movies are well-liked — it’s (relatively) slick film-making with arty touches, and a moral universe which pretends to complexity while actually delivering feel-good bromides and easy victories.
In contrast, Black Mama, White Mama and The Big Dollhouse are both much seedier, and all the better for it. I wrote about Black Mama… before, and it’s a movie that improves upon reflection. Nobody in the film can really be called a good guy — everybody makes unpleasant moral decisions. Of the two stars, Karen (Margeret Markov) whores herself out to the warden for better treatment, while Lee (Pam Grier) abandons her friend to her death at the end. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters are an assortment of thugs and wastrels — though not unattractive ones. Sid Haig as a crime boss gives a brilliant performance; swaggering, ruthless, and hysterical — his enthusiastic debauchery with the two willing (and underage?) daughters of one of his hapless hired hands is an icky hoot. But even the lesbian matrons are surprisingly sympathetic. One of the matrons manages to seem both sexually out of control and vulnerable; the other matron, on the other hand, actually seems tough but fair, and trying to take care of her partner despite her own ambivalent feelings of lust and jealousy. The relationship between the two is clearly twisted, but also tender, and their story seemed so interesting, and the actors did such an excellent job, that I was really sad when they (like everybody else) met their untimely end. (The only person who is completely beyond the pale is the island drug lord, I think — though even he seems to have some kind of human feelings. He tortures one of his women for information, but finally relents when he realizes that she doesn’t in fact know anything. Later, the same woman — who had tearfully proclaimed her loyalty — shows up in a passing shot. She’s back in skimpy uniform, lounging around with the other eye candy, and she looks miserable — nervous, scared, freaked out, and trying to hide it. It’s a very nice touch; I wonder if it was the actor’s doing or the director’s…?)
I don’t think I like Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House quite as much, but it’s pretty great too. Both Pam Grier and Sid Haig give super performances. I think this may have been Grier’s first movie. She plays a lesbian tough who dominates and subjugates (some of) her cell mates, and the alternately vicious/tender patronage relationships she enters into seem eminently believable, in their broad outlines if not in details. She also has a complicated relationship with Haig, who plays the prison’s supplier. He’s obviously got the hots for her, and uses his position to take advantage — he tells her he has a letter from her, but refuses to give it to her until she lets him cop a feel of her breasts through the bars (and then it turns out the letter isn’t even for her!) Later, as part of an escape plan, she offers to have sex with him, enticing him by letting him put his hand in her cunt (“it’s like a vice!” he squeals moments before he assents to her plan despite himself.) When he shows up for the tryst, though, he discovers that she’s been murdered by the junkie she’s alternately abused and taken care of throughout the film…and he seems genuinely stricken. He calls her name repeatedly (Helen) which is especially poignant because he is the only character to use it throughout the entire film. Everybody else, even her cell-mate lover/thrall/murderer, calls her by her last name.
As Grier’s fate indicates, the women prisoners in Doll House are dangerous and untrustworthy. There is camaraderie among them, and they break out by joining forces — but they’re also dangerous and unstable. They’re certainly sympathetic, and they undergo fearsome (and lingeringly depicted) tortures, so we’re on their side. Yet, when they break out, taking the evil warden with them, they’re vengeance is uncomfortably nasty — they tie the warden down and force/encourage Sid Haig’s character to rape her at knife point. Demme, on the other hand, disposes of his baddies by having them conveniently and accidentally shot by their own side. Jack Hill gives his women the moral responsibility for their own revenge, which leaves the audience in a much more uncomfortable place.
Not that Caged Heat is all, or even mostly, bad. There are several excellent performances. Most notable is Rainbeaux Smith, who does vulnerable better than just about anybody. A scene where she’s locked in solitary kicking the walls and yelling at herself for stupidly helping her cell-mate escape is priceless, but her delivery is always smart and thoughtful and convincing. There’s also an off-color stage performance put on by two (possibly lesbian) prisoners in drag which is funny from start to finish, and Juanita Brown’s blustery Maggie is fun to watch.
As I think I mentioned, Caged Heat is often cited as being particularly feminist, presumably because the women win in the end. I’m not sure that that really seems especially feminist to me; the ending seems magical and unlikely, and I don’t really see why it’s revolutionary to pretend that overcoming oppression is easier than it is. But, in either case, all the women in prison films seem pretty pro-feminist — all present women as being oppressed, in all women overcome oppression by bonding together, in all women are presented as tough, courageous, and strong. At the same time, of course, the movies are all about exploiting women — your sympathizing with their oppression at the same time as you are getting off on it, quite literally in, for example, torture scenes, or even group shower scenes, where privacy is invaded both diagetically and literally. It seems like an extreme example of the contradictions of sexploitation in general. On the one hand, it’s about demeaning and exploiting women. But, on the other, it creates narratives which center on women, and acknowledge their lives and emotions and thoughts as important, at least to some degree. For that reason, sexploitation just seems a lot more friendly to women than straight male genre literature (westerns, super-heroes, spies, etc.) in which women are little more than objects to be passed around and exchanged among men, between whom all the real emotional interaction takes place. It’s no surprise, in other words, that these films were shown in places like drive-ins as date movies, in which you’d expect there to be both a male and female audience.