Women behind bars has been a staple of the exploitation cinema for decades. There’s something forbidden about the vision of the fairer sex locked up and punished for their crimes. Guys getting locked up for a role wins acclaim. The Shawshank Redemption and Brubaker were serious dramas. The subject of women behind bars immediately informs the viewer that there’s plenty of communal showering and forbidden lust after lights out. Women prison films scream grindhouse more than Oscar night. Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature – Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat! has two future Oscar winners that launched their careers in the genre. Tommy Lee Jones and Jonathan Demme weren’t bound to linger in low budget cinema jail for their time behind bars.
Caged Heat! (1974 – 80 minutes) was Demme’s first true outing as a director. He goes beyond the normal women’s prison flicks that were clogging up low rent cinemas. Under the normal genre rules, an innocent woman is railroaded by the system and thrown into the snakepit of a woman’s penitentiary. Caged Heat! flips this around by making Erica Gavin (Vixen and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) guilty without a doubt. She’s part of a robbery gone wrong. She earns her punishment. But does she deserve the treatment dished out by warden Barbara Steele (Black Sunday)? Steele’s a wheelchair bound sadist who believes the best way to control violent inmates is shock therapy. If the electricity won’t work, she’ll get them lobotomized. Erica doesn’t want to stick around and play nice. She wants out before Steele can scramble more brains. There’s plenty of little plots involving various other female prisoners including Rainbeuax Smith, Juanita Brown and Roberta Collins.
Demme presents a layered and exciting film with his script and direction. He plays with the conventions without denying the audience the joy of expectations. There’s body cavity checks, group showering and nudity in solitary confinement. The fan of the genre isn’t going to feel cheated that he was forced to watch an art film. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography gives a fine layer of grit to correctional facility. The inmates don’t look too pretty. There’s a rawness to the image. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale contributes a score that satisfies the prison atmosphere and the fantastical moments. The one really annoying thing is the high pitched whine Demme puts on the audio track during dream sequences. Perhaps this wasn’t nearly on the verge of deafening dogs in the blown out speakers of a crummy end of the line movie house. Your home entertainment center’s prime speakers will demand you turn down the volume. Demme launched his career with the best low budget women prison flick. He wasn’t satisfied by just cranking out the conventional programmer. This is why he won the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs and wasn’t stuck making Caged Heat 14.
Jackson County Jail (1976 – 83 minutes) gives Tommy Lee Jones his first starring role. He takes full advantage of the break as jail escapee. Yvette Mimieux flees Los Angeles when everything goes to hell at work and home. She lands a gig in New York City so she’s not that bad off. But instead of hopping on a jet, she cruises cross country to see America. Big mistake. She takes pity on a young couple and offers them a ride. Another big mistake. They rob her and steal the car. She’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. She seeks help from the local authorities. The biggest mistake. Instead of assisting, they throw her into a cell for vagrancy. A horny deputy sexually attacks her. She gets her revenge on the lawman and flees with fellow prisoner Tommy Lee Jones. He helps her across the county with the law in hot pursuit. Their outlaw journey brings them together. It’s an intense relationship with a shocking ending. What makes the film special is Tommy Lee Jones being so natural on the screen. He’s elevates everything with his attitude. He doesn’t come off as an actor destined to be a Corman regular.
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature – Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat! is a perfect double feature with two films that are classics. This is not a case of overcompensating or grading films on a low budget curve. These aren’t merely salacious tales of women behind bars. They are riveting tales of penal systems gone bad. This is why they’ve risen to the top of the genre. Both of these films are sensational with talent that went on to even greater heights.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. Both films look the best they’ve been since their original release prints were loaded on a bus to play drive-ins across America. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. Things sound good except for that deliberate shrill on Caged Heat!
Audio commentaries are provided for both films. Caged! Heat has director Jonathan Demme, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and star Erica Gavin reunited. The threesome have a good time remembering the month long shoot. Gavin considered this a big budget production compared to her time with Russ Meyer. Jackson County Jail brings the crew around the microphone with director Michael Miller, producer Jeff Begun and cinematographer Bruce Logan. They share plenty of tales of a young Tommy Lee Jones. It’s nice that both of these commentaries include the cinematographers since they do have tales from the location.
Trailers include Big Doll House, Big Bad Mama, Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Piranha, Sharktopus, Caged Heat and Jackson County Jail. There’s a $2 off the DVD or Blu-ray coupon for Corman’s latest sensation Sharktopus.
Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman (9:12) has the producer discussing both Caged Heat! and Jackson County Jail. Leonard relishes the lines on the poster for Caged Heat! Roger recalls acting in Silence of the Lambs for Demme. Jackson County Jail was such a success that a TV network had it to be remade for a pilot movie.
Caged Heat Photo Gallery (1:35) appears to have been taken from the German lobby cards.
Jackson County Jail Photo Library (1:35) are various promotional stills and posters.
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature – Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat! contains two of the best flims about women behind bars. Jackson County Jail captures the nightmare of a woman falsely imprisoned. Caged Heat! makes us fear the cruel treatment of guilty women. Both films provide elements expected from the low budget genre yet give even more. The bonus features allow the filmmakers to talk about how they wanted to do more than the normal crowd pleaser cliches. It’s best to choose Grindhouse Experience to watch the films as a double feature with trailers and promos you would have enjoyed back in the ‘70s.
Shout! Factory presents Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Double Feature – Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat! Starring Erica Gavin. Barbara Steele Rainbeaux Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Yvette Mimieux. DVD Contents: 2 movies on 1 DVD. Released on DVD: March 22, 2011.
Tags: Grindhouse, Jonathan Demme, Roger Corman, Roger Corman's Cult Classics, Sharktopus, Shout! Factory, Tommy Lee Jones