At the age of sixteen, I came into the possession of a Blockbuster card with the video rental store only a short bike ride from home. I used school holidays to forage for the grittiest-looking R-rated video tapes around. My choices were, admittedly, often motivated by a desire for sex and nudity, but the rewards were manifold; my strongest memories are the earnest B-movies, trash that exceeded genre trappings thanks to a sense of effort.
That same earnestness is evident in both Caged Heat and Chained Heat, “classics” of the much-maligned women-in-prison genre. Caged Heat is the directorial debut of Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, and it’s reflective of an era where schlock aspired to artistry. Its script is thinner than the paper it’s printed on, stringing together a series of weak excuses to unrobe its actresses (we’re treated to a bath scene even after a pair of prisoners escape jail).
But Demme strives for more than soft-core titillation. The opening scene renders a love scene with a misshapen fish-eye lens and uses a disconcerting score and jagged, loose editing to create a nightmarish, hallucinatory atmosphere. This isn’t an isolated incident; Caged Heat may leer at its nubile young women in the shower (with beauties like Cheryl Smith and Erica Gaven, why wouldn’t you?), but the use of sound and editing is effectively disorientating throughout.
Chained Heat lacks such audiovisual ambition, but compensates with bigger hair, bigger breasts (thanks to Sybil Danning and the once-cherubic-now-buxom Linda Blair) and a fuller, rounder screenplay. Chained Heat’s story is refreshingly complex, with a rich cast of villains – an amateur-pornographer warden, prison guards whose hobbies range from rape to murder plus some hard-ass inmates – and an actual character arc for Blair. It’s also cleverer with its use of nudity: it’s always exploitative, but unlike modern trash like Piranha 3DD, it (occasionally) serves a narrative purpose, and involves the lead actresses, not Perfect 10 models.
There’s even social commentary, if you squint just right; Caged Heat features two interracial lesbian couples (and takes these relationships seriously), while Chained Heat establishes a fierce rivalry between blacks and whites within its penitentiary walls before they set aside race in the climax to join forces against the corrupt prison administration. These films may not be great cinema, but they’re each clearly products of filmmakers who care, who want to make something more memorable than disposable. To my eyes, they succeeded.