The latest in the (thankfully) ongoing run of Roger Corman releases from Shout! Factory is this prison themed double feature, Jackson County Jail/Caged Heat, now on DVD with some interesting extras and in nicely restored transfers. Let's get down to it:
Before Jonathan Demme wowed Hollywood with Silence Of The Lambs he cut his directorial teeth working for Roger Corman and this, Caged Heat, was his first effort in the director's chair. Made for Corman on the condition that he work in nudity, violence and social commentary, it's an exploitation film to be sure, but as star Erica Gavin points out in the commentary track, it has odd arthouse leanings.
When the film begins, a robbery has gone wrong and a woman named Jacqueline Wilson (Gavin) is wrongfully sent to prison to serve out a stint at the Connorville woman's correctional facility. Here she learns fast that the warden (Barbara Steele) is not to be messed with and neither, for that matter, are some of the tougher inmates, notably Maggie (Juanita Brown). Thankfully Wilson is able to befriend a few of the more relaxed inmates and winds up sharing a cell with one of them (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith).
Things are going about as well as they can for Wilson but when she and Maggie find their chance to escape, they put aside their differences and work together to do just that. Once on the outside they'll have to avoid the cops and connect with Wilson's friends to get some ID, but it won't be easy and of course, things start to go very wrong very quickly for all involved, while the abuses and mental cruelty that was going on behind the prison walls continues.
The first American film to deal with the ideas of shock therapy and lobotomies in the institutional system (it predates One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). Demme's film has more smarts you're your average women in prison drive-in sex and violence romp. All of the elements are there, of course, but the film manages to play within the established confines of the genre while working in some clever social commentary and bizarre artistic direction. Shot mostly inside an actual prison facility, set designers worked to give the prison its own unique look and as such you'll notice oddly painted bits and pieces around the cells. Throw in a truly bizarre stage show put on by the inmates and a couple of freaky hyper-sexual dream sequences and you can see how the film toys with surrealism in spots.
Performance wise, the cast are all golden. Gavin leads the charge with some serious enthusiasm, shifting from innocent to tough as the script calls for and never breaking character. A blend of physical and emotional workings, her performance is the stand out in the film, though her co-stars definitely hold their own. Roberta Collins and Smith are both great as two of the aforementioned more balanced inmates, while Brown shines in her over the top take on the less than stable Maggie. Steele uses her magnificent screen presence well, though is underused in the film, while Warren Miller does a fine job of playing the suspiciously perverse doctor in charge of the prison's behavioral therapy operations.
Demme keeps the movie going at a very fast pace, opening with a bang and not letting down until the big finale, while Fujimoto's cinematography does a good job of hiding the film's low budget roots by throwing in some classy dolly shots and using a few quirky angles to keep us on our toes. A remarkably bizarre array of background players make up many of the smaller parts (a lot of these people were crew members and are identified in the commentary track) which helps give the film an even more unusual look and feel in addition to providing some local flavor.
Jackson County Jail:
The second feature on the disc might not be quite as well known but it's still definitely an entertaining piece of drive-in moviemaking. Directed by Michael Miller in 1976 the film follows a Los Angeles TV news woman named Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux) who is fed up with her life and ready for a change. Her job hasn't been going well and she's been offered a new position in New York City. She has no qualms about leaving her cheating husband behind, she just has to drive across country and get started - so that's just what she does. The car ride doesn't go very smoothly, however, and it seems like everyone she runs into is out for themselves or up to no good. It isn't until she stops to help a young couple that she realizes just how much people suck. Before you know it, she's been robbed at gunpoint and left out in the middle of the woods, her car now on the way to God only knows where and she without any money.
Dinah heads to a local dive bar hoping someone will help her, but only encounters more of the same. The sleazeball man who runs the joint tires to have his way with her, though thankfully the town's sheriff arrives just in time to put a stop to that. Things aren't about to start looking up for her, however, because the sheriff completely ignores her accusations and instead tosses her in the slammer, charging her with the nefarious crime of vagrancy. Locked up in the cell next to her is a thief named Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones), who can't do anything but look on when the night watchman brutally rapes her. Dinah, however, has had enough and she beats the sleazy cop over the head with a stool and kills him. Coley gets the keys and the two bust out into the outside world to live life on the lam.
Bleak and sleazy, Jackson County Jail is one of those seventies exploitation pictures best described as sweaty. It's not sexy, though Mimieux is easy on the eyes, but it's got a hardened, blue collar touch to it that seeps into the pictures atmosphere thanks to the great locations and background players that pop up in the film. Well paced, it moves along quickly enough and is never dull and on top of that it gives Tommy Lee Jones a chance to show off his skills. Playing his character with the same sense of cool that he showed in the magnificent Rolling Thunder, his back and forth with Mimieux's character provides a strong backbone for the rest of the picture to hinge off of. The film mixes up enough dramatic tension with its more traditional and exploitative elements and results in an entirely worthwhile picture.
Both films look very good here in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. The framing looks fine for both pictures while color reproduction is nice and bold throughout playback. There aren't any obvious compression artifacts or problems with edge enhancement, while the visible coat of grain will please purists. Minor print damage pops up here and there but it's never obnoxious or distracting, while skin tones tend to look nice and natural from start to finish. All in all, this is a nice set of transfers from Shout! Factory.
Both tracks are given the Dolby Digital Mono treatment, in English. Caged Heat has some periodic shrillness to it and the occasional instance of hiss in audible in the mix but it's otherwise completely serviceable. Jackson County Jail sounds a bit better, benefitting from a cleaner and more distinct mix. Both tracks are fine, though, really, particularly when you take into account the fact that these are older movies made on a modest budget to begin with.
The main extras for each film are the commentary tracks that have been newly recorded. Caged Heat lines up director Jonathan Demme, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and star Erica Gavin for an active talk about the picture's origins. Demme does most of the heavy lifting here with Gavin doing a good job of explaining her appreciation for his efforts and pointing out some interesting artistic bits that you might not pick up on the first time around. Demme discusses how he got Corman to let him direct this, his first picture, and is quick to give credit to everyone he worked with on the film. Fujimoto isn't as active a participant here but he chimes in when Demme calls on him and lends some insight into the film's look.
Jackson County Jail's commentary features the film's director, Michael Miller, along with cinematographer Bruce Logon and producer Jeff Begun that takes a bit of time to really find its stride, but which eventually winds up as a fairly interesting look into the making of the picture once a moderator pops in around the half hour mark. They wind up doing a pretty good job of discussing the locations, shooting conditions and involvement of the various cast members in the production and despite some dead air here and there, it's not a bad listen once it picks up.
Rounding out the extras are the interview segments Leonard Maltin did with Corman on the original New Concorde DVD releases of these films, still galleries, trailers for both features, trailers for a few other Corman properties, menus and chapter stops. You're also given the option of watching each film individually or as part of a grindhouse double feature, where the trailers play before each film to replicate the double feature experience in the comfort and safety of your own home.
Fans of seventies style drive-in cinema get ready, as Shout! Factory has teamed up two undisputed winners on this DVD and offered them up with great commentary tracks and solid transfers across the board. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.