Chained Heat | VERN’S REVIEWS on the FILMS of CINEMA

May 27, 1983

CHAINED HEAT is a genuine exploitation movie. Maybe it’s my ignorance, having been a child in the early ‘80s, but I think of those days as being pretty separated from the era a decade earlier that produced Jonathan Demme’s debut CAGED HEAT, which the title seems to be a throwback to. That must be wrong, though, because there’s not much that seems winky about this one. It’s very serious about providing lurid, sleazy entertainment.

Linda Blair, in her followup to HELL NIGHT, stars as Carol Henderson, a nice girl and “prison virgin” doing 18 months for vehicular manslaughter. Sitting on a bench waiting to be booked she meets some more experienced cons who are pretty welcoming to her. But one of them saying she’s in for stealing TVs starts a discussion of favorite soap operas that escalates to a threat of throat slashing.

Of course there’s gotta be a sleazy warden in any women’s prison picture, and this one is played by the very qualified character actor John Vernon (POINT BLANK, DIRTY HARRY, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES). I actually didn’t pick up at first that this Backman guy was the warden, because his office is a luxury apartment with a hot tub and taxidermied animals and shit, so I didn’t realize we were still in the prison. He’s introduced filming Debbie (Monique Gabrielle, future star of EMMANUELLE 5, DEATH STALKER II and SILK 2) as she does a strip tease, talks about the movies they’re going to make together when she gets out, and then has sex with him in the hot tub. She’s also an informant for him, getting him information about people selling drugs in the prison. Not because he’s upset about drugs being sold in the prison, but because he’s selling drugs in the prison. They’re his competition.

Despite the casting couch allusions it seems like she’s supposed to actually like having sex with him – she seems very content as she’s leaving, until she hears people chanting “snitch” and clanging metal objects menacingly against the bars, like Freddy scraping his claws in the boiler room.

There are two rival gangs in the prison, white and black, each with a badass leader played by a drive-in movie icon. Ericka is played by Sybil Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS) and her rival Duchess is played by CLEOPATRA JONES herself, Tamara Dobson. And there are other corrupt shenanigans going on in the prison, such as the warden’s lackey Captain Taylor (Stella Stevens, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD) working with her sleazy boyfriend Lester (Henry Silva, ALLIGATOR, SHARKY’S MACHINE) to pimp the inmates out on “dates” with rich dudes.

I think the journey of Linda Blair is interesting – becoming an icon, Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner at such a young age in a giant hit that’s the most Elevated of Elevated Horrors, then as she grows up being trashed by various judgmental prudes, assholes and cheapjack gossip mongers insisting she’s psychologically damaged from saying naughty booboo words and playing evil devil monster as kid. Then they shamed her as low class for being in TV movies and slashers as she got older. For example, she was a favorite punching bag of the tasteless misogynistic creeps at the Razzies, who nominated her “worst actress” for both HELL NIGHT (1981) and this, and then gave her the “win” in 1985 for NIGHT PATROL, SAVAGE ISLAND and SAVAGE STREETS. (Being nominated in three years puts her in the company of future nominees Cameron Diaz and Kristen Stewart).

I hate that shit. I consider it an accomplishment and sign of character for mainstream successful actors to also have some not-ashamed-to-be-trash movies under their belts, so good for her. Despite some of her movies and the press portraying her as a youth out of control, she has the overwhelming aura of a fresh-faced innocent here, so she works really well as the delicate mouse thrown into a pit of snakes. There’s a big scene in the showers with all these naked women joking around, or going at it, or in some cases cleaning themselves, and it’s very effective that Blair is up against a wall, timid, mostly hidden.

Apparently, though, the glimpses of her body that are shown were considered a big deal at the time – the DVD I rented was branded by “Mr. Skin,” the early internet phenomenon that made money and changed Hollywood by pirating clips of nudity in mainstream movies. It’s also worth noting that Blair has said she was coerced into doing the scenes, not having them included in the script she signed up for and then being pressured to believe she wouldn’t work again if she refused to do them. Sleazy Warden Backman type behavior on the part of the filmmakers (but it seems common practice until pretty recently).

It’s also fair to say this movie traffics in homophobia, with its constant threats of lesbian aggression, though I think the toughness of all the convicts makes them at least seem cool in a way that most derogatory portrayals of gay characters do not.

When another inmate tries to hit on Carol in the shower, Ericka tells her to beat it. Carol thanks her for the help, but Ericka’s not even gonna play the “I’ll protect you now and expect something for it later” long game – she immediately starts trying to “help” Carol soap up.

Carol ends up having a more genuine relationship with Duchess, who helps her out in a fight and later gets some information from her in return, even though the other white girls tell her (incorrectly) that Duchess can’t be trusted. There’s a good scene where Carol decides to attack one of the guards, and Duchess holds her back, saving her so she’ll be around for a more organized uprising.

Dobson is the best part of the movie – I love her in CLEOPATRA JONES, but she only did half a dozen movies in her entire career, so any of her major roles are precious. This was her last theatrical feature, though she still had the TV movie AMAZONS the following year. She’s really cool here – she’s so tall, she gets to do some high kicks, and curse people out as “chalk-faced whore” and “white bitches” without fear of retaliation. As Cleopatra she’s incredibly fashionable and glamorous, here we see her in a prison jumpsuit and braids, a decade more age and character on her face, still looking regal as hell, earning that name.

I wish I could claim this was all good trashy fun. There is definitely something about the overall tone I like – these larger-than-life women with acting styles as broad as their personalities, a deliberate choice to do a Roger Corman thing, maybe, but not a self conscious or jokey one. But there are multiple graphic sexual assault scenes, one right at the beginning, and culminating in a particularly repulsive one with the warden tearing screaming Carol’s clothes off in his office. I will compliment the over-the-top choice to keep cutting to closeups of Captain Taylor biting and licking her lips while watching one of the attacks through a window. But for me personally these type of scenes are an obstacle to enjoying a movie or being able to recommend it to anyone, and it’s not like it works as a serious meditation or expose on the many real life abuses of the prison industry either. The most charitable interpretation is that you’re supposed to be shocked. I wouldn’t say you’re supposed to be upset.

Still, it’s hard not to get at least a little bit of a thrill out of it when the setting-aside-their-differences-to-overcome-their-oppressors part of the formula kicks in, and it’s better to build to some excitement than just fizzle out after a couple good parts. So there are worse movies.

CAGED HEAT is the second film by writer/director Paul Nicholas, following the teenage-girl-out-of-control movie JULIE DARLING (1982). He’s also co-writer along with Aaron Butler, who later did HELLHOLE and SAVAGE HEAT, but chose to be credited as “Vincent Mongol” here. (That’s a pretty cool pen name, and this does some like a movie that would be written by Vincent Mongol.)

Nicholas followed this up with another women-in-prison movie, THE NAKED CAGE (1986), and he also did a non-prison movie called NIGHT OF THE ARCHER (1994). His final film LUCKYTOWN (2000) actually starred Kirsten Dunst, James Caan and Luis Guzman. Hopefully he didn’t trick any of them into doing shower scenes.

Despite the sleazy origins of the DVD I rented there’s a pretty good interview with Stevens on it. She says “All those people thought that we were in a really good movie,” and seems proud of it herself. “When I finally got to see it I thought it was way better than I expected,” she says. She keeps talking about how “realistic” it is and seems to believe Nicholas was trying to make a serious issue movie. Tell that to the marketing department who made the poster that says, “What these women did to get into this prison is nothing compared to what they’ll do to get out. 2000 chained women stripped of everything they had… except the courage to survive.”

CHAINED HEAT opened at #7, which seems pretty good since it was only on 404 screens (as opposed to BLUE THUNDER’s 1,555). It was sort of counter-programming to RETURN OF THE JEDI – it would’ve been released on the same day, but JEDI got moved to the 25th to coincide with the anniversary of the original STAR WARS release. (Or so they say. I bet it was really to get a head start on CHAINED HEAT.)

In 1993 there was a sequel-in-name-only starring Brigitte Nielsen.

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