The Films (4/5)
If you love Women in Prison films like I do, than the last few months have been akin to a WiP Christmas. The greatest of the Corman WiP films have recently seen release through Shout! Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics line, and Synapse Films in conjunction with the now defunct Panik House and Mr. Skin have released a triple feature of 80's Wip Films (2 of which feature Linda Blair!) I'll admit I've been a little behind on my viewing, but the first of these releases came with this Roger Corman double feature of Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, and the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Jackson County Jail.
Caged Heat is the debut feature film by director Jonathan Demme who would go on to become an Oscar winner, and critics darling. With Caged Heat he elevates the Women in Prison genre which Corman had been having much success with in the years prior to Caged Heat due to a trio of Pam Grier starring vehicles, and adds more political, and social elements making them relevant to more than just the exploitation fanboy, although it will be said those elements are retained as per Corman's request and are handled well by the fledgling director.
The story follows Jacqueline Wilson a woman who gets arrested following a botched robbery, and sent to prison. The prison is run by a wicked warden played wonderfully by the immortal Barbara Steele. Things are pretty average for her at the start of her sentence, but as she integrates herself into the prison culture she begins to notice the seperations, who to mess with, and who to befriend, and begins to suspect that something is going on beneath the surface.
When Jacqueline and her cellmate Maggie (Juanita Brown) see an opportunity to escape they go for it. Once on the outside the film becomes a mad dash to avoid the cops, and secure a fake ID, before they decide to stop the abuses on the former prison mate, by assisting by stealking a large truck, and organizing a mass breakout!
The plot description sounds sort of typical WiP, but the direction from Demme, combined with the excellent cinematography from Tak Fujimoto, and the uniformly great performances from the cast, elevate this to a level much higher than your standard B-Movie. Demme also throws in some great surrealist touches, like a wonderful burlesque dream sequence featuring Barbara Steele (that would give this film a 5/5, on it's own). Overall, one of, if not the best film from the early 70's New World Women in Prison Cycle.
Jackson County Jail
The second feature was an unknown to me, until I got my hands on this set. An early Tommy Lee Jones starring vehicle Jackson County Jail. One thing I love about these Corman sets is becoming introduced to films I might otherwise have skipped out on, I would have gladly just picked up a DVD of Caged Heat, but getting this is like a bonus feature in itself.
I didn't have any expectations for this going in, I like Tommy Lee Jones as an actor, but that's about it. I was pleasantly surprised, this was definitely in the realm of Drive-in Exploitation moviemaking, but was much more serious than that. It feels like one of those few select films where the arthouse meets the grindhouse.
This isn't what one would call a "fun" exploitation film. It's pretty damn serious, with a good dose of sleaze. There is a pretty bleak atmosphere that runs throughout the entire film permeating every frame from the L.A. Screening room where the film starts to the very last moments. The direction from Michael Miller is very fluid, he keeps the film going at an excellent pace, never allowing the film to drag, and always managing to keep the audience interested in what is coming next. A film like this really hinges on the performances of the leads, and both Jones and Mimieux come through excellently. Both characters feel fully realized, and the performances truly make you feel for the two of them.
The film stars Yvette Mimieux, as Dinah an L.A. TV Exec who is fed up with her career, and her cheating boyfriend, and decides to head East to New York. Rather than take a plane ride, she decides to drive the distance. Unfortunately, for her the ride does not go smoothly (cross-country road trips never seem to do so *ed. note), she gets held up by a young couple that she pulled over to help. These 2 proceed to steal her money and her car, she wanders down the road to a bar hoping to get some help, but only finds the bar owner attempting to rape her. When she calls upon the Sheriff, he sides with the bar owner, and throws her in to the county jail, right next to small time thief Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones).
This is one of those moments, where you think to yourself, this cannot get much worse, but it does. The deputy left in charge overnight, attempts to rape her, during the scuffle that ensues Dinah ends up killing the deputy. Coley cannot do anything during this scenario, but once it's over he steals the deputies keys, and escapes with Dinah in a nearby police vehicle, not knowing what fate will befall them.
Shout! Factory have done another outstanding job with their release of Jackson County Jail and Caged Heat. Both films are presented in their original 1:78:1 aspect ratio. There is a little print damage here, and there, but that is to be expected for films of this budgetary level and age, and it's never a distraction. The colors are largely accurate, black levels are decent, there appear to be no issues with DNR, or compression artifacting, overall a completely fantastic transfer.
Both films are presented with Dolby Digital mono tracks, and both are similarly excellent. These films wouldn't have won awards for their sound in theaters, and they wouldn't here, but everything is mixed well. The dialogue, music, and effects do not clash, and I did not detect any aural imperfections anywhere on the track.
The extras on this set are slim, but informative. What we have here is commentaries on both films, the Caged Heat track features Jonthan Demme accompanies by actress Erica Gavin and DP Tak Fujimoto. The Jackson County Jail commentary features director Michel Miller, with the producer Jeff Begun, and DP Bruce Logan. The set is rounded out by trailers for both films, and other Corman releases, interviews with Corman himself in regards to these films, and still galleries. There is also a fun option to watch them together as a "Grindhouse" double feature with trailers before and in between features that is a lot of fun.
For started you get Caged Heat, which is a certifiable genre classic, and then Jackson County Jail, which is an amazing gritty exploitationer. Both of these films are remasatered with transfers that are absolutely stunning, and the extras while slim are informative and entertaining. This release comes very Highly Recommended.