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Jackson County Jail / Caged Heat


One of the best double features in the series so far

Rod Lott April 20th, 2011

Easily one of the best double features thus far in the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series is the pairing of 1976’s “Jackson County Jail” with 1974’s “Caged Heat.”

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The former begins with an uncharacteristic, but appropriate meta touch, as a projectionist loads a reel of film to unspool an image onto a theater screen — it's for a sanitary napkin commercial within the narrative, but it may as well be “Jackson County Jail” itself. The “Time Machine” starlet Yvette Mimieux portrays Dinah, a headstrong, take-no-BS ad exec who decides to ditch town after she comes home to catch her significant other (“WKRP”’s Howard Hesseman) with a babe in a bikini.

And thus begins an even worse 24 hours, as she’s robbed of her car (by Robert Carradine), leaving her stranded in the title county; then assaulted by a bar owner; then thrown behind bars by a good-ol’-boy sheriff for no good reason; and finally, raped by a deputy. That’s the harrowing point where she’s had enough, and escapes with the help of her next-cell neighbor (Tommy Lee Jones, in his first starring role).

Directed by Michael Miller (“National Lampoon’s Class Reunion”), “Jackson” is tough stuff, but powerful; Dinah is pushed so far over the limits that you want to see it turn into a revenge film in the second half, rather than a chase one. Still, that second half allows Jones to take the spotlight and strut his stuff (and look for a great visual joke involving him with just two-and-a-half minutes left to go). Mimieux delivers a strong, feminist, “where’d that come from?” performance; if this were produced not by Corman, but a Hollywood studio, she would’ve been an Oscar contender for Best Actress. She’s that good.

At one point during their time as fugitives, Jones tells her that prison would not be a friendly thing for a woman like her: “You have no idea. They're going to eat you alive.”

For details, consult “Caged Heat,” written and directed by Jonathan Demme (eventual Oscar winner for “The Silence of the Lambs”), in his first time as helmer. It belongs in the infamous “women in prison” subgenre, but Demme’s mark on the material elevates it beyond mere exploitation. Immediately, you can spot the winking sense of subversive humor he would bring to mid-budget mainstream works as "Melvin and Howard," “Married to the Mob” and "Something Wild."

Russ Meyer vet Erica Gavin is Jacqueline, tossed in the clinker after a drug bust/shootout. Her new environs are less than welcoming, where girls backhand one another amid cries of "You stinkin' klepto!" and shout threats like "I'm gonna spill a can of kick ass all over her butt!"

The place is run by wheelchair-bound warden Barbara Steele (“Black Sunday”) with sexual-repression issues and two iron fists. Solitary confinement is one tool at her disposal for punishment, but worse is “corrective physical therapy” — read: shock treatments.

Camp value aside, what’s most notable about the film is its creative use of sound as a secondary, if unseen character. The thing is, after all, scored by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale.

As with other Corman discs from Shout! Factory, it’s recommended you set aside time to watch both pictures back-to-back, via "the grindhouse experience" option. That way, you get drive-in ads and trailers sandwiched in between, offering glimpses of “The Big Doll House,” “Big Bad Mama,” “The Great Texas Dynamite Chase” and “Piranha.” —Rod Lott






 
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