Jonathan Demme’s passing was marked by tributes to Silence of the Lambs, an American horror classic. Demme would still be considered one of the great American directors even if that was the only film he ever made.
But it overshadows the rest of Demme’s filmography to the point that most casual film goers can’t even name another Demme film. Some will probably mention the brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense or the late masterpiece Rachel Getting Married. Others will remember Lambs’ follow up Philadelphia, still the most effective film about AIDS. Cult fans will remember Demme’s odd ball ’80s comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
But nobody has examined where Demme came from and what inspired him, even though Demme himself has been very open about it. Like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard, Demme started under Roger Corman’s wing. Demme never forgot his mentor, casting Corman in his films (including Lambs), even as other people did. Demme used the opportunity with genre films (like Angels as Hard as They Come) to comment on fresh, emerging trends in cinema.
Demme’s first directorial work was the Corman produced Caged Heat, a ”women-in-prison” film. This genre has fallen out of favor as people realize just how exploitative and degrading to the actresses the films are. The films are barely examined or acknowledged any more except by the most jaded critic.
So it’s almost understandable that people would ignore Demme’s debut. But is that fair? What does Demme’s first film say about the rest of his work?
At first glance, Caged Heat is nothing more than an amateur exercise. The characters are flimsy and the plot barely exists. When you hear the words ”women in prison film made in the 70s,” whatever you just pictured is exactly what Caged Heat is. There are robbery scenes, breakout scenes, a sadistic warden (played by Eurohorror legend Barbara Steele) who doles out random punishments after the inmates perform a risquÁ© sketch at a talent show, and numerous sex scenes. All of it is shot on cheap film stock and features dated 70s fashion cliches and a problematic mise en scene. I never once believed that the characters in this movie were serving prison sentences in a real jail.
But Caged Heat also showcases a lot of Demme’s interests that would be explored better in later films, particularly Silence of the Lambs. Demme’s best films are about female empowerment and transcending gender roles. Caged Heat would be taken seriously as a female empowerment movie today, but it was the best Demme could do at the time working with the constraints Corman placed on him. He clearly cares about the characters and wants the audience to relate to them. There’s a great scene in which Pandora (the Pam Grier knock off in the movie) is thrown naked into a solitary confinement box. Her tough exterior cracks as she stares at the walls around her and seems to hear the same fast heartbeat that the audience hears on the soundtrack.
Caged Heat still has moments that made me remember this is about a director learning his craft. Demme does several things here that foreshadow tricks he’d use later. There are several dumb jokes that would only be tried in a B-movie, but they still work in this context. Yet Demme still uses the opportunity to showcase his budding talent. One gag shows a woman vigorously shaking with her hand just out of frame as she moans, ”come on, baby, come on.” Only when the camera pans down do we realize she’s rolling dice. It’s a silly gag, yes, but it shows how Demme was already eager to play with the camera. Immediately after that, he uses the same tracking shot that would be repeated in Lambs to introduce Hannibal Lecter for the first time as he moves us down the cell block and tries to give us an introduction to some of the other inmates. And the bizarre pageantry of the cabaret show the inmates put on (in which two wear men’s clothes) seems to show Demme experimenting with the sort of stage craft he’d perfect in Stop Making Sense. Nearly everything in Demme’s filmography can be glimpsed in Caged Heat.
The film doesn’t let Demme explore the material in the way he would be allowed later in his career. Corman didn’t want a subversion of the genre; he wanted something that could be done quickly and would get people’s attention. Yet despite this, Demme was still able to be subversive. The electroshock scene is shocking, one that would be borrowed the next year in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And the women are still the ones who triumph over the sadistic warden. And the slow motion shootouts and bank robbery scenes are great attempts at trying to create a Sam Peckinpah style shootout with a low budget. All the shootouts would, at the time, have immediately reminded audience of the infamous security photos of Patty Hearst. There’s a lot of skill and ambition on display in Caged Heat, something that hints at what Demme would achieve later in his career.
Still, these interesting moments are destroyed by the weak material. Even though I want to care about the characters, I never feel like I get to know them. It doesn’t help that none of the actresses seem like they have any sort of experience in front of the camera before. Even Barbara Steele acts as though the act of being filmed is torture. This isn’t something that can be blamed on Demme, however. Corman’s cost cutting made it unlikely that someone like Faye Dunaway would be in the cast. But, as grateful as Demme was to Corman, I still feel like the material is hurt by the limitations Corman undoubtedly called for.
Today, Caged Heat is virtually forgotten and would remain that way if Jonathan Demme’s name were not attached to it. But without Caged Heat, we wouldn’t have some of the greatest American thrillers in history. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s an important thing we need to examine if we want to understand a director who gave his audience a lot in his filmography.