Long before the late Jonathan Demme gave us such beloved films as The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense, he made his debut with Caged Heat and Crazy Mama under the mentorship of producer Roger Corman. These two exploitation cult curiosos introduced the world to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – although I can’t imagine audiences in the 1970s would’ve seen his future success coming. These films make for an absolutely fascinating and certainly entertaining double bill, as it’s truly staggering to consider that the man behind them would go on to become a celebrated, Academy Award-winning legend.
Caged Heat, his directorial debut, sees a petty criminal (Erica Gavin) thrown into prison where she must fight against ruthless inmates, a cruel warden (Barbara Steele) and depraved staff. To escape, she must form an uneasy alliance and embark on a violent, sleazy adventure. His second film, Crazy Mama, stars Cloris Leachman as a woman who runs a beauty parlour with her mother (Ann Sothern) and daughter (Linda Purl). When the shop is repossessed, the women embark on a crime spree.
The two films are 70s exploitation through-and-through, and it’s hard to see much of Demme’s later work within. These are cheap, gritty films with clunky dialogue, hammy performances and an overabundance of cliche – and yet, they’re often impossible to look away from! There’s something so charming about this era of low-budget filmmaking. The UK Blu-ray debuts from 101 Films certainly allow the films to look the best they can, while commentaries and interviews with Demme and Corman offer some charming insight into these cheap flicks.
Those going into 70s exploitation films are rarely going in with much of an expectation for quality, so, even with Demme’s name attached, the films shouldn’t disappoint. Hidden gems in the legendary filmmaker’s resumé these ain’t – no, they’re garbage. Demme’s attempts to inject fresh ideas into the so-called ‘women-in-prison’ subgenre in Caged Heat are hardly successful; attempts at satire with its use of liberal politics and social consciousness are weak, while the heaps of nudity injected under Roger Corman’s instruction hardly allows the feminist angle to succeed. Crazy Mama – which incidentally also marked the film debuts of Dennis Quaid and Bill Paxton – is marginally better, with Demme clearly growing in confidence, but still a million miles away from the quality he would find in his later classics.
All in all, the films are fascinating insights into Demme’s early career – aided by the retrospective bonus features – but those looking for hidden 70s classics will be sorely disappointed.