Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: CHAINED HEAT (1983)

(US/West Germany - 1983)

Directed by Paul Nicolas.  Written by Vincent Mongol and Paul Nicolas.  Cast: Linda Blair, John Vernon, Sybil Danning, Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Henry Silva, Sharon Hughes, Kendall Kaldwell, Robert Miano, Dee Biederbeck, Greta Blackburn, Nita Talbot, Louisa Moritz, Jennifer Ashley, Jody Medford, Mae Campbell, Monique Gabrielle, Edy Williams, Marcia Karr, Carol White, Susan Meschner, Michael Callan, Leila Chrystie, Martha Gallub, Aaron Butler, Irwin Keyes. (R, 98 mins)

The women-in-prison (WIP) genre existed as far back as the 1930s but with the dawn of a new era and the freedoms allowed by an R rating, it blew up as an exploitation staple in the early 1970s thanks to Roger Corman producing a string of sleazy gems for his New World Pictures like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971), WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), and Jonathan Demme's directorial debut CAGED HEAT (1974).  The ever-reliable Jess Franco really kicked things off with 1969's 99 WOMEN, but the popularity of Corman's New World releases begat European imitations like THE BIG BUST OUT (1973) and Jess Franco's ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN.  With their hammy acting, gratuitous nudity, prison-yard catfights, lecherous guards, sadistic wardens, and mandatory lesbian shower seductions, these became fixtures in drive-ins and grindhouses for the rest of the decade before winding up in regular rotation on late-night cable in the early '80s, which is also when the Australian soap PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H started running in syndication on American television.  A second wave of WIP films took off with THE CONCRETE JUNGLE (1982), and led to HELLHOLE (1985), THE NAKED CAGE (1986), and the spoofy REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS (1986), along with the requisite Italian knockoffs like CAGED WOMEN (1982, released in the US in 1984), and the utterly bonkers WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (1983, US release 1985), with the focus almost entirely on the exploitative elements and lacking even the cursory allusions to social commentary that existed in some of the more ambitious Corman productions.  The '80s WIP films enjoyed much popularity on video store shelves and on cable, but there was one film from this second wave that has managed to tower over its contemporaries and is largely considered the ultimate WIP epic:  CHAINED HEAT, released in theaters May 27, 1983.

Producer Billy Fine brought a lot of the ladies from THE CONCRETE JUNGLE back for CHAINED HEAT, but while that film's slumming big-name value was limited to Jill St. John as the bitchy warden, CHAINED HEAT boasted a ridiculous cast of actors either in a career lull or on their way down, almost all of them well aware of what kind of movie they're in and just rolling with it.  Journeyman types like John Vernon and Henry Silva were still regularly appearing an A-list fare, but never turned down a gig if the pay was right, especially, in Vernon's case, if most of your screen time was spent in a hot tub filming and fooling around with topless co-stars.  Yes, CHAINED HEAT is the infamous "the warden has a jacuzzi in his office" movie, and judging from his over-the-top performance, I'm confident Vernon at no point mistook this for a serious project.  Sure, he'd worked with the likes of John Boorman, Lee Marvin, Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, and Dusan Makavejev in the past, and cemented his place in comedy history as Dean Wormer in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), but when you get a chance to spend almost the entire movie surrounded by naked women and sinking your teeth into dialogue like "Don't call me Warden...call me Fellini!" then you don't pass it up.

In what was publicized at the time as her first "grown-up" role, Oscar-nominated EXORCIST star Linda Blair, her career already bogged down by bad movies, hard partying, and a late '70s drug bust, is naïve "prison virgin" Carol Henderson, sentenced to 18 months for accidental vehicular manslaughter.  The terrified Carol isn't sure where to turn or who to trust, and finds herself in the middle of a prison turf war between rival gangs led by Ericka (Sybil Danning) and Duchess (Tamara Dobson).  Also not helping matters is sleazy warden Bacman (Vernon), who entertains the sexier inmates in his hot tub and keeps them supplied with heroin from his side business, which is being cut in on by his chief guard Capt. Taylor (Stella Stevens) and her slimy pimp boyfriend Lester (Silva), who are running their own drug smuggling operation on the inside with Ericka.  After Ericka kills his snitch Debbie (Monique Gabrielle), Bacman tries to talk Carol into replacing her as his eyes and ears and she trusts Bacman until he rapes her in a drugged rage.  Eventually, Ericka and Duchess set aside their differences and unite to fight the oppressive rule of the sadistic Taylor and her crew of guards, who frequently abuse and sexually assault the inmates.  Taylor is also preoccupied with getting the venal Bacman out of the picture so she and Lester can run both the prison and the drug trade within.

"Mr. Silva's wardrobe provided by Henry Silva"

With the plot stripped down to its basics, CHAINED HEAT sounds like any other WiP flick of its era.  But where this stands out from the crowd is its cast, their bug-eyed histrionics, and the rampant trashiness of the entire project.  Even Blair engages in some much-ballyhooed topless shots, including a lathering up by Danning in the shower.  Bacman's private hot tub is a constant source of amusement.  Stevens' late-film outburst of "Slimy pig shit!" while beating Danning has to be seen to believed.  Silva is a blast as the Cosby sweater-sporting pimp, who's always hanging out at the prison but it's never really clear what his job is (is he some sort of supplies delivery person?), other than sneaking some of the girls out of prison to pimp them out to rich gangsters like the one played by busy TV actor Michael Callan, 1961's Golden Globe winner for Most Promising Newcomer.  The imposing Dobson spends the entire film in a pained, jaw-clenched grimace, and her confrontation with Danning is one for the ages.  And remember:  "No Spitting."

The German-produced CHAINED HEAT was shot in Los Angeles at the shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail, which closed in 1965 but frequently functioned as a location for film shoots (it can also be seen in CAGED HEAT and Jamaa Fanaka's 1979 hit PENITENTIARY, and the Freddy Krueger boiler room sequences in 1984's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET were also shot there).  The film was directed by Paul Nicolas, a pseudonym for German writer/director Lutz Schaarwachter, a minor-league exploitation vet whose credits included scripting the softcore, young Nastassja Kinski late-night cable favorite BOARDING SCHOOL (1978) and directing Danning in the "disturbed teenage daughter has the hots for her dad and tries to kill her stepmother" erotic thriller JULIE DARLING (1983).  The very sporadic Schaarwachter/"Nicolas" would return to the WIP genre with THE NAKED CAGE for Cannon, and he's only made two films since then, the most recent being the 2000 Vegas-set drama LUCKYTOWN, with Kirsten Dunst and James Caan.  Nicolas never really became a prominent B-movie figure, but CHAINED HEAT is enough to ensure his bona fides as an exploitation legend.  Let's face it:  no matter how many forgettable-to-shitty movies you may have directed, helming CHAINED HEAT gets you a lifetime pass.

CHAINED HEAT opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1983 and landed in 7th place at the box office--not a bad finish considering the only other wide release that weekend was RETURN OF THE JEDI (Video Junkie's William Wilson on CHAINED HEAT: "Only one movie had the balls to open up against RETURN OF THE JEDI!").  Budgeted at just $1 million, it stayed in the top ten for two weeks and grossed a little over $6 million--not a blockbuster by most standards, but it made a huge profit for the producers and for small-time distributor Jensen-Farley Pictures before it hit video stores courtesy of the legendary Vestron Video, a company whose logo preceded many great exploitation films of the '70s and '80s and seems to perfectly epitomize the 1980s video store experience.  The full-frame 1.33 VHS transfer of CHAINED HEAT inadvertently added to its cult status as a Bad Movie classic:  it was improperly framed from the 1.78 theatrical image, leaving the top of the frame visible, leading to the unsteady boom mic being in the film nearly as much as Linda Blair.  For years, people who missed CHAINED HEAT theatrically were under the impression that the film was simply shot this incompetently.  When viewed in its proper widescreen aspect ratio, the boom mic is never seen.

CHAINED HEAT still gets shown in semi-regular rotation on Showtime and Flix's late-night schedule, but avoid that version at all costs, as it's misframed (black bars slapped on a 1.33 image to create the illusion of letterboxing, causing the tops of heads to be awkwardly cut out of the frame) and missing about 12 minutes of footage, including Vernon's death scene and most of the footage involving Edy Williams' nympho inmate.  In 2011, Panik House released the complete CHAINED HEAT in a impressive anamorphic transfer as part of a triple feature Women in Prison set, along with 1984's JUNGLE WARRIORS (from the same producers and also featuring Vernon and Danning) and 1985's RED HEAT, "presented" by cinema nudity expert Mr. Skin.  RED HEAT was sold as a semi-sequel of sorts, again with Blair as a naïve innocent thrown into a cruel prison, this time in East Germany.  It's a very grim film that focuses more on brutality, and while it's unusually serious for the genre, it's ugly, downbeat, and not much fun at all.  CHAINED HEAT did spawn two in-name-only, Czech Republic-shot straight-to-video sequels: CHAINED HEAT 2 (1993), with Brigitte Nielsen, and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi outing CHAINED HEAT 3: HELL MOUNTAIN (1998), with Jack Scalia and Sarah Douglas.  Neither of these films have anything to do with the iconic original.  An additional sequel of sorts came from CHAINED HEAT 2 director Lloyd Simandl, whose RAGE OF THE INNOCENTS (2001) was released in the UK as CHAINED HEAT 2001: SLAVE LOVERS.

CHAINED HEAT didn't really do anything to boost anyone's career, be they a young starlet or a check-cashing veteran, though on the DVD's accompanying documentary, Danning (who's introduced the film at some midnight screenings in recent years) has a great sense of humor about it, while Stevens, whose career had certainly seen better days (like 1963's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), seems to have taken it very seriously.  To the surprise of no one, the film got almost unanimously negative reviews from critics, and Danning was rewarded with a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for both this and the Lou Ferrigno version of HERCULES, which would open at the end of the summer of 1983, a busy one for the actress that also saw her on the cover of the August 1983 issue of Playboy.

What hype CHAINED HEAT did receive at the time was centered on Blair, and the film did nothing to further her cause of tackling serious adult roles.  She was back playing a high school student-turned-vigilante in 1984's SAVAGE STREETS, which co-starred Vernon (who was really slumming in the grindhouse during this period, between the films mentioned here as well as 1983's CURTAINS) and gave the veteran actor one of the most nonsensically quotable lines of his career.  Blair stayed busy in the world of straight-to-video for the rest of the 1980s and through the 1990s, even spoofing THE EXORCIST by teaming up with Leslie Nielsen for the dismal 1990 comedy REPOSSESSED, as well as a cameo in Wes Craven's 1996 blockbuster SCREAM.  Now 54, Blair acts infrequently (she recently finished shooting an indie comedy called WHOA! and it was her first acting gig in five years), is a regular guest at fan conventions and a prominent PETA and Feed the Children activist and spends most of her time focusing on animal rescue work with The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation.

As far as bad movies go, CHAINED HEAT is a gift that never stops giving.  From the lewd and crude plot to the hilarious dialogue to Henry Silva rockin' a pimp sweater like no one before or since, CHAINED HEAT is not only the last word in Women in Prison flicks, it's also an essential grindhouse exploitation classic of the early 1980s glory days when something this phenomenally trashy could actually open nationwide on a holiday weekend.  They just don't make 'em like this anymore.


  1. Really cool write-up. The GREATEST cast ever assembled for a movie

  2. Thanks for another great post Mark, you really pack a lot of info into these pieces.

  3. Thanks for the kind words! Glad you liked it.