SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
Blair Behind Bars!
By Nick Cato
Welcome to the 46th edition of my Suburban Grindhouse Memories, where I’m finally getting around to look at a requested subgenre: Women In Prison films, or WIPs, as connoisseurs of the subgenre so affectionately refer to them. WIPs were a hot ticket in the 70s and early 80s, and as far as I’m concerned, none were as fun, sleazy, and downright mean-spirited as CHAINED HEAT (1983), especially when you consider it played not only in grindhouse theaters, but in respectable multiplexes and duplexes all across the U.S. of A.
What sets CHAINED HEAT apart from others of its ilk is the amazing cast. When I heard Linda (THE EXORCIST) Blair was starring in this WIP film, my 15 year-old rump made no hesitation getting to the (now defunct) Island Twin Theatre, Staten Island’s best bet for unusual and midnight film offerings, where the opening night line wrapped around the place like a new STAR WARS film had been released. On top of Blair, cult film legend Sybil Danning was in her prime here and delivers one of her most memorable performances as a tough inmate, plus CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) herself, Tamara Dobson, plays Danning’s African American rival and is tougher than a bucket of galvanized nails. Topping off the list of cult film icons is John (ANIMAL HOUSE-1978) Vernon as a corrupt warden and his first in command, TV star Stella Stevens (!), plus we get sleaze ball king Henry Silva (you saw him in 1,000 films, including 1980’s ALLIGATOR and 1973’s BATTLE OF THE GODFATHERS) who runs an escort service comprised of inmates along with Stevens’ character.
And those are just at the tip of the iceberg.
Like most WIP films (from 1972’s THE BIG BIRD CAGE to BARBED WIRE DOLLS (1975) to 1982’s THE CONCRETE JUNGLE), CHAINED HEAT follows a typical plot of one woman being busted for some kind of unusual crime (this time Blair is arrested for accidentally killing a man). Her sentence is 18 months in one seriously hellish prison, overrun with gangs, rapist security guards, and more corruption than your standard presidential campaign. There’s also a racial sub-plot here, as inmates take sides with either the white or black gangs, and there’s more pot and crack smoking going on than in three Cheech and Chong films combined.
Before the inevitable prison riot, Blair is chosen to leave the jail at night to be an escort, and of course she, being morally better than the other inmates (not to mention the highest paid actor in the film), doesn’t get down and dirty like the other girls do, and in fact manages to help one of the weaker ones fight a rough costumer.
There’s also a sequence that caused us EXORCIST fans to question if Blair was ever truly exorcised: a lengthy nude shower scene where Sybil Danning forces herself on the former teenage devil-doll; I can’t remember ever hearing a theater full of teenaged horn-dogs whistling and screaming “GO FOR IT!” with so much enthusiasm (then again, this WAS less than a year after the blockbuster sequel ROCKY III was released, so pretty much everyone was still yelling “GO FOR IT!” at something or someone). Unrealistic lesbianism has always been a major part of WIP films, and CHAINED HEAT has its share of it (no doubt helping lead to its successful theatrical run: although rated R, this was about as close to an adult film a teenager could get their hands on at the time, both in theaters and a few months later on VHS).
My favorite sequence is when the warden (John Vernon) reveals to a sexy inmate (in his private office) that he makes his own porn films as they’re making out in his Jacuzzi. He flicks a button and she realizes they’re being filmed by a bulky video camera mounted above the hot tub. For some reason she gets into it, despite the balding, unattractive old goat. This guy gets an A+ for one of the slickest, sleaziest wardens in WIP history.
After the drugs, rape, lesbian sex, straight sex, razor blade murders, knife fights, catfights, and stern speeches by the warden and his right hand man (or in this case, right hand woman), the inmates finally decide it’s time to turn the tables. They quickly take over the joint, breaking heads and messing the place up, both white and black gangs now working side-by-side against THE MAN. The best sequence features a male prison guard (who had raped most of the inmates) being SLOWLY stabbed in the throat; it was a simple but effective effect that caused audible groans from the crowd.
While WIP films are quite similar and can get tiring, CHAINED HEAT is simply THE one title to see if you feel the need to experience the subgenre. It’s not pretty (even the sex scenes are kind-of disgusting), has many technical mistakes (the worst being a sound mic in nearly every-other shot), and it’s about as violent as an R-rated film gets. In some ways, this is the perfect grindhouse film which I’m STILL amazed had such a mainstream release.
I’ve yet to watch THE EXORCIST (or any other Linda Blair film) the same way again. Be warned.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato