Genre Precis + Backstory
It’s only after seeing the original uncut edition of Chained Heat that it becomes readily apparent how extreme Paul Nicholas’ film was at the time, and why it’s been a problem for distributors to get their hands (so to speak) on anything other than the more common expurgated version.
One could brand Chained Heat [CH] the Citizen Kane of Women in Prison [WIP] films because it contains all of the lurid elements few filmmakers were able to inject into this bastard genre during the seventies.
WIP arguably sprung from more sincere social dramas of the thirties where the message was something along the lines of ‘women prisoners are people, too,’ but by the seventies it seemed the controlling aspects of becoming a prisoner were perfectly suited for the sexploitation genre.
In men’s dramas, innocent or guilty, they get beat up, learn to fight, break out and exact revenge, so the natural basket of elements consist of action, attitude, and plenty of fighting. For women, the (mostly) male directors and writers fixated on the humiliation of women – and that’s why the genre managed to last a good 15-20 years, from classic sexploitation efforts through drive-in teasers, and direct-to-video knock-offs until no one cared anymore, or the classics were the only ones that moved off the shelves.
Roger Corman produced his own hot & bothered WIP films (The Hot Box, Caged Heat) for the drive-in market, but he knew where the limits existed before one would offend a broader audience rather than tease. Producer Billy Fine reinvigorated the genre with The Concrete Jungle (1982), and a year later he produced Nicholas' film, which borrowed plotting and conventions from Concrete, but the script Nicholas and Aaron Butler concocted was filled with extremes.
Wanting to change her image from bubblehead roles in rubbish like Roller Boogie (1979), actress Linda Blair went for an image change and signed on for what was originally a script about a girl who got in over her head with drugs, killed a man on the way home, and was paying for the consequences with hard time.
Once filming began, Blair noticed not only a flurry of daily rewrites from Nicholas, but the production seemed to remain within the confines of the abandoned prison being used for the film – wholly junking the backstory intro that sold her on the character, and film project. Like her character, she discovered she was in over her head with weasel manipulators, and she characterized Nicholas as a woman-hater – largely due to his direction of scenes involving sexual violence (including her own, where the warden brutally rapes the virgin inmate).
Blair, who was interviewed for a feature-length commentary on the 2008 Canadian VSC DVD, is more satisfied with the edited version of CH, and although she recognizes CH is a well-made film that delivers the sexploitation goods, she contents Nicholas tricked her, and had the deceit occurred today, she would’ve walked off the set and demanded they film the script she’d signed on to do. (In 1993, during the heavy reshoots of Sliver, co-star Tom Berenger did just that in protest, fed up his character’s guilt was radically altered, and he was turned into a closet pervert.)
In their own respective interviews for the 2011 Panik House DVD, co-stars Stella Stevens and Sybil Danning are more careful in describing their impression of Nicholas. His direction is good, the picture holds up well, there are strong moments, but they seem to distance themselves from any further details – either because CH was just a sexploitation film with colourful behind-the-scenes producers, or they don’t want to wade into issues with which Blair had more direct contact and conflicts.
The Citizen Kane of WIPs
Controversies aside, CH, in its uncut form, is one mother of a sleazefest, and it’s astonishing the producers were able to secure actors who at one point did work with major and serious indie directors. Perhaps the key is they happened to have been engaged during career mid- or low-points.
Blair had earned serious accolades for her work in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist [M] (1974), but had to settle for at least one topless, near-lesbian shower scene with Sybil Danning in CH; Stella Stevens briefly skirted with dramatic sincerity in John Cassavetes’ underrated Too Late Blues (1961) amid roles usually tailored for her bust line; before kissing the boobs of an inmate in CH, John Vernon had worked with Alfred Hitchcock (Topaz), John Boorman (Point Blank), and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry); and Henry Silva had appeared in films directed by Elia Kazan (Viva Zapata!) and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) before grinning his way through CH as the world’s happiest pimp.
The fact these veteran thespians are in CH is actually a big plus – not because they give their characters gravitas, but the fact they know the film is ridiculous. Those not playing prisoners are surrounded by half-naked women in cotton wardrobe deliberately designed to show creases, cleavage and nipples, but CH as a whole was a paycheck, and a venue to perform with extra ham on the side.
In their interviews, Danning and Stevens may regard their respective roles of busty gang leader and assistant warden as sincere, but they’re probably having fun with the interviewer and DVD viewers. CH is pure T&A, and its ‘message’ of ‘women prisoners are people, too’ is just a thin mesh through which those in the know (the audience at large) can easily witness plenty of boobery and beavery.
One also senses actor Silva never had it so good: he obviously loves kissing Stevens and leering at the inmates consisting of actresses with little talent. Contrary to Blair’s comments, the acting among the lesser-known cast is not good, but bad-good– making CH a special film indeed.
Added trivia: Vernon’s daughter Kate / Katherine (Battlestar Galactica) made her big screen debut in CH. In an early jail cell scene, the silently ‘reacts’ to the unmasking of a transvestite.
Danning is fun as the white rival gang leader who spars with black Amazon actress Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), and the two trade some excellent insults, and have a fun yard rumble.
In her interview, Danning discusses the genre, her co-workers, and having a giant chest due to monthly issues (which delighted the producers immensely). Stevens is asked the same range of questions, but adds a few anecdotes of a lasting friendship with Danning, convention encounters, working with Dobson, who’d stepped away from films for a few years, and the mismatched ‘scale’ elements in the finale.
Of course, it’s immaterial the closing prison “riot” consists of maybe 15-20 women tussling in empty and uncrowded hallways, while a surveillance helicopter infers a mass exodus the producers couldn’t afford.
Never mind, too, the dialogue that’s quotably bad-but-rich. Nicholas made sure the camera was always moving, peaceful scenes are contrasted with sleaze or violence, and the editing was sharp. Even Joseph Conlan’s score – blatantly mimicking the style of Tangerine Dream – is well-written, and never strays into parody, or jokes with the audience. (Conlan also scored the 1982 WIP classic The Concrete Jungle.)
As indicated earlier, it’s been a problem to get an uncut version of CH in North America, and while Panik House’s release contains the premiere unexpurgated edition (nicely converted from a likely PAL master) plus a set of interview featurettes, Linda Blair’s feature-length commentary track is exclusive to the VSC release, which sports a cut version also sourced from a PAL master, but with less smooth PAL-NTSC conversion.
It is fascinating to see the edited version, however, because the removed 8 minutes of naughty material includes the two vicious rape scenes, and more strangely, gore – such as a brief razor slice to a leg, an inmate getting (deservedly) ‘hooked’ in the throat, and a glimpse of the dead inmate in a bathroom stall. Some of the edits are smooth, others are jarring, but the cut version was specially created for softer, more conservative markets, because there are no music edits.
With the exception of the two rape scenes – extracted from poor source materials in a separate gallery on the VSC release – it’s hard for viewers to grasp the elements Blair still finds offending unless one’s seen the uncut version.
Even in its edited form, CH is already a lurid, Wrong little movie, but it makes sense to restore the original contraband back in the picture, since those elements were largely responsible for boosting the film’s success during its original theatrical release (of which Blair, who had points, apparently saw no residuals because the original production company went, er, ‘bust’).
Although she was nominated for a Razzie Award as Worst Actress in CH, Linda Blair also appeared in Red Heat (1985) with Dutch hottie Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle) – a film that was scored by Tangerine Dream. Blair also made a cameo appearance in the white slave film Savage Island (1985), but was snookered again when the producers gave her top billing. John Vernon co-starred with Blair in the rape / revenge Ms. 45 rip-off Savage Streets (1984), and he appeared with Sybil Danning in the German WIP film Jungle Warriors / Euer Weg führt durch die Hölle (1984).
Writer-director Paul Nicholas had previously co-directed the Canuxploitation classic Judy Darling / aka Daughter of Death with Danning (1983), and followed CH with another WIP variation, The Naked Cage (1986) when other directors and sleazy producer were stealing his thunder (and limelight). His remaining directorial efforts are Night of the Archer (1994) and Luckytown (2000).
Although CH’s excellent cinematographer, Mac Ahlberg, directed and photographed the pioneering eros classic I, a Woman / Jeg – en kvinde (1965), he exclusively switched to cinematography after 1979, and shot a string of exploitation and horror films, including Renny Harlin’s Prison (1988), and several productions for John Landis, and producer Charles Band.
This title is part of Panik House’s Mr. Skin presents Women in Prison set, featuring Chained Heat (1983), Red Heat [M] (1985), and Jungle Warriors [M] (1984), and improves upon the transfers of the VSC release (which featured the same three films, albeit with CH shorn of its maximum ‘heat’).
Producer Lloyd A. Simandl later snapped up the rights and produced & directed two ‘sequels’ – Chained Heat II (1993), and Dark Confessions / Chained Heat III (2000) – and quickly inaugurated his own WIP franchises, interweaving the words ‘Chained,” “Bound,” “Rage” and “Lesbian” to create 10 years worth of direct-to-video crapulence.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan