Sad to say, Erica Gavin didn’t make many movies back in her heyday… certainly not as many as I wish she had (which would be an infinite amount)… but for what it’s worth, the three flicks in which she scored a major role have all been rated “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average Tomatometer score of 83.6%, across her short-lived career! So yay for that, at least.
This week I finally got to watch Caged Heat (1974), in which she plays ‘Jacqueline Wilson’, an unfortunate “accessory to grievous bodily assault” who gets busted in the opening scene, and subsequently sent to a correctional facility with a repressed, wheelchair-bound warden (played by Barbara Steele in gawky geek-face), and a very dodgy male doctor on staff (Warren Miller). According to Gavin’s official website, first time writer/director Johnathan Demme personally pursued her for the role: “I know he was a big Russ Meyer fan and had seen me in Vixen and Dolls… [he] said, ‘You don’t have to read, you’ve got the part, because I’ve seen your work and I know you’re right for it.’” Although the movie is really an ensemble piece, Jacqueline is the character we spend the most time with… and Gavin earns every minute of that screen-time with her energetic and heartfelt performance. I also have to give a nod to Rainbeaux Smith (aka Cheryl Smith), who played Jacqueline’s timid, troubled cellmate ‘Lavelle’… she doesn’t seem too friendly at first, but she comes through for her sisters in the end, bless her!
Although Demme has since gone on to much bigger things (such as winning an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, for example), I was intrigued to read that he’d recorded a commentary track for the Shout Factory DVD release of this movie (along with Gavin and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto). Although there are a lot of rough edges here, which might embarrass an acclaimed director in later life, there’s also a lot to recommend it… especially if (as IMDb trivia claims) it really was shot in just four weeks! I watched Linda Blair’s Chained Heat (1983) a while back, and remember that being quite a slog to get through… but this flick is a comparative joy, with its surreal dream-sequences, colourful characters, quirky humour, and (mostly) solid acting. Yes, there’s also plenty contractually-mandated nudity and violence, but it’s to Demme’s credit that he presents these elements in a matter-of-fact way, rather than lingering on them salaciously. Although it’s classified as “an exploitation film”, it doesn’t seem as if the cast themselves were being overly exploited by the director.
Caged Heat may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but as girls-with-guns grindhouse flicks go, it stands head-and-shoulders above many of its genre-mates… at least the ones that I’ve seen… so I’m really going to have to get me a copy of that DVD sometime…