Chained Heat

Credits with cuffs. Yeah, that's the way you do it, alrighty. The shot-up con's crime: trying to avoid being raped. Very women in prison film-y.

Copyright 2008 by Pat Powers

Chained Heat is generally agreed to be the beginning of the modern sexploitation women in prison flick. There had been women in prison flicks before it, but they never really put all the pieces together the way Chained Heat did, at least as far as mainstream fans are concerned.

For us bondage fans, an early scene in Chained Heat describes the benefits and the limitations of modern women in prison films perfectly. It shows a bunch of women in the back of a van being hauled to prison. They all have their hands cuffed in front of them, generally placed in their laps as that is about their only option. The camera pans lovingly back and across the van, clearly focused on their cuffs, which is great. They want us to know these are women in bondage.

As the credits roll the camera rolls across the cuffed hands of prisoners being transported in a van. This is about the only bondage imagery in the film, sadly.

But that's all there is, the silver bands of handcuffs on their wrists. They're very close to being just a group of women wearing silver bracelets, visually speaking. (In a real prison transport situation, they'd be cuffed and shackled and chained either to waist belts or to one another or to their seats.) Visually, it's a near-total failure. Film is a visual medium, if people don't LOOK like they're in bondage, they don't register as BEING in bondage.

That's the problem with most women in prison flicks right there, from the bondage point of view. There's almost a demand for some bondage imagery in them -- the cuffs -- but that's all there is. There COULD be more, very easily. But generally there is less bondage in your average women in prison film than there is in REAL prisons, and it's all the fault of Chained Heat, because Chained Heat set the standard for women in prison films, and the standard it set included emphasis on nudity, lesbianism, catfights, prostitution and riots, with very little attention paid to bondage imagery and/or themes. There isn't even that much dominance and submission.

Here, Ericka doms the heck out of Carol along with her gang members. So there's SOME dom/sub stuff here. Just not nearly as much as there is opportunity for.

In Chained Heat, Linda Blair plays Carol Henderson, an innocent little rose who has run over someone with her car and has been sentenced to eighteen months in stir because of it.

Unfortunately, the jail she has been sent to is run by the corrupt Warden Bacman (played by John Vernon, the guy who made Dean Wormer such fun in Animal House doing another able turn as an over-the-top warden). How corrupt is he? When Bacman catches a guard smuggling drugs into the prison, he's pleased. Why? "I don't want him cutting into my business," the warden says.

Now, THIS is what I call a perk! Warden Bacman makes good use of his hot tub.

Warden Bacman has an even more corrupter staff. There's a vicious corrupt chief guard for the women, who for once isn't a lesbian. Her boyfriend Lester (played by Henry Silva at his oily best) is a slimy, smooth-talking, handsome guy who is basically a pimp. His whores are supplied by the prison, via his girlfriend. The corrupt chief guard is aided by a big crypto-lesbian guard who just likes to hurt prisoners.

The inmates are pimped out via a DIFFERENT kind of work release program -- on "work" nights a select group of inmates is smuggled out of the prison, essentially escaping with the help of the guards, to go to a big party where they entertain rich, middle-aged businessmen. The incentives for the prisoner seem fairly mild -- they don't get paid, they have to dance around and show their naked bodies and have sex with middle aged businessmen looking guys. I guess it's just less beatings and fluffier pillows in their cells.

Val, Carol's prison mentor, participates in a DIFFERENT kind of work-release program.

The prisoners are a slightly better bunch than the guards. There are two dominant gangs, one run by Ericka, an aggro bitch played by Sybil Danning (in one of MANY women in prison film appearances) the other by Dutchess (played by Tamara Dobson, the tall, striking black woman who's perhaps best known for starring in the Cleopatra Jones blaxploitation films). Dutchess is a much better person than Ericka, but she's also tough enough that she's not putting up with any crap from Ericka, who's ever ready to hand it out.

"I told you baby, no tongue while we're in the yard!"

OK, this is Ericka and Dutchess settling their differences the women in prison flick way -- with a catfight.

Carol gets dropped into this cauldron of tension and nastiness (did I mention there's a male guard who treats the prisoners as his personal harem, whether they want to be so treated or not? Well, there is. In the opening scene he assaults a cuffed cutie in the isolation room, more properly called the Rape Room in this prison) and being so dewy and young and a "virgin" (first time in prison) all the predators are just smacking their lips over her. But Carol finds a protector in Val (played by Sharon Hughes) an older con who's in for prostitution -- and is one of the special "work release" cons.

In a neat bit, we see just how corrupt this prison is later in the film. The female inmate shown here is first shown being beaten by two other female inmates. She runs from them, telling the guard at the door that she's being attacked. The guard rescues her and puts her in an isolation cell ... which turns out to be the Rape Room, as it has the shirtless rapist guard in it and she's raped (unseen, clearly implied) while her "rescuer" looks in and laughs. The cons and the guards, male and female, are all "in" on the rape.

This prompts one of the funniest "naivete" scenes ever. Val of course wants to get Carol involved with the "work release" program, and recruits her into it. So one night Carol and Val and several other cons are sneaked out of the prison and go to a big mansion filled with upper class white guys where they're encouraged to entertain the guys by dancing around naked and having sex with them. Pretty much what anyone would figure, really, given the circumstances.

Carol winds up in a room with a bed and a guy in a suit who clearly thinks she is his sex toy. He tells her to take her clothes off. Carol makes a counteroffer: he takes off his clothes while she goes to the bathroom to freshen up. Suit guy is not impressed by Carol's counter-offer and insists she make with the naked and get on the bed. Sybil pulls a gun on him to make her point that she's not up for grabs. He correctly assumes that she doesn't have the guts to shoot him and takes the gun from her. Then he puts it to her head. When all this gets is a pouty look, he puts the gun down and grabs Carol and she screams. It's a very delicate mating dance.

Seduction by gun. Such are the delicate way of romance in women in prison movies.

Would have made a wonderful poster:

"Watch Chained Heat or we'll shoot Linda Blair!"

Val hears the scream and comes to Carol's rescue, clobbering the suit guy, thus ending the negotiations. Lester the pimp hears the commotion and comes in, clobbering the suit guy a second time, then turning to Carol and asking her what happened.

"He tried to rape me!" cries Carol.

"He tried to rape me!"

I think the reason Linda Blair got so many women in prison roles is she combined a nice bod with a wonderfully pouty face that could really reflect hurt and indignity well. She's very much like Lynda Weismeier in these respects, except she's a better actress.

Lester stares at Carol for a second, clearly coming to the realization that she is naive to a degree that amounts to mental retardation. Was she expecting that the men they were to entertain would want to play Parcheesi or Trivial Pursuit? He does the only thing a pimpguy can do under the circumstances, he bitch slaps her, and she collapses in a heap.

Now, given that Carol is portrayed as new to the system but not an idiot, it's a jarringly out of character moment, one of those moments that sends even the most willing suspension of disbelief crashing to the ground.

But wait. It gets better. Or worse. It's really hard to tell with women in prison flicks.

Sybil Danning soaps up Linda Blair in a nude shower scene that scores on so many levels:

Star lesbianism

That's doin' it right.

In a subsequent scene Carol is talking with a bunch of hardened cons. Their problem -- how to get a McGuffin into the hands of the people who can do some good with it.

Remember, Carol is a timid little newbie of a con, though she's toughened up a lot from her experiences (mostly, trying not to get raped and/or beaten too often) she is still the voice of reason and timidity in the group. One con says, "It'd take a riot to get anyone's attention to what's going on in here."

Carol: A riot? That's JUST what we need! A riot!!!"

"That's just what we need! A riot!"

Ah, the voice of reason. That's just what they need, a riot. And of course, that's just what they get.

The thing that made Chained Heat such a success was its willingness to go over the top. Warden Bacman is not just a drug dealer, he also has a hot tub -- in his OFFICE -- where he likes to videotape the more, um, biddable of the inmates as they dance naked for him and then climb into the hot tub with him to entertain him in more personal ways.

I don't believe any w
omen in prison filmmaker prior to Chained Heat (who was dealing with a modern, or at least post 1940s) prison, ever had the balls to push things that far. Or to put it another way, no one before writer/director Paul Nicholas understood that women in prison films were basically fantasies about helpless, vulnerable women being used and abused by others, and that it really didn't matter how over the top you went so long as you maintained some of the visual cues that made the film LOOK like it was taking place in a modern prison -- modern bars on the cell doors, modern uniforms on the guards and prisoners, etc.

So long as it's modern nudity, catfights, lesbianism and jailhouse rape, no one cares how over the top it is, because they know damn well it's a fantasy anyway. That was Nicholas' initial burst of genius that put HIS women in prison flick over the top, and which has since been expanded on greatly (although never to the full extent to which it might be. That would involve going deep into bondage and dominance territory, and nobody wants that.)

Toward the end of the movie, a guard insists on cuffing a con as she escorts her to her cell. The con is suspicious, asking why she has to be cuffed. The guard says "It's because someone might see us." The con is right to be suspicious. Except for the initial scenes of the woman cuffed in the rape room with the rapist guard and the transport scene, there has been no subsequent scenes of women being cuffed, even after they've been separated while fighting. The only time women get cuffed in prison in this movie is if the guards want to do something bad to them. In this case, it's murder.

If there was any real interest in doing so, modern women in prison flicks could go a LOT farther with regard to nudity. For example, did you know that many modern prisons are equipped with what are called "restraint chairs" which are basically bondage chairs -- lots and lots of straps -- in which female inmates have already allegedly been restrained for hours while naked? There's plenty of precedent for bondage, but there's just not much interest in it on the part of women in prison filmmakers, even though issues of vulnerability and helplessness are clearly important to them.

And of course there's nothing to stop filmmakers from going FARTHER than reality does in terms of bondage imagery, but that would take some imagination, something women in prison filmmakers are sadly lacking in.

I can't think of a better way to end this review than with this image of an inmate giving Warden Bacman a sexy nude buttdance before slipping into the hot tub with him.

Comment on this review

Just follow this link to find out how it OUGHTTA be done.

Go to the Women In Prison Movies and TV Shows Index

Return to the Totally and Completely Innocent of All Charges Mainstream Index