Thursday, November 13, 2008

TV Diary: CHAINED HEAT (1983)

While channel surfing randomly last night I stumbled upon the beginning of CHAINED HEAT on one of the Showtime channels. It was commercial-free, of course, and helpfully letterboxed.

Here's how the movie advertised itself in 1983. When you're done with the trailer, I'll tell you whether Chained Heat delivered on its promises.

Paul Nicolas's film is said to have revitalized the women-in-prison genre for the 1980s. Personally, I see hardly anything vital about Chained Heat. Linda Blair, whose nudity was presumably a major selling point for somebody, is Carol Henderson. "I killed a man with my car," she explains on her way to her first-ever stint in stir. As you might expect, prison is where the criminals are. Warden Bacman (John "Dean Wormer" Vernon) has a jacuzzi in his office and videotapes himself romping with nude prisoners. He also runs the prison drug racket, except that someone's horning in on his action. Those someones, in fact, are Capt. Taylor (Stella Stevens), the head prison guard, and Lester (Henry Silva), who lurks around the prison infirmary, cheats on Taylor with blonde prison gang leader Ericka (Sybil Danning), and smuggles girls out of prison as entertainment for decadent parties at nearby mansions. Ericka is waging a race war with Duchess (Tamara Dobson), the leader of the black prisoners. She seems to be sexually omnivorous, as she comes on to innocent Carol in the communal shower, advising the "prison virgin" that she'll need a friend to protect her in the cuthroat environment.

You'll notice that our main character is almost peripheral to the main storylines. For half the film, Carol is mainly a passive spectator of the proceedings. Scared after her encounter with Ericka, she visits the warden, who recruits her as a stoolie in his quest to find out who's smuggling dope into prison. After a disastrous night as one of Lester's party girls, she finds one of Ericka's minions murdered by Duchess's gang. She runs to the warden and inadvertently betrays Lester's racket. This starts the dominoes falling. Fearing exposure of her ties to Lester, Capt. Taylor has one of her guards drown the warden in his jacuzzi and kill Val, Carol's best prison pal, whom he'd been filming ("Don't call me Warden, call me Fellini!" he says). Once Carol knows the score, she launches a slo-mo attack on Boots, the murderous guard, only to get dumped in solitary for her trouble. Taylor decides to eliminate her rival, Ericka, by framing her for Val's death. Now Carol rallies all the convict factions to unite against Taylor, sparking a riot, an interracial alliance of former enemies, and a fatal showdown with the villain on the prison roof.

And all of it amounts to little more than an inert mass. That's a fair description of Linda Blair herself. I'd heard that she was a bad actor as an adult, but here is proof. The only kind of emoting she can manage is crying. Otherwise she hardly even tries -- and she isn't much to look at either. Nor is anyone, really. Danning and Dobson strike me as past their prime, and all the women have that early-MTV look: big hair and fashions that exemplify '80s bad taste.

With few exceptions, the cast is guilty of the irredeemable sin of bad cinema: they don't even try to entertain us. Not that you can blame them. Nicolas's script, written with Aaron Butler, is basically a camped-up collection of cliches thrown together with no conviction. As a director, Nicolas is equally uninspired. The climactic riot put me in mind of those women's club wartime re-enactments you would see on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Worse, the director seems to chicken out when it comes to violence. Showtime may have run an edited print, since I note different run times in different countries, because their broadcast, at least, cuts away anytime anything especially brutal is going to happen. As far as I know, however, they kept all the nudity in. But even those bits have a by-the-book quality to them. Everything about Chained Heat seems derivative. Nothing about it has the visceral quality of Sweet Sister, which is just as dumb a film in its own way. It's really the worst kind of exploitation movie; the sort in which the filmmakers feel they don't have to do anything but go through the motions once they've got you in the theater.

With such a film, it's up to the actors to save it. Of the cast, only Stella Stevens really seems to take it seriously. For all that she supposedly lusts after Henry Silva, she actually looks the butchiest of the main actresses, though that angle isn't really played up. But Stevens takes it too seriously and really just plods through her role. Silva doesn't take it seriously at all, but at least seems to be having a good time. John Vernon really seems to be having a good time in the most over-the-top role. At the very least you envy him cavorting with the girls in the jacuzzi. If anything, however, his presence undercuts the film and makes it seem like National Lampoon's Women in Prison. This doesn't happen automatically when Vernon's in a movie -- The Outlaw Josey Wales will teach you otherwise, but when a film like Chained Heat is already kinda campy, Vernon can easily exacerbate that condition.

To meet my standards, for what they're worth, an exploitation or grindhouse movie has got to go for it in a way that I felt Chained Heat did not. I saw nothing in it that I didn't think I'd seen before and done better -- and I haven't seen that many women-in-prison films. But what I saw as obnoxious campiness others might see as knowing self-parody, and Chained Heat may be funny enough in its fashion to amuse viewers of different tastes. It's not the business of a blog like this to tell anyone not to see a movie, but I will tell you that I didn't like it.


Marty McKee said...

That Showtime print is very badly cut, including some of the nudity. Give it another chance with the original version, if you can find it. The VHS tape is open matte, adding another level of hilarity every time the boom mike drops into the shot (which is a lot).

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for confirming my suspicions, Marty. I'm scandalized that Showtime would edit a movie for content, but maybe they had no control over the print they acquired. Ideally someone else will show it correctly, since I'm kinda reluctant to spend extra money on another viewing of this film, enhanced or not. I agree, though, that with the right attitude people can be entertained by it.