Color, 1976, 101m.
Directed by Michael Miller
Starring Yvette Mimieux, Tommy Lee Jones, Lisa Copeland, Howard Hesseman, Robert Carradine

Color, 1974, 83m.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Erica Gavin, Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Barbara Steele, Cheryl Smith, Ella Reid
Shout Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Though it’s become completely obsolete outside the realm of softcore porn these days, the women-in-prison film was a popular staple in movie theaters around the world for decades dating all the way back to pulpy films like 1950’s Caged. However, the golden era was definitely the 1970s as viewers were slammed with a new title seemingly every week from America, the Philippines, Hong Kong, or Germany, with titles like Women in Cages and Barbed Wire Dolls. Not surprisingly, Roger Corman dabbled in these disreputable waters on quite a few occasions and even managed to get some good reviews in the process, with two of the best efforts united together on a single DVD from Shout Factory.

First up is Jackson County Jail, which actually spends a fairly short amount of time in the titular location. However, the bit you do get is certainly memorable. A beautiful actress with a credible slate of studio films like The Time Machine, Light in the Piazza, and Dark of the Sun, Yvette Mimieux raised a few eyebrows when she took the lead role as Dinah, an ad woman who has a really, really bad day in Los Angeles when her pig boss makes some sexist comments about the female demographic, and then at home her husband (Howard Hesseman!) turns out to be fooling around on the side as well. She decides to pack it up and head back to New York for a better job, and to relive the boredom, she picks up a young hitchhiker (Robert Carradine) and his girlfriend who seem nice enough until they steal her car at gunpoint. She stumbles to a nearby desolate diner where the proprietor lures her to the back room to call the police only to turn rapist once she’s in his clutches. A nearby cop doesn’t believe her story, and soon she’s dragged off to the local jail where the guard has his way with her in the cell. Fortunately she has a handy stool nearby to beat her attacker to death, and with her cell mate, a robber named Coley Blake (a very young Tommy Lee Jones), she makes a break for it and spends the rest of the film outrunning a law force that intends to neither protect nor serve.

A late night cable favorite for years, Jackson County Jail is much more somber and well-made than you’d expect from the premise; it’s not much of a stretch to see how this might have had an influence on Thelma & Louise down the road, and Mimieux gives a strong, fearless performance that’s light years away from her willowy good girl parts in the previous decade. Jones is also excellent as well and shows his early leading man chops that would keep him busy for the rest of his career. Try watching this as a double feature with The Executioner’s Song for maximum effect. No one will ever mistake this for a classic by any means, but director Michael Miller (who went on to helm one of Chuck Norris' best, Silent Rage, and a ton of made-for-TV movies), keeps things fast, clean, and efficient; in short, it's a textbook example of a commercial drive-in film with enough professional chops to still work on an audience today.

Much more challenging is the film's co-feature, Caged Heat, which really is a women-in-prison film-- and easily one of the best-made examples of its kind. Former Russ Meyer star Erica Gavin (Vixen) stars as Jacqueline, a tough cookie caught in a cop sting during a drug deal who gets sent to a women's penitentiary. First she meets her fellow inmates being sent over and then takes a bus ride to her destination, run by a bespectacled, wheelchair-bound warden, McQueen (Black Sunday's Steele), who doesn't take kindly to uppity prisoners. Among the other caged women are a host of familiar B-movie names including Juanita Brown (Foxy Brown), Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (Lemora), and Roberta Collins (Death Race 2000). McQueen doesn't hesitate to dish out retribution to the girls, especially after they perform a "degenerate" sketch onstage, and uses a perverted doctor to perform electroshock therapy and some drugged molestation to keep them in line. Finally enough is enough, and the abused captives decide to finally bust out.

Though it sounds generic on paper, Caged Heat is distinguished by inventive direction from Jonathan Demme with his first feature film, already teamed up with regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (with whom he would revolutionize the horror genre on The Silence of the Lambs). Experimental composer John Cale also offers a stark, effective blues-inflected score that sounds at times like Ry Cooder, and the story takes a number of odd turns including several striking, surrealistic fantasy sequences, with Steele getting the best moment in a stylish cabaret number.

Both titles feature new anamoprhic transfers that easily blow away the dated, mediocre-looking DVDs cranked out years ago by New Horizons. Caged Heat in particular has always looked rough over the years, but now it's colorful and vibrant in ways no one has seen since first-run prints made their rounds. The previous DVD versions' trailers and Corman interviewds with Leonard Maltin have been ported over here along with some tasty new extras, namely two excellent new audio commentaries. Jackson County Jail features Miller, producer Jeff Begun, and cinematographer Bruce Logan, who talk about the Corman requirements and working with Jones early in his career as well as the various colorful supporting cast including a very weird-looking Betty Thomas way before Hill Street Blues. Even better is the Caged Heat commentary, a real dream come true for fans with Demme, Gavin, Fujimoto, and producer Evelyn Purcell, all of whom seem to remember a lot about their big break and the unusual paths their paths have all taken since. A terrific release all around and a much-needed overhaul for two of the '70s more memorable drive-in staples.