Today a NASA spacecraft dubbed New Horizons is scheduled for an historic flyby of Pluto. And today’s big headlines feature the notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who escaped from an high-security Mexican prison by way of an air-conditioned tunnel leading out of the shower stall in his cell. New Horizons? Escape from prison? The time seems ripe for me to salute my stint at Roger Corman’s film companies—like New World Pictures and Concorde-New Horizons—where prison-escape movies were once a way of life.
To be honest, when I think of Corman prison movies, my mind mostly goes back to the New World Pictures era (1970-1983), when we launched such lucrative and thoroughly exploitative films as The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and (inevitably) The Big Bust Out. These and similar features were shot in the Philippines with a hardy and voluptuous cast that generally included Roberta Collins and the bodacious Pam Grier. Among enthusiasts, the “babes behind bars” movies have been hailed as feminist in nature. Yes, the young women are brutally subjugated for several reels, often by a nasty warden and a prison matron with distinct bulldyke proclivities. But they are far too feisty to take the outrages against them lying down. Launching a cunning plan to escape, they spend the rest of the film turning the tables on their oppressors. Still, this is feminism of a rather specialized sort. Onetime Corman assistant Laurette Hayden once joked with me about how the female lead is inevitably falling out of her clothing while running through the jungle: “I think the faster she runs, with the machete in her hand, the more quickly the clothes fall away.”
Another Corman “women in prison” movie, Caged Heat (1974), made cinema history of sorts because it was the first film directed by Jonathan Demme, who would go on to win the Best Director Oscar for Silence of the Lambs. The eighty-four-minute Caged Heat, starring Roberta Collins and Barbara Steele (as, of course, the steely matron), was shot locally on a $180,000 budget. The marketing campaign was typically lurid—the ads screamed “White hot desires melting cold prison steel!”—but Demme’s film actually earned some respectful press. The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas, one of several critics nationwide who would admit to enjoying New World product, described Caged Heat as having “wit, style, and unflagging verve.… [It] sends up the genre while still giving the mindless action fan his money’s worth.”
The assumptions behind these outlandish movies are worth examining. First of all, virtually everyone languishing behind the bars of these prisons is fundamentally innocent; it’s the sadistic guards who are the real criminals. Sexuality is a weapon that cuts both ways: our heroines use their female allure to taunt and trick their captors, but the horny prison staff, lusting after their juicy captives, force sex as a blunt form of punishment. Fortunately for the leading ladies, their captors aren’t too bright. Once our gals overcome their interpersonal differences and decide to work together, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish, including busting out of a maximum-security clink.
When I headed the story department at Concorde-New Horizons, deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega escaped from captivity. Roger was thrilled by this opportunity to make a “ripped from the headlines” suspense drama, The Hunt for Noriega. He hired a screenwriter, who was told to crank out a first draft over the weekend. Alas, for our artistic intentions, Noriega was quickly caught.
Somehow, I don’t think finding El Chapo will be quite so simple. But maybe Pluto’s a good place to start looking.