Color, 1983, 99m.
Directed by Paul Nicholas
Starring Linda Blair, John Vernon, Sybil Danning, Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Henry Silva, Jennifer Ashley, Edy Williams

Color, 1985, 104m.
Directed by Robert Collector
Starring Linda Blair, Sylvia Kristel, Elisabeth Volkmann, Sue Kiel, William Ostrander

Color, 1984, 93m.
Directed by Ernst R. von Theumer
Starring Nina Van Pallandt, John Vernon, Sybil Danning, Paul L. Smith, Alex Cord, Marjoe Gortner, Woody Strode
Panik House (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Third Strike (Canada R1 NTSC), Anchor Bay (UK R2 PAL)

After a slew of trashy, disreputable, but very successful women-in-prison films in the '70s, the genre seemed to be dead and buried by the time the disco era came to an end. Then something surprising happened; in 1983, Linda Blair (who had already done a made-for-TV juvie spin on the theme in Born Innocent headlined an all-star sleaze epic called Chained Heat, and movie theaters in the mid-'80s suddenly exploded with new trash epics filled with babes behind bars. Seen today, it's not hard to see how Chained Heat got everyone's attention; it's so stupefyingly out of whack from its opening frames that words can't describe it. Only the shakiest thread of a plot runs through this insane, darkly lit chunk of exploitation excess, crammed to the corners with a cast of drive-in veterans and every possible cliche you can imagine, driven to its silliest extremes. Steamy showers, prison riots, rapist guards, evil wardens... yup, it's all here, but you've never seen it like this. Sweet little Carol (Blair, now doing nudity for the first time but hardly the last) is on her way to the slammer for a few months after accidentally running someone over with her car. The world behind bars is controlled by two gangs, one white (led by the amazing Sybil Danning as Ericka) and one black (led by Cleopatra Jones herself, Tamara Dobson, as Duchess). Carol rebuffs Ericka's advances in the shower, leading to heightened tensions and more than a few ladies being tossed into solitary. Meanwhile the corrupt warden (John Vernon, who's no stranger to embarrassment) tapes homemade porn flicks with his female prisoners in his office jacuzzi(!). "Don't call me warden, call me Fellini," he purrs to one unlucky lady as the film stumbles towards its unlikely climax. Then there's the stern prison matron (Stella Stevens) and the drug-and-hooker dealing guard Lester (Henry Silva), both of whom become involved before Carol decides to blow the lid off the whole corrupt system.

While it's hard to pick a highlight in a film so packed with hilarious moments of sleaze, one can only wonder what Blair was thinking as the filmmakers primped her up as a luscious sex symbol. Her shower scene with Danning has become the stuff of legend, and rightfully so, but virtually every scene will have viewers clutching their heads trying to make sense of it all.

Despite its success, the film has had an extremely rocky history on home video, beginning with the theatrical R-rated cut released by Vestron on VHS in a shoddy, very open matte transfer littered with visible boom mics and other production ephemera that led people to peg this film as incompetently shot for many years to come. The British DVD of Chained Heat from M.I.A., later reissued even shorter with two other films (more on that below) from Anchor Bay UK, was an improvement only in that it switched between full frame and hard matted (1.85:1) scenes, while the Japanese edition was matted off all the way through. None of those transfers were all that hot, though, and were missing various chunks of footage including some gore and nudity throughout. A letterboxed transfer eventually resurfaced on cable again including numerous Showtime airings, but it was even more sanitized (88 minutes!) with nearly all of the violence completely scissored out. This worthless cut was released as part of a Canadian set with the other two films, which is recommended only as the sole version with Blair providing commentary tracks for her two films.

Originally announced in 2006 for a US release from Panik House, Chained Heat sat in limbo for five years when the company went under, leaving a raft of titles released and on the back burner sliding into limbo. Finally in 2011 it resurfaced under the Panik House label, with a "Mr. Skin Presents" tag to boot, as the headliner in a gleefully grubby triple feature; as initially promised, this version is considerably longer and more explicit than any other version out there, including the complete neck-spiking scene, the office assault on Blair, and loads of additional nudity, including a prolonged, graphic shower shot of Russ Meyer starlet Edy Williams that will have viewers doing a double take. As some folks who know the film really, really well have noted, this version isn't technically "uncut" as it's missing two fleeting shots most viewers wouldn't notice, but the fact that's much, much more complete than any other version out there should be enough to compensate. The image quality is also miles better than any other video edition, doing full justice to the dirty, decadent cinematography by director-turned-cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator)-- and it's properly framed, which means no more stupid boom mic! The film gets its own disc in this two-platter set and includes the theatrical trailer along with video interviews with Stella Stevens and Sybil Danning, both of whom are amusingly candid in their recollections about the film, the bizarre morphing of the screenplay during production, and Blair's reaction to wallowing around in a project like this. (Personal note: I was the camera guy on the Danning interview several years ago and can't quite figure out why it's been partially cropped, squished, and otherwise manipulated so it's faux-16:9 now; it still looks okay though.) As with the other two films to follow, it features an intro by Mr. Skin, which is wholly appropriate in the case of this release.

The other two films are paired up on disc two and make for amusing companion pieces as they feature different configurations of Blair, Danning, and Vernon in similar settings. Despite her lack of enthusiasm while promoting Chained Heat, Blair decided to go back to the slammer again for Red Heat, which may have seemed more respectable on paper as it addressed Cold War tensions between the East and West. What viewers actually got instead was another tale of naive Christine (Blair) being mistreated behind bars by commies who pick her up on the street after a fling with an East German man. Once again, the warden (Volkmann) is a sadistic deviant, this time a woman who uses her lesbian underling, Sofia (Kristel), to do her dirty work among the inmates. After an initial meet-rough, Christine and Sofia develop a more complicated relationship involving an escape plan, long showers, and geopolitical ramifications.

Blair was really at the height of her exploitation phase by this point, having shot the astounding Savage Streets and the mentally damaged Night Patrol in between these two prison outings (with the ridiculous paste-up job Savage Island also happening in '85). Like Chained Heat, this one was released on VHS by Vestron but didn't have anything close to that film's theatrical presence; nevertheless, that didn't stop them from putting out both R-rated and unrated versions on tape. As with the other films in this set, previous international versions on DVD have looked terrible, so this new(er) transfer is a welcome step up across the board from print condition to clarity of detail to color fidelity. As will be obvious to anyone who's seen the unrated version, the DVD represents the R-rated cut and is mostly missing Blair's rape scene and aftermath which were snipped at the behest of the MPAA. The film itself is definitely more subdued than the previous feature, injecting occasional exploitation elements but also trying for a serious dramatic statement that softens the impact a bit. It's still highly recommended for the pairing of Blair and Kristel, of course, but there's a reason it's the second-billed title.

Though it doesn't feature Blair, the third film in the set, Jungle Warriors, is a gleefully stupid hybrid of captive women and jungle adventure tropes with Danning and Vernon teaming up again along with an eye-popping supporting cast that can't help but make this wildly entertaining. A planeload of models being escorted by a guy named Larry (former evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner!) gets shot down over a South American jungle, and when their ride goes up in the flames, they're all captured by drug lord Cesar (Smith, the big scowling lug from Pieces and Sonny Boy) and his domineering sister, Angel (Danning). Then the bubbleheaded girls have to plan their escape while contending with a tall molester (Woody Strode!) and an apparently insane gangster named Vito (Vernon) who wants to buy them all for white slave trading, or something. Oh yeah, and Alex Cord (The Dead Are Alive) is on hand, too, right when his career was swerving exclusively to TV guest star stints.

Unlike the other two films, this was released in the US by Media on VHS and appeared to be uncut, as is this DVD. (Not surprisingly, the UK release was hacked as badly as its companion films.) Though the set pieces aren't as extreme as Chained Heat, the actual mayhem is sustained pretty well throughout the film with lots of blood, explosions, and handsy treatment of the female cast. The film was obviously shot on inferior film stock and looks the grittiest of the three, but it's probably about as good as it'll get in standard def given the source material. The release is promoted as a limited collector's item (probably given the fact that the license will expire soon after such a long delay), so snap it up while you can.

Reviewed on June 14, 2011.