Red Heat (1985) ***
Relax, it’s a different Red Heat. What— you thought I might actually watch that shitsack movie all the way through, let alone go to the trouble of writing a review of it? Not fucking likely, my friends, not fucking likely. No, what we’ve got here is another matter altogether. Whereas the Red Heat most of you are familiar with features Jim Belushi and Arnold Schwarzenegger as buddy cops from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, this Red Heat is a women’s prison movie, which offers us the spectacle of Linda Blair and Sylvia Kristel playing rival inmates from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Sounds like much more fun, doesn’t it?
Now the first thing we need in any women’s prison flick is an unjustly incarcerated good girl. Red Heat’s is an American college student named Christine Carlson (Hell Night’s Linda Blair, who had much the same gig in the earlier Chained Heat), who has come to West Germany to visit her fiance, Mike (William Ostrander, from Stryker and Christine). Mike is a lieutenant in the US Army, and he has been stationed near the border with the East for most of his enlistment, making it impossible for him to see very much of Christine. So Mike has pulled out all the stops for this rare occasion, and booked a room at what he would ordinarily consider a prohibitively expensive resort hotel up in the mountains. What Mike doesn’t realize is that Chris wants to use the opportunity raised by their reunion to get married immediately. What Chris doesn’t realize is that Mike has decided to reenlist when his tour of duty comes to an end in a few months, completely wrecking her vision of their immediate future. And what neither one of them realizes is that some of the other guests at their hotel are about to disrupt their lives far more profoundly than could any disagreement over the time and place of their marriage.
Unbeknownst to Mike and Christine, their hotel is currently playing host to representatives from both the CIA and its West German equivalent, and to a scientist from the East named Dr. Hedda Kleemann (Repo Man’s Sue Kiel). Kleemann has defected to the West after stealing some important files from the laboratory where she works. We never do learn the precise nature of the information contained in those files, but it must be an awfully big deal, because the Stasi (the East German secret police) have sent agents to the hotel in order to retrieve Kleemann and her stolen documents. And as fate would have it, the Stasi’s kidnapping plot springs into action not long after Mike and Christine have a big blowout over their conflicting plans for the future. Chris is in the process of taking a head-clearing walk (Mike has gone to sleep by this point) when she accidentally stumbles upon the East German agents, right in the act of loading the bound and gagged Hedda Kleemann into their van. Now everyone knows international spies are loath to leave any witnesses to their activities, and thus Christine soon finds her self trussed up next to the captive scientist in a secret compartment in the back of the van.
Over the next several days, while Mike is running around the environs of the hotel trying to find any sort of clue to the disappearance of his girlfriend, Christine spends her time sitting in a cell in East Berlin, being interrogated by the Stasi. Eventually, the communists’ tried-and-true questioning tactics (which have been wringing bogus confessions out of innocent people since 1917) break Christine down; she “admits” to being a CIA agent, to conspiring with Hedda Kleemann— to just about everything, in fact, but trying to slip Castro an exploding cigar— so that her captors will finally just fucking stop. A couple more days and a farcical trial later, Christine has become the proud owner of a three-year prison sentence.
We’re in familiar territory now. Einbeck, the prison warden (Elisabeth Volkmann, from Housewives’ Report and The Devil’s Female, who is also the voice of Marge on the German version of “The Simpsons”), is an aging, stern lesbian with at least a touch of sadism in her personality. Einbeck’s current main squeeze in the prison is a lifer named Sofia (Sylvia Kristel, from Emmanuelle and The Street Walker), a thoroughgoing sadist, who uses her favored position to rule as a petty tyrant over the other prisoners. One of Christine’s new cellmates (if this movie is to be believed, East German prisons feature much larger cells than those in the US— Chris shares hers with at least ten other women) is a hard-assed political named Meg (Barbara Spitz), a tourist from England who got herself locked up for trying to smuggle a child into the West, and who swiftly positions herself as Christine’s prison mentor. Throw in Barbara (Kati Marothy), a girl who practically has “victim” tattooed across her forehead (and who actually will have “Sofia” tattooed across it before all is said and done), and we’ve got all the expected roles taken care of. As is generally the case with these films, Christine quickly earns herself a slot on Sofia’s shit list, despite Meg’s warnings to stay out of the older woman’s way, and as is also generally the case, the final impetus for all-out war between the two inmates hinges on a particularly severe violation of Barbara by Sofia and her flunkies. Matters are further complicated when Hedda Kleemann, who has been given a 50-year sentence on the strength of Christine’s “testimony,” gets transferred to the same cell as Chris, Meg, and Barbara.
Meanwhile, back in the West, Mike is busily trying to solve the mystery of Christine’s disappearance. Mike has ties to the intelligence community, so it doesn’t take him very long to figure out that his girlfriend was abducted by the same Stasi agents who got Hedda Kleemann, but none of his CIA contacts will cooperate with his efforts to find her, or even admit that she’s in any kind of danger. Finally, Mike gives up on doing it by the book, and goes to see a man he has heard of who specializes in smuggling people out of the East. With the help of this man and his team of freelance shit-kickers, Mike stages a daring sneak attack on the prison, hoping to get both Christine and Dr. Kleemann to safety. The only problem with this is that Sofia happens to have picked the same night to set in motion her plan to get Christine (whose open defiance of her has seriously compromised Sofia’s position as the prison’s top bad girl) out of her hair once and for all. Because the first stage of Sofia’s scheme is to get her and Chris alone together in the infirmary (ah, the venerable soap-eating ploy...), Christine isn’t going to be in her cell when Mike comes storming in like Sir Lancelot to her rescue, and every extra minute that Mike has to spend looking for her is an extra minute in which the rescue attempt could come to grief at the hands of either Sofia or the prison guards.
Let’s face it— by the mid-1980’s, the women’s prison genre was in desperate need of a fresh idea or two. The basic elements had come together more than fifteen years before, and the 70’s had seen most of the obvious variations on the formula tried at least once. Settings had been tinkered with (The Hot Box, Escape), racial tensions had been added to the mix (Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage), and sleaze levels had been cranked up about as high as they could go without imperiling profitability (Barbed Wire Dolls, Greta the Mad Butcher). It might seem like the only place for the genre to go from there was into conscious self-parody (as would indeed happen with 1986’s wonderfully terrible, deliberately asinine Reform School Girls), but there was indeed one angle left that nobody seems to have tried. Despite the precedent seemingly set by the vast proliferation of women’s prison flicks set in Nazi concentration camps, apparently nobody had yet thought to set one in a communist gulag. By playing that card, Red Heat creators Robert Collector and Gary Drucker allow themselves the chance to mix things up a bit by introducing elements from both the international espionage and 80’s machine-gun action genres, which does wonders to distinguish this movie from the otherwise very similar Chained Heat. Another interesting twist to the formula here is Collector and Drucker’s decision to reverse the usual power dynamic between the prison warden and her pet inmate. From the first time we see them, it’s obvious that Einbeck is but a figurehead, and that the real authority in the prison lies with Sofia— one surreal scene even shows Sofia being allowed the use of an office! Though it is never spelled out explicitly, the script strongly implies that Sofia’s hold on Einbeck stems from the warden’s sexual insecurity; somehow, she’s managed to get herself an unbelievably hot girlfriend more than ten years her junior, and if Sofia should ever grow weary of her, her chances of pulling the trick off a second time are none too good. And Sofia, for her part, knows exactly where she and Einbeck stand, and is more than willing to resort to whatever dirty psychological tricks may be necessary to maintain the status quo.
Red Heat’s other great strength is its casting. Linda Blair may not be much of an actress, but she’s got screen presence, and has enough experience portraying the transformation from victim to avenger to do so convincingly enough for this movie’s purposes. I also have to say that I get a kick out of seeing someone who is at such complete physical variance from the exploitation movie heroine norm as Blair getting to play the lead in movies like this. William Ostrander, while not exactly memorable, at least gets the job done as Mike. But the performances that stick with me the most are those by Sylvia Kristel and Elisabeth Volkmann, both of them cast as drastically against type as you could ask for, and both of them revealing a completely unexpected breadth of acting range. Volkmann spent most of her career making goofy sex comedies like the Housewives’ Report series, while Kristel was generally cast in the parts of sexually adventurous but emotionally vulnerable women who get mercilessly shat upon by lecherous, amoral men who profess to care for them. I’d never have guessed that Volkmann could be this serious, or that Kristel could be this tough. And at 35, Sylvia was still sexier than any 22-year-old Hollywood starlet to come down the pike in the last two decades, no matter what Francis Leroi, Iris Letans, and Francis Giacobetti (who had decided she was too old to play Emmanuelle anymore the previous year) might have thought.