U.S.A. - Philippines | 1971-72
Jack Hill,
Gerardo de Leon
Pam Grier, Judy Brown
Roberta Collins, Sid Haig
Anitra Ford, Vic Diaz
The Big Doll House: 94 Min.
The Big Bird Cage: 95 Min.
Women in Cages: 81 Min.
| R
Format: DVD(R0 - NTSC | 2-disc set)
Shout! Factory
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Blu-ray edition August 2011
Review by
Rod Barnett

Doll House:8
Bird Cage:8
The Women in Prison genre is a very odd duck. Easily one of the sleaziest types of exploitation film, they can be counted on to present an array of salacious scenarios that play out like sick, sadistic male fantasies with only the smallest of nods to how real jails for women might be operated. For instance, I'm sure a fair amount of lesbian coupling goes on behind prison walls but I'm not so sure that every single institution is lorded over by a vicious warden with no regard for the safety or health of the inmates. I'm also sure that most women's prisons don't have a full torture dungeon for late night playtime or weekly rape events in the mess hall but that doesn't mean I'm not amused when filmmakers try to convince me otherwise. Like all exploitation cinema WIP films disregard most of the moralistic pretentions a 'serious' film on the same subject might strive to have. Instead, they work on the level of crazed fantasy calculated to titillate the audience with a lurid mix of sex and violence. By the 1970s the loosening of censorship allowed producers to wallow in every misogynistic taboo they could think of and they worked hard to whip up a frenzy of dark, depraved tales each more explicit than the last. The list of degradations the (usually) gorgeous casts were marched through would include forced strip searches, group shower scenes, eye-gouging cat fights, bondage, nude whipping and beatings, torture, cruelty and rape all in service of pushing the voyeuristic buttons of male film goers. These nastier elements have always been present in pulp entertainment but the '70s saw them explode onto movie screens just as the Women's Liberation movement tried to make the female half of the population less exploited. Were WIP films a reaction against things like the Equal Rights Amendment or just a natural outgrowth of filmmakers following the money down newly open exploitation paths? Probably a little of both, I'd say. One thing is sure to make a good film that could stand as part of the WIP genre and be a solid entertainment took smarts, skill and a willingness to use the tropes as more than a setup for sleaze. Luckily Roger Corman had some real talent in his stable of filmmakers and he sent them off to the Philippines with scripts that were a cut above average.
    Top of that list of talent is director Jack Hill, who made two of the three movies in this very welcome DVD set. First up is his initial excursion into WIP territory, The Big Doll House, which effectively set in place the standard for most of the 1970s version of this style of exploitation. The story is set in an unnamed tropical island nation whose hard-to-patrol hills are home to a small but fierce rebel community. We know this because, of course, one of our female inmates is a proud member of this group and plotting to escape, not just to be free of the horrors of the prison, but to continue the good fight. In The Big Doll House this supporting rebel role is played by Pat Woodell as Bodine, but it's her cellmates that make the bigger impression. Pretty redhead Judy Brown is our introductory character Collier, who is transported to a women's prison deep in the jungle, given a degrading body cavity search and dumped in her new home with cellmate Bodine and the more interesting cast members. Pam Grier plays Grear, the tough black lesbian; the lovely Roberta Collins is the tough, man-hungry blonde Alcott; long haired, leggy Brooke Mills is Harrad the junkie (who Grear controls by supplying her with drugs); and Gina Stuart is Ferina, the quiet Hispanic chick with a useful pet cat. Apparently this penal institution is nothing if not unprejudiced in its housing policy. The prison is run by Dietrich (Christiane Schmitdmer), an aloof floozy who leaves the dirty work of the daily running of the prison to her head guard Lucian (Kathryn Loder, who looks like a female, caucasian James Earl Jones).
    As with most WIP films there is little in the way of plot. The film tells the episodic tale of lifer Collier finding her way in her new environment by trying to choose her friends smartly. At first forced to kowtow to the butch Grear's demands, she watches the power struggle between the manipulative lesbian and Bodine culminate in a muddy fistfight (remember: exploitation film!) and the decision of the entire cell to work together to escape the prison. The escape plan involves enticing the prison's food delivery duo Fred (Jerry Franks) and Harry (Sid Haig) into a late night visit to the prison for mad, animal sex with Grear while the other ladies use the prison's notorious torture room as an exit door. This involves encouraging Lucian's sadistic tendencies and exposing the identity of the hooded voyeur who silently watches the nastier whippings and beatings.
    The Big Doll House is an amazing, entertaining, sleazy film that not just set the standard for the genre but set that standard pretty damned high. Never boring for a second, it presents its tale with a clean style that in no way clutters up the narrative with extraneous elements but reveals the perfect detail to maneuver the audience into accepting every twist and turn. Director Hill (Spider Baby, Coffy) was always great at being able to move a film from interesting to overdrive smoothly. The first half of this movie is a patchy series of scenes written to introduce the characters but each one is interesting enough, well acted enough and well scripted enough to keep you distracted from the fact that nothing much is really happening. Then when the escape plot kicks into gear the film revs higher and higher until you're not sure if the story is going to end with a smile or a sneer. Acting honors go to the fantastic Sig Haig who shows an amazing range of emotions as the bragging, golden-tongued businessman longing for a taste of the prison's forbidden fruit and the legendary Pam Grier in her first staring role. It's easy to see why her career exploded after this film hit the screen. Although clearly inexperienced she has a firm presence and is wonderfully believable no matter the situation. If all exploitation movies were this well made they'd be hailed as art by much more respected critics than me.
    1972's The Big Bird Cage is often called a sequel to The Big Doll House but beside the fact that it shares some cast and crew members it has nothing to do with the first film. Even if it might conceivably take place in the same unnamed country with a similar rebellious faction hiding in the jungle this is clearly a separate film in tone and attitude. Shifting locale from a blockhouse style jail to a work prison deep in the jungle, The Big Bird Cage takes place mostly in the outdoors of the lush green wilderness that helps to keep the women prisoners just as effectively as the guards and fences. The film begins by introducing us to Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig) as a couple of criminal characters committing their latest robbery. They seem to only steal from the wealthier citizens of this tropical land and in their escape Django is forced to briefly kidnap slutty socialite Terry (Invasion of the Bee Girls' Anitra Ford), who has made a lot of important people angry by openly flaunting the fact that she is the mistress of choice for several married government officials. So when the gorgeous Terry is mistakenly arrested as an accomplice she is thrown into prison on trumped up charges. Convinced that she'll be released when her wealthy friends learn what has happened, she at first makes do... but as the cruelty of the prison increases she slowly begins to realize that no help is coming. At the same time Blossom and Django's gang persuade the lovers to finally make a move in the long-delayed 'rebellion'. The amorous erstwhile revolutionaries want to model their rebellion on the French example by staging a Bastille Day breakout from the local women's prison. The grand plan takes a two-pronged attack with Blossom getting intentionally tossed inside to ready the inmates while Django make friends with the prison's head guard Rocco (Vic Diaz). As Rocco is a flamboyant homosexual, Django chooses the most straightforward method of cozying up and soon has been hired as the newest prison guard. With everyone in place its time to light the fuse and watch things blow up.
    The Big Bird Cage is such an entertaining film that I want to run around showing it to everyone I meet! Seriously if you can't have fun watching this movie I don't even know how to speak to you. Jack Hill again demonstrates how to seamlessly combine disparate elements, blend them together and craft a story that has you rooting for the good guys, hating the bad guys and feeling sympathy for a few of the folks caught in between. The real difference between this movie and The Big Doll House is the added touch of comedy that crops up. At first glance this might seem the wrong kind of thing to include in a violent prison film but the script has the humor come from the characters and their motivations. The most fun comes from Haig's amazing performance as he segues from oversexed thief unconcerned with some silly rebellion to playacting girly-man to fierce freedom fighter. If I have any doubts about the film at all I might worry that some folks would be offended by the over-the-top nature of Haig's and Diaz's gay flouncing. A modern audience might see it as an attack but I can't see it that way the comedic tone just seems so well played it comes off as endearingly silly. Another plus is that once the action starts up in the final act of the film the movie takes off at full speed. This is a fast, fun and entertaining movie and required viewing for any exploitation fan.
    The last and easily weakest movie in this set is Women in Cages (1971). Directed by Philippines native Gerardo de Leon, it doesn't have the same vigor of the Hill films but it's far from a dud. One of the elements that mark this one as a cut below is that we never know much about our main character "Jeff" (Jennifer Gan). She's just a fairly dull-witted girl with a gangster boyfriend who cons her into carrying heroine just as the cops close in. As you might expect she thinks loverboy will get her out but as time passes she begins to wise up. She should have figured things out earlier than she does but she manages to somehow not notice that one of her cellmates, junkie Stoke (Roberta Collins), keeps trying to kill her. Stoke has been tasked with doing away with Jeff to keep her quiet but each attempt is thwarted by chance. These deadly shenanigans are unobserved by even head guard and all around bitch Alabama (Pan Grier) who seems to consider the prison her personal cathouse. Alabama's current girl-toy is Theresa (Sofia Moran), whose enthusiasm in the sack is impressive. Various enticements are offered to the other girls to join the cruel guard in her boudoir, but when an inmate proves unwilling they are whisked off to the secret torture chamber instead. Some pretty harsh nastiness is meted out here with some medieval style implements employed. Finally the ladies devise a breakout to take Alabama hostage and try to make their way through the steamy jungle to freedom.
    Sadly, Jennifer Gan is only fitfully engaging in her lead role; luckily most of the rest of the cast picks up the slack. Roberta Collins occasionally teeters on the edge of 'too much' but her starved junkie body language and manic facial expressions are great. Sofia Moran is very good both at showing her glee in the joys of sex and her intense rage as she becomes a woman scorned. Judy Brown as prisoner Sandy plays a world-weary variation on her character from The Big Doll House and is fine although I did keep wondering where she got such good hair styling in that hellhole of a place. The only slightly off-key performance comes, strangely enough, from Pam Grier. I might be alone in feeling that she is stiff and often unconvincing but her delivery of the dialog is often clumsy. This is very odd because Grier is such a natural screen performer but she sounds rather stilted as she punishes her degraded charges. The film is solid without being great and certainly has more than enough to please fans of the genre.

Shout! Factory's two-disc DVD set with all three of these movies is a bargain at twice the price. All of these films had been released earlier in fullframe editions but this presentation is vastly superior, and if I remember what I paid for those DVDs correctly cheaper as well. The Big Bird Cage and Women in Cages share space on Disc 1; The Big Doll House is on Disc 2 along with the beefier extras. Each film looks fantastic in widescreen 16x9 prints that look sharper than some movies I saw in theaters this year. All of the movie have their original Mono soundtracks and are clear and clean. This set has been slated to come out later this year on Blu-Ray and with the obviously pristine elements these transfers are taken from as the digital basis its easy to see that hi-def might make these dirty movie look even better. Each movie has its original trailer, TV spots and brief still galleries but only the two Jack Hill films sport full-length commentary tracks. These are holdovers from the old DVDs but don't let that turn you off both tracks are brilliant examples of the best kind of commentary. A combination of reminiscing about the film and his career, the nuts and bolts of low budget filmmaking, the difficulties of directing in foreign countries and lots of information about the troubles along the way, Hill makes 90 minutes fly by almost as swiftly as the films do on their own. I would go so far as to recommend aspiring young filmmakers to check these tracks out to get an idea of how to deal with the problems that will always crop up in production.
    The two new extras present on this set include a 48-minute documentary called From Manila With Love that gathers together great interview footage of Hill, executive producer Roger Corman, producer Jane Schaffer, screenwriter James Gordon White and actors Judy Brown, Sid Haig, Anitra Ford, Candice Roman and the crazed and amusing Tada Bracci. Even the late Roberta Collins in seen discussing the movies in some brief video footage shot before her death in 2008. This is a well-edited and fun piece that shows that these folks clearly have great memories of making these movies. I do wish that some of the sexy behind-the-scenes dirt Judy Brown alludes to was gone into more but maybe she'll eventually write an autobiography and we'll find out who was kissing who. Ms. Brown has a separate 7-minute interview in which she talks about Women in Cages and the little seen early film Threesome. I must say I now want to see that movie and before this introduction I had never heard of it!
    If you have any interest in exploitation cinema I can't recommend this set highly enough. It's a crash course in what makes these movies worth watching and even allows the curious to see how it was done. Brilliant! 7/31/11