Very few directors of the exploitation business in the 1970s were able to successfully create one classic film after another and have each one of them develop a firm cult following in the ensuing years. One of these filmmakers is Jack Hill, whose films in the decade began with BIG DOLL HOUSE in 1971 and ended with SWITCHBLADE SISTERS in 1975. It cannot easily be determined which of his 1970s films is his best, but his two entries in the women-in-prison genre remain just as memorable as they were 40 years ago. Along with Gerardo de Leon’s similar WOMEN IN CAGES, Hill’s BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE have been re-issued (and more importantly, totally remastered) as part of Shout! Factory’s essential two-disc set, “The Women In Cages Collection”.
BIG DOLL HOUSE starts off well enough: young Pam Grier croons the theme song "Long Time Woman" as the audience sees young redhead Collier (Judy Brown) being transported to a women's' prison deep in the jungle. After a perverse body search, Collier is escorted to her cell, where she is introduced to one of the best exploitation casts ever assembled: Grear (played by Pam Grier...hmmm...), the tough black lesbian; Alcott (the wonderful Roberta Collins), the tough blonde chick; Harrad (Brooke Mills), the junkie whom Grear holds under her thumb; Ferina (Gina Stuart - who?), a Hispanic inmate with a pet cat; and Bodine (Pat Woodell), a political prisoner. The prison is run by Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmitdmer), a distant, uncaring floozy who leaves the dirty work, such as the beatings, the psychological torture, the threats, to head guard Lucian (the completely over-the-top Kathryn Loder, FOXY BROWN).
BIG DOLL HOUSE is not a plot-driven film. The girls do the stuff girls usually do in women-in-prison films (showers, manual labor, lesbian gropings, mudfights, ya know, like in real life), only Hill was a groundbreaker in being there first. DOLL HOUSE practically invented the WIP subgenre, for better or worse, and only New World's CAGED HEAT equals it in terms of excellence and entertainment value. The key to the film's success is its rapid pacing. Director/screenwriter Hill is known for keeping his films interesting even when it's merely a dialogue scene. DOLL HOUSE runs at 100 miles an hour and rarely slows down to gaze at the scenery. There's a male rape scene, a mudfight between Grier and Collins, a revolt with lots of machine gun fire and explosives, a cockroach race, nude showers, a head slammed into a toilet, and more action, humor, and entertainment than can be described here.
Not only does DOLL HOUSE stand up just as well as it did in 1971, it is probably even better all these years later. Of the cast, Roberta Collins and Pam Grier are the two stand-outs and both have deservedly earned cult status among film fans. It's interesting to see Pat Woodell ("Petticoat Junction") in a tough chick role, and Brooke Mills finally turns interesting just before she kicks the bucket. Judy Brown is lovely to look at and has some choice dialogue, but cannot compare in terms of screen charisma or personality to her co-stars. And who could forget Sid Haig, a brilliant screen actor who steals every scene he is in. The scenes he shares with Grier are something truly special; the real-life friendship between the two shines through, regardless of the situation. The ending is a real kick in the face, and will leave you frothing at the mouth for more WIP madness. The remedy for this thirst? Watch the movie again from start to finish!
THE BIG BIRD CAGE was a semi-sequel to DOLL HOUSE. It featured Pam Grier and Sid Haig, and was written and directed by Jack Hill, but the similarities really end there. This time around, Grier and Haig are mercenary lovers who kidnap sultry Terry (the underrated Anitra Ford) during a nightclub hold-up. Upon their capture, Terry is mistaken for a member of the gang and is thrown into an exotic jungle prison without trial! Once again, the audience is provided with an ensemble cast of exploitation greats: Carol Speed (ABBY) is the spunky black hooker inmate, Candice Roman is Carla the blonde nymphomaniac, Teda Bracci is the loud-mouthed comic relief, Karen McKevic is the threatening lesbian, and Marissa Delgado is the fragile, borderline-insane inmate. Follow Ford as she witnesses "bodies broken" in the Bird Cage, parties where inmates are forced to sleep with government officials, and is hung by her hair for a day for attempting to escape! To make matters worse, all the guards (including Filipino exploitation veteran Vic Diaz) are gay! Enter Grier, 50 minutes into the film, who takes charge over her fellow inmates. Haig infiltrates the prison by feigning interest in Diaz, and we're on our way to another violent climax that leaves everyone biting the dust and the audience craving more, more, more!! You know a movie is good when it leaves you so excited and energetic that you want to watch the movie all over again, so do yourself a favor: watch the movie all over again!
THE BIG BIRD CAGE was not as successful in theaters as DOLL HOUSE. Some attribute this to the fact that BIRD CAGE was facing off against other WIP films, but I don't think this is a valid argument. The problem may have been that the film just isn't as good as its predecessor. It has all the right elements and the final 40 minutes are a slam-bang non-stop ride, driving along at the prescribed Jack Hill speed of 100 mph. But prior to Grier's imprisonment, BIRD CAGE runs at a paltry 65 mph, rarely picking up. Part of this is Even the luscious Anitra Ford and the always interesting Carol Speed in a supporting role just isn't enough to keep the audience's interest. Candice Roman is obviously a weak replacement for the far superior Roberta Collins (the two look identical from a distance) and Teda Bracci is not only unfunny, but resembles an uglier, toothier version of Bette Midler. Her nude scenes will provoke more eye-covering than eye-opening. The most physically interesting character is the lesbian giant Karen, performed to underplayed perfection by Karen McKevic. Sid Haig and Vic Diaz (as the gay comic relief) are hilarious, despite the politically correct climate of today.
When BIG DOLL HOUSE did in fact became box office gold for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, they quickly followed it up with WOMEN IN CAGES, a film directed by Gerardo de Leon, a giant of the Philippines exploitation scene. Starting his long career with TERROR IS A MAN in the 1950s, de Leon does not have Hill’s directorial talent, wit or creativity, but he still manages to turn in a worthwhile early entry into the endless WIP cycle. WOMEN IN CAGES uses three of DOLL HOUSE's principle actresses: Pam Grier, Judy Brown and Roberta Collins. Both Brown and Collins are again cellmates and look like they never left the DOLL HOUSE, but instead of a prisoner, Grier is now a sadistic warden named Alabama. When asked, "What kind of hell did you crawl out of?," Alabama replies, "It was called Harlem, baby. I learned to survive, never have pity. This game is called survival. Let's see how well you can play it. I was strung-out behind smack at ten and worked the streets when I was twelve." That will give you a slight idea of her character!
The lead performer here is Jennifer Gan (THE NAKED ANGELS) as a bimbette named "Jeff." Gan looks and acts like a goofy, Amazonian cross between Stella Stevens and Vicki Lawrence. Her character gets blackmailed by a suave but conniving gangster/drug dealer (Charlie Davao) and ends up in the slammer, thinking he's gonna get her out. Other girls in Jeff's cell are Brown as Sandy (another innocent type who killed her mean husband in self defense), Sofia Moran as Theresa (a native who is Alabama's bitch and later regrets it) and Collins as Stoke (a touchy heroin addict who has a vendetta for Jeff throughout). Only Theresa gives into Alabama's attentions, but soon gets a good whipping when she gets just a little to rough in the sack. The other girls just won't give in, and are all subjected to a visit to Alabama's private torture chamber, an out of place throwback that resembles a setpiece from MARK OF THE DEVIL. After these excessive attempts to beat them into submission, the girls plan a clever escape, and they snare the obnoxious Alabama as a hostage. What commences is a trek through the jungle, a very disturbing rape/drowning, some discord on a prostitution sea vessel, and an assumed happy ending for at least two of our heroines.
No where near as good as Jack Hill's WIP films or of course CAGED HEAT, WOMEN IN CAGES is still a stimulating New World effort. The film lacks a colorful male character actor (ala Sid Haig or Vic Diaz), but it allows some of the actresses to stand out. Grier has one of her nastiest roles ever, and is utterly wicked and utters some choice dialog ("A white man raped me, a white bitch can kill me"). Collins is so cute and irresistible that you wish she was playing a likable character (like in other WIP hits) instead of a dubious junkie.
All three titles in this collection had been previously available on DVD from New Concorde, all in flat, fullscreen versions. With THE BIG BIRD CAGE and WOMEN IN CAGES found on Disc 1 and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE on Disc 2, Shout! Factory has released all three here in one delicious package, all with beautiful 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers. The image quality is simply scrumptious on all three, bringing out the bold colors that no longer exist in today’s cinema, and sharp detail, making these some of the best-looking discs (so far) in their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” collection. Mono audio on all three play out perfectly well, with WOMEN IN CAGES’ track being especially a big improvement over the hissy one found on the previous New Concorde disc. This collection is headed to Blu-ray disc this August, and with these impressive transfers, it’s easy to see why.
Both DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE carry Jack Hill’s audio commentaries, previously found on the singe New Concorde releases. Hill might be the only director alive who has provided audio commentaries for every single one of the films he both wrote and directed, from SPIDER BABY through SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. For DOLL HOUSE, he talks more here than he does for his commentaries for MGM's Soul Cinema discs, and provides invaluable insight on making films overseas, shares memories of the star-studded cast, and generally will keep you alert for the 94-minute running time. For BIRD CAGE, he once again is highly entertaining, never boring, and historically significant. Hill's commentaries rank with David F. Friedman's and Sam Sherman's for importance in the history of exploitation cinema, and even casual fans of the genre will find themselves revisiting Hill's audio essays repeatedly.
All three films are represented in the supplements with their original trailer and TV spot, and DOLL HOUSE even includes an original radio spot. The new 50-minute documentary, “From Manila with Love” (found on Disc 2) is a fascinating look at both DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE, featuring candid interviews with Jack Hill, Roger Corman, producer Jane Schaffer, screenwriter James Gordon White, Judy Brown, Sid Haig, Anitra Ford, Candice Roman, Tada Bracci, and the late Roberta Collins in brief footage shot before her death several years ago. Some great on-the-set stories are told, especially when the more outrageous scenes from BIRD CAGE are being addressed, but on a whole, this is another great piece of work produced for the Shout! Factory. On Disc 2, Judy Brown also gets a separate interview segment (7:12) where she mostly focuses on her work in the controversial THREESOME and WOMEN IN CAGES, and there are some still galleries that showcase behind-the-scenes and publicity photos for all three titles. (Casey Scott and George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS