Soft Young Girls Behind Hard Prison Bars!
Collier (Judith Brown) is the new fish in an unnamed tropical prison. Tossed into a cell with five others, she must learn the ins-and-outs of her new life in order to survive: violent inmates, lecherous delivery men, sadistic guards, and a murderous conspiracy running beneath the surface are just a few of the hazards that she has to navigate. Prison life is difficult, so when she sees a chance to make a break for it with some of her fellow inmates, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
Sleazy, cheesy, fast-paced, and always amusing, Jack Hill stacked THE BIG DOLL HOUSE with an unbelievable exploitation cast and turned the Women-in-Prison film into a genuine subgenre.
Collier’s cellmates are Alcott, Grear, Harrad, Bodine and Ferina (Roberta Collins, Pam Grier, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell and Gina Stuart, respectively), and although it initially seems as if Collier is going to be the star of the story, this is really an ensemble piece. Collier merely acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, a means for the other girls to introduce us to the proceedings through exposition. The women are, for the most part, each given equal due—except for Ferina, who sadly gets shortchanged and really doesn’t do or add much at all.
Their skirts are uniformly short, but their crimes are varied: for instance, Grear is a prostitute who might know too much about one of her high-profile clients; Harrad is a heroin addict who murdered her infant child; Bodine is a political prisoner, locked up for refusing to give the location of her revolutionary lover; and Collier killed her husband—but was it really a crime? Their marriage was a rocky one, to hear her tell it, resulting in infidelity (both partners cheating on each other with the same man, nonetheless), and when she shot him it was in self-defense. Regardless, she received nearly a full century in the clink for his death, so it’s not as if she has anything to lose by trying to break out, except for maybe her life. And that is already in plenty of jeopardy on the inside.
Sure, the warden of the prison, Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer), seems harmless enough, and the handsome new M.D. on the premises, Dr. Phillips (Jack Davis), assures all the prisoners that she only has their best interests at heart. However, her staff of guards is lead by a masochistic woman named Lucian (Kathryn Loder) who lives to dish out punishment. Even worse, she gets off on dragging the most unruly ones to a private room and torturing them in increasingly mad ways—we know that she gets a sexual rush from it because she lets her hair down when she does so, quite literally. And all the while, a hooded figure in military dress watches silently from an ornate throne.
“It’s a high wall and a hard run.” This is the warning that Alcott gives when the ladies begin planning their escape. It’s ultimately an intricate and far-fetched scheme involving a food fight, a house cat, a bottle of booze, and a couple of hormonal patsies…but hey, whatever works. The patsies in question are Harry and Freddy (Sid Haig and Jerry Franks), two hippie-tinged townies that are inexplicably given open access to the cellblock to sell fresh produce and other assorted sundries to the inmates. Harry’s primary goal in his unusual chosen profession seems to be bedding down with a lady prisoner, but beyond a few uncomfortable Grear-Gropes through the bars (her vagina is like a vice, he declares), he never gets to fulfill his dream—which makes him all the more bitter when Freddy is raped by Alcott, wielding a knife and telling him to “Get it up, or I’ll cut it off!” But it is the promise of this mythical mating that gets Harry (and, by proxy, Freddy) mixed up in their Great Escape.
After spending some time in lock-up, Pam Grier’s Grear (whose moniker appears to be a mere coincidence, as the role was not written specific for her) has traded in men for women. In these more P.C. times, the depiction of her homosexuality is sometimes derided, specifically for the line that correlates it to a disease, and suggests that all it takes is a real man to “cure” her.
Aside from the fact that going into an exploitation film with an eye for political correctness is somewhat of a ridiculous proposition, this is also ignoring a few key points. First of all, Grear delivers this line to the unenlightened and lizard-brained Harry as a means to manipulate him into inadvertently assisting with their escape. We have absolutely no reason to believe that Grear honestly buys into the philosophy she is spouting, merely that she knows Harry will believe it. Furthermore, one cannot dispute the presence of homosexual activity that takes place behind bars between those who only engaged in heterosexuality on the outside—statistics vary, but all studies agree that it does occur when confined for long periods of time, as these women were. And finally, this viewpoint dismisses the fact that as far as filmmakers of the era go, director Jack Hill and producer Roger Corman were both quite liberal and progressive; some have even gone on record as calling their output fairly feminist in nature, while still understanding that the film business is a business, and they knew how to put asses in seats.
There were certainly films about women in prison prior to THE BIG DOLL HOUSE—see CAGED (1950), for instance—but this was the one that added the capital letters, making Women in Prison movies a certified subgenre of sleaze. All of the elements that would quickly become the staples of these films are on display: the new arrival; humiliating strip searches (“Search them, inside and out!”); shower scenes; lesbianism; hard labor; punishment meted out by evil guards; the “catfight” (in this case, an epic round of fisticuffs between Alcott and Grear, which turns into an unlikely mud wrestling match); and of course, the escape. What is most interesting is that although all of these elements work together to make THE BIG DOLL HOUSE a sleazy exploitation classic, it almost seems sweetly sleazy today, especially in light of those that followed in its footsteps. Much like how THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER kicked off the cannibal cycle of films, the movies that copied its formula concentrated on the controversial moments and amped them up in attempt to outdo their predecessors. Each new entry becomes more and more shocking until the audience it aims for can no longer be shocked, and that’s when the subgenre burns itself out.
Though, to be fair, WiP recently enjoyed something of a resurgence in an unlikely venue: the Netflix original series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, which, while less exploitative, does inevitably contain many of the same elements. Hell, they even raced cockroaches in one episode, just like the women did here.
THE BIG DOLL HOUSE was scripted by Don Spencer who had previously penned the sexploitation film THE STUDENT NURSES (1970) and went on to write another Women in Prison film, SWEET SUGAR (1972) before quitting the business all together. It was directed by the ever-impressive Jack Hill, whose career only spanned 20 films, but each one of them worthy of dissection, for Roger Corman’s recently-established New World Pictures.
It was shot in the Philippines, using interiors built on a studio stage and the exteriors of an actual prison that had been closed down, and was housing a number of derelicts. Filming lasted about three months, from November to January 1970, utilizing a host of locals for bit parts and background players. Despite the shooting location, it was never once mentioned within the film itself where the story took place, remaining an anonymous country in political turmoil that is mysteriously home to a large number of American women.
The dynamic between Pam Grier and Sid Haig here was undeniable, which probably explains why they were reunited in five additional films: the spiritual follow-up to this movie, THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972); BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973); COFFY (1973); FOXY BROWN (1974); and JACKIE BROWN (1997). Pam Grier also sang the amazing theme song “Long-Time Woman”, written by Hall Daniels. Quentin Tarantino must have been a fan, too, because he deftly inserted it into JACKIE BROWN. It baffles the mind that she didn’t appear on more soundtracks. Regardless, this was the film that really kickstarted her career, turning her into the badass beauty that everyone knows and loves today.
A sizable chunk of the cast of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE returned for another round of jailhouse rock in WOMEN IN CAGES, which was released in October 1971, a scant six months later. And that’s when everything started to go off the rails.
But what a marvelous train wreck it would turn out to be.