Big Bird Cage (1972)

Women So Hot With Desire They Melt the Chains That Enslave Them!

Theatrical poster image for 1972's Big Bird Cage

American ex-pat Terry is locked up in a prison work camp in a tropical country, mostly for political reasons, and has to learn how to navigate the dangerous society inside. Meanwhile, revolutionaries Blossom and Django are looking for more females to join their cause. What better place to find hardened women who don’t run from a fight than a women’s prison? All they have to do is bust ‘em out, and watch their ranks swell.

THE BIG BIRD CAGE tends to get a bit more love than director Jack Hill’s previous Women-in-Prison outing THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, but my opinion leans slightly in the other direction. Both are enjoyably trashy, but I find DOLL HOUSE to be more so, and with better characters to boot. There is much recycled here, but Hill still keeps it fresh by tweaking the tropes that he helped to create.

The prison is run by a male staff in this outing, but the warden appears to be more interested in what the women can supply him, rather than what the women can supply him—information and hard labor are the only currencies here. He has two rules that he tells every new inmate upon arrival: no fighting, and no fornicating.

Prisoners as seen in 1972's Big Bird Cage

The first is difficult to control, as the women contend against one another for power and position. The second, though, is easier than you’d think. He only hires homosexual male guards, so that they won’t be tempted by the sweaty and scantily-clad lady prisoners; and he has the women who show lesbian tendencies chained to the bed at night, to prevent any late night lustful creepings.

The “bird cage” that the title refers to is a sugar cane press, an enormous (and unlikely) contraption (built by the director’s father) that stands at the center of the camp. It is built out of bamboo and powered by prisoners who have particularly angered the warden, as “accidents” in the cage are quite common. Can the women escape their little cages before the warden places them in the big one?

THE BIG BIRD CAGE was helmed by writer-director Jack Hill as a follow-up to THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, and it is sometimes erroneously referred to as a sequel to that film. It, along with Gerado de León’s WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), proved to be big enough hits for New World Pictures that Roger Corman invited Hill back to have another go at it.

Pam Grier wielding a knife in 1972's Big Bird Cage

A lot of people view this as Jack Hill satirizing the Women in Prison genre that he helped give a launching pad to, but it seems a little early in the WiP cycle for it to already lapse into self-parody. Instead, it feels to me that he was merely playing with the conceits a bit in order to keep things from growing too stale. There is a scene in which a female prisoner is raped, but it’s later “reversed” by having the females rape a man—though even that is something Hill had already shown us in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. The elaborate scenes of torture that he gave us last time have been eliminated, as has much of the sex and nudity—both of which he likely would have played up if a satire is truly what he was aiming for. There’s no denying the fact that the onscreen action is sometimes played for fun, but Hill’s tongue appears to be in cheek, not directly sticking out at us.

In my article covering THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, I somewhat defended his portrayal of lesbian women, though it’s much more difficult to do so here for his depiction of gay men. Their prancing and limp-wristed preening offers up a few uncomfortable laughs, but is ultimately a bit tasteless. There were certainly more enlightened depictions of homosexuality in theaters at the time, but as I’ve said before, you can’t go into a vintage exploitation film and expect political correctness. For many people, that’s part of the modern appeal. It offers an alternative to the sanitized PC films that are so prevalent today.

And even if Hill’s portrayal of homosexual men is something less than flattering, we have to at least give him credit for depicting an interracial relationship between Blossom and Django. Pam Grier and Sid Haig, returning from THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, are true highlights of the film, and I was happy to see Grier belting out another soulful tune at the onset.

Pam Grier and Sid Haig in 1972's Big Bird Cage

Aside from Grier and Haig, we’ve got a number of other memorable characters, as well. Terry, the new fish at Camp Bird Cage, was played by the leggy Anitra Ford, who could also be found in INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS and MESSIAH OF EVIL (both 1973), but is most well known for her four year stretch as a spokesmodel on THE PRICE IS RIGHT from 1972-1976. Cottage spokeswoman Bull Jones was played by Teda Bracci, a singer and actress who was in THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS and THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (both 1974)—not to mention a tumultuous lesbian relationship with pop songstress Dusty Springfield.

Spunky prostitute Mickie was played by Carol Speed, who showed up in classic blaxploitation flicks THE MACK (1973), BLACK SAMSON (1974) and DISCO GODFATHER (1979), rocked out in BUMMER (1973), and played the lead in the infamous “Black Exorcist” film ABBY (1974). Frequent heavy Vic Diaz played the head guard Rocco, and can also be found in BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT (1971) playing Satan; BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), also with Sid Haig and Pam Grier; BAMBOO GODS AND IRON MEN (1974); and SAVAGE SISTERS (1974). And presiding over the whole mess was Warden Zappa, played by Andre Centenera, who can also be seen in BRIDES OF BLOOD (1968), BLACK MAMBA (1974), and the aforementioned films BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT, WOMEN IN CAGES, and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA.

With a powerhouse cast like that, how could this be anything but a cult classic?

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