Shout! Factory offers up a triple does of sleazy Roger Corman produced women in prison films from the surly seventies, shot in the Philippines and featuring a fantastic array of busty beauties, caged for your pleasure! Here's a look...
The Big Doll House:
In 1971, famed producer Roger Corman gave up and coming director Jack Hill a few girls and a handful of money and sent him off to the Philippines to make a women in prison film on the cheap. The result? The Big Doll House, one of the more notorious American women in prison films and one of the films that would help launch the career of a young actress named Pam Grier.
The plot of The Big Doll House doesn't differ much from the scores of other women in prison movies that have been made before and since this one played to some pretty impressive box office success at drive-in's and grindhouses across North America. Judy Brown (of Slaughter's Big Rip Off) plays Collier, who teams up with a few other inmates, notably Grear (Pam Grier of Jackie Brown) and Alcott (Roberta Collins of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive and The Witch From The Sea) to fight off and escape from a sadistic prison warden named Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidter of Invasion Of The Giant Spiders) after being tossed into the big house under rather dubious circumstances. After a few nasty set pieces, the showdown reaches its boiling point, and the girls are going to have to use it or lose it to get out of the big house in one piece and with whatever is left of their dignity intact.
While the film isn't going to win any points for originality, at the time it definitely pushed the envelope in terms of what it could get away with. Drug abuse, rape, lesbian antics, and all manner of torture are flaunted in the face of the viewer and even by today's standards, despite the fact that the movie does shoe its age, The Big Doll House is strong stuff. Women are bitten by poisonous snakes, slapped around, tied up, thrown in the mud, and beaten pretty regularly.
Of course, what would a women in prison film be without plenty of T&A? The film delivers on that level as well. There's a completely gratuitous shower scene that hits about half an hour in during which we see a good portion of the cast nude and wet. When not hanging out looking sexy in the shower, the bulk of the inmates spend their time wearing little more than prison rags, showing off their bodies in a pretty revealing manner.
In addition to the sleazy set pieces that pepper the film like good spice should, the movie also benefits from an excellent cast. Sid Haig (currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks for Rob Zombie's various projects), a favorite of Jack Hill's, shows up as Harry, a man who makes his living selling small amounts of food and delivering letters for the female inmates in exchange for sexual favors. He's as good as you'd expect, going all out in his performance and making it quite a memorable turn and he gets more screen time in this one than he does in a lot of the supporting roles that he shows up for. Roberta Collins also shines as Alcott. She's sexy and plenty fun to look at but also manages to handle the tougher parts that are required of her character with a reasonable amount of believability.
The star of the show, however, is Pam Grier. From her soulful vocals on the opening theme song 'Long Time Woman' to her catfight scene in which she kicks a blonde Roberta Collins in the face before romping in the mud with her, she dominates each of the scenes she's in showing some intense screen presence and plenty of that sexy charm and tough attitude that made her a star. The scene in which she tries to seduce Sid Haig stands out as one of the more believable moments in the film, made so because of her hard hitting sensuality and dominant, no-nonsense attitude.
Hill's direction isn't flashy or all that stylized, but it does move the film along at a lightning fast pace. The cinematography is very 'matter of fact' in that it doesn't worry about flashy angles or exceptionally interesting camera movements - most of the action is caught by simply pointing the camera straight towards where it's all happening and letting it roll - but it works. Oscar Award winning material this isn't, but the film definitely delivers everything you'd expect from a film from this genre. Sex, violence, and sleaze are all handed over in ample amounts making The Big Doll House a completely enjoyable guilty pleasure.
The Big Bird Cage:
When The Big Doll House struck box office gold you just knew Corman would go back and look for more, and thus, The Big Bird Cage was born, once again directed by Jack Hill and starring burgeoning starlet Pam Grier and creepy Sid Haig among others.
The movie actually follows a high society hottie named Terry (Anitra Ford) who winds up getting caught up with a pair of likeminded individuals who moonlight as revolutionaries. These women, Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig), land her in some hot water and by no stroke of luck at all, Terry winds up locked away in a women's prison camp that doubles as a sugar processing factory. No normal sugar processing factory, however, this place has, smack dab in the middle of it, a gigantic wooden contraption dubbed "The Big Bird Cage" by the inmates that the facility uses to make kane into refined sugar. A rather dangerous machine, it's not uncommon for inmates to be killed on the job while working in this bizarre thing.
You'd think, in a perfect world, inmates wouldn't have to work inside giant sugar processing cages but this isn't a perfect world and the warden (Andres Centenera ) who runs the place could care less about their wellbeing. Making matters worse is the fact that the guards (one of whom is played by Vic Diaz) have all got a penchant for cruelty and, as Terry finds out the hard way, so do some of her fellow prisoners. Thankfully for her, Blossom and Django are planning a big bust out - but if Terry gets caught, the warden makes it very clear that she and any other participants will be put down for good.
A leaner and noticeably meaner film than the one that came before it, The Big Bird Cage does have a sense of twisted humor hiding behind the rampant depravity and sadism, and that really comes out to play in the final third act of the film. As far as the performances go, Ford is fine in the lead though doesn't appear completely convinced in her role and does, occasionally, look a bit out of place. She's very easy on the eyes, however, and handles herself well in the action scenes. Pam Grier and Sid Haig really steal the show, however, and have such a great chemistry together on screen that you wind up wishing the movie would focus more on them than anyone else! Well paced, nicely shot and featuring a genuinely creative, if bizarre, set piece in the bird cage itself, this one is sheer, brazen entertainment through and through.
Women In Cages:
Originally released by New Concorde on DVD years back, this movie has been out of print for some time but was released in a budget pack last year in lousy quality - thankfully Shout! Factory has rescued this one and given it the treatment it deserves. The best known of the films in this collection, this 1971 Corman production directed by Gerardo de Leon (he of Mad Doctor Of Blood Island and Brides Of Blood fame) follows an American woman named Carol 'Jeff' Jeffries (Jennifer Gan) who is sentenced to a stint in a Filipino prison after her boyfriend, Rudy (Charlie Davao), sets her up and she's busted for drug smuggling. She's locked up and he tells her to keep quiet about the dope and he'll have her out of there in no time, but she's unaware that Rudy has really got other plans for her.
Meanwhile, on the inside, Jeff is running into problems with a tough American warden named Alabama (Pam Grier) who doesn't like white American girls and who runs a sexual torture chamber she calls The Playpen where she exploits the nubile prison population for her own kinky wants and needs. Eventually Jeff and some of her fellow prisoners decide that enough is enough and so they launch a prison break in hopes of getting out of this Hell hole and back to civilization.
Filled to the brim with the sleazy sex and violence so often associated with the women in prison genre, Women In Cages is a grim, trashy picture that delivers sex and violence galore. From the copious nude shower scenes to the lesbian bits to the shoot outs to the nihilistic dialogue, this is a fast paced drive-in picture that delivers exactly what you want it to. Gerardo de Leon's direction may not be flashy, but he keeps the picture moving at a rock solid pace and does a great job of taking full advantage of the interesting terrain that the picture is set against, particularly once the women make it out and the inevitable chase ensues.
Performance wise, Gan is good in the lead - she's likeable and sympathetic enough to work in the part and she's easy on the eyes as well so even if she comes off as a bit of an airhead at times, she still works in front of the camera. The supporting cast, featuring the likes of Judy Brown and Roberta Collins, are also a lot of fun here and all do fine in their parts but the real scene stealer in this picture if Pam Grier. She plays her jaded lesbian warden with such venomous enthusiasm that you can't help but love her, and Grier's interesting features really help her to stand out in the part. There are better women in prison films out there than this one, but Women In Cages delivers all the staples the genre is associated with and it does so quite well which results in a grim, nasty, sleazy but wholly entertaining picture with a great cast and some memorable set pieces..
All three films look great framed at 1.78.1 and presented in anamorphic widescreen. Remastered from decent elements, each one looks better than the previous DVD incarnations ever did, boasting great colors and solid detail. Some minor print damage is present, as is to be expecting, and some minor color fading pops up in a few scenes but overall the movies look very good here showing nice, natural looking skin tones, strong black levels and no noticeable edge enhancement or noise reduction problems in regards to the authoring.
Nothing to complain about here, in terms of the quality of the three English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono tracks that are included. Dialogue is clean and clear and while range is occasionally limited in spots, the films have always sounded that way. Levels are well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. You might notice the odd pop here and there in the mix but only if you're listening for stuff like that - otherwise all three movies sound just fine.
Extras are spread out across the set as follows:
The only movie on the first disc, The Big Doll House starts out with an audio commentary with director Jack Hill who, if you've heard speak before, is a pretty animated guy with a great memory and no qualms whatsoever about discussing his history in the annals of exploitation film. Here he speaks about working in the Philippines, his cast, his infamously cheap producer, how they managed to get more for less overseas and how he feels about the performances and several of the nasty set pieces in hindsight. Carried over from the previous DVD release, this is a great track that Hill's fan base should definitely take the time to listen to.
From Manila with Love is an awesome brand new forty-five minute long documentary on the making of The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House that features some fascinating and amusing interviews with most of the principals involved in the film including director Jack Hill, screenwriter James Gordon White, actors Sid Haig, Judy Brown, Anitra Ford, Roberta Collins, Candice Roman, Teda Bracci and producers Roger Corman, and Jane Schaefer. Unfortunately Pam Grier doesn't pop up here, which is a shame, but this is still very worthwhile for fans of exploitation films simply because it gives us a firsthand look at what was involved in making these films, now considered seminal classics. There's lots of detail here, from gossipy stuff like who was with who on set, to stories about the living conditions, the food, the treatment from the Filipino people involved in the films and more - it's just a great documentary, very well put together with some great archival photos and some pertinent clips.
Rounding out the extras on the first disc are a trailer, a TV Spot and a radio spot as well as some animated menus and chapter stops.
The second disc kicks off with The Big Bird Cage and the extras for that movies include another audio Commentary with director Jack Hill which, again carried over from the previous DVD release, is quite lively and interesting. Here he talks in quite a bit of detail about following up the first film, what Corman wanted out of this follow up picture, and what it was like getting some of the same cast members back for a second run. Lots of good information in here, fun stories, all delivered with a casual but informative tone making it a great track to listen to. Additionally there is a trailer for the feature here and a TV Spot.
Women In Cages doesn't get a commentary, unfortunately, but it does include a pretty interesting interview with star Judy Brown. Aside from that, look for a trailer, a TV Spot and a pretty comprehensive poster and still gallery. Animated menus and chapter selection are included on this second disc as well. An insert with some brief liner notes and cool photos is included inside the case.
Shout! Factory's Women In Cages Collection is, quite simply, awesome. There's a Blu-ray release scheduled for this set in August, so high def exploitation aficionados might want to wait for that one, but otherwise this set comes highly recommended to those with an interest in seventies drive-in and women in prison movies as it offers up three great films presented in great shape and with a boat load of extras.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.