Overflowing with gratuitous nudity, sadistic violence, and various iterations of sexual abuse, this trio of babes-behind-bars pictures—which were filmed together in the Philippines and share many actors, but which do not comprise a continued narrative—is trashy in the worst way. The movies are also, surprisingly, quite boring. The first flick, The Big Doll House, sets the numbing tone. After sexy blonde Alcott (Roberta Collins) gets thrown into a primitive Filipino prison overseen by perverse warden Miss Dietrich (Christine Schmidtmer), Alcott runs into hassles with cellmates including tough-talking African-American Grear (Pam Grier). The movie features myriad ugly scenes of Alcott being fondled by a swarthy cook (played by B-movie staple Sid Haig), being tortured by the warden’s goons, and/or trudging through catfights with Grear. (The ladies’ climactic battle is fought in a puddle of mud, with the combatants wearing only panties and tank tops.) The slim narrative involves Alcott uniting her fellow inmates for an audacious escape, but the story is really just an excuse for generating scenes of women in demeaning situations. And while Collins, Grier, and their cronies are attractive, the movie is so crass that it’s hard to find much enjoyment in director Jack Hill’s tacky take on titillation. That said, blaxploitation fans may find The Big Doll House interesting simply because it features Grier’s first major role. Her acting is dodgy, but Grier is so committed that she even sings the theme song, an R&B thumper called “Long Time Woman.”
The second picture in the cycle, Women in Cages, is a decidedly weird type of drive-in sludge. Scored with dirge-like music and featuring such a fragmented storyline that the movie feels more like a series of torture vignettes than a proper narrative, Women in Cages comprises 81 minutes of nearly unadulterated brutality. The gist of the piece is that a political prisoner (Jennifer Gan) gets tossed into jail and rallies her cellmates for an escape. The lovely Collins is back, in a florid supporting role as a heroin-addicted inmate tasked with murdering a fellow prisoner—her methods include loosing a snake into a cell, poisoning a sandwich, and tossing acid onto her intended victim. Grier switches to full-on villain mode, playing a psychotic matron who runs her own personal torture garden. Grier’s performance is bug-eyed and silly, but the actress participates in the movie’s best dialogue exchange: After one of Grier’s victims asks, “What hell did you crawl out of,” Grier replies, “Harlem!” Given the lack of a compelling storyline, it doesn’t really matter that leading lady Gan is inept; this one’s all about grooving on seedy textures.
The best of these three movies, though it’s not saying much, is The Big Bird Cage, which benefits from an action-packed climax and lots of wink-wink jokes. This one stars icy beauty Anitra Ford as an American who sleeps with political figures for social advantage until a misunderstanding lands her in the slammer. Grier and Haig play revolutionaries who pursue the oddball idea of freeing inmates from prison and transforming them into fellow revolutionaries. Written and directed by The Big Doll House’s Jack Hill, who brought more pizzazz to this skeevy genre the second time around, The Big Bird Cage has several interesting gimmicks, such as the presence of a giant sugar mill in the prison yard; the mill is the “Big Bird Cage” of the title, because workers toil inside the towering structure. The picture also benefits from campy humor, usually involving Haig doing something outrageous. (At one point, he masquerades as a swishy homosexual.) Leading lady Ford has a beguilingly reserved quality—she’s the Faye Dunaway of grindhouse cinema—and Grier locks into a groove playing a gun-toting mama with a smart mouth. In fact, of the three pictures, The Big Bird Cage comes closest to delivering the full Pam Grier persona that blaxploitation fans know and love.
The Big Doll House: LAME
Women in Cages: FREAKY
The Big Bird Cage: FUNKY
The Big Bird Cage: FUNKY