Judge Steve Evans has been working near them cane fields, and he wants to be free.
"Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man—or to him."
Blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier (Coffy, Jackie Brown) dominates this first entry in Roger Corman's slate of trashy women-in-prison flicks from the early 1970s. Grier quit her job as a secretary to star in this picture and she is the most memorable aspect of an otherwise sleazy little flick. Even gorgeous, topless women sweating in the jungle cannot compensate for the amateur-hour acting and ridiculous plot, which could scarcely hold the attention of a dozen frat boys, their bellies swollen with cheap beer. This won't stop another generation of guys from checking out The Big Doll House anyway.
Facts of the Case
Beautiful inmates (with almost always perfect hair) toil in the swamps and suffer degradation at the hands of a sadistic warden in a nameless Banana Republic prison. Lesbian prostitute Grear (played by Grier, oddly enough) is unofficial leader of the women prisoners. They lust for the snack man (Sid Haig, Diamonds are Forever, Jackie Brown)—who drops by to peddle tropical fruit, candy, cigarettes, and drugs from his wooden push cart. And when he's not around, the women spend their time devising ways to escape from this jungle Hell. They also manage to bicker, cuss, get nekkid in the shower, and spew revolutionary politics. The plot clots when a cellmate informer tries to foil their escape plans in exchange for special favors from the warden. These desperate women finally break out in a hail of bullets, fiery explosions, and bad dialogue. As the lobby posters screamed in 1971, "Naked lust builds to a climax of death!"
Whew. Where to begin? Famed schlock producer-director Roger Corman had just formed New World Pictures when he sent protégé director Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) to the Philippines with $125,000 and half a dozen beautiful girls. Hill's marching orders? Shoot a babes-behind-bars picture for the drive-in crowd. They chose the Philippines because it was a cheap place to film and Corman wanted a sure-fire hit to launch his new production company. Hill got busy with his cast and returned a few weeks later with an ungodly cinematic stew of overheated lust, mud wrestling, cat fights, nekkid women taking showers, heroin addiction, torture at the hands of sadistic lesbian guards, body-cavity searches, cockroach races, scantily-clad prisoners being blasted by a firehose, illicit sex, and miscellaneous death by poisonous snakes, knives, and machine guns. Hill even delivered a male-rape scene where a horny switchblade sister jacks her captive up against the wall and declares: "Get it up or I'll cut it off!" Great God a'mighty! Talk about spoiling the mood.
Legend has it that even Corman himself, the exploitation king, was shocked by the perverse footage Hill assembled into a rough cut. But Corman got his money's worth. That puny $125,000 investment reaped $10 million when the film was released 35 years ago. The Big Doll House will undoubtedly put a few more pesos in Corman's pockets in the wake of this DVD release.
The film made Pam Grier a star and launched her lucrative career in blaxploitation nonsense, much of it shot under Hill's direction. Her only previous role had been a brief appearance in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Here, Grier sings "Long Time Woman" over the opening credits—"Ninety-nine years is long, long time"—a brassy number that Quentin Tarantino would lift 26 years later for Grier's comeback performance in Jackie Brown.
At the start of her career, in this film, Grier shows only fleeting glimpses of the charisma that would soon make her a household name (at least in hipster households). She does manage to get through her line readings with a straight face, which is better than I was able to do, watching her performance. It's hard to keep laughter in check when Grier is busy calling people muth@hfu*ck@hs and wrasslin' in muddy bogs for no good reason other than the script calls for it. Corman and company also insult the intelligence of their core drive-in audience. Even a ding-dong goofed on beer and pot and who-knows-what ought to wonder what Philippino guards are doing in a Latin American jungle prison. And who in hell gets sentenced to 99 years of hard labor for crazy combo convictions like "espionage and prostitution?" Well, maybe Mata Hari, but she's not in this picture.
The fullscreen video and mono soundtrack are merely okay; nothing spectacular, although this might add to the appeal of an itchy and scratchy low-budget film. Extras include a brief Leonard Maltin interview with Corman, the original theatrical trailer, and five previews of other Corman-produced flicks, plus biographical notes on key cast members, Corman, and director Hill.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it's almost impossible to take this flick seriously, I still suggest you not show this to your girlfriend, wife, or mother. Otherwise, you might be looking at a life sentence of the silent treatment. Remember, "ninety-nine years is a long, long time…"
Separately, it is amusing to note that this picture and some 400 other Corman properties are now licensed by Buena Vista, the distribution arm of the Walt Disney Corporation. The Big Doll House is not the sort of movie we normally associate with the House of Mouse. But Disney outbid all other comers for the consistently profitable Corman catalogue when he put it up for sale. Draw your own conclusions.
If you absolutely, positively gotta see just one women-in-prison movie, accept no substitutes. This is the one (the immediate sequel, The Big Birdcage, was toned down considerably). Be advised you may feel vaguely unclean afterward. Soap not included.
Guilty of exploiting women's bodies and the prurient interests of men for the sake of green money. You'll watch it anyway, won't ya? Thought so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Leonard Maltin Interview with Roger Corman
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