Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dirty Dolls Of Devil's Island

Roger Corman didn’t invent the women-in-prison genre, but there’s little doubt the three movies his New World Pictures released in 1971 and 1972 were influential. All three were filmed on location in the Philippines using sexy young unknowns looking for a big break. One of them, Pam Grier, who appeared in all three and made her film debut in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, parlayed their box office success into a career as the top female action star of the 1970s. This week, Shout Factory released the trio—THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and WOMEN IN CAGES—on a 2-DVD set as part of its amazing Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series.

THE BIG DOLL HOUSE was only the second film produced by New World and was an immediate smash. Director Jack Hill (COFFY), screenwriter Don Spencer (SWEET SUGAR), and executive producer Corman basically created the new style of women-in-prison picture with this fast-paced mixture of violence, nudity, feminism, and social commentary. Judy Brown (THE MANHANDLERS) has the leading role as red-haired Collier, who is tossed into a crummy cell in a prison in the Philippines along with brassy blonde Alcott (Roberta Collins), black lesbian Grear (Grier, who also performed the theme song), political prisoner Bodine (PETTICOAT JUNCTION’s Pat Woodell), and junkie Harrad (Brooke Mills). Food fights, shower scenes, fights, seductions, and kinky tortures abound until the prisoners finally bust out and get revenge against sadistic warden Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer) and loony head guard Lucian (Kathryn Loder).

Although the subject matter sounds grim, Hill directs with wit, using comic-book-style wipes between scenes and camping up the more violent material (no blood is seen) to take the sting out of it. The leading actresses are not just beautiful and willing to disrobe on camera, but they also appear to “get” what Hill is aiming for and adjust their performances accordingly. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is pure fantasy with many iconic scenes, lines (“Get it up or I’ll cut it off!”), and images (Brown in cutoffs firing a pair of burp guns from the hip) that inspired a whole slew of women’s prison pictures, including Hill’s pseudo-sequel, THE BIG BIRD CAGE.

By the time Corman and Hill got around to making the follow-up to DOLL HOUSE a year later, the market had been saturated with women’s prison movies that filled the screen with nudity and degradation. Hill’s solution was to send up the genre and pack even more humor into the movie than DOLL HOUSE had. Thus, the delightfully pulpy THE BIG BIRD CAGE.

Once again, beautiful women wearing very little clothing are imprisoned in a hellhole in the Philippines. Grier returns as a different character, Blossom, an armed robber who gets tossed into the clink with innocent bystander Terry (THE PRICE IS RIGHT model Anitra Ford), tough black Mickie (Carol Speed), wisecracking Bull (Teda Bracci), tall Karen (Karen McKevic), and sex-starved Carla, whom I believe was intended to be played by DOLL HOUSE’s Roberta Collins, but was instead essayed by blond Candice Roman, who looks and acts exactly like her. Sid Haig also returns from DOLL HOUSE as a revolutionary named Django who breaks his lover Blossom out of prison.

Given more money and more time for the sequel, Hill provides the fast-paced action and nudity the genre required, but with a few stylish twists. For instance, all the guards at the prison are gay men, which not only turns the cliché of lesbian prison matrons upside down, but also becomes a source of politically incorrect (but not tasteless) humor. The centerpiece of BIRD CAGE, however, is the title prop, an intriguing three-story contraption that ostensibly serves as a sugar mill, but is really more of a large visual gag.

During the year between the release of DOLL HOUSE and the production of BIRD CAGE, Corman contracted Filipino filmmaker Gerardo de Leon (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND) to make another women-in-prison quickie. Grier, who performed so well in DOLL HOUSE, starred as a ruthless gay prison matron named Alabama in WOMEN IN CAGES.

For this depraved drive-in movie, Corman cast Judy Brown and Roberta Collins from DOLL HOUSE as Grier’s co-stars, along with Jennifer Gan (NAKED ANGELS) as new fish Jeff. This simp is framed for heroin possession by her weasely pimp boyfriend and sent to Alabama’s jungle jail. Mess with Alabama, and you get sent to her “playpen,” where her methods of torture include whipping, a spinning wheel, and stone boots into which a naked inmate is strapped over a flaming brazier. As if Jeff doesn’t have it bad enough, one of her cellmates, junkie Stoke (Collins), has been hired by her weasely pimp boyfriend to kill her.

For sure, de Leon knows how to deliver the goods that drive-in audiences were looking for. WOMEN IN CAGES offers de rigueur amounts of nudity, catfights, brutality, and racial conflict. But it also lacks the humor of the Jack Hill duo, and because de Leon is a less insightful filmmaker than Hill (to be fair, almost everyone working in the genre was), WOMEN IN CAGES is much less interesting. Gan’s character is too dumb to root for, and the padded climax wears out its welcome.

Grier, although obviously beautiful with unbeatable screen presence, is miscast as the villain. She hadn’t developed enough as an actress by this point to stretch in a role that required more than her own natural charms. Collins handles a more dramatic role than she was used to just fine, but playing a part with no humor in it took a big arrow out of the talented comedienne’s thespian quiver. Top-billed Brown appears to be having a nice time with her tongue in her cheek.

There’s no faulting the look of the film, which appears yanked off the cover of a FOR MEN ONLY or MEN’S ACTION “sweat magazine” cover. Production design (the playpen is really fantastic) and photography are surprisingly imaginative. The musical score consists of recycled Les Baxter cues from previous Roger Corman features.

All three movies look better than they ever have on home video and probably as least as good as their theatrical releases. Both DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE, in addition to trailers and TV spots, port over Jack Hill’s audio commentaries from the earlier New Horizons DVDs, which are in every way inferior to the new Shout Factory discs.

The most important supplement is FROM MANILA WITH LOVE, a 50-minute documentary that covers DOLL HOUSE and BIRD CAGE. It’s a delight, featuring nearly every important creative force from the two films, including Corman, Hill, producer Jane Schaffer (who has rarely, if ever, been interviewed about these movies, to the best of my knowledge), actors Ford, Roman, Bracci, Brown, and Haig, and writer James Gordon White (THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT), who apparently wrote the first draft of DOLL HOUSE and brought it to Hill before it was rewritten by Don Spencer, who receives sole screenplay credit. The late Roberta Collins also appears courtesy of earlier interview footage taken from an unknown source. Pam Grier, who reportedly wanted more remuneration than Shout Factory was able to provide for her participation, is noticeably absent.

It’s an old story by now, but one worth repeating. Shout Factory is doing a helluva job packaging its Roger Corman collection, and this edition featuring THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and WOMEN IN CAGES is no exception.

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