The Big Doll House / Bamboo Dolls House / Women’s Penitentiary III (1971) ***
The foundation of New World Pictures rested upon two cornerstones. On one side, there were the sexy nurse movies, originating with The Student Nurses. And on the other, there were the women’s prison films beginning with The Big Doll House. There had been movies set in various sorts of female reformatories since at least the mid-1930’s, of course, but it was New World that made a proper genre of chicks in chains. Enabled by the recent final demise of the Production Code and the concurrent judicial rout of state film censorship boards all over the country, Roger Corman’s fledgling studio mixed the time-honored tropes of male-oriented slammer operas with levels of sleazy sexual content unprecedented outside the white slavery subgenre of roughies. The result was a mad “have your cake and eat it too” mélange of female empowerment and female degradation, in which beautiful and scantily clad women were subjected to every form of torture, rape, and humiliation that the screenwriters could devise for the first hour before unleashing a rampage of retribution against their captors in the final act.
Of all the common breeds of exploitation movie, the New World-style women’s prison flick most invites easy ideological pigeonholing as sexist trash, but it resists that dismissal with the very same breath. For the fact is that the women’s prison movie as codified by The Big Doll House calls upon the audience to identify with the parties on both sides of the bars simultaneously. Yes, we are cued to take pleasure in the inmates’ torments, to see them as objects for the most sadistic whims of the male id. But at the same time— and in stark contrast to the white slavery roughies— there’s no question but that the prisoners are the heroes of these films, whose rebellion we await more longingly with each new violation. Furthermore, the entire genre is pervaded by a post-countercultural mistrust of authority. The treatment meted out to the protagonists and their cellmates is almost always wildly disproportionate to the crimes for which they were incarcerated— if in fact the prisoners are even guilty of crimes at all. And the prison officials are invariably personally villainous as well as representative of a corrupt regime. In the end, no other genre strives so hard to make men root for women in revolt against an unjust system, and while that may not exactly be feminist in and of itself, it isn’t exactly regressive, either. In that respect, these films would be the quintessential New World Pictures product even if the cycle hadn’t started with the second movie that studio ever released.
Don’t ask me what all these American expats are doing in a Filipino prison. The Big Doll House never addresses that question, and neither do any of its successors. Be that as it may, when new fish Marlene Collier (Judy Brown, from Threesome and Willie Dynamite) arrives at the hard labor prison farm where she’s due to spend the prime of her life, the only native with her in her six-bunk cell is Ferina (Gina Stuart, of The Samurai Fighters and Samurai Master). The boss of the cell is Grear (Pam Grier, from Class of 1999 and Something Wicked This Way Comes), a fearsome lesbian whose sentence for prostitution was trumped up to 20 years by an assortment of bogus aggravating circumstances. Grear’s bitch is Harrad (Brooke Mills, from The Student Teachers and Legacy of Blood), a heroin addict with a tenuous grip on the last of her marbles. Alcott (Roberta Collins, of Women in Cages and The Witch Who Came from the Sea) is the tough blond with the “no quarter asked, no quarter given” attitude. And then there’s Bodine (Pat Woodell, from The Roommates and The Twilight People). She’s a political, the lover of a revolutionary leader, and her training as a guerilla fighter makes her so formidable that not even Grear will mess with her. Bodine could be queen hyena around here if she wanted to, but all she cares about is getting back outside to rejoin the fight against tyranny.
Those are the key prisoners; now lets meet their jailers. Running the whole show is Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer, of Hot Bubblegum and The Giant Spider Invasion). She seems relatively decent as B-movie prison wardens go, but would she have people like Lucian the head guard (Kathryn Loder, from Foxy Brown and Night of the Witches) working for her if looks weren’t deceiving? The latter is a real piece of work. A lesbian and a sadist, she maintains an atmosphere of terror around the farm with both the standard hot box punishment cells and a very well appointed torture dungeon in the prison basement. Word is she works not only for Dietrich, but also for a shadowy figure named Mendoza, reputedly the worst of the psychos commanding the secret police. No one knows for sure, though, because nobody has ever seen Mendoza and survived the experience. What we can say for certain is that Lucian seems to take an extra-special interest in political prisoners, which would certainly be consistent with the rumors. Otherwise, the guards are pretty much like Leyte (Letty Marisol), clock-punchers who take no shit from the prisoners, but bear them no particular ill will. The last prison employee with whom we need concern ourselves specifically is Dr. Phillips (Getting It On’s Jack Davis), the staff physician. Like Collier, he’s new around here, and has a lot of adjusting to do. Phillips is horrified by the evidence he sees of Lucian’s activities, but he’s completely sold on Dietrich’s innocence of any complicity with the guard’s maltreatment of inmates. In fact, the doctor has a bit of a crush on his boss.
Naturally nobody likes being in prison, let alone a brutal Third World hellhole of a prison like this one. Grear doesn’t mind it as much as she might because of the minor position of power she maintains for herself, and Harrad doesn’t mind it so much, either, because Grear’s connections mean that she’s rarely hurting for smack. But Bodine has a bustout in the works, and she has Alcott ready to join her. Collier is leaning in that direction, too, if only because she’s already tired of sucking up to Grear for safety’s sake. The walls are too high and the razor wire atop them too thick to make going over a viable strategy, and tunneling is out, too, because of the wet tropical soil. Nevertheless, there is one way that might be workable. The prisoners are paid some pittance for their labors in the rice paddies and cane fields, and Dietrich permits them regular commerce with a couple of peddlers named Harry (Sid Haig, from Black Mama, White Mama and The Aftermath) and Fred (Jerry Franks). Both men would be happy to work out a more grandiose trade than the usual few pisos for mangos and cigarettes, and a roll in the hay with Grear could well buy their cooperation with an escape attempt. Obviously that would require securing Grear’s cooperation, too, but like I said, it isn’t as though she enjoys being locked up.
The trouble, inevitably, is Lucian. The head guard has sharp ears, and she’s certain that Bodine is up to something. Unfortunately for her, the revolutionary is unbreakable, even under the torments of Lucian’s basement rec room. With the direct approach a dead end, Lucian tries leaning on Grear by denying her drugs for Harrad. That attempt founders on the faulty assumption that Grear harbors genuine affection for the junkie, leaving Lucian just as much in the dark as before. Her snooping, however, has convinced the would-be escapees that they need to accelerate their timetable, and should probably take the extra step of eliminating the head guard, too. With that in mind, Bodine, Alcott, and Collier arrange to get themselves all a stint in the hot box. While Grear and Harrad fulfill their arrangements with Harry and Fred, Ferina will use her pet cat to smuggle a length of wire into the punishment cell through the outside window. When Lucian comes to collect one of the hot box girls for a one-on-one session in the rec room, they’ll garrote her with the wire, and steal her keys to let themselves out for the rendezvous with the peddlers. As I’m sure you can see, there are plenty of ways for that plan to go wrong. (Although its critical dependence upon the obedience of a cat incredibly ends up not being the breaking point!)
I didn’t notice this at first, but there’s something about The Big Doll House that places it closer to the nurse movies (and to the subsequent teacher movies, stewardess movies, and so on) than to the women’s prison films that are its obvious descendants. The chicks-in-chains genre usually adopts the perspective of a single inmate, typically one whom we meet when she first arrives at the prison. Consequently, I expected The Big Doll House to be Collier’s story, but it isn’t really. Instead, like the nurse/teacher/stewardess pictures (which Roger Corman biographer Beverly Gray has collectively dubbed the “three girls” movies), The Big Doll House is very much an ensemble piece. The shift to at most a pair of viewpoint characters in the majority of this film’s successors was probably wise, because The Big Doll House could use a bit more focus than it can manage while toggling among the perspectives of four prisoners, the doctor, and the peddlers. There are too many divergent backgrounds to delve into, too many opposing psychologies to explore.
The Big Doll House was directed by Jack Hill, whom we’ve seen a few times before around here. This movie doesn’t quite come up to the standard of his subsequent The Big Bird Cage, but it’s easy to see why it was such a hit just the same. For starters, Hill’s deft touch with actors is in full effect. Pam Grier is already a force to be reckoned with in this, her first significant role (following a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-on in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), and the only reason she doesn’t walk away with the whole film is that she’s joined by Roberta Collins and Sid Haig. I’ve remarked on the potency of the Jack Hill-Sid Haig pairing before, so I won’t belabor the subject here. Collins, however, is an actress whom I have yet to give her due. She appeared in a ton of stuff for both New World and AIP during the 70’s, and while she usually played basically the same character (brassy, truculent, oversexed), she was always great at it. One performer I’d like to see more of is Kathryn Loder. Her film career lasted only a few years (although she was apparently a pretty big deal onstage both before and after her stint in the B-movie trenches), but she’s awfully impressive in The Big Doll House. In terms of presence and appearance, she strikes me a bit like a Barbara Steele for the 70’s, all flowing, raven hair and penetrating, crazy eyes. But as is so often the case with Jack Hill’s movies, what really sells The Big Doll House for me is its nimble balance of cruelty and wit, nastiness and charm. I don’t know how he managed to play that trick so consistently, beyond to observe that I’ve never seen him depict a victim who didn’t ultimately give as good as they got. And in this context especially, it’s worth noting that Hill always had a knack for exceedingly dangerous women. From the Merrye sisters in Spider Baby to the titular character in Coffy and beyond, the Hill Girl is not to be fucked with under any circumstances. Small wonder she first comes into full flower in The Big Doll House.