Combustible Celluloid
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With: Judith M. Brown, Roberta Collins, Pam Grier, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell, Sid Haig, Christiane Schmidtmer, Kathryn Loder, Jerry Franks, Gina Stuart, Jack Davis, Letty Mirasol
Written by: Don Spencer
Directed by: Jack Hill
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 94
Date: 04/30/1971

The Big Doll House (1971)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cage Rampage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At one time the women-in-prison movie was a legitimate genre. The formula had an innocent girl thrown in prison on a trumped-up charge; she then quickly learns the ropes on the inside. There's an evil (often lesbian) warden, a tough girl who runs things, cat fights, and shower scenes. The good girl proves herself worthy and earns the tough girl's respect, and the movie ends with either a breakout or a legitimate release. There are a lot of great titles, like Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974), Chained Heat (1983) with Linda Blair, or this one, Jack Hill's The Big Doll House (1971) starring Pam Grier and Sid Haig, is one of the genre's first and best.

Set in the Philippines and with a unique jungle flavor, The Big Doll House starts when Collier (Judy Brown) enters the prison and is introduced to her five beautiful cellmates. One of them is a heroin addict, kept under control by her domineering girlfriend Grear (Grier). The catfight in this movie gets bonus points for taking place in the mud. A tough blond prisoner (Roberta Collins) rapes a man at knifepoint in storeroom. Occasionally women are sent to a secret room to be tortured (sometimes with snakes), while a mysterious, white-hooded figure watches. Two American doofuses, Harry (Haig) and Fred (Jerry Franks), bring daily supplies to the prison and are coaxed into helping the girls escape. (Part of the fun of this genre is the twisting of traditional gender roles.)

Hill gets the pacing and tone of this just right; it's funny when it needs to be funny (with some memorable dialogue), and tense when it needs to be tense. The main drawback is a ridiculous final line of dialogue that seems to have been dubbed in at the last second, perhaps to appease some censors? Either way, it was a huge success for a "B" film, and Hill followed it a year later with The Big Bird Cage (1972). Grier sings the opening soundtrack tune, "Long Time Woman," which Quentin Tarantino borrowed for his Jackie Brown (1997).

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