The Big Doll House (1971)

'Don't let your alligator mouth override your hummingbird ass.' The first of New World's women-in-prison pictures, this runaway shoot uses the sweaty atmospherics and later-familiar Filippino jungles as a backdrop for a mix of melodramatics, sleaze and 1970s consciousness-raising. It's never explicitly stated in which third world hellhole the film is set, but despite the oriental-looking background cast it seems to be some South American locale with an oppressive regime and revolutionaries in the hills. The central cell is home to black lesbian hardnut Pam Grier, willowy new fish Judy Brown, independent-minded blonde Roberta Collins, revolutionary's girlfriend Pat Woodell and junkie Brooke Mills. There's a mystery element about the masked officer who runs the prison, who eagerly observes the regular torture sessions supervised by sadist Katheryn Loder. Could it be the apparently liberal prison doctor (Charles Davis)? Nope, it's the apparently caring Warden Dietrich* (Christiane Schmidtmer), who gets kidnapped during the climactic escape sequence and blown up when a dying Collins tosses a cigarette lighter into spilled gas for a trailer-friendly explosion.

Much of the plot is carried by Sid Haig and sidekick Jerry Frank as traders who come into the jail and fantasise a lot about the prisoners ('Zap ... R A P E ... Zap!') – Sid gets to grope Pam through the bars, while Frank is waylaid by Collins for the infamous line quoted in Hollywood Blvd ('get it up or I'll cut it off'). The performances are snarly and exaggerated, but it's hard to see how any other approach would have played. It's full of the regulation stuff: torture by snake, lengthy showers, medical inspections, musing about the revolution, machine-gunned extras, a big semi-tragic bust out at the end (Woodell has a great bit with two 'grease guns', in which she seems to mow down a whole army), cellblock stabbings (Grier is jabbed in the neck by Mills). It has a murky look, and Jack Hill only brings half his undoubted personality to the table.

*the character is named for Erwin C. not Marlene.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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