The Big Doll House (1971)
Director: Jack Hill
Writers: Don Spencer
Starring: Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Pam Grier and Sid Haig

The Plot: Collier (Judy Brown), an American, is arrested and thrown in jail while in the Phillipines. Once on the inside she is introduced to her cellmates who are all part of the regular criminal element. There’s Grier (Pam Grier), the domineering lesbian, who wants to bed the new fish. There’s Grier’s jealous former flame who is enraged with jealousy over Grier’s newfound interest. There’s Bodine (Pat Woodell), the rough and tumble tough girl who is powerful but fair. Finally there’s the loudmouth Alcott (Roberta Collins), who either settles disputes or starts them. These captive women will have to overcome their extreme surroundings and bond together if they ever hope to escape The Big Doll House!

The Review
Considered “the one that started them all”, The Big Doll House helped propel a number of genre film celebrities into true cult film stardom. The very first name that should top the list is of course the director, Jack Hill. As a filmmaker who had worked with Corman before at this point, and had directed a number of independent projects without Corman (including the cult oddity Spider Baby), Jack Hill was given a certain amount of leeway in taking this rather sordid material because the production took place so far away from any home office in the US. By heading off into the Philippines, Corman was able to maximize the potential of his very limited budgets and create titles that seemed larger than they really were. Hill and his crew of no-names at the time would go on to create a new genre of ‘women-in-prison’ film and completely redefine many stereotypes of cinema at this point. A cruel, barbaric, sleazy and bizarre title, The Big Doll House was a remarkable success for Roger Corman and instantly raised the stock of director Jack Hill as well as genre greats Pam Grier, Sid Haig and Judy Brown.

The Big Dollhouse would influence a great number of titles, both in the “Women in Prison” vein of films as well as those in the general world of exploitation. If for no other reason than the fact that this is the movie that introduced American audiences to one of the greatest silver screen starlets the world has ever seen, the irreplaceable Pam Grier. Grier lends her acting talents to the project, as well as her vocals as she can be heard singing the title music Hard Time Woman which actually proved to be a moderately popular title when it first debuted alongside the movie. This was the young actresses first gig, and in many ways the power of her character would continue to live on in her future roles although rarely would she ever play the partial villain that she does here.

These movies were as well known as they were due mainly to their inherit sleaze-factor and cheap thrills that they so often provided. Although other movies would come along and take the genre into even trashier areas, The Big Dollhouse is certainly no walk in the park. Right from the opening sequence the sleaziness is set pretty high within The Big Dollhouse. We watch as the beautiful Judy Brown is introduced to the camera by first being stripped nude, then placed on a table and given a full cavity search. The sequence is rather grotesque and deplorable, but Judy Brown retains her charm throughout the rather degrading sequence. When we watch the head guard wipe her gloved hand onto her jacket, in easily one of the most disgusting gestures in cinematic history, we truly begin to understand where this movie aims to take us.

No Filipino shot “women in prison” title would be complete without a laundry list of disturbing torture sequences in order to populate the movie. There are slight hints at the bizarre as we discover the torture room this time around. Throughout the movie we are treated to a series of vignettes from inside of this room showcasing the various tortures that are administered on the prisoners, and the movie generally takes a dive into the surreal through these sequences. The lighting becomes slightly supernatural, the angles of the camera become twisted and there’s the presence of a strange man wearing a mask over his face that makes him look a lot like Cobra Commander from the GI Joe cartoon. The various forms of torture range from your most basic of cruel actions to the much more elaborate. You can of course expect plenty of whips and Chinese water torture as merely the tip of the iceburg.

The cast is of course made up of fantastic bit players, so you can expect some truly strong performances to go with all of this b-movie related madness. Sid Haig shows up yet again in the fashion of comedic relief. This time out he’s sporting his impressive mustache straight from the start and is dramatically over the top, also in his regular fashion. Carrying a sleazy sort of charisma, he is a joy to watch, even if he is playing a scumbag. Judy Brown is perhaps the least believable “bad girl” on the planet, but she takes on the sheepish mentality needed for this character and plays it well. Pam Grier is also fairly over the top as the bullying lesbian of the prison. Yet, thoughout her character does manage to retain her soft side despite being the most cruel of the main cast. Roberta Collins is fantastic as the tough girl, which counteracts her mousy and drug abused turn in Women in Cages. From the main cast, aside from Pam Grier who usually steals the scene, she may be my favorite of the female leads.

The Conclusion
The Big Dollhouse is indeed a complete classic of this genre. However, in terms of purely an entertainment perspective, I would probably list it as my least favorite film on the Women in Cages 3-Movie set from Shout Factory. I had seen it years before and while I liked it then, it didn’t stick with me. Not like Women in Cages or The Big Bird Cage will. Still, it’s one of the best known exploitation films from the 1970’s and it certainly lives up to its reputation. It just barely earns the 4 out of 5, but on many other days I might label this one a 3. Still, I think it’s highly worth seeing.