Monday, February 16, 2009

The Big Doll House: "99 years is a long, long time...."

By Steve Evans

“Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man — or to him!”
~ from the promotional poster.

Blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier (Coffy, Jackie Brown) dominates this first entry in a slate of trashy women-in-prison flicks from the early 1970s produced by legendary bad-movie maestro Roger Corman. Grier (at right) quit her job as a secretary to star in this picture at the precocious age of 21 and we are all the better for her career move. She is the most memorable aspect of an otherwise sleazy little flick. Even gorgeous, topless women sweating in the jungle cannot compensate for the amateur-hour acting and ridiculous plot, which could scarcely hold the attention of a dozen frat boys, their bellies swollen with cheap beer. This won’t stop another generation of guys from checking out The Big Doll House anyway.

And now for a bit of plot…
Beautiful inmates (with almost always perfect hair) toil in the swamps and suffer degradation at the hands of a sadistic warden in a nameless Banana Republic prison. Lesbian prostitute Grear (played by Grier, oddly enough) is unofficial leader of the women prisoners. They lust after the snack man (Sid Haig, Diamonds are Forever, Jackie Brown) — who drops by every few days to peddle tropical fruit, candy, cigarettes, and drugs from his wooden push cart. And when he's not around, the women spend their time devising ways to escape from this jungle Hell. They also manage to bicker, cuss, get nekkid in the shower, and spew revolutionary politics. Their peach-colored uniforms are stylin’, though. The plot clots when a cellmate informer tries to foil their escape plans in exchange for special favors from the warden. These desperate women finally break out in a hail of bullets, fiery explosions, and bad dialogue. As the trailer screamed in 1971, “Naked lust builds to a climax of death!”

Historical context
Whew. Where to begin? Famed schlock producer-director Roger Corman had just formed New World Pictures when he sent protégé director Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) to the Philippines with $125,000 and half a dozen beautiful girls. Hill's marching orders? Shoot a babes-behind-bars picture for the drive-in crowd. They chose the Philippines because it was a cheap place to film and Corman wanted a sure-fire hit to launch his new production company. Hill got busy with his cast and returned a few weeks later with an ungodly cinematic stew of overheated lust, mud wrestling, cat fights, women taking showers, heroin addiction, torture at the hands of sadistic lesbian guards, body-cavity searches, cockroach races, scantily-clad prisoners being blasted by a firehose, illicit sex, and miscellaneous death by poisonous snakes, knives, and machine guns. Hill even delivered a male-rape scene where a horny switchblade sister jacks her captive up against the wall and declares: “Get it up or I'll cut it off!”

Great God A'mighty! Talk about spoiling the mood.

Legend has it that Corman himself, the exploitation king, was shocked by the perverse footage Hill assembled into a rough cut. But Corman got his money's worth. That puny $125,000 investment reaped $10 million when the film was released 37 years ago. The Big Doll House undoubtedly put a few more pesos in Corman’s pockets in the wake of this DVD release.

The film made Pam Grier a star and launched her lucrative career in blaxploitation nonsense, much of it shot under Hill's direction. Her only previous role had been a brief appearance in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (scripted by Roger Ebert!).

Here, Grier sings “Long Time Woman” over the opening credits — “Ninety-nine years is long, long time” — a brassy number that Quentin Tarantino would lift 26 years later for Grier’s comeback performance in Jackie Brown. As always, she is super-cool.

But at the start of her career, in this film, Grier shows only fleeting glimpses of the charisma that would soon make her a household name (at least in hipster households). She does manage to get through her line readings with a straight face, which is better than I was able to do, watching her performance. It’s hard to keep laughter in check when Grier is busy calling people muth@hfu*ck@hs and wrasslin’ with women in muddy bogs for no good reason other than the script calls for it. Corman and company also insult the intelligence of their core drive-in audience: Even a ding-dong goofed on beer and who-knows-what ought to wonder what Philippino guards are doing in a Latin American jungle prison. And who in hell gets sentenced to 99 years of hard labor for crazy combo convictions like “espionage and prostitution?” Maybe Mata Hari, but she's not in this picture.

What’s on the DVD, Cteve?
I’ll tell ya: The fullscreen video and mono soundtrack are merely okay; nothing spectacular, although this might add to the appeal of an itchy and scratchy low-budget film. Extras include a brief interview with Corman by film critic Leonard Maltin, the original theatrical trailer, and five previews of other Corman-produced flicks, plus biographical notes on key cast members, Corman, and director Hill.

Caveat Lector
While it's almost impossible to take this flick seriously, I still suggest you not show this to your girlfriend, wife, or mother. Otherwise, you might be looking at a life sentence of the silent treatment. Remember, “ninety-nine years is a long, long time…”

Separately, it is amusing to note that this picture and some 400 other Corman properties are now licensed by Buena Vista, the distribution arm of the Walt Disney Corp. The Big Doll House is not the sort of movie we normally associate with the House of Mouse. But Disney outbid all other comers for the consistently profitable Corman catalogue when he put it up for sale. Draw your own conclusions.

So if you absolutely, positively gotta see just one women-in-prison movie, accept no substitutes. This is the one (the immediate sequel, The Big Birdcage, was toned down considerably). Be advised you may feel vaguely unclean afterward. Soap not included.

This film is guilty of exploiting women’s bodies and the prurient interests of men for the sake of green money. You’ll watch it anyway, won’t ya? Thought so.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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