The Big Doll House

Certificate: 18
Running time: 95 mins
Director: Jack Hill
Starring: Judith Brown, Pam Grier, Roberta Collins
Genre: Drama, Exploitation
Country: USA/Philippines

Soft young girls behind hard prison bars!  One of the founding mothers of Exploitation and female cinematic empowerment as the creative powerhouses of Roger Corman, Eddie Romero and Jack Hill come together to change how a generation thought of prison movies.  With the help of two eager fruit vendors five inmates plan a prison break to steal their freedom back from the grasp of the sadistic and demonic Filipino prison and it’s wardens.

Many prison films have tried to walk the path that The Big Doll House blazed, several have come close and many more, like Strike of the Tortured Angels, have completely missed the mark.  Sex and violence danced hand in hand in the late-60s/early-70s when it comes to the American Exploitation films in the Philippines.  Rather than it being sexually gratifying it serves as a device to bond the audience to the prisoner, prisoners who have murdered husbands and babies.  You develop an affiliation to the inmate because the prison guards, the warden, the law behind the walls are worse than the women.  It’s no surprise to say The Big Doll House does this better than any other, with the exception of one or two.  It should also serve as no surprise that this is less a review and more of a shopping list of all things wonderful about the film.

“All men are filthy” – that is the cornerstone of the Women in Prison sub-genre and if you buy into that then you’re on course for one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences you’ll have.  Don Spencer’s script is tight, smart and gloriously uncomplicated.  A flash of inspiration clearly hit the scribe whose only other credits to his name are The Student Nurses and Sweet Sugar showcase what an incredibly talented control of narrative he had and poses the question “why just three screenplays?”  Jack Hill’s direction and use of camera raises the film above what was the standard on the Exploitation field of play at the time.  He is a director that knows it all, having studied with Francis Ford Coppola at the University of California.  At times he uses the camera as a tool for interrogation, it moving throughout the cells and prison grounds, at time it is forced to linger in order to force the audience to endure the trials inflicted on the long suffering inmates.  These are standard, they are to be expected of any director but it’s Hill’s understanding of balance that’s truly remarkable.  How he can intuitively gauge what is a linger and when a linger becomes gratuitous.  Many directors have failed to learn that lesson, especially in Exploitation cinema and it’s Hill’s sensibilities that Tarantino adopts in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill as the camera “looks away” at moments of intense brutality.

Judy Brown and Roberta Collins are both excellent and extremely controlled, with Grier they would shoot Women in Cages that same year for director Gerardo de Leon (Terror is a Man) and for my money give their best performances in The Big Doll House.  Brown especially has a quality about her that’s innocent without being virginal and has a face that draws the audience in.  Pam Grier, amazingly, tears up the screen with an almost animalistic performance.  I say amazingly as she had made her cinematic debut only the year before in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and even that was as an unnamed character yet here she is carrying the film that would trigger an explosive trend of beautiful women, mean men and prison walls.  The performance from her belongs to an actress with a decade of experience and would not only catapult her to the forefront of the minds of directors and audiences alike when Exploitation or Blaxploitation is muttered but would stake her claim to the Queendom.  Her command of the camera and in turn the audience gaze was so great that it would cement a relationship with Jack Hill that would birth many more Exploitation offering including Coffy – a career defining role.  Everything that Grier is on screen for the inmates Sid Haig (Harry) embodies as the Alpha of all the “filthy males” the film has to offer, though saying that the one criticism is he always leaves you wanting more than of him that the film can offer.

The truly amazing thing about The Big Doll House and it’s something that is true of all the American made Filipino Exploitation films of the time is that they were made at all.  They are films that thumb their noses at authority and demand a revolt at every turn yet they are made in Marcos’ Philippines under the watchful eye, and participation, of the Filipino military.  Whether it was the language barrier of the lack of national identifiers on screen the films message of revolt managed to pass it’s custodians and it’s this danger that makes the film all the better.  Filipino film making was one that was married to danger.  You only have to look at some of the stunts on Kung Fu Cannibals to see this to be true let alone the trailer for Savage Sisters.  There are some minor problems including third act pacing as the film drags a little before the prison break but it's genuinely minimal, there's also the small problem of one or two of the inmates (who aren't the main three) being less than stellar with their delivery.

The Big Doll House is not only a huge entertaining and well constructed film but it’s also an incredibly important film.  It lit the match that fired the torch that saw a generation of strong Caucasian and African American women portray roles that simply weren’t and still aren’t available in mainstream Hollywood cinema [click here for more on this matter] and if that wasn’t enough it gave the cinema viewing world the partnership of Jack Hill and Pam Grier.


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