The Big Doll House (1971) – By Duane L. Martin

Shout Factory has released yet another triple feature in the Roger Corman Cult Classics series. This time, it’s The Women in Cages Collection, a collection of three "women in prison" movies from 1971 and 1972, shot in the Philippines and directed by Jack Hill.

The Big Doll house is the main film in this 2-disc collection. It takes place in a women’s prison in the Philippines where the women are being systematically abused, and any who get out of line are tortured in this special room by the sadistic female head matron while a mysterious hooded figure watches silently. The female warden of the prison feigns ignorance, and even when the new doctor tries to get her to look into what’s going on with the prisoners, she finds ways to put him off. Finally, five if the prisoners, plot to escape by getting Harry (Sid Haig) and Bodine (Pat Woodell), two guys who visit regularly to sell their fruit, to help them with their escape plan. Will they get away? Just who is that hooded figure who’s been watching them be tortured for so long, and what role does he play in it all? Is the warden really as ignorant to what’s going on as she pretends to be?

This was the second film from Roger Corman’s new production company, New World Pictures. It was originally going to be set in Los Angeles, but then he decided that he could get a much bigger film for less money if he shot it in the Philippines. So to that end, he sent director Jack Hill there along with a variety of beautiful women, including Pam Grier, who left her job as a secretary to make this film. Pam Grier is in fact a major player in all three of these films, but she’s not the main focus of any of them. After The Big Doll House was released and broke drive-in records however, she was featured as the lead in several of Roger Corman’s subsequent films.

This film never particularly mentions where the prison is. Eventually you can surmise that it’s in the Philippines, but it’s never mentioned specifically. The prison itself is a dark and gloomy place, and the women are relegated to simply existing and trying to stay out of the sights of the head matron so they don’t have to endure her torture room. I was shocked to see Sid Haig in this film and in The Big Bird Cage. He was so young and skinny! I’m not used to seeing him look like that. In both films, he plays a somewhat sleazy but likeable character who tries to help the women escape. Pam Grier’s performance wasn’t really what I expected it to be. It was her first real movie role though, so she obviously was finding her footing. Considering her lack of acting experience though, she did a great job. In the subsequent two films, you could see her becoming more and more comfortable in front of the camera, and by the time they reached The Big Bird Cage in 1972, she was on a roll and doing a great job.

The film, while typical of these women in prison type films, is actually made quite special by the cast. They really brought out the setting and the story and made it feel as dark as it was intended to be. There’s also a real feeling of tension that’s sort of existent throughout the film, but it really builds at the end during the escape. Will they survive? That’s the question that keeps you glued to the screen. You’ll want to see who makes it and who doesn’t, and that’s what separates not only this film, but all three of these films from the more throwaway entries in the genre. Even though some of these women aren’t likeable at all, you’re still pulling for them to escape from the hell hole prisons they’ve been locked up in.

Of the three films in this collection, I think this was my second favorite, but ONLY because of Sid Haig’s performance in The Big Bird Cage. Story-wise though, this one’s my favorite of the three.

This film is on its own disc in this 2-disc collection and contains the most special features of the three. This one has a commentary track with director Jack Hill, a documentary on the making of this film and The Big Bird Cage, including interviews with Jack Hill, screenwriter James Gordon White, and various members of the casts of both films. Also included is the film’s trailer, TV spots and even a radio spot.

This release is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you’d like to find out more about this release, or to pick up a copy for yourself, you can visit its pages on the Shout Factory website by clicking the links below.

Blu-Ray / DVD