The Big Doll House (1975)

Also known as:
Bamboo Dolls House
Women's Penitentiary
Women's Penitentiary III

The combined talents of Pam Grier and Roberta Collins. Director Jack Hill of Coffy and Foxy Brown fame. The Women-in-Prison formula. The Phillipines as a setting. Eddie Romero as a producer. A guarantee of a cult classic for the ages? Well, almost. The Big Doll House makes for excellent entertainment for the most part, but perhaps falls short in a couple of areas. We'll get to that later, and it's nothing to worry about. If you've got a hankering for this kind of film, don't hesitate to pop it into your DVD player, you won't feel too cheated at the end. Let's take a look at what the girls get up to, this time.

After we hear Pammy's opening song "Long Time Woman", which I guarantee you won't soon forget, this girl can sing - we're introduced to our 'new fish', Collier, played by pert and pretty redhead Judy Brown. Convicted of first-degree murder of her husband, Collier's interred in a Phillipines hell-hole of a jail for ninety years. Entering the jail, she notices a female prisoner confined high in the air in a sort a bamboo cage or gibbet, and wonders what sort of nightmare she's entered. Trying to maintain her sass with the dark-haired warden Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer), she soon fails as one of the guards gives her a rough examination in the nether-regions. The slightly sleazy but basically caring Dr. Phillips (Jack Davis), who's also new to the jail, begins to give her an examination - she's nude, of course - but it's cut short by Miss Dietrich, who just wants her thrown into the hoosegow quickly. Collier's given another shock as the guards cart off a dead, wound-covered prisoner under a sheet before she enters her cell.

Soon we meet the girls that Collier's going to spend, well, a lot of time with. The blonde Alcott (cult favorite Roberta Collins). Tough ex-hooker, Grear (Pammy). Junkie convicted of infanticide, Harrad (Brooke Mills) and the quiet brunette Bodine (Pat Woodell) who has a revolutionary lover living in the hills who's trying to overthrow the corrupt government. Grear acts like the tough chick in the cell, but Alcott tells Collier that Bodine is the toughest one for real. This is proven when all the girls in the cell try to force Collier to confess she's a snitch by holding her head in a bucket of water. Bodine thinks it's going too far, and quickly puts a stop to it by overpowering Grear. The prison buries the inmate who was carted off dead earlier. The blonde Head Mistress of the prison (actress name unknown) gives a pious elegy before the cremation, but the inmates know it's hardly heartfelt. Locals Harry (Phillipino exploitation regular Sid Haig) and Fred (Jerry Franks) do their rounds. Ostensibly bringing fruit and drink to the prisoners, they also bring all sorts of contraband in. Harry reneges on a deal to bring smack in for Grear's bitch Harrad, even after he feels her breasts up. Grear's furious and swears off all men. Alcott visits the Head Mistress and tries to tell her about ongoing brutality from the guards and Miss Dietrich. The woman says she'll investigate it. Later, working in the fields and planting trees in the swamps, Bodine is caught with an un-checked letter from the outside by Miss Dietrich. First, she's put in the bamboo gibbet, then taken away for torture in a secret room. She wont confess anything, and is first subject to water-torture and is strung topless and whipped in a hallucinatory sequence. A black-hooded figure sits in a chair, watching it all and egging Miss Dietrich on, enjoying the torment. Pat Woodell as Bodine has her hair discretely drapped over her breasts as the whipping proceeds, and the whole film is often a bit coy this way. I guess I was spoiled by the relentless nudity of Bare Behind Bars!

Cut to the classic WIP shower scene, where we glimpse the most we're going to, of our girls tonight. Judy Brown seems the most willing to bare all and the rest are just shown from behind, although we do get a few short glimpses of Pam in all her glory. Grear commands Collier to soap her back, then when she leaves, Collier attempts to wash Alcott, but is rebutted. Alcott only looks after herself in this place, but Collier claims she needs a friend in this place. Later on Alcott spots the moustached Fred watching her shower through the frosted window. Alcott craves a man's attentions and later steals a knife from the kitchen. She then proceeds to corner Fred and basically rapes him at knifepoint! Well, that's what he tells Harry later, anyway. Unfortunately for Alcott, they're caught in the act by Miss Dietrich. Fred runs off and speeds away in the truck with Harry, but Alcott is taken away and tortured in that dark room with hooded man again. This time it's electrified cups tactfully placed on her breasts. Ouch! After being carried out by the guards, she sees Dr. Phillips and pleads with him to do something about it. He approaches the Head Mistress as he's attracted to her anyway, but wants to get to the bottom of the brutality. She agrees to the dinner proposal he offers. Later on, as they work in the yards, Bodine and Alcott drag Collier away from Grear's gaze for a while. They tell her they plan to escape, then Grear turns up again, furious her new 'bitch' has been under Alcott's influence. They agree to fight at a time of Alcott's choosing, which happens soon enough when they work out in the fields again. They end up sprawling in the mud of the local swamp in a classic mudfight, and Alcott gets the better of her, decisively. Alcott shares the plan with the rest of the cellmates. The bottom line is - you're with us or stay out of our way.

The plot of escape begins. Grear will steal a key out of the place from the Miss Dietrich's quarters, pass it in to the girls in the 'steam room' - via the key being tied around a cat's neck, crawling in through a vent - and they'll all escape. Drug-addicted Harrad needs a fix though, which is complicating things for Grear. When looking for the key, she's scared by a cobra, then Dietrich shows up. Eventually she forces part of the truth of escape from Grear, as Dietrich was one of her heroin suppliers for Harrad. She won't give Dietrich the full picture tough, so no heroin this time. Collier, Alcott and Bodine start a food-fight which becomes a riot, which ends with then thrown into the steam room to suffer for a while. Harry turns up and is convinced to get some heroin for a half-naked Grear, who traps his hand in her nether-region! Harry and Fred return with some illicit booze and gets one of the head guards completely drunk. Grear sends the cat into the ventilation system with the key, but is suddenly killed with a razor to the throat by Harrad, who in her paranoid and smack-deprived state was feeling rejected and unloved by her boss lady. Dietrich takes Collier into the torture room and hovers a cobra over the naked woman. Dr. Phillips and the Head Mistress have their date but she leaves mysteriously when she receives a phone call. The black hooded man turns up in the torture chamber. The girls in the steam room scream so much that Dietrich shows up and they trap her with a length of wire around the neck, and make their escape. One of the girls drop a cobra on the handcuffed Dietrich, then they chase the hooded man back to his quarters. Ripping off his hood, it's revealed that 'he' is the Head Mistress, who actually a twisted sadist. They throw her and the Doctor reluctantly into Harry and Fred's truck, whom they also kidnap at gunpoint. They shoot their way out and the confused Harrad, now calling for Grear, is killed in the crossfire. They force Harry to crash through the gates and make their escape.

Out in the jungle, they strip Harry and Fred to their underpants, and send them on their way. Bodine writes a letter to her lover, revealing herself to be mortally wounded. The Head Mistress pulls a gun on Alcott, but as soon as she finishes her hateful rant at her and begins shooting, she finds out the pistol is completely empty. Harry and Fred return, having become completely lost, but Alcott sees this as an opportunity for revenge and forces Harry to begin raping her handcuffed tormentor. Before he can get too far though, the army turns up and all-out war begins. Bodine makes a stand with two machine-guns, but is gunned down and killed. Alcott's injured, but as she's carried away by Dr. Phillips, manages to shoot and blow up the truck, with the Head Mistress in it. Collier escapes uninjured, but will that passing jeep be a saviour or an enemy, when she finally flags it down?

Phew! There's a lot happening in The Big Doll House. Lots of plot, lots of action. There's certainly no time to be bored as director Hill's packed so many fundamental WIP elements in, and they're all good. The new fish. The showers. Torture. Bullying lesbian politics. Evil Wardens. Breakouts, and the resultant body count. The actresses are all great - and gorgeous - in their roles, with Collins, Grier and Brown the standouts. Grier plays her usual street-smart, fiery superchick, with Collins as the man-craving, yet cynical Alcott a memorable heroine. Judy Brown's Collier is more a bystander observing the action. Still, being the most willing to disrobe makes her stand out, as it were. Sam Haig's the most notable male character just because he's his usual wisecracking self, but the focus is on the women here. Miss Dietrich and the Head Mistress are adequate villains, but a bit one-note, without a lot of intensity. Now, Dyanne Thorne as a Warden would have made this one of the ultimate WIP films! Well, almost, if there had been more outright violence and nudity. Hill seems to be holding back a lot of the time, but the action and attitude make up for it most of the time. The film-makers utilise the most of the Phillipines setting with cane fields, swamps and jungles making effective backdrops. The jail's appropriately dark, grimy and dreary. Other than Pam's theme song, the soundtrack's strictly seventies television, you can almost hear the ad breaks coming in. Still, not to the detriment of the film to any great extent.

With only some minor reservations, this one should definitely be added to any WIP film-fan's collection. It's a good companion piece to both The Big Bird Cage and Women in Cages, both featuring our Pam in varying roles. They're not examples of how extreme the genre can be, more of how much entertainment it can provide.

© Boris Lugosi, 2008.

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