Saturday, July 30, 2011


In the Philippines, during the 1970s, it was against the law to be beautiful -- or at least that's the impression you might get from Jack Hill's seminal genre film, directed for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Hill redefined the women-in-prison genre while giving Pam Grier her first big break and giving Corman's new company a blockbuster drive-in hit. His direction of Don Spencer's screenplay synthesized film traditions dating back to Pre-Code times with the sweaty sensibility of men's-adventure magazines to produce potent pulp symbolism for the sexual-revolution era. The Big Doll House is a trash masterpiece combining unerring exploitation instinct with the iconographic genius of a vintage magazine cover. The screencaps you see here are the tip of a volcanic iceberg of lubricious delirium, and the film as a whole is a kind of lucid dream that tells us something of the contradictory time that produced and embraced such stuff.

Like a lot of Seventies exploitation, Hill's film is a swirling mix of female degradation and empowerment. The women's prison is probably the ideal setting for such a mix, the prison itself being a symbol open to contradictory interpretations. It can be a metaphor for overall gender exploitation, or a misogynist fantasy of women as prisoners of their own insatiable sexuality, or a self-satirizing signifier of the film's own exploitation of its oft-naked actresses. Hill himself saw it as a setting for role-reversal, an idea he'd pursue further in his follow-up, The Big Bird Cage, in which the symbolic harem of the women's prison is attended by a corps of eunuchs in the form of homosexual male guards. In Doll House the guards are female and the only male on premises is an ineffectual doctor, and Hill focuses on all the ways women can exploit each other. Women are exploiters and exploited, and some of them, like "Grier," can be both at the same time, finking out fellow cons in return for favors while dominating other prisoners both physically and sexually. To an intriguing extent the women are de-sexualized by being referred to exclusively by their last names, like soldiers in a platoon. Prison changes them, as Grier tells a male visitor: "I'm not this way because I want to be. It's this place. Pretty soon a girl gets strange desires, and it creeps up on you like a disease."

Above, a rare screencap-friendly moment from the shower scene.
Below, behold the Dance of the Junky, performed by Brooke Mills.

The women's prison can serve as a symbol of women's continued subjugation and as a dystopian vision of how women might behave with the power of men. Doll House takes the inversion and role-reversal to an extreme by portraying imprisoned women as rapists of men empowered by their horniness. Sid Haig's comedy-relief contractor, who visits for regular deliveries of fruit and other commodities, seems torn between his desire to make it with the horny women and his fear that they'll "zap" him -- he spells zap "R-A-P-E." And his younger sidekick confirms his fears by getting zapped at knifepoint by a blonde prisoner, while Haig himself is clearly not the dominant partner when Grier handjobs him in a couple of different ways. Later, after forcing Haig at gunpoint to help them escape -- guess where the gun is pointed -- the main characters strip him and his sidekick to their undies and send them marching away.

Above, "Either get it up or I'll cut it off!" commands Roberta Collins.
Below, Pam Grier's "strange desire" for Sid Haig.

A key innovation of Doll House which comes with its Philippine location -- the screenplay was reportedly set originally in the U.S. -- is the offstage presence of a revolution. Whether subsequent films were set in the Philippines or in Central America, the looming revolution becomes a constant, anchored to the prison by a convict being either a leader or a key sympathizer, i.e. the male leader's lover. Whether or not revolutionaries instigate a breakout, the inevitable breakout inevitably has a revolutionary context. Is the revolution the great hope of female empowerment or overall social justice, the armageddon the entire decade seemed to anticipate, or is it exploitation in its most ironically cynical form? All of the above is the most likely answer. However insincerely, films like these perpetuated the idea of a revolution as a day of reckoning and revenge, even while bursting the bubble in patented Seventies fashion. In this film we never really encounter the revolution, and freedom for anyone proves short-lived, but the potential for revolution has at least been reasserted.

Pat Woodell is the Revolution

For all the "liberated" modernity of Doll House, and the nudity and violence made possible by the fall of the Production Code, it actually feels old-fashioned in some ways. Visually, as I suggested, Hill and cinematographer Fred Conde tap into the lurid iconography of the men's-adventure mags that succeeded the old pulps in the 1950s, not to mention the extremes of the under-the-counter "shudder pulps" of the previous generation. This film is full of campy yet uncompromisedly intense imagery of torture and other forms of pulchritude under stress, and the dread gaze of the secret masked master.

Hill and Spencer also revive the hard-boiled attitude of 1930s movies. None of the women in prison are innocents. Our point-of-view character, Collier (Judy Brown) killed her husband after becoming his rival for the sexual favors of their houseboy. If anything, Grier is closer to an innocent: though a prostitute, she was jailed because the government feared that her bureaucratic john may have told her too many secrets. But she ends up the least likable tenant of our lead cell, a bully and sexual predator who plays double games with everyone. Bodine, the revolutionary (Pat Woodell) may be the most purely sympathetic character, but she also has about the least personality of the lead cellmates, and politics play little role in the story. The downbeat ending has little of the tragic or despairing quality of typical Seventies cinema, and more of an ironic shrug worthy of a silent comedy.

In the interest of equal time: Sid Haig and Jerry Franks
I'm probably not doing Doll House justice with all this intellectualizing, but I've seen enough women-in-prison films to wonder about what they represent and why. But this is a movie best appreciated on the visceral level Hill and Corman intended. It retains the freshness of something being done for the first time, and I'm not sure anyone ever did this sort of thing better. Were there ever more beautiful women crowded into a single cell? Have there ever been more feverishly filmed scenes of floggings and snake torture with built-in voyeurism? Was anyone ever more of a machine-gun firing jungle valkyrie than Pat Woodell blasting away? Did any one movie top Doll House in all these categories? If so, I want to see that movie. For now, The Big Doll House sets the standard for a particular category of trash -- trash it remains, but trash has standards, too. When everyone involved in a trash project is clearly giving their all, and their all is this impressive, trash itself becomes a kind of art.

Here's an R-rated trailer, with vocals by Pam Grier, from Dailymotion.

The Big Doll House - Jack Hill by Blame2Workshop

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

Seems like there's an awful lot of Sid Haig in his underwear.

It doesn't take much underwear Sid Haig for it to be too much underwear Sid Haig.