Review of THE WOMEN IN PRISON BOX SET on Umbrella label, February 2008: The Big Bird Cage (Jack Hill, 1971), Women In Cages (Gerry de Leon, 1971), The Big Bird Cage (Jack Hill, 1972),and The Arena (Steve Carver, 1973)
[a much, MUCH shorter version appeared in the Australian edition of EMPIRE Magazine, March 2008]
Four Women in Prison staples starring Pam “Black is Beautiful” Grier, three of which were filmed in the
Corman had toyed with independent film distribution since his Filmgroup days with brother Gene in the late Fifties, while simultaneously feeding product to his direct rival American International Pictures. By 1971 Corman was increasingly dissatisfied with the manner AiP were handling his films – his apocalyptic 1970 counterculture comedy Gassss-s-s-s-s was reportedly butchered beyond belief - and he decided to become a full-time independent film mogul. Thus New World Pictures was born, and having already made the John Ashley/Eddie Romero/Cirio H. Santiago connection in the
These Filipino drive-in films are a sub-genre unto themselves, with their own unique exotic flavour (admittedly an aquired taste) and skewed internal logic. I call it the “Hooters with Shooters” category, in which uninhibited Russ Meyer-esque beauties run around unspecified Banana Republic hell-holes in halter tops unloading machine guns. They have the four essential B’s – breasts, blood, black actors and banana trees – that make them quintessential B pictures, and along with Corman’s Nurses cycle and assorted cheerleader and stewardess films, they encapsulate Seventies drive-in exploitation.
Their real raison d’etre is simple: they made money. An exotic potboiler could be made outside the States for a fraction of the cost, with only a few economy class airfares to cover. The buildings were probably already there in the
The Big Doll House was
Days are spent cutting cane in what look like fluro pink smoking jackets and, if unlucky, spending the night with Assistant Commandant Miss Lucien as one of her many torturous “experiments”, ostensibly to uncover political information, but we suspect more for her pleasure (and ours). United in their hatred for Miss Lucien, the jailbirds overcome their various power struggles and plan a bust out with the help of Harry (Sid Haig), an opportunist and privateer who does the cell block rounds with drugs hidden in fruit carts, and gets golden one-liners like “Don’t let your alligator mouth take over your hummingbird ass!”
The Big Doll House was an enormous drive-in hit thanks to the perfect balance of cheese and sleaze in a snappy script from Don Spencer (The Student Nurses, Sweet Sugar). Even the Dolls are colour-coordinated, which Corman would perfect to a scientific formula, with just the right balance between blondes, brunettes, redheads and afros. Almost immediately there were imitators. From Dimension Pictures - Corman’s former associates at New World, Charles S. Swartz and his wife Stephanie Rothman - came two faux-Filipino prison films Sweet Sugar (actually filmed in Puerto Rico) and
Corman’s second Filipino WIP picture Women In Cages (1971) sees Pam Grier in a much meatier role as Alabama, the vicious pot-smoking lesbian prison matron with a chip on her shoulder the size of Harlem, pitting (and bedding) one prisoner against the other for her own sadistic amusement. In typical Corman fashion, the race tables are turned so that the embittered ex-addict and prostitute assumes the position of slave owner, watching her white charges toiling away in the sugar plantation with obvious ironic glee. The REAL punishment is reserved for the “Hole”, an underground tank swimming with leeches, or the “Playpen”,
Into the hellhole comes blond ditz Carol Jefferies or “Jeff” (the uniformly unmemorable Jennifer Gan) who’s unwittingly takes a heroin rap for her less-than-chivalrous boyfriend Rudy (Charlie Davao). As the owner of a floating whorehouse Rudy doesn’t need any more heat from the drug squad’s Detective Acosta, so he orders Jeff’s junk-sick cellmate Stoke (The Big Doll House’s Roberta Collins) to keep her mouth sewn shut permanently. Acosta, meanwhile, is putting the heat on Jeff to testify against her boyfriend but she won’t budge, and even breaks out of prison just to be with him, thus lifting the flailing drama out of its prison pen rut, through a much-needed jungle sequence and into a downbeat finale at Acosta’s cathouse.
Drab, sour and just plain ugly, Women In Cages is a real disappointment from the usually meticulous de Leon. Location sound is a living nightmare, and
In fact there appears a deliberate attempt on Corman’s part to disguise its Pinoy heritage: acting heavyweights “Bernard Bodine” (Acosta) is actually Bernard Bonnin, while Charlie Davao as “Charles Davis” is anglicized out of existence. To add insult to injury, Marissa Delgado (Juana), Paquito Diaz (Jorge) and Sofia Moran (Theresa) – three superstars of Tagalog cinema acting in substantial roles - aren’t even listed in the credits.
Jack Hill returned to the
In a remote jungle location she enters a womens’ compound ruled with an iron fist by the angry gnome Warden Zappa (Eddie Romero regular “Andy”/Andres Centenera), constantly on the point of exhaustion screaming “Punishment! Punishment!” His two homosexual guards (one played with tittering, fruity menace by Vic Diaz) escort Terry past the Big Bird Cage itself, an intricate bamboo sugar mill used more often than not as an instrument of punishment, its victims crushed between its giant cogs. As the “New Pig”, she expects to be released any moment, but instead finds herself strung up by her hair and left as a warning. Blossom, meanwhile, botches an assassination attempt and finds herself in the same hell-hole, and immediately tries to take over as Top Dog (“It’s MISS Nigger to you!”). Django decides to liberate Blossom and the other caged birds – for the Revoution, you understand – and minces past the love-struck guards in uniform. Before you can say “Than Franthithco” he’s unleashed a prison full of willing revolutionaries who, in the ultimate twisted expression of sexual liberation, rape Vic Diaz at knife point.
The Big Bird Cage sees the Filipino drive-in movie click into top gear: fast paced, lines dripping double entendres, the twin ‘fro action of Grier (finally receiving top billing) and fellow wiry jailmate Carol (Abby) Speed, and a raging inferno of a climax in which the film literally melts onscreen.
Now to the box set’s odd duck, The Arena (1973, aka Naked Warriors), a novelty gladiatress number filmed by Corman in
What promises to be a colourful hybrid of costumed cheese and WIP nastiness is let down by its uneasy mix of American and European elements. Thus we get the alienating technique of dubbing EVERYthing in post, so that the entire film sounds unvaryingly flat, plus sloppy direction which may have been lost in translation (though cinematographer and future exploitation hack Aristide Massacessi aka “Joe D’Amato” reportedly took over the reins from Steve Lone Wolf McQuade Carver).
For someone as prolific as Corman, you’d expect the quality to vary, and the Women In Prison Box Set does just that. Two hot, two not, but even throwaway films from the Golden Age of Exploitation have a reflected glory about them.