Tuesday 18 April 2023

The Big Bird Cage (1972)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Anitra Ford, Candice Roman, Carol Speed and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

The Big Doll House wasn’t a great movie but it was an important movie, a pioneer that kicked a genre into motion. This isn’t great either and it’s not as important but it’s much more fun. It stands up as a great example of why seventies exploitation is often so rewatchable.

Everything points to this being a sequel but it isn’t. Sure, it has a deliberately similar title to cash in. Sure, it’s another of Roger Corman’s films for New World Pictures that was shot in the Philippines and it’s women in prison once more. Sure, Jack Hill’s back as both writer and director and Pam Grier and Sid Haig, so good as supporting actors in The Big Doll House, get the leads this time. But it’s unrelated. Unlike Women in Cages, it doesn’t even re-use the sets.

Some of it is just as formulaic as you might expect. There’s a beautiful foreign woman in the Philippines who’s quickly incarcerated in a rural establishment packed full of women in skimpy outfits who take a lot of showers and not just because they need them after working hard on the road crew. The commandant’s a sadist and, every time something doesn’t meet his strict criteria, he doubles down. Of course, that goes way beyond realistic levels and that prompts the inevitable prison break.

So far so typical for the genre. However, Hill switches up a lot of things as well.

For a start, this is a government work camp rather than a prison and that means that it’s outside, as we see the moment the film begins, with a bevy of beauties working above stepped rice terraces. It’s great scenery, however you’ll interpret that. The girls live in dormitory huts and the sun is everywhere, making this quite a bright women in prison movie.

For another thing, the guards are male for a change, but they’re all gay, most likely due to Warden Zappa—I kid you not—cementing his villainous status with the viewers by requiring there to be “no fornication with anyone of any kind ever.” And that does mean exactly what you fear it might: a women in prison flick with no lesbian action. But hey, Sid Haig does get to pretend be gay for a while and that’s a joy.

And there’s an actual framing story that we see first. We don’t start or end in the camp; it just happens to be a logical means to an end to a bunch of revolutionaries hiding in the hills. After all, most of them are male and they want some female company. Now, where could they find two hundred women somewhere in their immediate vicinity?

We meet the revolutionaries first, in rather memorable fashion. We’re in the Flame, a posh restaurant frequented by the beautiful people. Pam Grier’s singing on stage and Sid Haig is on guitar, which makes for a priceless scene. Pam can actually sing and, while I’m pretty sure Sid can’t play guitar, he does have fun with it. He has even more fun after Pam smashes it and pulls out a machine gun. He grabs a pistol out of a bongo and it’s a stick-up! He also throws a posh chick over his shoulder as a bonus.

Now, the gang drive off without him and his prize, so he throws the driver out of the next taxi to pass and drives away in it, a pair of old customers still in the back seat. When he finds himself cornered by the cops on a bridge, he jumps into a river to get away.

What’s important here is that the prize he stole is Terry Rich, who has no problem if he rapes her, because she’s been sleeping with a few Filipino ministers and so become a serious embarrassment to the U.S. goverment. That’s why they don’t step in when she gets blamed for the stick-up she had nothing to do with.

Grier plays Blossom and Haig plays Django and the former emphatically wants the latter to get on with the revolution he keeps talking about. However, he doesn’t seem like it’s any sort of priority. “Tomorrow we revolution,” is his motto. “Tonight we feast!”

Clearly Corman or Hill or whoever checked reactions to The Big Doll House noticed just how well the two worked together, so made sure to make that a key component of this film. Their reunion at the revolutionaries’ camp is gleeful fun. He arrives back ragged and almost falling out of whatever clothes he has left. She meets the philandering bastard with a knife. He jolts her into the mud. She hauls him in after her. It’s perfect stuff, right down to their stilted shack rocking in the next scene.

Frankly, they own this film from the outset and it takes some hard work from a few others to even challenge them. Vic Diaz does best as the most obvious gay guard, Rocco, but Subas Herrero gets some good scenes as a colleague called Moreno. Teda Bracci tries hard to rule the dorms as a butch prisoner, Bull Jones, but Karen McKevic wins out with some outrageous behaviour that answers the question you may be asking yourselves about her early on.

Many of the camp girls look like they stayed on from The Big Doll House or Women in Cages, but none of them do except for Grier. Sexually frustrated Carla does look like Roberta Collins but she’s played by Candice Roman. Similarly, that’s McKevic as the remarkably tall girl not Jennifer Gan.

It all comes back to Grier though, because I have no doubt you’ve figured out how Django and his revolutionaries are going to get those two hundred women. That’s right. They’ll put Blossom into the camp undercover and set it all up from there.

And so Blossom wanders into town to throw a dud grenade at the governor. “Shucks,” she says and off to the camp she goes, just like that. It allows her to fight some girls—some in the mud, some in the refectory—and take over as the new girl in charge, with sass in abandon and all sorts of politically incorrect dialogue. “And it’s Miss Nigger to you, OK?”

There is opportunity for more here but I’m not going to complain. The biggest letdown is the Big Bird Cage of the title, which is the mill at which some girls work as a punishment. It looks fantastic, must have cost a lot to build and is the location for one of the best scenes of the film, but could have had far more use.

Still, we get a peach of a role for Haig; Terry being strung up by her hair; everything in the film blown up or burned; lots of karma and a sizeable death count; and Anitra Ford’s hair in perfect condition in every scene, even after tumbling down a waterfall.

And we get Pam Grier dominating. The Big Doll House suggested at presence. This proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. No wonder Jack Hill knew who to call to play Coffy.

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