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The Big Doll House (1971)

DVD Cover (New Concorde Home Entertainment)
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6.3
 / 10
5 votes
Genres:
Crime, Prison Film, Women In Prison
Director:
Jack Hill Jack Hill
Starring:
Judith Brown Judith Brown
Roberta Collins Roberta Collins
Pam Grier Pam Grier
Brooke Mills Brooke Mills
Pat Woodell Pat Woodell
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Review by Chad
Added: February 20, 2009
Jack Hill and Roger Corman working together. Pam Grier in the second role of her career and her first time out as a leading lady. Grier teaming up with Sid Haig for the first time. A sleazy little women in prison flick that wasn't the first in the genre, but was one of the early entries in the race that would establish a few rules that future movies would follow for decades to come. At this early stage in the review, you're either salivating at the prospect of picking up this little gem, you've already rated it, or you're wondering just what in the hell I'm going on about. If you happen to fall in the latter category, well, I'm sorry: unless you're in the market for some titties, you're probably not going to enjoy this one. If, however, you know and love those names that I rattled off and if you're a fan of those dirty little women in prison flicks that offer little in the way of social value but are overflowing with charm, then I present to you The Big Doll House: one of the best movies in the genre.

We begin with a bus dropping off a batch of new prisoners to a prison in the Philippines, and we quickly learn that Collier (Judith M. Brown) is the standout in this bunch. She's quickly shown to her new home, a tiny little cell that she will be sharing with the butch Grear (Pam Grier), the "tough girl" Alcott (Roberta Collins), a political prisoner known as Bodine (Pat Woodell), and a heroin addict named Harrad (Brooke Mills). A pecking order is soon established between the residents and the fresh fish, and said fish is almost immediately introduced to the head honchos at this prison. We've got the warden, a comely young lass named Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer) who puts on a good show when outsiders drop in but who turns a blind eye when her guards go overboard with their punishments. We've also got Lucian (Kathryn Loder), the head guard who takes great delight in dragging the troublemakers down to her little torture chamber and who also has a penchant for cobras. Toss in a couple of fruit-peddlers by way of Harry (Sid Haig) and Fred (Jerry Franks) who enjoy selling pineapples to the prisoners and who absolutely love getting melons in return, sprinkle with shower scenes and catfights, and of course, add an escape plan into the mix.

If you're thinking that this plot sounds awfully similar to just about every other release in the genre, well... you're right. Yes, if you were to pick any two films from the genre and compare them to this one, you're bound to notice that the plots don't really vary all that much. However, one should keep in mind the statement that I made up in my opening paragraph: The Big Doll House was not the first women in prison film, but it was one of the pioneers in the genre as we know it today. It's true that damned near every film dealing with ladies in lockup revolves around the same cookie-cutter characters and plot devices, but those films borrowed liberally from this and a handful of other fine movies. Therefore, it'd be silly to blast this film on those merits, and as such, I'm not going to.

With that out of the way, you don't pick one of these movies up for a healthy dose of originality, nor do you pick them up for their gripping, imaginative storylines. You pick them up for exploitation, wild escape attempts, shootouts, sadistic guards, and yes, T&A. You're going to get all of that out of this movie, and it's all done in a highly enjoyable fashion. The film was shot over in the Philippines for budgetary reasons, but this decision actually made the film work out better than it could. It's not impossible to believe that this sort of thing goes on over here in our country, but watching it unfold in a foreign land where things work a little differently adds a certain degree of credibility (a small degree, granted) and it also provides some eye-catching backdrops for our characters to work with. Hill and Corman both knew how to do a lot with a little, and this is but one example of that.

All of the sleazy goodness that one expects from a movie like this is on display throughout the entire running time. You're in the market for T&A, you say? Be on the lookout for shower scenes, flashings, and gropings aplenty, and those short little prison skirts that the ladies are forced to wear provide us with plenty of upskirt shots. You'd rather have some good torture and murder sequences? Well, there's one good, graphic stabbing and a whole lot of vile torture methods, one of which involves a mean-tempered cobra and a naked young lady. More of an action man? Wait until the escape sequence, where we're handed a good shootout, a high-speed getaway, and with Corman behind the scenes, you know that you're damned sure going to get an explosion.

Exploitation fans will also enjoy the first pairing of Pam Grier and Sid Haig, as their interactions here were so good that future filmmakers would pair them up for over thirty years. Haig is leaner here and is missing his now-trademark beard, but make no mistake about it: there's a reason that he's still working today, and it's because of performances like this. I wouldn't hold him up to Oscar standards, but those of you who enjoyed him in Rob Zombie's movies will know exactly the type of entertainment that this man can provide when put in front of a camera. Grier is certainly no slouch either, and even though she's a notch or two down from "the star of the film" in terms of billing, she's given plenty of time to shine. Did you know that she's built like a vice? Neither did I, but Haig finds that out the hard way in one of the best scenes of the film.

Overall, I really can't recommend this enough for fans of the genre. You might have a hard time getting into it if you fail to see the appeal of these movies, but everyone else - regardless of whether you already know that you enjoy them or if you're wanting to dive into the genre for the first time - will more than likely enjoy this one as much as I did. 8.5/10.
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