Well, I guess there’s much not to be liked in THE BIG BIRD CAGE, Jack Hill’s semi-sequel to his own superior THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971). Maybe that is even understandable, inasmuch as it was a project born out of the unexpected success of the first movie and the serious money it had made despite the very limited budget. Moreover, it was Hill’s intention to make a “proper” sequel to the first movie, but he didn’t have any of the original actors (but Pam Grier and Sid Haig) at hand as they were filming all over the Philippines in other productions. And, adding insult to adversity, Corman asked Hill to tone down the grittiness and violence of the first film in hopes of reaching an even wider audience. Yes, that’s the recipe to get something that will displease almost everyone who loved the first film.
But, weird guy that I am, I simply love THE BIG BIRD CAGE, despite all its faults. Yes, it is true that the violence is immensely toned down; and that the creepy warden and torturing guards are replaced here by a an histrionic warden obsessed with his “big bird cage” – a giant sugar mill of his own design – and a cadre of big fat unctuous homosexual guards that were as un-PC in 1972 as they are today (and more enjoyable for that). And even sexual violence is toned down and muted, peeking from behind the teasing promises of the abundant female flesh in exhibition here (I don’t remember seeing another movie with this ratio of nipple-slips).
But… the film has a lot of other points to commend it and, if you’re of the right frame of mind, to make you love it. For starters, the photography by Felipe Sacdalan (credited as Philip Sacdalan) is simply stunning in its use of colour and light when capturing some breathtaking Filipino locations around Luzon. Then we have the mad intricacy of the “big bird cage” itself, designed by Jack Hill’s own father, a veteran art director and set designer, and the man responsible for the creation of Disney’s Castle. And what to say of Hill’s own script, a delight of funny quips, smart comebacks and satiric comments that gains impetus all along the movie, never relenting, until the surprising body-count of the film’s finale?
All this adds up to create a fantasy world, a time that never-was, a hinterland of erotic dreams inhabited by beautiful, smart women, crazy homosexual men and fun amiable revolutionaries. And it is to the credit of Jack Hill that he could steer this mishmash of improbable elements, keeping it from veering too far into silliness or from falling down the pits of unfunny camp comedy. And trust me, there are plenty of laughs here; and it’s a joy to watch some very good actors having so much fun playing their parts.
Andy Centenera as the scenery chewing Warden Zappa and Sid Haig as the carefree and womanizer revolutionary leader play with gusto their opposite roles; Subas Herrero and Vic Diaz (both also appearing in BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA) are a delight to behold as the two chief gay guards that compete with one another for the attention of Haig when he infiltrates the prison working as a guard (the sole requisite seems to be being a homosexual).
And then, we have the girls: first and foremost, the indomitable and unequalled Pam Grier, appearing here at her best: gorgeous, funny, tough, ad libing with gusto and getting to sing another catchy tune (if she wasn’t such a fine actress she could perfectly have had made it in the music world). This time she his surrounded by a host of gorgeous women (many of them in their first appearances, some of them in their only appearance in film): Anitra Ford as the seductress that gets arrested because she became a political liability because she’s been fucking the Prime-Minister; Candice Roman, the sprightly and cute blonde that has all the best lines; Teda Bracci (a real rock singer), the tough girl that commands respect and love both from her mates and the viewer; Carol Speed, the delightful black girl that suffers the cruellest death in the film and Rizza Fabian, the Mindanao exotic beauty that rats on the others because the Warden has a say over her son’s destiny.
It is impossible to cover in such a brief review all that goes on in this precious little exploiter. Sid Haig’s Django debating the politics of revolution with his followers that want to raid the female prison because they think the revolution needs more babies (“And do you have any particular bastille in mind?”, he asks). The government party that is inspecting the prison only to get fed up with the trite politically correct speech of the Warden: “Yes, yes, but lets us get to the girls”. And the two best lines of all: Carla (Roman) and Mickie (Speed) debating if Terry (Ford) is a “whore” or a “political”. “Among us, honest thieves and murderers, there’s nothing lower than a political”, says Carla. And when Mickie learns that Terry has been shagging the Prime-Minister: “See, I told her she was all right. She’s a whore”, before Carla observes that she isn’t making it for the money. “She’s not a whore! She’s political!”
But the belly-breaker roll-on-the-floor moment belongs to Vic Diaz. When Terry tries to escape from prison, she ends up about to be gang-raped by some guys to whom she asks to use a phone (yeah, really). She is spared from a fate worse than death (“You can’t rape me…”, she said early on to Django. “I like sex!”) by the sudden arrival of Diaz’s Rocco with some soldiers and the search dogs. Quickly grasping what was going on, and looking from the horny Filipinos to the semi-naked Terry, he just mutters: Oh darn. Nothing like that ever happens to me.
On the whole, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is great fun. It rehashes some of the ingredients of the previous film and either improves or comments on them through a kinf of don’t-take-it-so-seriously wink of the cinematic eye. Pam Grier is, if possible, even more lovely In this film. She improvised the line “It’s miss nigger to you” when she docks another inmate that calls her nigger. We are also treated to some scenes in the exterior, as well as to a collective mud fight, before arriving at the explosive final battle, with its desperate dash through the jungle, heroic deaths and accounts settled. It is eye-candy of a superior quality and harks back to a time when doing indie cinema meant doing fun, over the top movies, instead of the mushy moralizing pseudo-cine verité crap that comes out of Sundance every year.
And you could still be political while doing it. Not just a commercial whore.
It would be easy to dismiss THE BIG DOLL HOUSE as being an exploitation flick with no redeeming social value whatsoever. And maybe rightly so. But if you’re reading this, you know better. You know this is it. This is the Ur-text, the mother of all subsequent WIP films, an unstoppable truck of fun and sleaze rolling without brakes towards the future. And it is the first film to star Pam Grier in a speaking role. And not only does she speak, she also sings – wonderfully! – the catchy LONG TIME WOMAN title song, later reprised on the JACKIE BROWN (1997) soundtrack. And when she utters her first line, eyeing the new arrival from head to toe (“Green… scared… and pretty”), you know you’re watching, through the time-travelling magic of digital technology, History being made before your eyes.
Obviously, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE was not the first WIP film, a film genre in existence since the thirties and on both sides of the Atlantic; but it was the best of them all and would pave the road for bigger and better ones. Freed of the social commentary of the American WIP films of the 30s and the British ones from the 50s, it outdid and outshone the eurotrash flicks at their own game. With a bare minimum of plot, courtesy of Don Spencer’s script, and a sure-fire direction by Jack Hill, it created unforgettable tableaux that would be re-used time and again in later efforts from other directors. Pam Grier being fondled through the cell bars would be rehashed in Jonathan Demme’s CAGED HEAT (1974); the girls fighting in mud would become almost mandatory in these kind of films (and would be used again in its semi-sequel THE BIG BIRD CAGE); the German-looking Prison Warden would be a necessary staple of the Italian nazisploitation movies of the 70s; and one of the best monologues, the shatteringly funny houseboy story uttered by Judy Brown’s Collier would serve as the punch-line of 1993’s BODY OF EVIDENCE.
For all that matters, it is the ultimate male erotic fantasy: a world practically devoid of men, a gynocracy of beautiful women that prance around in a state of partial undress, fighting in mudpits, loving each other and submiting each other to some rough S&M punishing. And, above all, they’re horny all the time.
But to say that is tantamount to say nothing at all. Sure, it is pure unadulterated fun; sure it has some over the top moments that are pure pulp kink; and sure, it lacks a proper plot capable of cohere the separate tableaux that tell us what little story there is to be told. But it is also one of those cultural artefacts that somehow seem to touch deeper than the candy gloss of its brightly shiny surface. For once, all the characters are wonderfully cast; and contrary to the run of the mill WIP films, none of the prisoners is innocent. They are murderers (one of them, a baby-killer), drug-addicts or prostitutes; and yet, they are human, they carry a past and a story with them, they have weaknesses and they have virtues; they make us care about them. Pam Grier is wonderful as Grear, the dominant lesbian, at once funny, aggressive and yet somehow compelling our sympathy, despite ratting on her cellmates in order to get dope to her protégée and lover Harrad (a wonderful performance by Brooke Mills); Roberta Collins is simply magnificent as Alcott, beautiful and determined, slowly creeping from a careful stance on the margins of the prisoner's power plays to gaining the centre stage of their escape; Sid Haig is at once charming and fun; Kathryn Loder is suitably creepy as the sadistic Lucian, torturing the prisoners with wreckless abandon; and Christiane Schmidtmer steals every scene she’s in, chewing the scenery with gusto every time she’s around as the seemingly trustworthy Warden. And the interplay between them is pure joy to behold.
And then, beneath its prurient male fantasy cover, there’s a deep and insightful well to be tapped. Contrary to common adolescent fantasies, the women on this film are not weak; they know how to look after themselves, they’re determined and they know how to get what they want. When they fight they gouge your eyes out. And such a fantasy world cannot avoid touching on the ever-present male performance anxiety: when Sid Haig’s Harry arrives at the prison with his new partner Fred (Jerry Franks), he tells Fred how all those women are desperate for sex. “One of these days, ZAP! R-A-P-E.” “What? You mean one of this days you’re gonna rape one of these girls?” “No… one of these days, one of these girls is gonna rape me!”
The ultimate male fantasy doesn’t look like it when Fred finds himself on the wrong end of a knife and is forced to satisfy Alcott’s unspent lust (“Get it up, or I’ll cut it off!”); just as it happens to Harry when the same Alcott forces him at gun point to rape the captive Warden. And it is interesting to note how men are represented as an object to be used (nice role-reversal for a cheap exploitation flick, eh, Mrs. Dvorkin & McKinnon?) by women, or as a source of trouble for them: when the Warden watches the girl’s being tortured, she does so disguised as a man; when lesbian Grear decides to allow Harry to fuck her as a way to get dope for her lover and the keys for them to escape, she ends up dead; it’s the amorous interlude between Alcott and Fred that gives Lucian the pretext to torture and beat her; and Lucian ends up being killed by one of the snakes – the phallic symbol par excellence – she used to torture them with.
In the end, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is a strangely satisfying view, candy for the eyes and food for the brain, expertly teetering between fun and violence and sometimes mixing the two in a heady cocktail. Above all, it is that old cliché: the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.
One year after sharing the screen on BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), Pam Grier and Margaret Markov met once again in the odd genre mixture of THE ARENA, a historical fantasy set against the colourful and decadent background of Imperial Rome, although one reference to the Spartacus revolt of 71 B.C., is enough to show that the film has no intention of letting something like historical accuracy get in the middle of all the fun. And that is not necessarily to the detriment of the film, as it works surprisingly well as an atypical WIP film, enriched by some acute (although by then not too original) social commentary.
Despite some very trite and sometimes syrupy dialogue, the movie exceeds on a purely visual level, allowing the viewer to “read” the story in every frame, no small feat for the shared directing chores of Steve Carver and Joe D’Amato (Aristide Massaccesi) and swift editing by a still young and unknown Joe Dante. But above all, it is the screen presence of Markov and Grier that once more ignite a special chemistry between viewer and the events on screen. Even more markedly than in BMWM, both actresses play determined women who fell afoul on the hands of injustice, violence and degradation.
Bodicia of Brittany (Markov), a priestess, and Mamawi (Grier) a tribal African dancer, are captured during raids from Rome’s provincial forces and dragged to the city of Brundisium where they’re sold as slaves to Timarchus (Daniel Vargas), a games editore and the owner of the title’s gladiatorial arena. At the hands of Timarchus, the girls are forced to entertain his slobbering guests at his abject orgies and to serve the patrons while they’re watching the fights at the arena.
Under the tutelage of Timarchus’s housekeeper Cornelia (Sara Bay), the girls are subject to other public humiliations, fostering even more the differences among them – particularly in what concerns Livia (Marie Louise), another slave, who pretends to be of Roman ancestry, a claim that will prove disastrous to the group’s unity further on. In one of the parties where the girls are forced to serve and entertain, the haughty Bodicia slaps a Roman who tries to grope her and is then “punished” by being raped by another guest amidst the leering partygoers, while Mamawi, ever the adaptable survivor type, looks on with a mixture of haughtiness, disdain and sorrow.
The fights, however, are not going well to Timarchus, as the patrons seem to be getting tired of always seeing the same spectacle – a growing ennui that will later grow to symbolize the indifference of a brutalized society confronted with organized suffering. So, when a particularly vicious fight erupts in the kitchens between Bodicia (who wants to fight the system and escape) and Mamawi (who believes her more restrained way of coping with adversity will get her better results), the wet an messy confrontation spurs Aemilius (Christopher Oakes) to suggest to Timarchus that if the girls could fight like that in the Arena it would be a tremendous crowd-pleaser.
And so it is, as the first fight pits Bodicia against a sexily inebriated Deirdre (Lucretia Love), in a fun and gay fight that ends with the crowds cheering and allowing both girls to live. However, that easy first trial doesn’t fool the girls, all to well conscious that just as it was happening to the male gladiators, one day they may be forced to kill one another. And that happens just the next day, when Livia, claiming Roman ancestry is spared from fighting Mamawi, who ends up being forced to kill Lucinia (Mary Count). Truth is just too crude to allow hope to go on. Their choices are simple: escape or die fighting in the Arena.
All considered, THE ARENA is, plot-wise, pretty standard fare, rehashing by the numbers the structure of any run of the mill WIP film, with the final third entirely reserved for the escape from prison through the jungle (or, as in the present case, through the catacombs). Where it departs from others is in the meticulous atmosphere of some of its settings (the idyllic opening, the bath scenes, or the dark kitchen, among others), and the magnificent presence of Grier and Markov, both of them haunting the screen with almost supernatural beauty. More than the crass dialogue they’re given to munch, it is their total physical performance that conveys who and what their characters really are. When they face each other, the screen sizzles with intensity, and it’s their eyes, their posture, that lead us from their initial mutual distrust, through their apprehensive cooperation, to their final fight together.
Although the film has some very funny moments, and doesn’t shy away from goofiness in the form of the effeminate Priscium (Sid Lawrence) or the drunken Deirdre, it is smart on not allowing that goofiness to spread to the fights in the arena; moreover, there are some very clever moments – brief glimpses, sometimes humorous, sometimes not – that evokes Eisenstein’s editing to underscore some social points so in keep with the racial tensions of the time (that is, the American 70s). Consider, for instance, the moment when Cornelia is tripped during the kitchen fight and Livia, she of Roman ancestry runs to her aid, only for Cornelia to grab Livia’s skirt to clean herself up; or the way Mamawi is quick to adapt to every circumstance (she fights when she needs to fight, she dances for the Romans as she danced for her tribe), mirroring the black’s situation on the inner city. And the film is not free of irony as well, as attested by the way Livia ends gang raped by her “fellow-citizens”.
Romans that are so brutalized by the games, so insensitized to violence, so dominated by ennui, that even the fad of the women fighters quickly turns boring to the point that when Bodicia and Mamawi finally face each other on the arena, their struggle is not even seen by the crowd lost in its own search for pleasure. Which makes Mamawi’s plea to be allowed to spare Bodicia’s life even more poignant.
But, as I said above, this is truly Markov’s and Grier’s film, the one in which their beauty goes unsurpassed, the one where their eyes and their faces and their bodies are allowed full expression. And it is wonderful to behold the silent complicity that bonds both women when they fight each other to the death, respecting each other, honouring each other. And the beauty of the moment when Mamawi, endangering her own life, decides not to kill Bodicia, is unsurpassed by any other exploitation film ever. Just scroll up and watch the girl’s eyes and posture in the scenes where they are together, admire the subtle promise of a smile on Markov’s face when Grier’s trident bites the sand near her head. While Grier went on to be queen of the exploitation scene and, in time, to become an icon of the twentieth century, I’ll never understand why hasn’t Markov become a major player in the industry.
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