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.