Women in Prison: The Big Doll House

After finishing off the fifth season of “Orange is the New Black,” I’ve found myself in the mood to revisit some classics of the Women in Prison (WiP) genre of films. Years ago, when I had first started Geek Juice, I’d done an entire month of articles, videos, podcasts all about Women in Prison, where I watched just about every film in this exploitation subgenre. It was a rough month because these aren’t the prettiest films. However, years later, I feel a yearning to return to watch a few of what I’ve always considered one of my favorite subgenres of expolitation cinema, despite how perverse that may sound.  To begin, I will look at one of the most well-rermembered and famous films, Jack Hill’s 1971 classic, The Big Doll House.

Their Bodies Were Caged, But Not Their Desires…

Like many exploitation films, the story is simple; little more than a device to capitalize on the visual elements audiences want to see. A variety of women, mostly American, are in prison in an unnamed country. Some are imprisoned for murder, some for prostitution, some for political reasons. During their stay, these women are subjected to torture and sexual abuse from sadistic guards and other prisoners. Tired of the abuse and injustice, a group of women plan their escape.

The Big Doll House features many of the classic exploitive elements that made the WiP such popular genre fare throughout the 1970’s. Director Jack Hill, in a commentary for the film, states that The Big Doll House was the start of the WiP genre, though there were other films that utilized themes of sexual exploitation in a prison setting at the time (most notably Jess Franco’s 1969 film 99 Women). However, The Big Doll House was the first successful American venture into this sort of exploitation film. As such, it created the standard for this subgenre that many others would copy over the years. Women in Prison films contain three specific elements in varying amounts: lesbianism, sexual sadism, and voyuerism with the display of nude female bodies in various situations (Pardue et al 280). The Big Doll House contains all of these elements in a fine balance, not going too overboard with either one of them as other films would.

With exploitation cinema it is important to remember that it is always the audience and their interests that are being exploited for profit. B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s (and even earlier) exploited audiences interests in events and topics of interest at the moment. Science-fiction and horror became popular fares for quick pictures to grab an audience’s interest to make a few bucks; something that film director and producer Roger Corman excelled at. When Corman created his own production company in 1970, New World Pictures, The Big Doll House was one of the first films he produced. When the longstanding Motion Picture Code (aka “Hays Code”) was abandonded and replaced with the MPAA ratings system in 1968, filmmakers were allowed much more freedom in what they could do. As such, audiences began to express a greater interest in more sexually charged films.  Among the first films Corman produced for his new company were sexy comedies such as The Student Nurses, The Student Teachers and, of course, The Big Doll House.

The trailer for the film was written and edited by Jack Hill and immediately capitalized upon this exploitation with a variety of lurid slogans: “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires,” “Pent-up emotions erupting in a climax of violence,” and “Tortured bodies and tortured souls.” These encapsulate the ideas of the Women in Prison genre: the confinement of hypersexualized females engaged in deviant behaviors (Ciasullo 42). The prison is not just a setting for a variety of exploitive elements. The enviornment of the prison itself is used to drive the story and purpose behind the characters’ actions.

Tortured Bodies and Tortured Souls

One of the things that makes The Big Doll House such a notable film in the WiP subgenre is a balance between all the different exploitive tropes. There is lesbianism, torture, and nudity in well-porptioned doses, never going to an extreme with either. A fine balance between these allows for a greater focus on individual characterization and storytelling. There is more thrill in the way the film teases at things we never see than by actually exploiting bare bodies.

 

Voyeuristic shower scenes throughout provide some teasing moments.

Lesbian activity is only hinted at throughout The Big Doll House. Pam Grier’s character (coincidentally named Grear), states that she is a lesbian, making an angry speech about how she’s shunned the abusive actions of all men. She is sexually dominant towards other women, and references are made to how her sexual desires are fulfilled through them; though there are no actual sex scenes throughout the film. The hypersexualization of women is discussed though rarely shown, building a tantalizing hope for the viewer of things they might but never actually do get to witness. Two delivery men, Harry and Fred (played by Sid Haig and Jerry Franks) discuss how sexual the women are, saying things such as “The women here are so horny that at night you can hear them honking,” and talking about the exciting possibility of being raped by one of the prisoners. There is a scene where a woman attempts to rape one of the delivery men but is quickly interrupted; it delivers the idea of sexual exploitation without needing to show the actual act. The film does contain torture as the sadistic head guard Lucian (played beautifully by Kathryn Loder) psychologically manipluates the women and submits them to various different forms of physical pain. Scenes of punishment, such as whipping, are breif; however more interrogative torture using threats are drawn out for suspense rather than exploitation.

The exploitive element that The Big Doll House excels at, however, is in the teasing use of female bodies. For a women in prison film, there is surprsingly little nudity in The Big Doll House. There’s a few voyueristic shower scenes and some exposure during a medical checkup, but the film is more content to tease at potential nudity. When Pam Grier allows the delivery men to grope her body in exchange for goods they feel over her through her clothes, giving the viewer the idea of sexual pleasure without the ‘reward’ of on-screen nudity. The uniforms worn by the women in this prison are short dresses, which provide plenty of shots of panties and cleavage, exploiting the beauty of the feminine form without the need to expose genitalia. This kind of teasing reaches a peak when Grear and Alcott (Roberta Collins) fight for dominance in a mud wrestling fight. The wet clothes and fighting women hits all the benchmarks of exploitation without ever needing to resort to nudity or sex.

The thrilling and tantalizing mud fight. A standard of exploitation.

See what they do for thrills! See what they do for love!

While Roger Corman’s first few produced films for New World were minor successes, The Big Doll House was the one that, as Jack Hill explains, “put them on the map” (Hill 1).  The film grossed money and became a hit during the summer of 1971 through drive-ins and various grindhouse circuits. The elements and themes in The Big Doll House would be immediately repeated in countless other movies, both for New World as well as other eager new production companies. While Jack Hill was not a new director, this is the film that created the career in exploitation filmmaking that he is remembered for. From this successful venture, Hill would go on to direct exploitation hits such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Bird Cage, and Switchblade Sisters (three of those reuniting him with Pam Grier). Beyond establishing the WiP genre for a wider audience, what individual elements make The Big Doll House such a fondly remembered film?

Kahtryn Loder as the sadistic guard Lucian is one of my favorite things in this film.

The Big Doll House was Pam Grier’s first major acting experience. Not only does she put in a delightful performance in this film, she also sings the movie’s opening song, “Long Time Woman,” a song that became something of a theme for the genre. The song, and its singer, are so memorable that Tarantino used it in Jackie Brown in a scene where Pam Grier’s character goes to jail. The characters themselves are another reason that make The Big Doll House rise above other WiP films. Rather than being simply about a bunch of hypersexualized women in cages, these are all unique characters from different backgrounds. Pam Grier, Roberta Collins, Judith Brown, Brooke Mills, and Pat Woodall all put in great performances as unique characters; each memorable for their own reasons. The supporting cast, including Sid Hair and Kathryn Loder are fun as well, creating more unique characters beyond exploitation tropes.

The film is not perfect. The story itself is rather weak, serving only as a set-up for different action scenes and moments of potential nudity or sex. The setting is a nameless country where there is an unseen rebellion against an unseen government for unknown reasons. The plot contains vague ideas of conflict that only exist to create a minimum of motivation for characters to do anything. Another failing is the film’s ending where, spoiler alert, the characters die. The main protaginist, Collier (Judith Brown), lives only to presumably go back to the prison. Thus, the conflict in this movie has no origin nor any sort of conclusion. While the images and filmmaking methods are memorable, the story itself is weak.

Still, The Big Doll House remains one of the most iconic films of the WiP genre as well as one of my personal favorites. Its more tasteful blending of exploitive elements make it more palatable to audiences and more delightful for casual viewing. Without going too extreme into torture or sexuality, it serves as a great introduction to what made these types of women in prison films such popular fare. Personally, I find shots of panties and different methods to tease at nudity more creative and unique than actual nudity itself, and The Big Doll House finds many opportunities to celebrate the female form without the cheap need to exploit naked bodies. A playful smile and a tease is far more entertaining than a long sex scene. By balancing humor with its more darker elements, The Big Doll House is far easier to watch than many other films in this genre which focus more on torture and humilation. Through its talented cast, its creative director, the establishment of the genre, and its more delightful handling of exploitive themes, The Big Doll House remains one of the best and more discussed standards of both 70s exploitation cinema as well Women in Prison films.

Works Cited

Ciasullo, Ann. “Containing “Deviant” Desire: Lesbianism, Heterosexuality, and the Women-in-Prison Narrative”. The Journal of Popular Culture. 2008.

Pardue, Angela; Arrigo, Bruce; Murphy, Daniel. “Sex and Sexuality in Women’s Prisons: A Preliminary Typological Investigation”. The Prison Journal. 91. 2011.

Hill, Jack. “Jack Hill on ‘The Big Doll House’. Trailers From Hell. Video Clip 5 Sep 2013. Web https://youtu.be/FKGEFnBTbNM

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