Jack Hill directs The Big Doll House, one of the first of the popular “women in prison” exploitation films. The genre had been circulating since at least the 1930s, with outings like Hold Your Man introducing audiences to the plight of women behind bars. In the case of this 1971 picture, Hill and screenwriter Don Spencer don’t spare the details.
Like most exploitation films, The Big Doll House is full of bold subtext that is generally ignored by some observers. And like most exploitation films, The Big Doll House doesn’t withhold the sleaze. The entire universe of Hill’s construction is saturated in domination, corruption and malice.
Judy Brown stars as Collier and she’s on her way into a prison in the Philippines. She’s been sentenced to 99 years of hard labour for killing her eyepatch-wearing husband. She learns the ropes and meets Dr. Phillips (Jack Davis), who is also on his first day in the prison. After an invasive exam, Collier is whisked away to meet her cellmates.
Among them is Alcott (Roberta Collins), political prisoner Bodine (Pat Woodell), heroin addict Harrad (Brooke Mills), cat lover Ferina (Gina Stuart), and hooker Grear (Pam Grier). The head wardeness Lucian (Kathryn Loder) has a tendency toward snakes, while the warden Miss Dietrich (Christiane Schmidtmer) seems elegant if withdrawn.
The Big Doll House opens with Hall Daniels’ “Long Time Woman” and the set-up of the prison as a fierce, hard-hearted place sealed away in the mountains. There is no recourse for the women and methodical tyranny has spilled over into the populace, outlining power struggles that mirror the dynamics at the top of the ladder and detailing the political climate of the US-backed Philippines in the 1970s.
There is immediate suspicion, as Collier’s cellmates believe she’s a spy. It’s only informally suggested by a cellmate and there is no proof to the allegation, but the contention is enough to get the redhead dunked in the toilet. This solidifies the tone, confirms that the women do not trust each other. And why would they?
The prison is death and they’re surrounded by its withered fingers. When a woman’s corpse is burned, the only representatives of the outside world – the creep Harry (Sig Haig) and his inquisitive pal Fred (Jerry Franks) – talk about the departed in terms of her only use to them. She’s just “another piece of ass gone to waste.”
The women in the prison have been used and abused by the society outside and now they’re used and abused by the society inside. Bodine, for instance, is in jail for being the girlfriend of a revolutionary. And Grear is in lockup because she possesses information she shouldn’t possess. Both are victims of the powerful, of those intending to maintain the status quo.
Later, Dr. Phillips tells the inmates that things can change. But their reply, rightly, is that nothing can change inside without something changing outside. There’s no obscuring the subjugation, especially in this resolute world of women seeking out their own hierarchies behind bars.
Hill and cinematographer Fred Conde shoot the action with a claustrophobic feel inside, but there’s an eye toward the hills of Bodine’s radical loverboy when business shifts outside. The women scrap and toil in endless fields. They work under the hot sun and are sometimes punished for fleeting rebellion. The sky watches.
There is a degree of sexualized torment in The Big Doll House and there is the obligatory shower scene, but Hill keeps the focus on the fundamental machines and there’s always something sinister in the sleaze. Nothing inside the prison is about sex; everything is about hierarchy, about erecting and imposing tyrannical social orders, by force if necessary and by torture whenever possible.