As one performs one's walkabout through the landscape of crap films, one cannot help but eventually encounter the steamy jungle of the Women in Prison movie. Incredibly lucrative, the Women in Prison (or WiP) movies easily encompass the Three B's of Drive-In Filmmaking, as laid out by Joe Bob Briggs: Breasts, Blood, and Beasts. Or, perhaps, even more to the point, the Three S's: Showers, Sex, and Sadism. This is a pattern we will encounter more than once in this realm.
Since even WiP films must have a plot of some sort, we meet our heroine, Terry (Anitra Ford, also a model for The New Price is Right!), as she is brought, via limousine, to a gambling establishment in some generic banana republic country. Gossiping extras inform us that Terry is some sort of actress who has been sleeping her way up the ladder of the country's government; currently she is sleeping with the Prime Minister. The more exploitation- savvy in the audience will also notice that the entertainment in the club is being provided by Pam Grier and Sid Haig.
Well, Grier and Haig are actually playing dime-store revolutionaries named Blossom and Django (and I have all their albums). They whip out weapons, as do several accomplices in the crowd, and proceed to rob the patrons to finance la revolucion. Django has the brilliant idea of snatching Terry, too, for ransom, because she has "class". The escape goes sour, with Django diving into a river to escape the cops, who immediately blame the robbery on the one person they manage to catch: Terry.
Ah, yes, Terry's wanton actress lifestyle* has gotten her into deep trouble: the local government has been wondering what to do about her (discreetly, of course), and she has proven such an embarrassment that the American consul won't even see her. So she is packed off to a women's prison farm, with a specious promise that she will be released in a few days "when things cool off".
Thus Terry finds herself in a nameless prison in a nameless land, a prison where, oddly enough, all the inmates are in the age range of 17 - 25, the dress code includes cut-offs and tank tops (but not bras), and although lacking many luxuries, there is apparently no shortage of blow dryers. The prison is overseen by Warden Zappa (?!?!) (Andy Centenera), a villain so evil, the first act we see him commit is the kicking of a puppy.
Zappa is also the architect of the Big Bird Cage itself, a three-story sugar mill in the center of the compound, around and in which most of the women work. The Cage itself is so unsafe that actually working inside it, near the enormous crushing gears, is used as punishment; it's also where "accidents" are arranged for informers.
As an added kicker, the chief guards, Rocco (Vic Diaz) and Moreno (Subas Herrero) are gay - we are led to believe that the other guards are also, but we cannot be sure, as they are not given any lines. As this is 1972, this means the women are all sexually frustrated (as Carla, played by Candice Roman, wails, "If only I could get laid by a real man...I could stand all this!") and are constantly hitting on Rocco. When Rocco isn't hitting them, that is. The sole Lesbian inmate, Karen, is chained to her cot every night "for her own good".
A group of junketing politicos visit the farm, as Zappa extols the virtues of his work program. Terry manages to get herself assigned to Party Girl duty so she can tell someone in power how bad things actually are in the prison; unfortunately, two of the politicos recognize her and she is quickly whisked back to the dormitory, where she can do no harm. This also means that the fragile Rina (Marisa Delgado), whom Terry has taken under her protective wing, is left alone with lecherous pigs, and she freaks out, destroying furniture and driving everybody out into the dark, dark night; Zappa, furious, increases everybody's work load.
Meanwhile, Django's revolutionaries, while watching Blossom and Django's cabin shake rhythmically during one of their Shag Sessions, have an idea: the revolution needs an army. The revolutionaries need women. Let's break everybody out of the prison farm! Trouble is, that means they need someone on the inside: and the only possible candidate is Blossom. So Blossom gets herself arrested by tossing a dud hand grenade at a minor official. Not that she knew it was a dud...
While Blossom is standing in the middle of Town Square hissing, "Sh*t!", Terry has determined which way the wind is blowing and escapes the farm, unfortunately landing right in midst of a situation primed for a gang rape. She is only rescued from even worse by the arrival of Rocco and his guard dogs. Rocco looks around the shack at the men, then back to Terry. "Why doesn't anything like that ever happen to me?" he asks her.
Terry's troubles, of course, are far from over; as punishment for her attempted escape, Zappa has her (literally) hung by her hair. Then he doubles everyone's work load. Arriving at this cheery scene is Blossom, who immediately sets to taking the prison population over. This is accomplished via a mud wrestling match in the farm's rice paddies, Blossom versus Bull Jones (Teda Bracci) the former Boss. Concurrent with that, Django shaves off his Castro beard so he can pass himself off as "Sam S. Smith" ("the S stands for Thavage!"), homosexual world traveler, so he can play up to Rocco and get a job as a guard.
Called into Zappa's office over the mud wrestling incident, Blossom is recognized as Django's consort, and the sadistic Moreno sets to torturing her to reveal the revolutionaries whereabouts. Django is shocked when his first duty is to take Blossom to the infirmary so she can recover; but his sudden appearance gives Blossom strength. She also, coincidentally enough, winds up on the cot next to the recuperating Terry, so they can plot the big getaway.
The Big Bird Cage breaks down, and Zappa forces one of the girls to crawl underneath to repair it; when the structure further collapses, she is crushed. The distraught Karen grabs a machete and charges Zappa, whacking off a guard's arm in the process. For her trouble, she is machine-gunned repeatedly. This almost sparks off the riot that Django and Blossom need, but the timing is wrong; Blossom manages to stop the angry girls by force of will alone.
Zappa, worried, summons Army reinforcements, but they're a day away; that night, Django takes Rocco hostage and drags him to Terry's old dorm, distributing some molotov cocktails and leaving Rocco to the women's tender mercies. Of course, Carla, the really sex-starved one, gets the idea that they should rape Rocco. Fairly ironic, considering his previous statement to Terry.
(Pornmeisters, start your engines: Although we see absolutely nothing, the scene is fairly explicit in intent and execution.While Rocco is tied on the floor, one woman opines that's he'll never get hard. "I'll get him hard!" snaps Carla, immediately going down on him. After a moment, the women smile approvingly. Carla claims him first, since she did the work, and mounts him. As Rocco begins shrieking in horror, Bull Jones silences him by sitting on his face. To quote Rocco here, "Why doesn't anything like that happen to me?" But now I've said too much, and we should really get on with the movie.)
In Blossom's dorm, the women have been making spears under her direction. Django arrives with her favorite machine gun. Zappa gets wise at about the time a bomb goes off in the watchtower - the signal for the women to make their move. Mayhem ensues, especially when the Army arrives early and starts shooting everything with mammaries - especially the group that stayed around to torch the Big Bird Cage. Zappa, distraught at the fiery demise of his creation, hangs around a bit too long groaning "No! No No!" like a distressed Ricky Ricardo. As the structure begins to collapse, the dying Bull prevents Zappa from escaping, and they are buried under the flaming debris.
In fact, almost nobody gets out alive; only Terry and Rina. Even Django is shot, and Blossom hangs around to avenge his death long enough to fall prey to a hand grenade. Found by Django's revolutionaries, Terry and Rina get on a boat to civilization, but Terry swears she'll be back: "I can can twist those comic opera politicians around my little finger," she says.
It's a pattern that dates back to Corman's Youth pictures of the late 60's... well, probably back further, to the exploitation movies of the 30's that masqueraded as cautionary tales, like Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell and Sex Madness. You can do practically anything in such films as long as the participants meet a sticky end. Easy Rider, Psych-Out, The Trip, even Wild in the Streets... all have downbeat endings, that allowed more conservative filmgoers to say "There. You see? That's what you get!" while still giving the hormone-soaked youngsters what they wanted.
The Big Bird Cage has a reputation as one of the better WiP films, with reason. Written and directed by Jack Hill, already a veteran of low-budget films like The Terror and Spider Baby (and, yes, The Big Doll House), directs with a sure hand, keeping things moving along briskly. There are some shortcomings with the structure of the script, however. The parallel storylines of Terry and Blossom are handled too blockily; it seems to take days for Blossom to reach the prison compound, and similarly, Terry seemingly hangs by her hair for days while Blossom takes over the prison. And we never find out what anybody else did to deserve their prison sentences.
One of the more bizarre subplots in the movie is the antagonistic relationship between the 7 foot tall (or so it seems) lesbian Karen and the diminutive black woman Mickie (Carol Speed), which is terminated by the crushing scene at the Bird Cage. Each of these incidents begins with Mickie baiting Karen, and ends with the resident dyke lunging for her and Mickie running away, screaming like a little girl. The strangest this gets is when Karen strips down and coats herself with chicken fat so she can slip through the grip of anyone trying to stop her from reaching Mickie. Why is this utterly strange scene even there? Well, we hadn't seen a naked woman for several minutes at this point....
The movie also endeavors to Have Its Cake And Eat It Too, by injecting humor in and amongst the violence and gratuitous nudity - it's a tribute to Hill's ability that it actually manages to succeed most of the time. The banter betwixt Rocco and the inmates during lighter moments is often genuinely funny. The scene where Django first makes the acquaintance of Rocco as the swishy Steve would be offensive if it weren't so damned silly, and if Vic Diaz didn't convey a bit of actual vulnerability in the scene. However, the stereotyped gay scenes that follow quickly become tiresome.
And wonder of wonders, the acting is uniformly good. Sid Haig is a better actor than anybody wants to admit (and so is the late Vic Diaz, dammit. Character actors never get any respect). Pam Grier (who was apparently in every WiP movie ever made) plays her tough, independent black woman role, which she can probably do in her sleep (and let me just say it is so good to see her back in the public eye again). Although each and every woman is some flavor of cliche, they play their roles well and at the last, are likable - it's important that we root for the characters trapped in the WiP, after all. Speed and Bracci, in particular, went on to have relatively long careers in this business - Speed was the title character in Abby and Bracci was most recently seen as Calamity Jane in Hocus Pocus (if one can believe the IMDb) .
Not that these things were ever meant as metaphors for female empowerment, or anything - scenes of women with automatic weapons notwithstanding, these films appealed mainly to the young men in the crowd - women took off their clothes, things went boom, and blood flowed. The fact that Mr. Testosterone's date could possibly enjoy The Big Bird Cage - as long as she possessed a fair sense of the absurd and some self-awareness - is possibly it's best recommendation.
A good Women In Prison movie (if there is such a thing)
- February 7, 1999