On “From Manila With Love,” a 45-minute making-of documentary included on the new Women In Cages Collection triple-feature set, legendary exploitation director Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Switchblade Sisters) rattles off the compulsory elements of a women-in-prison movie. At a minimum, Hill notes, it must have women showering, fighting in mud, and being tortured. Hosing scenes are optional. In the next breath, Hill likens these obligations to Shakespeare’s need to include swordfights and a comic-relief character in his plays to meet the audience’s expectations. Though comparing Shakespeare to foxy mud wrestlers is the cultural equivalent to a sudden drop in cabin pressure, Hill gets at the essence of making films under producer Roger Corman: So long as filmmakers delivered the drive-in goods, they were free to fiddle around a bit.
This set’s women-in-cages movies were all shot in the Philippines in 1971 and 1972, part of Corman’s pioneering scheme to make quick-and-dirty low-budget movies overseas. The country provided cheap labor and locations, and a fascinating (and dubious) collaboration with the locals, but it also gives the films an unmistakable texture that stops short of authenticity, but couldn’t possibly be reproduced in America. The jungle heat that drives these insatiable bad girls wild? To the point where hosing is optional? There’s nothing like an actual jungle to make the sweat glisten and the faux-revolutionary fervor run hot.
The second movie produced for Corman’s New World Picture label (after The Student Nurses), Hill’s 1971 scorcher Big Doll House was a huge hit for the nascent enterprise, and there’s little wonder why. If drive-in audiences weren’t game for six restless, rough-hewn beauties (including a young, absurdly striking Pam Grier) crammed into small cells and put through the showering/cat-fighting/bullwhipping paces, what else could they possibly want? Of the three movies on the set, Big Doll House is the most straightforward and paradigmatic: There’s the downy innocent (Judy Brown) thrown into a tropical prison, cellmates of mixed motives and hair colors (including one heroin addict, which is an oddly consistent convention), a sadistic warden with a special torture room, and a climactic breakout involving machine guns and scores of faceless Filipino extras.
Yet Hill, an unusually skilled and colorful exploitation specialist, makes all these obligatory elements pop while adopting a light, sometimes winking tone that makes it seem like sexy role-play. He isn’t interested in subverting the women-in-prison genre, as Jonathan Demme did with Caged Heat; he makes no apologies for its phony notions of liberation and empowerment, or its equally phony alignment with guerrilla fighters taking on the forces of oppression. But he gets some sly color commentary from cult favorite Sid Haig as a randy fruit deliveryman, and the women in the cast play their roles with an overheated lustiness that’s in the right spirit, especially when contrasted with the joyless S&M of the Ilsa series or mid-’80s Sybil Danning vehicles.
Contrast that with Women In Cages, which was made in the same year, in the same prison, and with some of the same cast (Grier, Brown, and the wild-eyed blonde Roberta Collins), yet takes on a much darker tone. Helmed by Gerry de León, a celebrated Filipino director with a career stretching back to the ’30s, Women In Cages is a much cruder, more disturbing piece of filmmaking than Big Doll House, which itself is merely proficient. This time, Grier plays the sadistic warden, a Southerner anxious to take out a history of black oppression on her white charges, and the plot turns on a criminal sleazebag who sets up his trusted (and exceptionally dim-witted) girlfriend (Jennifer Gan) and uses drugs to manipulate her cellmates from the outside. In spite of Grier’s ferocity as the warden, the scenes in the prison are markedly listless and inept, yet after the prison break, Women In Cages starts to address the grim culture of exploitation that mostly goes unexplored in the genre. This is a man’s world, definitively, and the harrowing final shot goes a long way toward shaming the audience the film is ostensibly titillating.
Just a year after Big Doll House, Hill returned to the Philippines with Grier and Haig for The Big Bird Cage, with an even more confident feeling for how best to use his cast. The lithe Anitra Ford, who went on to model for four years on a new game show called The Price Is Right, plays the new inmate at an open-air compound that forces women to work the gears on elaborate, deadly sugar-cane-processing contraptions. But the film belongs to Grier and Haig as sexed-up revolutionaries who try to free the prisoners from the outside. While all the usual women-in-prison tropes are in play, the emphasis is more on action and humor, and sometimes both at once, as in a scene where an inmate gets to a rival by slathering her naked body in chicken fat and literally slipping through a phalanx of would-be captors. But it resonates most as a coming-out party for Pam Grier: The striking yet tentative supporting player from Big Doll House is, just a year later, the era’s most confident, ferociously sexy exploitation icon. Watching this set means witnessing that transformation in stop-motion.
Key features: “From Manila With Love” is the chief goodie, but Hill contributes audio commentaries on both Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, and all three films have attention-getting trailers and TV spots.