Monday, October 25, 2010

The Big Bird Cage (1972)

Ah, the women-in-prison movie: perfect for those who like their T&A mixed with a little despair. There’s always a group shower scene, nearly always a scene in which the fire hose is turned on rioting prisoners in white tee-shirts, usually a few mean lesbians of the lipstick variety, a few catfights, some sexually abusive guards, and a climatic riot in which those cruel guards get what’s coming to them. The politics of these movies are pretty unambiguous: prisons are warehouses for abuse that not only fail to rehabilitate prisoners, but make them worse; on the bright side, they have group showers.

One can forgive Jack Hill for following these conventions in The Big Bird Cage; after all, he basically invented the genre the year before with The Big Dollhouse- this is the sequel. That was the most successful independent movie ever made at that point, so imitators followed quickly. A rather brilliant idea on Hill’s part was to play up the outrageous aspects of the newly-born genre in the sequel and fail to take any of its conventions seriously. In a lot of ways, this is the more entertaining film

Hill also had a great cast. Exploitation flick royalty Sid Haig and Pam Grier play Django and Blossom, left-wing revolutionaries of the sort that are hardly found in movies after the 70s. Haig and Grier play the characters to the hilt: he as a layabout who’d rather drink wine than start a revolution and she as a fiery ass-kicker who just wants to shoot her machine gun. The plot involves the two trying to jumpstart a revolution in a women’s prison in the Philippines. Their fellow revolutionaries need women after all.

Meanwhile, Django and Blossom’s attempted stick up in a casino has led to trouble for the irascible American sybarite Terry Rich, played up by fashion model Anitra Ford. Having slept with half the government, embarrassing the state, Rich is thrown into prison after the revolutionaries attempt to take her for a hostage. She’s a great character, haughty, superior, and lascivious. In spite of being spoiled and imperious, she soon wins over the fellow prisoners- in a nice campy touch, they take to her after deciding she’s more of a whore than a political prisoner

Other standouts include Candice Roman as the sexually-frustrated Carla, Teda Bracci as the brash Bull Jones, Carol Speed as the ‘ho enthusiast Mickie, and towering fashion model Karen McKevic as the also towering Karen. In a clever touch, meanwhile, the lead guards are flaming gays, which is played for laughs but was supposedly well-received by gays at the time- I suppose because the comedy isn’t particularly mean-spirited. At one point, Haig infiltrates the camp by playing gay in scenes that are really too silly to be offensive. Similarly over the top is a scene in which the head guard Rocco, played by Vic Diaz, is raped by the horny rioting inmates.

And, yes, there is the inevitable riot. One does wonder how hard it would have been for the women to break out much earlier, since the prison cells are made of thatched grass and the prisoners aren’t chained. But, okay, the final conflict is action-packed, although probably too many of the characters get killed off, which adds an unnecessarily somber tone to a fairly silly movie. In general, the ending is a bit of a let-down. Nevertheless, the film moves well, the characters are memorable, and there is a lot of violence and nudity, so it’s easy to see why The Big Bird Cage has become a favorite of exploitation film enthusiasts.

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