The success of Jess Franco’s 99 Women triggered a wave of women-in-prison movies. None were as good as 99 Women, but The Big Doll House does have its own appeal. Directed by Jack Hill and released in 1971, if features all the elements of a classic WiP movie – there’s the sadistic female prison guard, the insane prison governor, the tough lesbian, the junkie, the sympathetic but ineffectual prison doctor and the naïve newbie. There’s the obligatory shower scene, there are beatings, lots of implied lesbianism, and there’s the rebellion of the prisoners. All combined with some classic (but highly entertaining) bad acting. These ingredients are blended with a certain amount of flair and the result is a must for fans of this sub-genre.
Judith Brown is Collier, the new girl in a brutal women’s prison in an unnamed South-East Asian country (it was filmed in the Philippines), sent down for 99 years for the murder of her rich husband. Her cell-mates include the three toughest women in the prison. There’s Bodine, the hard-bitten but idealistic revolutionary. There’s Alcott (Roberta Collins in a memorably outrageous performance), blonde and pretty but as hard as nails and the facto queen of the prison. And lastly there’s Grear, the tough black lesbian (played by the queen of 70s blaxploitation movies, Pam Grier). Collier finds herself torn between Alcott and Grear, Grear already has a girlfriend, a junkie, but she appears to be interested in grooming Collier as a replacement. Collier meanwhile has allied herself with Alcott in the hope that she’ll save her from a Fate Worse Than Death at the hands of Grear. When Lucian (the sadistic female prison guard played with relish by Kathryn Loder) goes too far an escape plot is hatched. There are also a couple of sleazy guys who deliver food to the gaol and bring treats to the prisoners in exchange for being allowed to feel them up. The sleaze factor in this movie is quite remarkably high really. These two bozos get caught up in the escape attempt.
The acting in general is perfect for the type of movie it is, with Roberta Collins and Kathryn Loder being especially over-the-top, while Christiane Schmidtmer as the very strange prison governor is also fun. It’s all very camp, fast-paced and very violent and If you like WiP movies you’ll certainly enjoy this one.