Color, 1971, 93m.
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Pam Grier, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell, Sid Haig, Christiane Schmidtmer, Katheryn Loder, Jerry Frank

Color, 1971, 78m.
Directed by Gerardo de Leon
Starring Pam Grier, Jennifer Gan, Judith Brown, Roberta Collins, Bernard Bodine

Color, 1972, 88m.
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Anitra Ford, Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Candice Roman, Teda Bracci, Carol Speed, Vic Diaz
Shout Factory (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), New Horizons (US R1 NTSC)

Though its roots go all the way back to the '50s, the beloved women-in-prison film didn't really kick into high gear until the late '60s and early '70s as relaxed censorship allowed filmmakers to flood drive-in screens with female shower scenes, female catfights, and female riots, usually with a cast of struggling B-movie actresses shipped out to the Philippines for a convincingly gritty (and affordable) setting. One of the first and best of these is 1971's The Big Doll House, a signature film from veteran exploitation director Jack Hill (who had already worked with producer Roger Corman on several films and directed the now-recognized cult classic, Spider Baby).

The plot couldn't be simpler: a group of women in prison, led by the resourceful Collier (top-billed Judy Brown), plans an escape. A snitch named Grear (Pam Grier in her first speaking film role) slips information back and forth to the guards and the evil warden, Ms. Dietrich (a hilarious Christiane Schmidtmer, best remembered for The Giant Spider Invasion), in order to get smack for her lesbian lover cellmate. Guards torment and molest prisoners. Prisoners get naked (though not as much as you'd expect for this genre). One evil head guard, Lucian (Loder, the quasi-Bette Davis villainess from Foxy Brown) tortures bad girls by tying them to tables and hanging snakes over them. With the aid of guard Sid Haig, the girls eventually the girls stage a big, violent breakout which claims a few lives and leads to a riotous, over the top sequence in the middle of the jungle.

Fast paced and surprisingly well acted, The Big Doll House takes itself more seriously than its semi-sequel, The Big Bird Cage, and delivers all the usual thrills you would expect, though a few witty lines and some hysterical monologues (the one about the husband and the pool boy is priceless) indicate the filmmakers already knew how to keep their tongues firmly in cheek. As if that weren't enough, you also get a theme song, "Long Time Woman," performed by Pam Grier herself (and later reused in Jackie Brown).

New Horizons released the film first on DVD following several other video incarnations, including with a passable release from Embassy and a miserable one under the title Women's Penitentiary (which spawned a slew of other retitled women-in-prison films). The New Horizons version is presented open matte, giving characters way too much headroom in many shots but otherwise a nice presentation. It also retains the annoying final line of offscreen dialogue dubbed in for reissue prints and retained on all home video versions; it's a stupid, reactionary bit of tampering that most viewers will hopefully ignore.

Released later the same year, Women in Cages is much grimier and nastier, probably thanks to the touch of director Gerardo de Leon who cut his teeth on some of the previous decade's trashiest Filipino films like Mad Doctor of Blood Island. This time an innocent woman named �Jeff� (Gan) gets sent off to the slammer thanks to her two-timing drug pusher boyfriend, and there she and the inmates are subjected to the abuse of a cruel warden, Alabama (Grier again), who thinks of her prisoners as sexual playthings. Judy Brown and Roberta Collins from the prior film return here as inmates as well, and as you can imagine, it isn't long before a breakout is planned with the girls pursued through the sweaty jungle.

Though nowhere near Jack Hill's films in terms of technical proficiency, Women in Cages has a trashy allure that's kept it widely available on video since the '80s. Even if the film were terrible (which it isn't), the novelty of Grier as an evil warden with a full-on torture chamber would be enough to enshrine this one permanently in the drive-in hall of fame; on top of that you get pages of memorably bitter dialogue, plentiful voyeuristic nudity, and a reasonably satisfying finale for our major characters. The Shout Factory reissue also uses this film's title as its main banner, which should give an indication of how it still sums up the entire philosophy of this subgenre in three little words

Last up in this three-film set is another Hill/Corman collaboration, the more cartoonish follow-up The Big Bird Cage. This time Anitra Ford (Messiah of Evil and future regular on The Price Is Right) is the sweet young thing sent behind bars, this time to a jungle hellhole where the female prisoners are forced to work in the title structure, a bamboo sugar mill/sweat shop. Possible salvation lies nearby with a pair of revolutionary lovers, Blossom (Grier) and Django (Haig), who are looking for a few good women to help fill out their army.

Though containing the requisite helpings of skin and sadism necessary for the box office, The Big Bird Cage may be the goofiest example of its type until the women-in-prison template went into full-on parody mode in the '80s. As usual, Grier and Haig make a terrific team together, and Ford looks great and serves as one of Corman's most appealing heroines from this period. Hill's script doesn't really have the same narrative urgency of his previous film, which makes the random detours and overall frothiness of the construction perhaps weirder than connoisseurs may have come to expect; however, if you want to see someone do a different spin on WIP films in their early days, this should do the trick.

All three films are presented in new 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers and look considerably better than the flat versions released earlier from Corman's New Horizons label; in particular, Women in Cages looks the most improved, which is especially important considering how much of it takes place at night with stylized lighting. The corrected framing also balances out many shots that looked awkward and stagebound before, especially in Doll House with its abundance of carefully lit interior shots. The mono audio for each film sounds faithful to the limitations of the source material. The film are available as a two-disc set on DVD or a subsequent Blu-Ray version, with the features split the same way on both. Disc one includes The Big Doll House by itself with a wealth of extras including the trailer, teaser, and radio spot, along with a Jack Hill commentary track. As with his past efforts like Spider Baby, he's full of stories about all of the cast members and goes into great detail about his extended working relationships with Corman and Grier; in fact, he worked again with Grier and propelled her to drive-in immortality with Coffy and Foxy Brown. Also included is a new video documentary about the making of the two Hill titles, "From Manila with Love," featuring interviews with Hill, Corman, Haig, Brown, Ford, Collins, Candice Roman, Tada Bracci, producer Jane Schaffer, and screenwriter Jeames Gordon White. It's a solid and entertaining piece about a particularly wild and fearless time in exploitation cinema and would go well as a double feature with the recommended documentary, Machete Maidens Unleashed! Disc two features the other two films; Women in Cages has a trailer and TV spot, while The Big Bird Cage gets the same along with an additional Hill commentary in which he essentially picks up where he left off on the first film and talks about reuniting with many of the same cast and crew members while pushing the material to more cartoonish levels. On Blu-Ray, the increase in resolution is also a surprisingly strong factor with the films actually seeming more slick and carefully shot than one might have previously imagined; in particular, The Big Doll House is eye candy of the first order and features terrific detail with beautifully saturated colors. (Click on any of the images here for a look at them in full 1080.) A superlative release all around.

Reviewed on 9/20/11.