Friday, September 24, 2010

"I'm A Long Time Woman and I'm Serving My Time"

We have Roger Corman to thank for a lot more than I feel comfortable thanking him for considering how much shit he's produced over the years. I guess I can't blame him, he was only ever trying to make a buck, though his directorial skills were at their best pretty excellent. But the shear number of genres and careers the man made commonplace is staggering. We have him to thank for the biker movie, the psychedelic drug movie and the women in prison film as you or I know it. Sure he didn't invent them, they go back to the 30s and matured in the 50s before festering and dying off, but he brought them back to life with a vengeance. Corman was famous for basically taking elements no one had played with and mixing them or modernizing them. He would later become famous for slipping in rip-offs before the things he was stealing from had made it to theatres. I think he probably loved gangster films from the 40s and 50s because so much of what came out of American International Pictures and New World Pictures were just rehashes of some of the most beloved crime films of all time. And if he didn't then his many proteges certainly did and the WIP films are proof positive of Corman and Co's genius with efficient moviemaking. When he got into business with Filipino filmmaker Eddie Romero in the late 60s he quickly learned a few things that would save him quite a bit of money in the early 70s. Firstly: working in the Philippines was dirt cheap and came with all the crew and extras you could ever ask for. Ferninand Marcos was still a few years away from declaring marshall law but anyone willing to torch the constitution to stay in power was probably pretty receptive to some Americans coming in and paying them a tiny dividend to make movies there. The country was still a shambles and didn't have the moral high ground to wonder whether Roger Corman was maybe exploiting their workforce. After all Marcos was definitely exploiting them and at least winding up in one of New World Pictures' women in prison films meant that you might have a chance to be noticed outside of the country. Secondly: you only needed a few new ideas stapled to a few well-worn ones to make a film people would pay to see. So with a script containing elements from movies like So Young, So Bad and Women's Prison and a cast of mostly unknowns including Corman's secretary Pam Grier, AIP wunderkind Jack Hill was sent to the Philippines to work with his old friend Eddie Romero (they'd collaborated on The Snake People and a few other unseen trifles) and produce what would turn out to be one of the single most important grindhouse films of the 70s.

The Big Doll House
by Jack Hill
In one of my favourite openings to any film, Marnie Collier is sent straight from the courthouse to a horrid Filipino prison while a song called "Long Time Woman" plays over the credits. Proving that she really must have dug her heels into Corman (thank heavens for that, by the way), the woman singing is none other than Pam Grier. Collier doesn't go into the specifics of her crime with the prison doctor Philips but suffice it to say the trial was fake. After meeting the bitchy wardress Lucian she's put in her cell which she shares with five other girls. There's Grear (now that's screenwriting), the only black girl in the prison, Alcott the feisty blonde, Bodine the revolutionary, Ferina the local girl with the pet cat and Harrad the drug addict and Grear's bitch. The following morning they attend the funeral of O'Connor, the girl who's bed Collier's now sleeping in and Alcott tries to tell the prison head, Miss Dietrich, that she wasn't killed trying to escape, which is the accepted story. Unfortunately she makes this complaint in front of the wardress which lands her in a world of hurt. Dietrich hears her out in private a little later on, but between you and me I don't think that's going to do much. The only people who can do anything to stop the brutal reign of the wardress are all sitting behind bars.
And while that's going on we get a chance to meet the only other guys in the movie. Fred and Harry are the supply guys and although Fred's new and seems ok, Harry is played by Sid Haig, who would play this kind of dirtbag for most of the 70s, so you know what that means. Risible doesn't even begin to describe the sex jokes he makes. When they pass through the cell selling fruit (after bribing Leyte the shift commander) Harry loves every second of attention he gets from the sex-starved female prisoners. He has a particular hold over Grear; he convinces her to let him feel her up for what feels like hours in exchange for a letter that isn't even for her. The letter, from Bodine's revolutionary boyfriend, is discovered during fieldwork and Bodine winds up in the torture chamber later that day where Lucian subjects her to waterboarding and naked whipping while hanging by her arms all while the mysterious Prison Official General Mendoza watches from afar. The rest of the movie proceeds much like you'd expect it to: shower scene, attempted male rape, torture scene, mudfight, food fight, torture scene, and finally the girls in Collier's cell band together to escape right around the time that Dr. Philips gets it in his head that he's got to stop Lucian from torturing prisoners. Of course things don't quite as planned. Chief among those things: my really caring about the fate of these girls. I certainly didn't see that coming.
Even as I watched The Big Doll House and noted how poorly it was shot, how terrible the performances are, how cheap the sets look, how awful the dialogue can be and how it's essentially the epitome of misogyny, I found myself liking it more and more and by the end I was totally in love with this terrible little movie. I know exactly why: even in a film as tawdry as this I can't help but get behind a film that depicts women taking on men and coming out on top (and quite spectacularly I might add). My feminist side has to compete with my love of shitty movies and their completely undignified view of empowerment and with my admitted weakness to seeing women firing machine guns. It's not much but you have to take it where you can get it in a movie like this. Compare it to something like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and the victor is clear but I'd never try and add it to the curriculum of a women's studies class. At the same time if you don't have a sense of humour about the things you care about, you tend to be a big fucking bore. So while I get why it'll offend some people I'd defend its merits up and down the block because when you consider all the strikes against it, it still manages to get you excited for the conclusion. The Big Doll House was nakedly just another moneymaking venture but out of it came a film that almost transcends its trashy trappings. Consider this: a movie made by guys telling women to take their clothes off about women who take their clothes off to trick men into giving into their demands and the men both in and behind the movie were in thrall to the women. No women, no women in prison, right? So while it would have been more than easy to make, say, hardcore pornography, Hill and Corman built a movie around women who couldn't quite act and managed to sensationalize them to almost the point of folk heroes. It helps knowing that the Philippines were being run by a megalomaniac warmonger who winds up being the spiritual villain of the piece. Bodine's wish to get back to the revolution and her willingness to die for it was as close to a manifesto as that poor country got during Marcos' time as President; hardly the sort of thing you expect in a sexploitation film from the director of Spider Baby. And I don't know about the rest of you but the thing I remember most about The Big Doll House is Pat Woodell throwing off her shawl and, a grease-gun in each hand, going down in a hale of gunfire and a blaze of glory. It's not only one of my favourite conclusions to any movie ever but it's also brilliant because it's an empowering image that rose out of a film that should have nothing of the kind. It's terrible, yes, but I defy anyone not to love the shit out of this thing after the conclusion.
The Big Doll House was also the film that paved the way for Pam Grier to become the 70s black action star, eventually dwarfing the likes of Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson. She wasn't yet the Pam Grier everyone fell in love with but she has moments that hint at how great she'd become. Woodell and Roberta Collins' performances seem much better in hindsight and on second viewing, with the images from the film's climax in your head, you see them not as bit players given too much responsibility but as gun-toting ass-kickers to be. It helps too that Collins looks like a more alluring Nicole Kidman. Neither Jack Hill nor Roger Corman come off as good as the leads because while the performances can win you over, Hill's sweaty, grubby direction and Corman's calculating production never grow on you in the same way. The script is full of twists and turns that largely don't mean anything. The final one should be a kick in the stomach but considering what we've already seen it's just maddening, perfunctory and kinda disheartening. For the record I think the last lines were added in post when Hill couldn't think of a satisfactory way to end the movie. I still think the character they try to sell as a rat isn't one at all. At its best the movie comes across as a bargain basement version of The Guns of Navarone but most of the time it's exactly what it is: no good, just a lot of fun. Anyway it was fun enough to gross over 10 million dollars, which was 80 times its 125 thousand dollar budget. If that ain't success, I don't know what is. It led to something like six more Women In Prison films by New World Pictures with similar cast members, plot elements, and soundtrack cues (those delay-heavy conga drums would make an appearance in at least two more of these things). The movies would get better but they'd rarely feel as raw and reprehensible. Women In Cages, the movie that followed, was a less successful retread with a pointless criminal subplot that sucked the life out of the third act. The Big Bird Cage is a better movie but the conclusion isn't quite as powerful. The Arena makes the mistake of dubbing Pam Grier and Margret Markov and cuts their impact in half. The Woman Hunt is dull and lifeless even by Eddie Romero's standards. And so on and so on. The thing these mostly wanted for was Hill's flair for dialogue and his double edged view of women. Hill may have been a mediocre director but he had a way with making threats and swear words sound like they were lifted from the "I Have A Dream" speech. Doll House's successors and copycats rarely featured dialogue as good as "Action, big mouth!" and "You stupid bitch, do what you're told!" Out of context I realize how generic they sound, but they're hard to beat when you're watching Collins and Woodell barking them. The Big Doll House comes out swinging and pins you down until long after it's over.

No comments: