Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted August 24, 2006
In the early seventies, Roger Corman grew tired of making biker gang movies and figured that shooting women in prison films in the Philippines could allow him to make films even cheaper, would offer better weather, more exotic locations, and a cast and crew willing to work for peanuts in the hope of making it big in the international market.
And after he hired a young U of C film student named Jack Hill (a classmate of Francis Ford Coppola), and local Filipino directors Eddie Romero and Gerry de Leon to work for American International pictures, Corman wouldn’t even have to do any work to reap the rewards!
Corman’s plan (which they now call “offshoring”) was fucking brilliant, and his thinking was that if US prisons were bad, those in the Philippines must be truly shocking and sickening in the treatment of their inmates. True, grindhouse patrons were used to dark lighting in their exploitation (which could handily disguise a threadbare set or suggest more action than was really occurring) but Corman’s Philippino films were fucking expansive by contrast, with fantastic tropical backgrounds, native actors, realistic settings, and the brilliant light of the Philippines shining down on it all. And stunts? Not a problem. As Jack Hill once told Fangoria magazine, “If they want to have a man on fire, they just set a guy on fire who’ll try and jump into the water as quick as he can.”
It was an idea too good to fail. Within 300 days in a money-making flood of exploitation excellence, Corman had 4 of these Filipino funkpies made — which are some of the most entertaining WIP (women in prison) features to ever be made by an American production company.
THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971)
Quentin Tarantino once deemed Jack Hill “the Howard Hawks of exploitation,” citing the legendary director’s ability to work in seemingly any genre and deliver a mind-boggling wad of entertainment each time. Jack is in my top 5 favourite directors of all time, and it’s because of films like this which just effortlessly bring joy — and not just because of all the skin and sleaze either — his films have a nuanced brilliance about them.
Some of the skin in question belonged to soon-to-be WIP queen Roberta Collins, here in her rookie performance. She’d later go on to appear in no less than three other classic WIP flicks, but here she plays Alcott, one of the prisoners Judith Brown meets after she’s taken to the prison in a large, obviously handmade, bamboo cage mounted on the back of a pickup truck, which is inventive, if absurd.
But it’s Blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier (in her first speaking film role) who clearly rules the roost as she sings the powerful title song, “Long-time Woman,” (later reused in JACKIE BROWN) and portrays a tough lesbian prostitute who despises men. (“You’re rotten, Harry. You know why? ‘Cause you’re a man. All men are filthy.”)
Brooke Mills plays a redhead junkie cellmate, who, in middle of the night suddenly gets up and tries to set our new fish on fire. When Judith objects to being set alight, the rest of the girls attack her and put her head down the toilet while accusing her of being a spy. Who they think she’s spying for is never explained, but at this point, she’s gotta be wondering what sort of fucking insane asylum this is. Jack Hill regular Sid Haig heightens the weirdness playing a horny goof who brings the prisoners food and other treats for cash and the promise of unloading some nutglue.
Head guard, Lucian (Katheryn Loder) is eerily scrawny with her toothpick arms and exists mostly to chain and torture and the prisoners with snakes and whips. Oh, and to wear short skirts. All of the stern powerful female guards wear these really short, tight skirts, brown knee-high socks, heels, cute little hats, and carry submachine guns. It’s quite an impressive display, actually. My boner approves.
Hill lensed this fast paced exploitation quickie for $125,000, which was quickly released in the U.S. along with Filipino director Gerardo de Leon’s WOMEN IN CAGES — both speedily earning back their paltry initial investments many times over for Corman’s New World Pictures company.
Problems with the censor board for a film like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE were to be expected, but it reportedly shocked even the hardened Corman when he sat down to watch the dailies, with scenes such as a body cavity search, heroin injection, and male rape (“Get it up or I’ll CUT it off!!”). Despite this, the film has a wonderful campiness that never seems too heavy — making it a perfect movie to put on at a party. The previously widely available (but now O.O.P.) DVD release is sadly not letterboxed, but still worth hunting for.
WOMEN IN CAGES (1971)
Wow, look at this cast and crew… I can only assume that this and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE were filmed back to back, being as the only difference is that Gerry de Leon nestles his bumcheeks into the directors chair this time out. Pam Grier takes off the inmate gown and sinks her teeth into the role of the evil Prison guard “Alabama”, Judy Brown is no longer the New Fish (instead playing a more seasoned inmate) and Roberta Collins by contrast now plays the role of the edgy junkie. The only new player in this one is Jennifer Gan whose only other important credit was as Marlene in NAKED ANGELS (1969).
Grier’s sadistic warden is an embittered ex-crack whore, who is now a pot-smoking lesbian with a fully-equipped medieval torture chamber (including a guillotine! Wow!) and the film places her black ass in the position of slave owner, gleefully watching over her “white bitches” toiling away in the plantation under a scorching jungle sun.
Two of the prisoners attract her attention, hot-blooded redhead Gan, and “Sandy”, a even redder-headed redhead played by Judy Brown. The two girls don’t get along, and Pam utilises her own distinct form of justice (“Send them to the playroom!”) when they get into a knife fight.
Now let me describe this torture scene, because it’s outrageous. First Brown is stripped naked, and has her bound arms pulled high over her head. She’s then locked into some iron boots welded to the dungeon’s floor, which are then slowly cranked to spread her legs apart…. and that’s not even the the torture part yet! Alabama then advances with a glowing hot brazier toward Sandy’s exposed honey pot. Yowza! While my description of this scene sounds grim and you’d expect De Leon to play it for obvious shock effect, there is a funny, campy taste to this and all the violence in the film.
Meanwhile, the girls wanna escape from workin’ dem cane fields, but Alabama keeps a group of sweaty Filipino banditos on retainer, and sends them out to round up any girls that think they can make a run for it… the thing is, she pays the same whether the prisoner comes back dead or alive, raped or un-raped. I guess don’t need to tell you how the various escape attempts play out, do I?
Despite this, after Roberta Collins is tortured via being strapped naked to a giant spinning wheel and stabbed with a giant four pronged trident (!?!), our girls eventually figure it’s time to hatch an escape plan and get while the gettin’s good. This is a really fucking fun movie, and Alabama’s wild comeuppance while tied to a giant rock and spouting racial politics (“A white man raped me, a white bitch can kill me!”) is one of the most entertaining scenes of Grier’s career.
THE HOT BOX (1972 aka “The Hell Cats”)
This has the honour of being the first film to combine the nurse and WIP picture formulas, although it’s one of the less remembered films from either genre. One would think the film would get some sort of revival since Jonathan Demme was co-writer & 2nd unit director, but it remains quite hard to find.
Director Joe Viola and Demme had already worked for Corman on the low-budget biker film ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME, and here give us four deliberately vacant American Peace Corps nurses (played by Margaret Markov and three nobodies) kidnapped by “The People’s Army”, which is just another name for “ragtag bundle of greasy drunks and lechers in some generic banana republic.” The girls are forced to spend most of their incarceration topless, and slowly become politicised gun-toting radicals once they are shown the obvious parallels between the corrupt local government and the Nixon administration.
Sufficiently convinced of their righteousness in the cause of fighting a bloody battle on the revolutionaries’ side, the air heads unleash all hell on those who would stand in their way. Their ‘enlightenment’ remains a perfunctory foible of the plot, but whatever… did I mention that the nurses take their shirts off a lot? (Bra? What’s a bra?). This is a hell of a lot of fun, actually, especially watching the film churn out its heart warming liberal propaganda while blatantly exploiting female flesh and glorifying violence. Somebody put this out on DVD yesterday, please.
THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972)
Once again Jack pulls out all the stops as writer and director in the film with the poster tagline: “Women so hot with desire they melt the chains that enslave them!” Our heroine, Terry (Anitra Ford, who was a prize showgirl on THE PRICE IS RIGHT, and here makes her film debut), is an actress who is boinking the Prime Minister of some shitty little jungle-infested country, and the two go clubbing where the on-stage music is being provided by Pam Grier and Sid Haig!
They’re lounge singers?! Fuck no! Grier and Haig are dime-store revolutionaries named Blossom and Django who whip out weapons, and proceed to rob the patrons to finance la revolucion. Django has the brilliant idea of snatching Terry for ransom (because “she has class”) but he escape goes sour when the cops move in — police who immediately blame the robbery on the one person they manage to catch: Poor “classy” Terry!
Thus Anitra finds herself in a rustic jungle prison overseen by Warden Zappa, a villain so evil, the first act we see him commit is the kicking of a puppy while screaming, “No fighting! No fornication! Work, work! Punishment, punishment!” Oddly enough, all his female inmates are in the age range of 17 — 23, with a dress code comprised of cut-offs and bra-less tank tops.
The Big Bird Cage itself, a three-story sugar mill/torture rack in the center of the compound, (the massive structure was designed by Hill’s father, a man of considerable talent who also designed the Disneyland castle!) is so unsafe that working inside it with it’s enormous crushing gears is actually used as a severe punishment for back-talkers. Don’cha just love the names for place of punishment in these movies? The Playpen, The Oven, The Bird Cage, The Madhouse, The Hotbox, The Meat Locker, The Sauna, The Hole? Awesome.
Anyway, there is plenty of of full-frontal nudity (“My God! She’s all covered with chicken fat!”), and the movie strives to inject parody-based humour in and amongst the violence and gratuitous skin. It’s a true tribute to Hill’s ability that it actually manages to succeed most of the time.
I don’t want to blab too much more about this one — since it’s best enjoyed with a fairly empty slate — except to say that the film is littered with exploitation greats, such as foxy Marissa Delgado, funky Carol Speed, Vic Diaz (the Peter Lore of the Philippines!), and of course, the aforementioned Ford, Grier and Haig — who steals all his scenes in typical Haig-ian fashion.
Also take note that at the beginning of the film, when Anitra is taken to the prison by boat, the cove that she’s dropped off at is the same one that was subsequently used for the Kurtz compound in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). The DVD has Hill commentary, is full frame, and is sadly out of print.
BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973)
Despite widespread belief in movie geek circles, this AIP release was not, in fact, produced by Roger Corman — even though American International Pictures followed his formula flawlessly. Corman, after a long association with the company angrily cut ties and started a rival production company called New World after AIP president Jim Nicholson re-edited 4 of his movies without permission.
But AIP continued to flourish without Corman’s input, and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA — with director Eddie Romero and a story again supplied by Jonathan Demme who would make his own WIP feature, CAGED HEAT two years later — marks blaxploitation giant Pam Grier’s first appearance in one of their films, who had actually once been a telephone switchboard operator for the company. Here, Grier is a soul sistah in for prostitution while her white-as-driven-snow counterpart (Margret Markov, in her best ever role) is a Patty Hearst-style political revolutionary.
Markov is our new fish, and obviously the first thing a new fish would do behind bars is git nekkid and hit the communal showers, which you would expect to be a uncomfortable and sombre event — but here it’s a time for fun and giggles, and evil lesbian guard Densmore (Lynn Borden) masturbates as she spies on the giggling soaped-up prisoners in the buff.
Densmore instantly takes a shine to Pam, and summons her after lights-out for some sweaty rug munching. Pam refuses and looks to be facing the wrong end of a severe beating, but eventually she and Markov are sent to “The Oven”, which is a large metal closet in the middle of a field, just small enough for two prisoners to stand back to back. In the searing tropical heat the walls get red hot, and the two naked hotties (heh, get it?) must struggle to avoid touching them (burnt nipples, yo) while withstanding the soaring temperatures.
The early ’70s street-talk, the willingness of the stars to expose sweater puppies, and the smooth, easy bloodshed puts this clearly into exploitation territory, and when the two escape — shackled together at the wrist — this suddenly becomes a violent remake of 1958’s THE DEFIANT ONES! Yay!
Reprising the Sidney Poutier and Tony Curtis roles, the study into race relations is unfortunately forgotten, and instead there is a focus on class war as Grier’s impoverished hooker constantly bickers with Markov’s revolutionary rich girl. Chained together, the two make their way through a dangerous jungle to a camp packed with colourful revolutionaries and drug smugglers — characters who guarantee a violent close to the picture.
The sly chemistry between the two sexy co-stars propels the film’s kinky hijinks, (such as the zany scene depicting the two on the run in nun’s habits) and while this was the role that convinced Grier to turn to acting as a career (she went on to cult stardom and eventual pop-culture icon status) Markov, amid NO acclaim, sadly dropped out of the movie business in the mid-seventies. It’s a shame, because she was pretty fuckin’ cool.