Color, 1971, 93 mins.

Directed by Jack Hill

Starring Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Pam Grier, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell, Sid Haig, Christiane Schmidtmer, Katheryn Loder, Jerry Frank / Music by Les Baxter & Hall Daniels / Written by Don Spencer / Cinematography by Fred Conde

Shout Factory (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), New Horizons (US R1 NTSC)

The first and one of the best. If you've ever suffered through those cruddy women in prison movies Cinemax used to show in the middle of the night on the weekends, here's a rare example of how it should be done (Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat is another).

The plot couldn't be more simple: a group of women in prison, led by the resourceful Collier (top-billed Judy Brown), plan an escape. Inside snitch 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 (Kathryn Lodern, 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 poolboy 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).

The New Horizons DVD follows 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. Big Doll House was shot on less than optimum materials in the Philippines, thanks to the producer wishes of Filipino scholock experts Eddie Romero and John Ashley (Mad Doctor of Blood Island), so this edition is about as good as it's going to look. Sound quality is fine if a bit ragged in spots due to the recording techniques, and the disc is well compressed and contains no noticeable artifacts. This print contains the irritating dubbed-in final line used on reissue prints and all other video versions. Also includes the original trailer and the usual New Horizons coming attractions assortment (Big Bad Mama, Eat My Dust,, etc.), as well as the usual PR materials about how Roger Corman is such a great guy (but why does his picture have to be on the spine label of every title?).

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