……. or so the jail cell wall in Jack Hill’s 1971 romp The Big Doll’s House tells us.
My Jack Hill experiences so far have been pleasurable without being taxing. His films drip with subtext but can be watched with no real mental investment, if that happens to be the mood you’re in. IMDb have his directorial career starting with an uncredited stint on Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman which is a minor Corman but interesting nevertheless. He works with Corman again on The Terror and co-directs a series of low budget horror flicks before finally going it alone on the deliciously titled Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, a film I sourced and watched online recently. you can see it here. Check it out, it’s great.
The flick opens with the soulful tones of Pam Grier singing the distinctive title track, a tune that will later feature in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown . This is Griers first significant feature role and it’s easy to see why she went on to make many flicks with Hill. Her powerful female aura and considerably marketable physical form make Grier the perfect poster girl for the blaxploitation genre.
Back to the flick……
We immediately find ourselves the throes of incarceration. A new, and strangely attractive inmate, is given the obligatory “search”. The nature of the search gives us crucial information as to how this joint is run. Think Japanese POW camp with a dusting of Nazism (The guards have German accents and stormtrooper uniforms) topped off with a garnish of sado-masochism. After being examined, our female protagonist is bundled into a beautifully lit jail cell with 6 equally good looking inmates. This is no Prisoner – Cell Block H….
What unfolds is an often unexplained sequence of events that have no real connection but get us to where we need to be for the violent climax. We have 2 delivery men who come in and out of the story. They have the obvious male intentions considering they deliver goods to a prison full of women, all of whom have been starved of “company” for what seems like an age. There’s a great scene where Alcot (AKA the blonde one) corners one of the hapless duo in a store room and demands he carry out his manly duty at the point of a knife. The strong female is the staple ingredient of Hill’s pictures and this flick is rammed with them.
In addition to the delivery guy strand we have inmates being tortured in a medieval looking chamber for the pettiest of misdemeanours whilst being watched by a strange hooded figure. We have alliances and friendships being broken and rekindled at breakneck speed for no apparent reason. We have a great fight between Grier and Alcott that very conveniently winds up taking place in a pit full of mud. We have a flimsy romantic sub plot between the newly recruited doctor and the prison boss. And that’s not to mention the heroin addicted inmate who adds an air of real menace to the proceedings. It a sweaty, steamy, self consiously angry flick.
Then there are guns…… Lots of guns
The film can be picked apart and the nuances of social commentary drawn out and examined. I much prefer to just go along for the ride with these pictures. Jack Hill’s films contain little in terms of emotional richness but that does not diminish their capability to entertain and despite their grindhouse aesthetic and themes, you do find yourself looking for something beyond the scratchy facade.