The Big Doll House was not only a big success for New World Pictures, it was also a crucial film for Jack Hill. It opened up the 1970’s leg of his career, making him a go-to guy for smart exploitation flicks that delivered the goods with style and wit. When it was time to make a Big Doll House follow-up, it was only natural that producer Roger Corman would turn to Hill. Hill took the challenge on and the result was The Big Bird Cage, a smart and colorful piece of work that solidified his 1970’s style.
The plot for The Big Bird Cage is much more ambitious than its predecessor. Our main identification figure here is Terry (Anitra Ford), a sarcastically funny party girl who finds herself in prison after allowing herself to get caught up in a nightclub robbery masterminded by self-styled revolutionaries Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig). This prison doubles as a sugar cane plantation and Terry and the other inmates are ruthlessly worked by its warden and guards to keep its “bird cage” – a monstrous cane-pressing machine – going all the time.
Terry is immediately challenged by the other inmates – including the mouthy but diminuitive Mickie (Carol Speed) and the brash, self-styled leader Bull (Teda Bracci) – but she wins them over with her cynical wit and defiant attitude. While Terry tries to figure a way out of prison, the revolutionaries decide they need some new numbers to flesh out their ranks and figure a jailbreak at the prison is the way to do it. Blossom allows herself to be imprisoned and Django gets a gig as a guard – he has to pretend to be gay because the warden only hires gay men to work around the women. Terry recognizes Blossom but keeps her mouth shut and they join forces for a fiery breakout.
If The Big Doll House set down the rudiments of the 1970’s Jack Hill style – tough and cool female protagonists, feminist & revolutionary themes, skillful action scenes, a little sex, offbeat humor – then The Big Bird Cage solidifies that style and presents in a bolder, more confident manner. Hill’s script has an ambitious scale to its ensemble and incidents but it never loses focus: instead, he drives all the elements home with a smart blend of drama, cheap thrills and humor.
The humor element is really pronounced, particularly in the non-p.c. but entertaining subplot where Django must camp it up to fit in with the guards. There’s also a focus on wild and outlandish elements that raise the stakes on the film’s pulpy quality – the “Bird Cage” structure, the idea of women’s prison run by gay male guards and the presence of an Amazonian, super-strong prisoner (unforgettably played by uber-statuesque model Karen McKevic). That said, Hill maintains a careful balance between the outré edges of the material and his themes and characterizations, never letting one side overwhelm the other.
Hill also gets fantastic performances from his cast: Ford’s sexy, confident work as the heroine instantly ingratiates her with the viewer, as does Grier’s fiery turn as her revolutionary counterpart. Speed is funny as a prisoner whose mouth writes checks her body can’t cash and Bracci plays her role with the brassiness of a low-budget Bette Midler. Haig steals several scenes in the latter part of the film when he has to impersonate a gay guard and he makes a strong action hero, to boot. Equally worthy of mention is Filipino flick regular Vic Diaz, who is a campy delight as the queenly head guard (his ultimate fate is also a moment for the exploitation-flick record books).
Finally, Hill’s direction seals the deal with his signature combo of craft and controlled energy. It moves at a snappy pace without ever seeming rushed and he takes advantage of the Philippines locales to give it an impressive scope (Corman obviously gave him a bigger budget and he uses it well, particularly during the riot finale). Whether he’s dealing with a moment of drama, action or comedy, he gives a subtle but sure-handed touch and the end result moves like a smoothly-oiled machine.
In short, The Big Bird Cage is one the best and most flamboyant women-in-prison films to emerge from the genre’s fertile 1970’s period – and another great Jack Hill film for exploitation flick collectors. Needless to say, it’s required viewing for all schlock fiends.