The Big Bird Cage/Women’s Penitentiary II (1972) ***½
Having turned a tidy profit on Women in Cages and a tidier profit still on The Big Doll House, Roger Corman swiftly put Jane Shaffer and Jack Hill, the producer and director of the latter film, to work preparing a follow-up. While not a sequel in the strict sense, The Big Bird Cage would reunite most of the cast of The Big Doll House, and return them to the picturesque (and dirt-cheap) Philippine shooting locations that served as the setting for the earlier picture. The Big Bird Cage also reprised its predecessor’s sometimes jarring combination of quirky humor and unrepentant sleaze. If you don’t take it too seriously and can handle a few sudden 180-degree mood swings, it’s one of the most entertaining and certainly best-made women’s prison movies of the 1970’s.
American actress Terry Rich (Anitra Ford, from Invasion of the Bee Girls and Messiah of Evil) is simultaneously among the most sought-after and despised women in Filipino high society. She’s conducted affairs with just about every man in the upper echelons of government— all the way up to the prime minister himself— but her flagrantly indiscreet antics seem finally to have become more embarrassing than the authorities can afford. Luckily for them, an excuse to get Terry out of the way for a long, long time is about to present itself. Terry escorts her latest VIP stud-muffin to a nightclub where the evening’s entertainment is provided by a vaguely funky band, and in the middle of the performance, the feisty and voluptuous lead singer (Pam Grier, from Sheba Baby and The Twilight People) gets into a shouting match with her guitar player (Sig Haig, from Coffy and House of 1000 Corpses). The singer then gets physical, seizing her bandmate’s instrument, and smashing it on the nearest table. That’s when things get really interesting. There’s a submachine gun inside the guitar’s hollow body, and the singer brandishes it at the crowd while the guitarist produces an enormous revolver from somewhere inside his voluminous pants and a horde of armed men rush in from every door in the place. Turns out the musicians are really the notorious revolutionaries, Django and Blossom; their guerilla band is low on money, and who better to appropriate funds from than the clientele of a night spot frequented by agents of the corrupt government they seek to bring down? While the guerillas make their escape with all the cash and jewelry they can carry, Django takes notice of Terry, grabs her around the waist, and slings her over his shoulder on his way out the door. The rest of the gang drive off without their leader in their haste to get away, however, and Django is forced to hijack a passing taxi. As they speed away down the winding, narrow road, Terry asks Django what he and his revolutionaries want with her. Django says he intends to rape her, prompting this astonishing reply: “Oh, you must be kidding! You can’t rape me— I like sex!” What did I say about unrepentant sleaze? Shortly thereafter, the police trap Django by blocking both ends of a bridge as he drives across it, but the revolutionary slips away by leaping into the river. Incredibly, the cops then arrest Terry as one of Django’s accomplices! Her subsequent protests that she had in fact been kidnapped are insufficient counterweight to the attraction of a convenient pretext upon which to put an end to the constant scandals which Terry generates, and she is packed off to a hard-labor prison camp in the jungle without even a pause to stand trial.
The camp where Terry is incarcerated— at which she arrives on the same boat as a visibly unbalanced woman named Rina (Marissa Delgado, of Bamboo Gods and Iron Men), to whose protection Terry will devote much of her energy in the weeks to come— is primarily a plantation for coconuts and sugarcane, dominated by the decidedly makeshift-looking grinding mill at its center. This strange contraption is the “Big Bird Cage” of the title, brainchild of the deranged Warden Zappa (Andres Centenera, from Brides of Blood and Beast of the Yellow Night). Not only is the mill the economic cornerstone of the camp, producing the granulated sugar whereby the inmates earn the bulk of their keep, it also pulls double duty as the ultimate instrument of camp discipline; so unsafe is it to work in that a prolonged assignment to the mill’s interior is tantamount to a death sentence. Meanwhile, the inmates have all the usual women’s-prison-movie problems to contend with. There’s Bull Jones (Teda Bracci, from Human Experiments and The Centerfold Girls), the tough-talking, beat-down-distributing mistress of all she surveys from her bunk in the cabin where Terry will be living for the foreseeable future. There’s Karen the predatory lesbian (Karen McKevic)— who honestly isn’t all that predatory in the grand scheme of things— and her queer-bating nemesis, Mickie (Carol Speed, of Abby and Avenging Disco Godfather); neither is particularly dangerous in and of herself, but becoming a collateral casualty of their ongoing feud is a very real possibility. There are Rocco (Vic Diaz, from Moro Witch Doctor and Vampire Hookers) and Moreno (Subas Herrero, of Savage Sisters and Enter the Ninja), the requisite sadistic, homosexual guards— although in an unexpected inversion of the formula, these two are male queers rather than the usual bull-dykes. There’s Warden Zappa’s rather scummy practice of employing his inmates as an escort service for the VIPs who occasionally stop in to look over the prison (although, since this is the early 70’s we’re talking about, this duty is seen by the inmates themselves as a boon rather than an onus, and competition is stiff among the prisoners for these all-too-infrequent opportunities to get laid). And, of course, there’s that whole “hard labor under hazardous conditions, with delusionally steep productivity quotas” thing. So basically, it’s a good time all around.
Meanwhile, Django has made his way back to his army’s hidden headquarters. After a brief slap-fight in a mudhole with Blossom, Django retires with his lady-love to their hut for some heavy-duty make-up sex. As they watch their leaders’ home shake, rattle, and roll, some of the other revolutionaries have a brilliant idea— if their movement had more women like Blossom in its orbit, they would have the ultimate recruiting tool on their hands, and could substantially hasten the arrival of the day when they all stop dicking around in the jungle and march on the capital instead. Thus is born a demented scheme to liberate the prisoners at the work camp to which Terry has been confined by getting Blossom locked up there herself. Then, while Blossom establishes herself as the new boss behind the barbed wire— a process which naturally involves lots and lots of rice-paddy catfights— Django himself infiltrates the prison by trimming his unkempt bandit’s facial hair into a huge, faggy mustache and coming on to Rocco so hard that he is able to get himself hired as a camp guard. And in case you couldn’t have guessed, that guitar he brings with him when he assumes his new post under the name “Sam S. Smith” (undoubtedly the most lispable name ever devised by man) happens to have Blossom’s trusty submachine gun hidden inside it. Now all Django and Blossom need is an excuse to start a riot; I’m sure Warden Zappa will be happy to oblige.
I think the strongest testament to Jack Hill’s ability as a director is that The Big Bird Cage’s lunatic mixture of humor and depravity actually works the way it was intended to more often than not. For much of its length, The Big Bird Cage is one of the most light-hearted women’s prison movies I’ve ever seen, and the operative theory for all of its participants appears to have been something on the order of “it’s all in good fun,” no matter what depths of filth the subject matter might plumb. Even when the film uses the gang-rape of the heroine almost solely in order to set up a gay joke which would have been in startlingly poor taste to begin with, The Big Bird Cage somehow manages not to seem truly, seriously offensive. Perhaps part of the reason why is that the story here exhibits an unusual fidelity to the maxim that turnabout is fair play, as when Carla (Candice Roman, from The Unholy Rollers and The Manson Massacre)— who has spent the entire movie bitching more vehemently than anyone about her sexual frustration— leads her fellow inmates in gang-raping Rocco the head guard while they wait for the signal to begin the prison break in earnest. (And I can say with some certainty that I’ve absolutely never seen that in a women’s prison flick before.) But mostly I think it’s just that The Big Bird Cage goes so far out of its way to be as sleazy as possible at every turn that only the most determinedly humorless audience could take it at all seriously, or even hang on long to the idea that they were ever meant to. This makes the extraordinarily downbeat climax something of a slap in the face, as the movie suddenly grows teeth and begins killing off characters left and right whom the audience has grown to like over the course of the preceding hour and a quarter. You might almost look at that ending as a throwback to the square-up reels of the 1930’s, which enabled filmmakers to show much more than the censors would normally allow by emphasizing— in theory, at least— the bad end to which a life of vice and sin inevitably leads. Needless to say, seeing such a thing in a film from the 1970’s is curious indeed.
The remarkable effectiveness of that sharp turn for the nasty also plays up what might be the most shocking thing about The Big Bird Cage. It has in all probability the strongest cast ever assembled for a movie of its type. Sid Haig, Pam Grier, Anitra Ford, Carol Speed, and Vic Diaz between them give the film a degree of heart and soul which one almost never sees in a sexploitation movie, and even the relatively minor players— Marissa Delgado, Karen McKevic, and Candice Roman especially— turn in performances to be proud of despite their stereotyped and underwritten roles. When an actor can find a spark of genuine humanity in a character who is both a by-the-numbers 70’s B-movie fairy and one of the bad guys, you know you’re in the presence of real talent! Apart from Grier and Haig, none of The Big Bird Cage’s cast members are terribly well remembered today, but damn it, they should be.