Marnie Collier (Judy Brown) is admitted to a South American women's prison to see out her sentence for murder. She has earned a ninety-nine year stay inside, and is subjected to a humiliating search practically the minute she enters through the gates. Soon she is in her cell, which she is sharing with a number of other women; one of them, Alcott (Roberta Collins) introduces herself and her cellmates, who include lesbian Grear (Pam Grier) and the woman nobody messes with, Bodine (Pat Woodell). Collier seems to get a friendly enough welcome, but that night most of the women gang up on her, making accusations of being a spy until Bodine calls them off. Soon Collier is thinking of what the others are thinking: escape...
The Big Doll House has a small place in exploitation cinema history as it was the one whose success sparked off the women in prison cycle of the nineteen-seventies. There had been women in prison movies before, of course, and films such as Caged, which starred Eleanor Parker in the fifties, had a cult following, but with this effort the floodgates were opened and a rash of these were released to drive-ins throughout the decade and beyond. Written by Don Spencer (not the Australian bloke with the guitar from Play School... nah, don't think so), it also heralded the first teaming of director Jack Hill with star Grier.
The staples of the genre are already in place here: tough dialogue that constantly verges on camp, and at times tips right over into camp, a prison that doesn't feature anyone under the age of thirty-five or so, torture courtesy of the sadistic warden (here Kathryn Loder as Lucian, a sort of angry Barbara Steele looky-likey), and, of course, a shower scene. Only with this, there's a certain coyness about nudity, so you're only treated to glimpses of the cast unclothed, and at other times they will be filmed through, say, a steamed up window.
Another Jack Hill stalwart appearing is the all too familiar face of Sid Haig, here not only not entirely bald, but also playing local vendor Harry, who has a double act with Fred (Jerry Frank). They will be important parts of the escape attempt, they just don't know it, being overawed by the proximity of all those women. Meanwhile, Lucian takes Bodine to her torture chamber to glean information about Bodine's revolutionary boyfriend, where they are watched over by a mysterious, masked figure - could this be the General everyone's talking about?
Ah, that would be telling. As everyone in Collier's cell is now in on the proposed break out, you'd expect them to go ahead with their schemes right away, but it actually takes ages for the plan to be implemented, and along the way there's a spot of mud wrestling and a food fight to keep things happening. At times, you don't know exactly how silly this is supposed to be, and the whole film has a tone of naivety in spite of its run of sex and violence (with drug addiction thrown in for good measure). I guess it's OK to laugh, especially at the ending which renders the whole "get out of prison" plot entirely useless with an obviously dubbed later final line - what a waste of time! The other reaction would be to take it seriously, which just doesn't seem appropriate somehow. Music by Hall Daniels, including a title song performed by Grier herself.
[The Big Doll House has recently be re-released in the Roger Corman Early Films Collection. This features a 1.33 transfer along with Leonard Maltin interviewing Roger Corman, trailers and biographies.]