It’s funny to think that Pam Grier’s presence is the key organizing principle behind Shout! Factory’s “The Woman in Cages” triple feature. Though producer Roger Corman writes in the DVD’s supplementary booklet that Women in Cages, his first film to capitalize on Big Doll House‘s success, was a buddy film of sorts, nothing could be further from the truth. Grier is often the most unique member of Corman’s ensemble casts, but all three films in this collection emphasize people as parts of a group and not as individuals. Corman’s filmmakers substituted individual character-defining traits with stereotypes, like the weak-willed exotic Filipina, the junkie and the mouthy pervert, so as to better give Corman’s ideal, easily-distracted the illusion of variety. Grier was just the memorable cherry on all three films’ tops.
Still, if you do watch Big Doll House, Women in Cages, and The Big Bird Cage all in a row, Grier does catch your eye, probably because she’s the most arresting performer in all three films. In Big Doll House, she even comes off as more dangerous than the girl that rapes a horny deliveryman at knifepoint. Grier doesn’t deliver especially memorable line-readings, but she has genuine presence in Doll House. When she pulls co-star Sid Haig’s eager hand between the bars of her cell and fills it with her crotch, you believe him when he yelps, “Like a vice!” She even gives a kick to otherwise tacky lines like when she exclaims, in a Scarlet O’Hara-esque denunciation of all heterosexual sex as rape, that all men are evil: “I’m not going to let a man’s filthy hands touch me again.”
In Women in Cages, Grier plays a prison warden with an equal level of ferocity. Though she growls at one inmate who’s on her way to pray in the prison rectory, “You better be careful, God’s punishment may be worse than mine,” her character unfortunately only comes to life at film’s end, when she becomes more than just a stick-figure oppressor.
In these final scenes, she, like almost all of the not-so-empowered women in Corman’s softcore fantasies, reveals that she has a latent fear of being raped. We’re now meant to think that, throughout the film, she’s been punishing the women in her prison as an epic act of denial: She will not be violated again. In one fateful scene, she breaks down just before the prison’s white protagonists are about to shoot her: “Why not? A white man raped me, a white bitch can kill me.” Grier doesn’t get to play the badass she deserves to here, but in Women in Cages‘s final moments, she comes close. At the very least, one can’t help but cheer at her triumphal line delivery when, after a prisoner asks her what kind of hell she crawled out of, she spits back, “It’s called Harlem, baby!”
Grier also steals the show in The Big Bird Cage, Corman’s version of a blockbuster and hence the most famous of the three collected films. As a pair of revolutionaries that unsuccessfully try to stage a prison break, she and Haig are given more screen time than either of them got in Big Doll House. But still, The Big Bird Cage is essentially an ensemble piece. In fact, Corman’s more-is-more philosophy almost overstuffs the film with everything he knew his viewers wanted. It has more nip slips, more shower scenes, and more mud-wrestling than was crammed into both Women in Cages and Big Doll House combined.
And yet, in spite of the bevy of partially naked flesh on display in the film, Grier’s epidermis is the only skin you really want to see. The way she effortlessly carries herself makes her standout in a parade of faceless sexpots. You want to want Grier and that’s what makes her a star and not just another attractive body.
Shout! Factory's has done a commendable job of restoring the picture quality of all three films featured in this collection. The transfers are clean, with grain largely unobtrusive. The monaural soundtracks are another story: There's audible white-noise feedback in the background of The Big Bird Cage's soundtrack, and Big Doll House's soundtrack periodically cuts out entirely whenever there's no audible dialogue or music.
The most engaging and consistently entertaining extras are director Jack Hill's audio commentary tracks for Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. Hill's acerbic sense of humor and tendency to only speak when he has something to say makes for a great supplement to his films. The only other note-worthy special feature in the set is a mediocre behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. Skip that and just listen to Hill's winningly cantankerous stories.
Pam Grier can do anything, even make cheesy skin flicks worth seeing.