A semi follow-up to 1971’s forgettable, if dirtily delightful The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, from 1972, makes for an improvement of sorts, giving more screen time to blaxploitation staple Pam Grier and utilizing more of its tongue-in-cheek wiles than what was presented before. Written and directed by trash master Jack Hill, it is a women’s prison film bombastic in all the right places — exploitation doesn’t get any more indelible than this.
The film centers around Blossom and Django (Grier and Sig Haig), a revolutionary leading couple in the process of devising a complex plot to liberate the women of a jungle bound slammer. The plot thickens when lady of the night Terry (Anitra Ford) is brought into the mix — in the wrong place at the wrong time during a robbery at the hands of the duo, she is, against her will, brought back to the secluded prison. Her life goes from zero to sixty in a matter of minutes, as she is suddenly forced to endure a torrent of violent and sexual violations at nearly every waking moment.
The Big Bird Cage is as sleazy as one would expect; gratuitous nudity, sadistic wardens, gun battles, mud fights? All here. But that’s part of the fun. The movie acts as a sort of spoof of the seedy subgenre, and, for once, it seems in on the joke. The dialogue ranges from accidentally funny to downright offensive (“Half of you won’t get ten steps before you get a boobful of lead,” Blossom warns at one point; early in the film, Terry suggests that she cannot be raped because she likes sex too much), but Hill keeps the film lively enough for us to excuse instances that would now be Twitter controversies or headlines on the ever dramatic mic.com. We expect bad taste in exploitation, and we get it, purposefully, too.
The women are gorgeous and the scenery is chewed like steak — but Grier is The Big Bird Cage’s pinnacle, giving a performance so finely mean and loud that it acts as both an adrenaline shot and an introduction to the blaxploitation type she would play for the next few years of her career (Coffy’s release was only a few months into the future, also directed by the arguably talented Hill). Forty-some years later, the film’s flamboyantly poorly mannered tone still proves to be entertaining.
And so The Big Bird Cage is an exploitation classic. But like all exploitation classics, you probably won’t be watching it again unless you can’t get your fixings elsewhere. It isn’t fine filmmaking, no, but it’s impossible to resist pre-Coffy/Foxy/Sheba/Friday/Jackie Grier or peak-form Hill. B