8 October 2003 | El-Stumpo
Early Pam Grier jungle sleazefest
American B-film companies found in the Philippines a cheap, plentiful supply of labour and locations for their tropical drive-in sleazefests. Admittedly these exploitation films are an acquired taste and a dubious form of entertainment; however they mark an important cultural milestone as the first features where a black actress, even playing a prison moll or topless revolutionary, is given a lead role of any substance. Director Jack Hill started the eightball rolling when he shot The Big Doll House in 1971, set in a nameless Latin American prison but filmed in the Filipino jungle. Unseen in Australia since the early 70s, the film featured a mixed cast of local and American exploitation regulars, but it's remembered as the first high-profile role for the later Queen of Blaxploitation, Pam Grier.
Legend has it that Sam Arkoff, head of American International Pictures saw a statuesque Grier at his company switchboard and cast her on the spot for her breakthrough hit Coffy. That, as they say, is bull shee-it. The former beauty queen made her film debut in 1970 as an extra in Russ Meyer's big breast bonanza Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, and appeared in a number of B-pics shot in the Philippines the following year for AiP's rival company, Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Alongside her role as the tough-as-nails prostitute in Big Doll House were supports in the horror flick The Twilight People and as a topless hooker (again!) in Cool Breeze, then back behind bars for Women In Cages.
In Women In Cages, Grier plays the sadistic warden for once, a pot-smoking lesbian with a fully-equipped torture chamber (including a guillotine!). The 'New Fish' (a recent inmate, for you prison film novices), a ditzy blonde ex-stripper called Alabama, has taken the heroin possession rap for her pimp boyfriend. She knows too much, so the pimp blackmails her cellmates to execute her. A competent and well-shot entry in the tropical prison genre from Filipino director Gerry De Leon, it places the embittered ex-addict and prostitute Grier in the position of slave owner, watching her white charges toiling away in the plantation with obvious ironic glee.