Friday, January 30, 2009

The Big Bird Cage (1972) review


Anitra Ford (Terry), Pam Grier (Blossom), Sid Haig (Django), Teda Bracci (Bull), Candice Roman (Carla), Carol Speed (Mickie), Marissa Delgado (Rina), Vic Diaz (Rocco)

Written & Directed by Jack Hill

After being seen with wanted revolutionaries, Terry Rich, a Lady of the Evening closely associated with notable foreign dignitaries, is arrested and placed in a brutal women's prison somewhere in the Philippines. Riling the other women to break out of the jungle hellhole, Terry and the revolutionaries prepare for an attack to escape the savage penitentiary and get revenge on the vicious warden Zappa.

Fresh off the success of the biggest moneymaking independent film up to that time, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1972), Jack Hill returns with this quasi serious spoof of the genre. Reuniting with his two favorite actors, Pam Grier and Sid Haig, Hill began work on this rambunctious and offensive follow up to his prior hit. Shooting on locations that would later be blown to smithereens by Francis Ford Coppola on APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), director Jack Hill gets a lot of mileage out of some startlingly beautiful jungle scenery.

Jack Hill was a gifted director who was a master at delivering a superior product with absolutely zero fat on his films. Left to his own devices, Hill knew what the audience wanted and gave it to them in droves. His films were laced with extreme violence, abundant nudity and action aplenty. THE BIG BIRD CAGE is no exception. He also wrote the scripts for a number of his films including this one.

Hill was also obliging to his actors to play around with their characters improvising dialog if they felt something else was a better exchange. A lot of the sharp witted ripostes and other lines of dialog were ad libbed on set for THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). One of the funniest, and most controversial, is featured below--

"What do you want me for?"

"I'm gonna rape you, what the hell you think I want?"

Terry: "Oh, bologna, I don't believe it. can't rape me, I like sex."

Women's groups took offense to the line delivered by the sulty Anitra Ford indicating that being raped wasn't much of a threat, nor much of a bother to her. However, later in the film, she is raped by a group of horny men in a small restaurant in the jungle after she has made a stealthy, but brief escape from the prison. Sex plays a big part in this movie.

Given that the brutality of rape is a mainstay of the WIP (Women In Prison) genre, there's a multitude of sexual shenanigans on display here. The bulk of the cast are sex starved individuals and that goes for the other characters who aren't in the prison. The characters of Blossom and Django (Grier & Haig), in between their proclamations of an unspecified revolution, engage in constant trysts.

One scene has the pair square off in a fight that ends with both in a pigs mud hole. Turned on, they retire to their hut while Django's lustful followers hanker for love outside. They look over at their own women, all old and unattractive, then look back at the hut and admire what Django is enjoying at that moment, "Blossom...what a woman..."

One of the female prisoners, Carla, played by the beautiful Candice Roman, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown if she doesn't get some lovin' from the male persuasion. During one scene wherein a prisoner returns from a rendezvous with the warden, Carla tries desperately to get the girl to reveal specifics of her encounter. When she isn't obliging, Carla becomes incensed shouting that she hasn't any right to keep details away from interested parties. She then says, "Doesn't anybody have a dirty joke?!"

Another sexual plot point prevalent in these movies is lesbianism. While it is talked about, this film has a heavier accent towards male homosexuality. Hill has always been as politically incorrect as he possibly could in his films, and here, he went all out. In addition to a number of racist remarks, he pokes a lot of fun at gays in THE BIG BIRD CAGE. The two main male guards are both lovers and provide a good deal of comic relief. Rocco gets the most screen time. Played by perennial Filipino bad guy favorite, Vic Diaz, Rocco is one of the most memorable characters in the movie. According to Hill, Diaz was hesitant to take on this role as he was uncomfortable at first about playing such a character.

In what would have to be a screen first, the most unforgettable moment (among so many noteworthy moments) occurs during the finale when the revolutionaries have begun their assault. Django entrusts the girls with keeping Rocco quiet. The sex starved Carla has other ideas, though. The women hold him down while Carla does her thing to get Rocco's member to stand at attention. While the other anxious women look on, Rocco begins to scream like a little schoolgirl. To shut him up, Bull (Teda Bracci) then proceeds to sit on his face!

As Carla is coming to orgasm, the battle has begun outside starting with the explosion of a water tower resulting in Carla to satisfactorily announce, "Geez, I never had one like that before..." The girls exit and leave Rocco tied to the floor where he is later assaulted in a far more violent manner by a group of insane women he kept locked up inside a bamboo cage. Amazingly, the movie became a cult item with the gay community, despite Hill's continuously over the top jabs at homosexuals throughout the picture.

Hill was forced by the MPAA to remove some frames from the rape scene perpetrated on Rocco by the libidinous women. Frames of Candice Roman mounting Vic Diaz and moving up and down were removed to avoid an 'X' rating. Even still, Hill states that he went back and put some of them back in. The scene is absolutely hilarious and the closest comparison is a certain outlandish death scene featured in the cult favorite, ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHIEKS (1976), directed by another great exploitation director, Don Edmonds.

Anitra Ford was a fashion model and also a 'Price Is Right' model in addition to becoming an art photographer some time after. She appeared as the lead villainess in INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973) during her brief stint as an exploitation starlet. It's a shame she didn't have a longer career in sleaze cinema as she was a decent enough actress and looked good in her roles. She also has some television credits among her resume.

Pam Grier, of course, needs no introduction to cult film fans. Having appeared in virtually every genre of cinema, she will forever be associated with two roles that made her synonymous in blaxploitation cinema with roles built around strong women characters-- COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974). Grier also appeared in horror films (THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM), fantasy films (THE ARENA) and science fiction movies (CLASS OF 1999).

Curiously, the majority of BIG BIRD CAGE's female cast didn't go on to to feature in similar, or bigger productions. Carol Speed, who nearly steals the show as Mickie, the loud mouthed inmate that constantly berates and taunts the giraffe like stature of fellow prisoner, Karen (played with a degree of silent menace by model, Karen McKevic), seems to have had the longest career outside of Pam Grier and Anitra Ford. Speed ended up in the starring role as ABBY (1974) among some other blaxploitation and television credits. The natural beauty of Candice Roman, who shines as the sexually famished Carla, seemed to disappear from film entirely after the close of 1972.

Jack Hill tells some humorous stories about this films production on the disc commentary track. One funny story has to do with how Hill came to name Sid Haig's character of the revolutionary leader, Django. Both Hill and Haig had beards during the filming and Hill heard some of the Spanish speaking locals saying the word "Choongo", when he and Haig were out together. Thinking it sounded a lot like "Django", Hill called Sid's character Django in the script. Only later on did the director discover the word is Spanish for "Monkey", and that the name was insulting to the Filipino's.

Another outlandish story concerns the search for suitable locations. Jack Hill and his producer were on the lookout for appropriate jungle settings when they found a hut out in the middle of nowhere. Upon entering the seemingly abandoned hovel, the two found famed screen tough guy, William Smith (!) lying on a bed. The awakening Smith thought he was dreaming after seeing Hill (whom he knew) out there in the jungle. Smith was in the Philippines shooting a film as well, but what was the likelihood of running into a friend out in the middle of the filipino tropical forests?

Jack Hill's dad designed the Big Bird Cage of the title and built it to last. During the fiery finale, a scene required that the torturous contraption was to collapse and crush the evil warden Zappa. Assured that attached cables would successfully pull down the 'Big Bird Cage', Jack Hill had to come up with an alternate method for the constructions destruction when the huge apparatus proved difficult to tear down. Jack Hill's dad was also responsible for the Walt Disney castle as well as several of the theme park rides.

Director Hill was obviously a fan of Italian westerns given the name of Haig's character. Hill also integrates some dialog exchanges from Italian oaters as well. The line heard at the end regarding Django being up in the mountains after his death was borrowed from VIVA, SABATA! (1970). Jack Hill also had an idea for a sequel called THE PIRATE WOMEN OF ZAMU WENGA. The sequel never went past the idea stage and Jack Hill went on to make the seminal blaxploitation classic, COFFY (1976) instead.

THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) amazingly wasn't the success of its predecessor, but over the years, it seems to be the most well remembered in cult film circles. It's one of my favorite movies and offers near endless entertainment value and some great, if sometimes offensive dialog. If you are a fan of Jack Hill's other cinematic offerings, then this 'Women In Prison' adventure is worth multiple visits.

This review is representative of the New Concorde DVD (OOP).

The Casino (1972) review


Yueh Hua (Luo Tian Guang), Lily Ho (Miss Cui), Chin Feng (Lun Liu), Shek Kin (Hao Li Shan), Chiang Nan (Zhao Fu), Fan Mei Sheng (Captain Fan Shu Hu), Ma Jian Tang (Ju Hsiao San), Tang Di (Superintendent Ma Bao), Wu Ma (Hsiao Wang), Bruce Liang (Thug)

Directed by Tsang Tseng Chai

***WARNING! This review contains pics of nudity & graphic violence***

Luo Tian Guang, betrothed from childhood to the beautiful Miss Cui, finds her running a casino and introduces himself in a rather brazen fashion by nearly bankrupting the house. The two soon marry and Luo learns from longtime friend, Lun Liu that there are other gamblers in town and that he should try his luck with them. After humiliating the conman, Hao Li Shan, as well as one of his cronies, a plan is initiated by the devious gambling crooks and the corrupt authorities in town to get rid of Luo and his wife.

Director Tsang fashions an interesting film about a young man who is poor, but is promised to the daughter of a military General. Both of their families ran casinos and when he finds his lovely bride-to-be, she is still running the family business. What follows is a kung fu film with a gambling hall backdrop. This sets up the story and ultimately foreshadows the typical Shaw Brothers tragic ending that is closely associated with their style of cinema.

Tsang Tseng Chai must have enjoyed the gambling action scenario, because he revisited it in at least two other Shaw films, QUEEN HUSTLER and THE GAMBLING SYNDICATE both 1975, both starring Danny Lee in the lead and both unreleased on DVD at this time.

Tsang also directed the action packed and bloody Spaghetti Eastern THE FUGITIVE (1972) which had an extremely high body count for a 76 minute film. THE CASINO (1972) is also 76 minutes and judging by the gory and hyper violent finale, you'd swear it was directed by Chang Cheh. Tsang Tseng Chai also employs some very nice, sweeping camera shots intermixed with extreme zoom ins and zoom outs that were also showcased in the lean and bloody THE FUGITIVE (1972). But unlike that film, the cinematographer here is future director, Hua Shan who would later go on to a career in action and exploitation movies himself.

Yueh Hua stars in this interesting basher mixing gambling and brutal martial arts sequences. Hua is crafty and sly as the righteous and smooth gambler, Luo Tian Guang. He's so clever and self assured that you know he's bound to end up badly at some point or other. After he's framed, tortured and just barely saved from execution, he heals his wounds, and in the finale, goes after the nasty thugs instigating a vicious slaughter that sees Luo take an extreme amount of punishment. He's beaten, stabbed with bayonets and shot around a dozen times and still manages to take out a handful of guys before collapsing from his massive wounds.

Yueh Hua quickly became one of my favorite Shaw stars after seeing him as the arrogant, but patriotic scholar in the violent Chang Cheh Republican Era martial drama, THE IRON BODYGUARD (1973). From thereafter I looked forward to anything else the man featured in. His prolific and varied resume includes such classics as COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), DRAGON SWAMP (1969), THE WATER MARGIN (1972), PURSUIT (1972), THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), THE BIG HOLDUP (1975), KILLER CLANS (1976) and LEGEND OF THE BAT (1977).

He also appeared in a fair number of exploitation movies such as THE SEXY KILLER (1976) and its sequel THE LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977), THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978) and HELL HAS NO BOUNDARY (1982). Hua is also quite memorable as the kung fu master seen throughout MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE (1979). He parades around a town accompanied by boisterous musical cues professing to be the greatest fighter around. During the final scene of the film, his true character is revealed in what is one of the funniest scenes in that film.

Hua was proficient at tackling any genre and was one of the Shaw's most dramatic and reliable actors. He may not have been as nimble and flexible as some of Shaw's other performers, but like David Chiang, swordplay films suited his stature more so than kung fu actioners. But even here, Hua handles himself ably letting his acting and ferocious enthusiasm mask any deficiencies his screen fighting skill may have.

Hua's character is so self-assertive, his doom is foreshadowed early on. This is really hammered home when Luo duels in a gambling match with Hao Li Shan who has cheated Luo's friend, Lun Liu as well as a number of other individuals. When Hao is unsuccessful in besting Luo, he sends one of his top conmen, Ju Hsiao San to beat him, but he, too, is easily revealed at being a cheat. Ju attacks Luo with a small knife but Luo takes it from him and slashes his wrist as well as breaking his other arm to make sure he doesn't cheat anyone again.

At that time, Captain Fan raids Luo's home and incarcerates him. Luo is able to escape the grasp of the corrupt police this time in a rather humorous fashion guilefully utilizing a play on words. Another plan is devised to get rid of Luo. This time the villains pay off Mrs. Cui's long time servant, Zhao Fu, who has secretly lusted after her for years. He also covets the casino for himself in addition to Luo's wife. This is where the violence escalates resulting in the shocking murder of Mrs. Cui. This incident causes Superintendent Ma and his crooked followers to frame Luo for his wife's murder. It is here that Luo no longer remains a cool and suave individual.

It is here the director fumbles the ball a bit. There are numerous occasions where characters could have been built a little more, but Tsang is more content with focusing more attention on the scheming, conniving villains. While not necessarily a bad thing for an action film, THE CASINO (1972) has potential for so much more and seems content for minimal characterization in favor of building to its creatively gory climax.

Tsang allows the blood to flow freely throughout, but by the end, the film turns into a bloodbath of Chang Cheh proportions. The manic violence by which the hero takes out the bad guys, as well as the amount of punishment he absorbs before finally succumbing to blood loss and bullet wounds, is an attempt to surpass the level of gore in Chang Cheh's actioners of the time. Lily Ho doesn't escape the film unscathed, either.

Even though this beautiful actress is given very little to do aside from looking pretty, she handles her small number of scenes admirably. Lily Ho especially shines in the suspenseful opener in which it seems a brawl will break out after Luo manages to beat the dealer of the table every time as well as improving the courage of other table participants to lay their money down. Miss Cui steps in determined to stop Luo's lucky streak, but she, too, is beaten. Only upon revealing who he is does the scene settle down to room temperature.

Lily Ho (ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS) gets to brawl in one sequence and it's quite shocking. She's wiping the floor with the villains when she suddenly takes a knife in the back. Another guy rushes up behind her and breaks a huge jar over her head! Director Tsang more or less uses the shocking scenes of violence to propel his story, as opposed to letting his characters do it.

While it's still a good, compelling production, the film has potential to be far more than a bloody revenge thriller. Director Tsang even indulges in some exploitation shenanigans just before the big finish as a scene cuts away to a close up shot of a busty Chinese hooker having her top removed by the shady Superintendent. The camera lingers on the woman's bountiful assets just before Luo arrives to spoil the scene.

Actor Shek Kin will always be remembered most famously for featuring as Bruce Lee's nemesis in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), but he is also memorable as the devilish looking Hao Li Shan who is the catalyst by which the all the tragic events fall onto the hero, Luo Tian Guang. Although he exits the film a bit quickly during the bloody free-for-all finale, his villainous looks provide a striking contrast to the other performers and his rough features ensured him a long career as a heavy. He also appeared as one of the bad guys in Tsang Tseng Chai's violent spaghetti Eastern, THE FUGITIVE (1972).

In addition to Hua Shan as one of the two cinematographers, there's also Wu Yu Shen (John Woo) as an assistant director. Liang Shao Sung handles the choreography and he also created the action for the ambitious blockbuster, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) as well as the gun-fu action of THE FUGITIVE (1972) and the KING BOXER (1972) clone, THE THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972).

In addition to these, Liang also spearheaded the action of the Wu Xia films LADY OF STEEL (1970), THE LADY HERMIT (1971), THE LONG CHASE (1972) and the somewhat bland TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972). He is also the father of future indy star Bruce Liang Siu Lung who has a brief role here as a thug that gets killed by Yueh Hua during the finale. He appeared as the main villain in KUNG FU HUSTLE (2005).

An interesting cast as well as an enticing pedigree behind the camera enlightens this unexpectedly violent gambling/kung fu hybrid; surely one of the first of its kind that would pave the way for the gambling dramas, comedies and action films that followed. THE CASINO (1972) just barely misses classic status and has enough surprising moments and good performances to warrant a view. It will be of particular interest to those who like their action films done in a tragic fashion which more often than not exemplified the Shaw House Style.

Those that like there bashers with a lot of blood and gore will surely get a kick out of the finale as well as several other gruesome moments. If you lean more towards the later, more stylistically choreographed films post '76, you probably will find little of interest here aside from the few bloody outbursts mentioned above. For all others, it's an obscure film that is well worth seeking out and one I'm glad I added to my collection.

This review is representative of the HK region 3 DVD from IVL.
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