Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cannibals: Dark and Masculine

Cannibal movies took their time getting started. Zombie movies went from interesting to unstoppable from 1966-1970. After The Man From Deep River got the ball rolling, the response was slow, but it was a wholly new kind of film so a sequel (or endorsed and endowed rip-off) was never far away. The people at the burgeoning production house Erre Cinematograsica saw a window and approached Umberto Lenzi to do a sequel of sorts to his film. He wanted more money (suffering from a bout of 'Serious Artist') than they could or wanted to pay him so he walked off. Ruggero Deodato, who’d made a string of decent films in the preceding 10 years, gladly stepped up, perhaps seeing a true test of his skills; he’d studied under famed Neo-Realist director Roberto Rossellini for a few years and was dying to prove that he wasn’t just anybody.

Jungle Holocaust
by Ruggero Deodato
Rolf, Robert and Swan are three field workers for an oil company, sent to check out a claim made by a team somewhere in the Philippines. Together with their hard-drinking pilot Charlie, they land their plane near the campsite of the claim team but soon discover that they’ve got bigger problems than moving pipeline to the middle of the jungle – the whole team is missing and probably dead. Were it not for the impending darkness, they’d pack up and leave now, but Charlie isn’t so good a pilot as to be able to navigate the jungle in his Cessna in pitch darkness so they hole up in the plane and wait for daylight. Swan goes outside in the middle of the night to pee (Deodato already proving he’s smarter than the average director by giving a legit reason for the only female in the party to split up from the group for a few seconds) and is abducted by the creepy tribesmen who’ve been leering at them from the shadows since they arrived.

Charlie, Rolf, and Robert agree to wait until morning to look for her (I won’t say that’s totally grounded and progressive, but, I guess I wouldn’t want to go out in the middle of the night with abductors about either; another point for Deodato) and suffice it to say their findings are less than thrilling. Charlie is killed in a booby-trap and soon after Robert and Rolf find the tribe munching on what looks to be Swan’s charred remains. Robert and Rolf - lost, hungry and tired – find a river that they think will lead them back to the plane. Rapids cut their triumphant escape (and their raft) in half sending Rolf downstream faster than his companion can save him. The bit where Robert looks around at the vast jungle realizing he's completely lost and alone is pretty excellent. The tribe finds him hours later.

If you’ve seen Man From Deep River, act 2 is going to seem familiar, yet much more intense and believable. First is the ‘prod-the-white-man’ scene where they try to figure out exactly what the hell Robert is. First they tie him up, strip him naked, and yank at his privates for what seems like hours (oh I should mention that everyone is either nude or nearly nude in the big cannibal cave) Robert explains in voice-over that they probably think he can fly just before they string him up with a complicated pulley system and drop him from great heights and watch him bounce. They then put him in a cage, throw scraps of food at him after they butcher animals in front of him (Deodato says he didn’t want to add scenes of animals killing each other, yet, I can’t help but notice that the film’s most disgusting scene is one clearly shot with all the actors in place, not edited in like most of the animal kingdom snuff footage. I’ll come back to this). His only respite is the cute native girl who seems to like touching him through the bars of his cage. Anyway, after Robert sees his captors remove the hawk they used as bait from the stomach of an crocodile he fears it won’t be long till they’re pulling him out of the belly of a croc. Unlike The Man from Deep River, Robert’s solitude is palpable and his escape is independent of anyone else. He plays dead during a big festival so when some kids come looking to hurl scraps at him, they have to go in his cage to do so; he brains them both and makes a run for it. When he sees a burly guy trying to rape the cute native girl, he kills him too and takes the cute girl with him into the jungle.
Robert and the cute girl slog through the jungle for days. She tries to escape more than once until he tires of her resistance and rapes her. Well apparently that got through to her because the next morning she’s prepared a breakfast for him and they seem to get along ok now (if this is a comment on western ideas of masculinity, point taken. If this is the producer’s idea of truth, I piss on your grave. This is Italy in the 1970s, so…Christ knows). They take off and later that day they actually have a near-fatal run-in with Rolf of all people who Robert mistakes for a cannibal and nearly kills. The two white men have changed a lot since their forced separation; Rolf has a nasty-looking knee wound and he can’t walk without a stick to help him and Robert seems to be going nuts, talking to himself and looking quite the worse for having been stuck in a cage without water for a number of days. They agree to get the hell back to the plane before the cannibals catch up to them and from the looks of things, the group isn’t but a little bit behind them, and the plane is at least a day's walk away.

Jungle Holocaust comes close to being a great film a few times. Its production design is terrific especially considering what appears to a modest budget. The cave that act 2 takes place in is put to excellent use and the performances by the natives are excellent (in that they are perfect depictions of what the west might expect to find in a cave in the Philippines, if that makes sense). The leads are all pretty excellent. Ivan Rassimov does a pretty excellent job as not only just a supporting player but a good guy (one of the few likeable characters in his vast canon). Me Me Lai actually does some acting this time around and even when she's just looking all puppy-eyed while given an editing-only handjob with her shirt off (it's off the whole film, those fans of Me Me Lai). Despite her being something for guys to look at, she's still great and she wouldn't be as good again until Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime, her last role. Massimo Foschi plays Rolf with about as much gravity as any Italian lead has ever mustered. He does a tremendous job wearing his degradation and torment on his face and he and Rassimov both undergo believable physical transformations from clean-cut oilmen to unshaven survivalists. Also the fact that Foschi, like all the natives, spends all of act 2 with no clothing is actually a great idea and added to the oppressive atmosphere. That's really where the film and Deodato succeed: atmosphere. Aside from its antecessor, Cannibal Holocaust, and Salò, Jungle Holocaust may be the best atmospheric Italian film of its time. This may owe its existence to Man From Deep River but Jungle Holocaust is clearly the superior film. The only problem is that it went too far in the opposite direction with its native treatment.

The film was originally called The Last Cannibal World which does account for its mix reverence and brutality; Jungle Holocaust was a name tacked onto it in the wake of the success of Deodato's next film. While it does feel like it was probably the most realistic Italian horror film to date it’s not without flaws. The first, as I said, is the treatment that the natives get. Now it’s entirely possible that Deodato was light-years ahead of his peers and that he was simply playing into popular notions of the third world in his direction but it's also possible he was just a much better director and no different morally from anyone else. It's in places like the flying scene where the question mark appears. While it is undoubtedly an interesting idea and it’s done surprisingly well, it doesn’t really make any sense. Ok, let’s assume the natives think he can fly because they saw him land in the plane, why didn’t they try to make Swan fly? And why do they feel the need to repeat something they perfected themselves? They made that pulley system, after all. And why did they make the pulley system? And where is it suspended from? It’s just a creepy distraction more than anything because it falls apart under scrutiny. And then there’s the animal killing. Now Deodato maintains that the animal killings were the idea of the producer, something they added after shooting was done. This makes sense in a few scenes (Robert looks out his cage in pitch darkness, sees a snake eating an iguana in daylight in a different film stock) but the croc death…that was quite obviously Deodato’s. It’s in the cave set with the actors actually doing the butchering (this scene was nearly impossible to watch because I discovered how much crocodiles look like family dogs) and the falcon they pull from its stomach is either the real bird or a look-alike prop; in other words Deodato’s doing. This puts him in T.F. Mou, Franco Prosperi territory, which is dangerous territory indeed (and before you go siding with him, he went full fucking tilt two years later, so it’s not like he was conned or browbeaten; if anything he was just testing the waters).
Take live animal killing, unnecessarily complicated westernized brutality by natives who actually kill, cook, and eat animals, a rape scene that counts as courtship and the fact that only white people have happy endings and you have a film not so progressive as all that. It is a remarkably atmospheric, nasty and harrowing film with great acting and terrific direction that made way for Ruggero Deodato to step up and take his “most intense director who ever lived” crown and for Umberto Lenzi to take his “biggest pissant behind a camera” crown. If you plan on seeing Lenzi’s Eaten Alive (which I can’t recommend at all, not even as Lenzi’s worst film, because it’s not, but it provides nothing in the way of even reverse entertainment) see this first because that film steals from this one in a big, stupidly cheap and lazy, spoiler-alert, ruins-the-end-of-the-movie kind of way. In fact, just don’t see Eaten Alive. Tune in next time to find out why.

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