Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cannibals: Madcap and Sexy

Let it be said that Joe D’Amato was no slouch. Sure, the director of Anthropophagous and Ator: The Flying Eagle was…well, special. He treated moviemaking like a business in the same way that William Beaudine and Jesús Franco did, but Joe had his own style of factory filmmaking and the one thing that carried over from one film to the next: craziness. Franco’s films were batshit crazy, but, in a more aimless, “Were these people aware that an audience would see this?” kind of way. Joe’s was a cinematic craziness: he got that people would see the end product so he filled his film with as many zany elements as possible. Death Smiles on a Murderer for example could have been any old Giallo but with Joe D’Amato at the helm it turned into a miasma of sexual violence and hairlighting. Almost immediately after Emmanuelle, France’s most infamous soft-core pornographic movie and its most profitable movie to date, debuted in Italy, Joe started making his own Italian Emanuelle films (how he avoided a lawsuit is beyond me), the first with Rosemarie Lindt in the title role but he soon switched to Laura Gemser. With Gemser in the lead, his series quickly became known as the Black Emanuelle movies. He was only four movies in when he or someone at Flora Film heard about Jungle Holocaust and some gears started turning. The result is the first film to out-and-out cash-in on the cannibal genre and pre-empt the cannibal rip-offs of the early 80s. Joe beat out Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi and Jesús Franco in the great Cannibal boom and his is easily the most fun and the easiest to watch of any of the cannibal movies I’ve seen so far.

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals
by Joe D’Amato

I’m pretty unfamiliar with the plot of the preceding black Emanuelle films but I think they would probably explain how she got to be a journalist. As a journalist of the investigative variety, she’s Shock Corridored herself into an insane asylum to expose the maltreatment of the patients. While playing crazy, she witnesses an attack by one of the patients on a nurse; she bites her nipple off. The girl was found on the banks of a river deep in some jungle. This gives our reporter an idea. She gets in touch with Professor Mark Lester, an anthropologist, who can help her get down the jungle to see just how that girl got to be a cannibal. Lester and some others are a little unclear about the status of the tribe; some believe they’re extinct, others say they’re still around. You and I have an edge on all the characters in this film because we knew going into the movie that it’s called Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. After Lester and Emanuelle have had sex, they head to the jungle.

In the encampment where they land, they exchange notes with Wilkes, a missionary who’d come down with his daughter Isabelle to help out. Emanuelle and Lester agree to take Isabelle and one of the nuns, Sister Angela, down to the mission further down river along with two native guides (after Isabelle spies on Mark and Emanuelle having sex in the middle of the night, of course). A few revelations await them down river like so many stock footage crocodiles. The mission appears to have been attacked and everyone – men, women, and children – slaughtered. They meet up with a hunter, Donald McKenzie, his wife Maggie, and their gorgeous, shirtless manservant Salvadore. Donald talks a big game and seems ok with the prospect of hunting the cannibals in lieu of having animals to hunt, but something seems off. That night when the gang beds down with the McKenzies, things start getting weird.

Maggie gets restless while sleeping and takes Salvadore into the jungle with her to screw while her husband spies on them. The next day one of the natives has been killed, his entrails taken, and all the boats are gone. The group doesn’t have much choice but to try and walk upstream to find help. Donald and Maggie start whispering sinister things to each other, which puts their motives even further into question. The other guide is killed by a booby-trap and that night Donald tries to feel Isabelle up while she sleeps. Mark would probably opt to leave the McKenzies behind if he weren’t so nice (he also loses the fistfight he starts after Isabelle screams bloody murder when she finds the old pervert standing over her). Sister Angela goes missing and presumably gets hers before the others can find her. The final day trekking we get the most amount of action we’ve seen so far: Donald and Maggie find a plane with stolen diamonds on board, the natives find them during their victory sex wounding Donald and abducting Maggie. The others give chase but Isabelle is soon in their clutches as well and it falls to Emanuelle to find a way to free her from the clutches of the bloodthirsty cannibals.
Before you say anything, yes, this was a porn movie and yes it was just as lousy as anything where its story and acting are concerned. The difference between this and say The Cheerleaders or Deep Throat is that the sex becomes secondary to D’Amato’s almost Agatha Christie-esque plotting. There are a lot more characters than actually get used for sex or that can be given dramatic death scenes (I was especially miffed about Salvadore's unceremonious treatment after his first tryst with Maggie) and the sex scenes that do get left in are actually fairly brief. And because it’s a porn film, the gore can’t be lingered over too long to gross out the raincoat crowds who would have been this movie’s target audience. So essentially you have a sex movie with not enough sex and a gore film with not enough gore. While that would certainly bother some sleaze hounds, I was actually pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t going into the film to look at Laura Gemser naked (her incredibly thin physique has always kept me from seeking out the other films in the series) nor was I looking to be bowled over by random acts of cruelty or particularly believable gore; I wanted something that walked the line. While Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals isn’t a great film or even a great example of either genre pie it had a finger in, it’s ten kinds of crazy fun.

Ordinarily on a film like this I pick a fight with waning morals, but I can find literally nothing to complain about here. Sure it’s very clearly a bad movie with terrible acting, no scruples and dubbing that seems to have been recorded off the fly (the dubbing actors all match the duration of time that someone’s mouth stays open when delivering their lines, regardless of how silly it sounds to preserve those silences. I can think of no other movie where this tactic is employed and I think I’d remember because the effect is like watching the whole cast do their best William Shatner impersonation) but its so kooky and engrossing that all of its faults just add to the goodtime. The whole film is tasteless, but harmlessly tasteless: no animals die, the sex is all tactful (the glaring exception being the ending ritual where Isabelle has about 30 men forced on her, on and off screen), the film is remarkably well edited and directed, and best of all there’s no bullshit commentary on modern life at closing time (actually the only attempt at moralizing we hear sounds a little like he was condemning Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. Emanuelle’s last lines could be read as reproaching those filmmakers who think they need to kill animals to make an effective movie, but that’s only if you’re feeling generous. Actually Emanuelle’s last lines are truly bizarre: she laments the people who just died for the sake of her article and I believe she says “And the McKenzies, with their shabbiness.” I may have misheard that, but isn’t that just the craziest bit of dubbing? That’s why I love this movie). Interestingly enough, Joe also beat his contemporaries to the starting-in-New-York plot point that would kick off just about every bad Italian cannibal, zombie, and alien film until 1983 when Escape From The Bronx erased New York’s allure to foreign filmmakers.

Despite the fact that I watch a lot of inexcusably misogynistic and reprehensible movies, finding ones that I enjoy is a rare thing indeed. It takes a rare kind of filth to leave me wanting a return trip. Mark of the Devil, Axe and Twins of Evil are all undeniably sleazy films but I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching them as opposed to movies of equal character like Bay of Blood, Killer Nun or Bloodsucking Freaks which I alternately squirmed and yawned my way through. The difference is in the presentation. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is one of Joe’s most ecstatically grimy movies and he took much more time to make sure it was fun to watch than he did with most of his 80s films; these (his porn films) were the movies he clearly enjoyed making and was willing and able to exert a little more effort on and when Joe D’Amato goes all out, brace yourself. The Nino Fidenco music is absolutely insane, showering every action from violence to screwing in space age “Da-Da-Da” choruses and instrumental themes that would make Bruce Maderna jealous. Then there are bits like when Emanuelle and Isabelle are washing each other near a waterfall while a chimpanzee smokes a cigarette on the shore (never mind that chimps are not indigenous to the region, nor indeed even the same continent, in which the film is set). The crazy-ass tangent with the diamond plane was similarly completely unnecessary but Joe makes it work.

Joe D'Amato juggles all of his madcap elements expertly and though the film doesn’t work as either the nudie film Flora Film probably paid for or the cannibal film its most excellent rerelease title suggests (“Trap Them And Kill Them” which is one of my all time favorite horror movie names), it is a blast; a gory, debauched mess of one but I’d take sex over real animal deaths any day. I only wish Joe had pitted his Emanuelle against Zombies. Oh well... A man can dream....

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