Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cannibals: Naked and, well, Naked

In my summation of Eaten Alive, I noted that Umberto Lenzi’s movie was slightly more ambitious than some of his peers stab at the same subject matter. Case in point: Jesús Franco’s cannibal movies. Franco himself has said that he hated most cannibal movies, he didn’t like their documentary-style feel and he didn’t appreciate the violence (before you ask, no, I suppose his films weren’t traditionally violent in that a six year old could identify the blood as sloppily applied paint – I guess I just didn’t realize he was doing that on purpose). But Franco being Franco, when producers Daniel Lesoeur and Franco Prosperi asked him to make some cannibal films he said 'yes' even if the resultant film said 'no'; Mondo Cannibale was actually shot about an hour away from where he lived in Spain, and looks nothing like the third world country it stands in for. The first of these films is so lackluster it’s a wonder it ever got made; Franco didn’t give a goddamn and believe me it shows. He would eventually see that in order to make a cannibal film, he had to fill it with crazy.

Cannibals or Mondo Cannibale
By Jesús Franco
Jeremy Taylor, his wife, daughter, and associates are in the jungle doing…something. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, nothing much matters once the initial plot has been set up. They’re out on a boat in the middle of the jungle when a group of the most sorry-ass cannibals you'll ever see shows up, eats Taylor’s wife and associates and throws his daughter overboard. They bring Taylor back to camp and cut his arm off as part of a sacrificial rite (maybe? hell, I don't think Franco and Jean Rollin knew and they wrote the fuckin' thing), but are interrupted when one of the village elders spies Taylor's daughter on the banks of a river. These guys must have some prophecy or other about a 'white goddess' coming to them from the river because the only English words he manages are "White Goddess" and everyone seems to catch his drift. They bring the girl back to camp to make with the worship. In all the hubbub, Taylor escapes and some hunters find him passed out in the jungle a few hours later.

Jump forward ten years, Taylor has just gotten out of a psych ward and is placed in the care of his nurse Ana (played by Franco's muse Lina Romay, who I could barely recognize). He wants to conquer his fear of the jungle and find his missing daughter so he pleads with eccentric billionaire Charles Fenton and his mistress to fund his expedition. Though at first they seem reluctant, not only do they agree to fund the zany ass project, they actually go with him. Taylor, Ana, the millionaire and his wife hook up with a safari party that happens to be headed to cannibal country, which I don't really get at all. Why would a safari be headed there? Don't ask the director, he doesn't have anything for you. In fact much of the plot just slipped between my fingers as we crawl drunkenly towards the conclusion. The IMDB doesn't know the name of many of the characters on the safari and neither do I, and again, it doesn't really matter. By the time Taylor finds his daughter, whose engaged to be married to one of the cannibal warriors, it's just him and some nameless kid with a camera left alive and Taylor has to work out a pretty good endgame strategy to persuade his daughter to come home with him....or not.
Franco indicated in an interview with David Gregory (director of Plague Town and about 200 DVD-only interviews just like this one) that he really had nothing but contempt for the cannibal film and that disdain more than shows through here. Despite Franco Prosperi's name on the credits, this film has nothing of his viciousness; I think Prosperi jumped onto a sinking ship that not even he, the Captain Bligh of exploitation films, could save. No one seems to be acting, which leads me to believe that Franco really wasn't directing; and though this could be said about a lot of his films, its especially pathetic here; people just walk through scenes, yawn through their lines and in general don't seem at all like they're in any danger or even on camera. The only acting in the whole damn film is when Mrs. Taylor gets eaten alive in the prologue. There is no real sex, it's just sort of hinted at; Sabrina Siani walks around naked the whole film, and I'm sure that was enough for some people, but as she doesn't seem to know how to form words with more than one syllable, it just doesn't do anything for me (nudity for nudity's sake is really vile in my opinion, even if it is Sabrina Siani. I had no fun). Franco said that she was one of the dumbest people he'd ever met and rewarded her with about ten lines of dialogue. The music is some white funk that is rather unfortunate to say the least. Also, I'd like to ask why you'd bother cutting off the arm of your protagonist if you know full well you can't pull that effect off. When Al Cliver battles Antonio Mayans in the river towards the end, his arm is clearly visible, pretty much the whole time. That's more sad than it is funny.

The laziness and hopelessness carries over to the cannibals themselves, namely in the make-up. Sweet Christ, The Make-Up!!!!! I don't know if Franco had never seen a third world tribe or he truly didn't...Give...A...Fuck! but every cannibal in this movie has bright watercolors smeared on their faces like children at a fucking birthday party. I shit you not! A bunch of them look like spotted dogs, others have cat whiskers, and most of them are painted with neon blue, orange, purple, green, and a white base coat. Which is awesome because when the red paint they were using for blood is thrown into the mix, you literally can't tell if its smudged face paint or Faux Positive. It would be a lot funnier if the natives or Franco seemed like they thought they were pulling it off, but, alas, they seem to get how shameful it is. Then there's the conclusion. I didn't bother introducing anybody other than Taylor and Ana because when they finally make it to cannibal country they are all killed off within five minutes of arriving. If I didn't know better I'd say Franco was going through a divorce or something. There isn't even much actual cannibalizing; we do get to see Lina Romay eaten (she was on her way to being the chubby Lina Romay of Mansion of the Living Dead at this point and butchers the few lines she has; will the sadness never end?) and then the movie just...ends. The nameless photographer kid dies and I feel like maybe I was supposed to feel something, but...nothing. Then Al Cliver and Antonio Mayans (who was both the head cannibal and the production designer) fight and nobody wins. Cliver, who plays Jeremy Taylor, wins by default because his daughter doesn't want the cannibal to die, cause maybe she's in love with him? I don't call that victory. That's sort of a good way to sum this film up: nobody wins. This is truly The Searchers of giving up.
Maybe the reason Franco phoned in his direction was because he hadn't discovered a way to find the fun in the cannibal genre. His next film, while not measurably better, is definitely a return to form for our auteur. My theory is he figured out what bothered him most about cannibal films and fixed it, Franco style. Whereas most cannibal movies are consciously difficult to enjoy, Devil Hunter, his second and last cannibal movie, is a riot. There's more fake violence, more irascible dirtbags, and more bizarre nudity than you're gonna know what do with.

The Devil Hunter or Sexo Caníbal
by Jesús Franco
Laura Crawford is an actress who's famous enough that the paparazzi follow her around wherever she goes to ask her things she clearly has no idea about. Her fame is such that it has given some people a devious idea. Some bandits, Thomas, Chris, Pablito, Jane, a nameless blonde and their nameless boss abscond with the buxom Crawford and head to the jungle to wait out the ransom they requested. Laura's manager has dropped some serious coin grooming the idiot girl into a press sensation and he'll be damned if some thugs are gonna pry a nickel from his greedy mitts, so he hires Peter Weston (once again Al Cliver, ladies and gentlemen, Al Cliver!), vietnam vet, slouch, and current self-assured mercenary to go down and sort those creeps out. He seems way confident in himself but he brings his selectively shellshocked buddy Jack (give it up one more time for Antonio Mayans!) with him just in case. Their incredibly tedious exchange of "Gimme the money and you'll get the girl" "No, gimme the girl and you'll get the money" (or as I like to call this part of the kidnapping "No, you come ovah 'ere!") carries on for fifteen minutes before both parties start shooting at each other and everyone gets separated. Laura runs into the jungle with a bullet in her leg (this will disappear before too long), Peter and Jack fake their deaths when their helicopter crashes (Jack has a bullet in his leg; this, too, will disappear) and both the vets and the kidnappers try to find Laura.

Maybe now's a good time to mention the devil god. The natives in the area that our jackass captors have chosen as their rendezvous point worship a seven foot black man with bug eyes who kills everything he encounters; mostly he encounters naked people, as we'll find out. Anyway, the scenes of Laura being kidnapped are shown, through parallel editing, side by side with footage of a native girl being captured and sacrificed to the devil god. Said god will then show up and dispense with minor characters after the helicopter crashes, ensuring that only Peter, the nameless boss, and Laura are left when its time for the final showdown.
As for that showdown; I don't know if you've ever seen Al Cliver trying to put a naked black man in a half-nelson, but, nothing quite compares. This is the Jesús Franco I know and love. Once he figured out how to add That Franco Touch™, he had his audience eating out of the sweaty palm of his greasy hand. Again, this is not a good movie, nor is there even a lot of cannibalism, but this is the depraved lunacy I've come to expect and when I don't get it, I start to get cranky. I knew I was in capable hands once more when Chris, one of the kidnappers says to no one in particular in his first few seconds of screentime "Damn Shit! What a fuckin' awful place!" Werner Pochath, who plays Chris, overacts beautifully, stunningly! I mean really topnotch, A+ overacting! Other craziness: well that nude devil god is a stroke of mad genius, I'll say that. There's the yacht that Peter and Jack find with that naked girl on board. Even after they climb aboard and disarm her, she refuses to get dressed! Then, as if the preceding couple of hours weren't stressful and weird enough, she decides that what she'd like to do most of all is have sex with Jack. Jack, by the way, is dubbed by someone who couldn't decide on Kentucky or Brooklyn for his accent, both of which sound dreadful! It's awesome. I didn't mind that we don't see much cannibal gut munching because when Jack has his uncalled for vietnam flashback (which Franco stages by shaking the camera around), his dubbing guy grabs a fork and knife and does all the chewing you could ever wish for on the scenery. Thank you Daniel Lesoeur for assuming Americans wouldn't want subtitles and hiring this guy! Wierdly though, the version I watched kept switching between Spanish and English language tracks, but I'm not complaining.

The jungle, incidentally, actually looks like a jungle this time instead of a community park, and the music is the right kind of insane. Also, when Al decides to hang out on deck shirtless...mercy! A paler, flabbier action hero there may never have been. Whoever convinced Lesoeur that Al was rugged mercenary material, twice in a row no less, must have had a way with words. Then, of course, there are the native rituals. The natives get hold of Laura before either Peter or her captors can and decide to sacrifice her to the devil god. That means we're privy to a montage of the native women showering, rubbing down, and finally dancing around a naked Ursula Buchfellner as they await the arrival of their bug-eyed demigod. Pay close attention to this scene. The guy on the left playing the conga drum (with no rhythm, I might add), he looks like John Oates! Oh, and remember that bit of parallel editing I mentioned. That was a setup so that when Al Cliver fights Magic Johnson on the top of the hill while Laura stares on helplessly, he can keep cutting back to close ups of a very naked priestess writhing around back at camp. Yeah, doesn't seem so artistic now, does it?
So while, technically speaking The Devil Hunter is really no better a movie than Cannibals, it is way, way more fun than its older brother because it feels like the work of its creator; loaded with logical inconsistencies and sleaze, instead of just logical inconsistencies. Come for the cannibals, stay for the Franco brand lunacy! And the accidental ball shot toward the end of the movie. That shit's insane!

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