Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cannibals: Cynical And Angry

When you've perfected an art form, that is to say, brought it to its apex, to the point where all other contributions are pointless, to go back into it takes real drive. You must either have a good enough idea to change up the form or they must be paying you a shit ton of money. In Ruggero Deodato's case, it was both. Straight to Hell (not to be confused with Alex Cox's nonsensical post-modern western of the same name) or Cut and Run was his return to the jungle, but it isn't the cannibal film many people seem to think it is. There's no cannibalism, firstly, and it has more to do with condemning the whole genre than it does rewriting it. I could see where he was coming from certainly. He may not have invented the genre (in fact there was time enough for a pornographic take before he'd gotten to deliver his final thoughts on cannibalism), but he had done literally all that could have been done with it and in the meantime so much inhumane garbage had been made as a direct result of his work. If Make Them Die Slowly was made in response to one of my films, I guess I'd be pretty pissed off too.

Straight to Hell
by Ruggero Deodato

The first thing we see is a group of Latin American drug dealers getting raided by a group of far-less clothed natives led by Michael Berryman (...!?). They kill everybody (the women get especially horrid deaths involving sharp sticks jammed in their knees) and steal the drugs. We then fly over to Miami where investigative reporter Fran Hudson and her cameraman Mark Ludman are staking out the home of a drug dealer. They followed a mule to their house (her use of a bunch of drugs wrapped inside a blanket like a baby wasn't a bad idea considering it's 1985 and that sort of thing probably did happen a lot. Hell, you could still cary a gun on a plane as late as the 90s, so imagine all the other shit people got away with on planes) and are waiting for something to happen that they can actually report on. Before a proper bust can take place, someone shows up and kills everyone in the house. The spears in the girl's knees should be setting off some alarm bells. Fran sends in her live report before the police arrive, pleasing her ratings hungry bosses (sounds a little like Cannibal Holocaust, doesn't it? We'll return to that point in a minute) and before she leaves she finds a picture that sets things in motion.

Fran goes to her connection, Fargas, to learn the significance of the photo. Fargas is a pretty silly looking pimp, but as he's played by Eriq Lasalle, it isn't all bad news. Fargas mentions Guyana before clamming up. The reason she's so interested in learning about the photo is because among the villains in the photo is Tommy Allo, the son of Fran and Mark's boss Bob. Tommy went missing a few months ago and one of the the guys Tommy is standing with in the photo, Brian Horne, was apparently mixed up in the Jonestown cult before the tragedy occured. I bet you can guess what's on obnoxiously ambitious Ms. Hudson's mind. That's right, a big old feature story. Bob gives her the go ahead because he just wants his boy back (if you're wondering why he just doesn't take matters into his own hands, he does, but it just takes him a little longer than it does for Fran to charter an illegal flight to Central America) and Mark won't let Fran go on her own so the two head for the jungle.

If you're wondering what's become of Tommy, let's fly down and find out for ourselves. We don't know what he or Ana, his beautiful radio-operator friend, did to get themselves stuck working in a smuggling camp in the jungle. We meet Tommy in the middle of an escape where his two dark-skinned cohorts are shot dead. The warning his boss gives him is telling as he drags him back to camp to continue his indentured servitude, "Thank God you're white!" Tommy isn't dissuaded from his escape plans, however. He wants Ana to help him leave when the next plane of supplies comes in. Ana seems a little beaten down by life to actually do it (she's forced to sleep with the guy who brings the supplies in, something I gather she's been forced to do before). Either way, Tommy sets his plan in motion when they hear Fran and Mark's chartered plane coming in over the radio. Unfortunately for absolutely everyone, Michael Berryman and his assassins storm the fort that very same night. Fran's plane lands (barely) and their pilot is killed; she and Mark run into the jungle and hide there till morning.

When they come round to the camp, they find a scene reminiscent of the drug house in Miami; Fran has an even harder time delivering her news report than she did last time, so shaken by all the carnage is our amateur Diane Sawyer. She manages to get most of her report out before a bloodstained Ana comes out of a closet with a knife a la Rita in Anthropophagous. The three pack up and leave, knowing the story, escape, and Tommy is elsewhere in the jungle. Tommy, is fine, is a little nervous. He, too is on the run, and finds his one-time boss caught in a gruesome trap begging to be killed; he's pulled apart by the legs before Tommy can mercy kill him. Fran and Mark do eventually find Tommy (after Ana and a certain bald assassin have exited stage left) but only after Brian Horne decides to bring the story to the reporters. Horne knows where gringos go, trouble follows and agrees to give Fran an exclusive she's never going to forget - will Bob Allo, who's slowly been following the trail of breadcrumbs as Fran, come to their rescue in time?

The first thing to notice about Straight to Hell is that its a real movie. Unlike most Italian films of this time, some real money went into this movie and also a spirit of professionalism I sense was always Deodato's specialty - even his sleazier films have something slightly eloquent about them. Anyway, it looks great and barring a few people, the acting is largely pretty good. Scratch that, the acting as pretty American. The entire film, in fact, feels like a gorier-than-average adventure film of the time period. Deodato's direction is so deft that you hardly notice him or his Italianness at all, save for the times that Michael Berryman shows up to spill some guts. If you've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest or The Hills Have Eyes you know who he is and chances are you'll never forget his face. Berryman's presence is actually a pretty American device. Berryman doesn't often get to strut his stuff on screen, but when he does, its in American films with little or no moral fiber. In fact the only other Italian production he took part in was a way-late-in-the-game Conan ripoff called The Barbarian Brothers directed by Deodato. The cast, with the exception of Luca Barbareschi (who turned into a real actor despite his inauspicious start) is American. Karen Black, who plays one of Fran's bosses, was already on her way to becoming the sort of person Rob Zombie admires and Willie Aames was on Charles in Charge, a TV show that is really as stupid as it sounds; the film has low-budget Americana written all over. This was almost not an Italian movie at all. The reason, I think, is confusion.

Dardano Sacchetti, screenwriter extraordinaire, was trying to combine the will of his producer and the history of the director, and came up with something halfway between Eaten Alive and Apocalypse Now. The producer wanted an adventure story, loved them, and Deodato was famous for his cannibal films, but I don't think he was all that anxious to head south of the border to repeat his success (he has said he regrets making the film that made him famous), so I wouldn't be at all surprised if he really tried hard to make this film different from his others. That's why we have real heroes this time around and a lot of very American plot devices. Sacchetti trying to read his colleagues minds yielded a screenplay that was just way too cute. Tommy's friendship with Ana, Mark's protectiveness of Fran, the reunion of father and son, most of the dialogue, the convenience of all the death to the story; it was formulaic and doesn't fit the character of a Ruggero Deodato film. The script goes from 'heart-warming' to vicious on the level of a Paul Verhoeven movie and that is jarring to say the least. That said, Deodato did a good job with a bad script, and I think partially because he was filled with righteous anger, but again, nothing can really save a movie that hinges on the confession of a pimp who fell out of an early 70s AIP blaxploitation movie.

The anger can be found in a few of the plot's minor points. That Brain Horne is a castaway from Jonestown might be a coincidence, but I think its Deodato giving Umberto Lenzi a much needed spanking (let's not forget that Jonestown was the focal point of Lenzi's very stupid Eaten Alive). Horne is a complicated character and in the end he, and not all of his followers, punishes himself. I like to think that Horne is actually Lenzi, alone in the wilderness fighting a battle that no one cares about anymore. The executives in the studio watching all of Fran's live reports are, to me, the audiences after Cannibal Holocaust was released. Their expecting ace reporting on the subject, as they've got a weighty precedent and expect good things. What they get is slaughter, violence, and reprehensible characters, not the incisive story they signed up for. I think Deodato was pissed that his art had been co-opted and this was his revenge. 
So with Deodato's anger overruling Sacchetti's orders to write an adventure story, and a whole lot of money being put to use, its no wonder the resultant film is a bit of a mess. A well-made, gory mess, easily better than all of the non-Deodato cannibal films, but unless you're willing to either side with Deodato or shut your brain off, chances are you won't have any fun.

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