Monday, October 18, 2010

"I AM DEATH!!!!"

It took a pretty long time for the kids who grew up on Hammer films to find themselves with enough power to remind everyone how much of a bummer it was that their brand of horror died with them. Hammer were undeniably the best for their money at Victorian/Gothic horror but many people were just as enchanted by also-rans Amicus and I know I'd stand by the best of Tigon's output as steadfastly as I would the best of Hammer. Between them (and the odd one-off copycat) the three studios managed to bring the past into the present and interest a new generation in realizing that though there is a certain charm in being scared by things just down the street, it can't compare with the thought of how terrifying it was to live in a time where there was no alternative to superstition. There are fewer religious crazies than there once were (in a 'per reasoned person' kinda way) and when you combine zealotry with the absence of just governing bodies, steady work, reliable food sources and medicine for rampant incurable diseases living in the 16th century seems like a much less fun time than Twelfth Night makes it out to be. And so it made perfect sense that Hammer would set its best remembered projects in the past, both recent and distant, because vampires and mad scientists become much more frightening when you realize that even if you survive, you still might die of starvation, unintentional poisoning or consumption. Makes the triumphant endings of some of these films seem much less triumphant, doesn't it? Anyway, in the last ten or fifteen years those disciples of Hammer finally got around to paying tribute to the one-time masters of the olde-timey horror film, starting with Tim Burton's excellent Sleepy Hollow. But the two I want to look at were released almost simultaneously and though they approach the setting and time from different angles, the hopelessness is evident in both of them, even if only one of them has the balls to follow through on it.

Solomon Kane
by Michael J. Bassett
A cartoonishly evil knight called Captain Solomon Kane wraps up a siege replete with murder and almost-humourous growling that he wants more people to murder by trying to steal treasure from a foreign warlord. Soldiers and a priest follow him inside but they're all seized by demonic hands that lurch forth from mirrors preceding the trophy room. And when Kane finally makes it past all the defenses, what does he find waiting for him but fucking Satan! If that ain't the worst luck! Anyway, the devil owns his soul now but before the big guy can take it, Kane extracts a smidgen bit of mercy from him. When Kane makes it back to England it's under the condition that if he ever harms anyone ever again, he's going straight to hell. Of course, this is tested immediately when he's mugged by a bunch of corpulent bandits. And then he's tested even further when he wakes up in the care of the nice prairie family set on adopting him a la Shane or any of the thousand other films these people occupy. The exception here is that Dad is played by Pete Postlethwaite who is one of the greatest living actors (ed - well, he was. Rest in Peace, Pete). So they make him dinner and he helps them out with their camping and cleaning and cooking and all that and plays with the son and flirts with their teenaged daughter despite him being covered in tattoos and in his late-thirties. But the reindeer games end when a gang sent by an evil god-king who's totally not Sauron fucks everything up. This fellow, Malachi is his name, has sent his damned minions out into the countryside killing and enslaving all who they meet. And they've been sent here to personally test Solomon Kane by killing the cute little boy he's befriended. His deeply religious parents cry out for this battle-hardened monster to kill everyone of these fuckers (thou shalt not kill unless they've recently done something bad to you) but of course he doesn't, new life path and Satan-on-his-back and all that. But then as soon as they leave, Solomon decides that only after they've captured virginal teenaged daughter does he need to table his non-violence and instead pick up the holy hammer of ass-kicking and personally murder everyone who stands in his way, up to and including Malachi, his estranged family and a big, CG Satan monster.

Isn't it funny how in just trying to relay the events of a movie you realize how much more is wrong with it than you initially thought. I mean this is still better than Van Helsing but that's unfortunately the first thing that came to mind instead of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter which I'm sure Michael Bassett would have liked. I'll start by saying that I had too much fun watching Solomon Kane to rate it less than the C- it's going to get. I greatly enjoyed it when the big crowds of evil warriors are laid flat by James Purefoy as the Mon with no Kane. Purefoy is terrible for a lot of this film but when he's just grunting and looking like a medieval badass, which is when it matters most, I had no problem with him. Postlethwaite and Max Von Sydow are good even when slumming in the likes of this or The Wolfman, but unlike that film, the movie wasn't so terrible that I spent the whole film wondering what they were doing here. Von Sydow only has two scenes after all and he's laying down in one of them. And it isn't even that the film itself is particularly egregious. It's a lot of fun in parts even when treading down a path so eroded by time that you wind up ten feet underground when walking it. The problem here is Michael J. Bassett's script has either stayed far too true to an 80 year old pulp fiction which may have been novel when it was released but now seems like a supernatural western with a change of setting. So in other words there's nothing here you haven't seen done better or much, much worse. In the better category, how about that big red satan creature Kane half-heartedly fights in the climax. When will filmmakers learn not to bother with CGI if they can't afford the good stuff? The final battle reminded me of the very first CG shots in Young Sherlock Holmes or the remarkably awful ones in Mortal Kombat, which is never a good thing.

But returning to the script Bassett puts too much in here that the story can't support. There's the great scene where Kane seeks sanctuary in a church only to discover that the priest has keeps his flock locked in the basement because they're all zombies. It comes out of nowhere and the story comes to a halt for it but it's one of the best scenes in the film. Bassett also makes the mistake of trying to stage a conclusion like the ones in Witchfinder General or any of Hammer's Dracula films but giving it no relevance to what we've already seen. Out of nowhere in a country supposedly overrun by Satan comes two or three guys who've put together a small revolution and are going to ride right into Malachi's castle to deliver it to him. Kane overcomes his cynicism and helps them but it ultimately doesn't matter because, and correct me if I'm wrong, but if Satan's behind this why the fuck should it matter who's going to try and stop him? He's Satan!!! He and God have been knocking each other around for who knows how long to no avail. If Satan can turn guys into zombies by touching their heads (which one of his minions does), why can't he just reign down pestilence on everyone including the rebels? That's my problem with unambiguous religious horror films. The best films in this vein about being possessed by Satan, Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil, et al. work because the big guy never shows himself. Or if he does it fails to do anything but derail the movie (The Devil Rides Out) unless he's completely shrouded in mystery (Blood On Satan's Claw). Solomon Kane makes Satan quantifiable and thus makes their hero invincible and the conclusion totally tensionless. In effect, what it says is that Satan can be scared and defeated in small doses. Not the scariest or most effecting idea is it? And so what if they've defeated one of Satan's minions? He's not Voldemort, he doesn't need a decade to recover. He's fucking Satan! Who's to say he didn't just crawl up Queen Elizabeth's ass and really get some work done rather than waste time with the duke of some hamlet in the middle of nowhere. Solomon Kane wants to simply exist as a western in Shakespearian clothing but it opens way too many doors it can't close. And frankly there's a fucking culture war on and any film that actively seeks to shut your brain off and fails is on the wrong side.
I'll come clean now and say that the reason Solomon Kane seems like such a de-clawed experience is because I saw it directly after seeing our next film, Chris Smith's Black Death. If I had to guess I'd say Smith probably had a lot less money than Bassett but let's just say he used it more judiciously. Instead of shooting his wad on cameos from the world's most respected character actors, he nabbed a few beastly underrated ones and crafted a story that gets by on implication rather than forcing a confrontation with a terribly realized demon and a scenery chewing Jason Flemyng, who so deserves better than this. Black Death is the antidote to Solomon Kane while still wandering the same desolate countryside. In fact, considering that Black Death came out at the same time as Centurion, Valhalla Rising and Robin Hood and manages to have a distinct personality and the most gut-wrenching plot of all of them, it amazes me how few screens it saw. While perhaps not as thrilling as Centurion, as expensive as Robin Hood, as silly as Solomon Kane or beautiful as Valhalla Rising, Black Death was the only one of these movies about large men in armor killing shit whose ending really thoroughly satisfied me. It's also the best and bleakest tributes to the old school period horror of Tigon and Hammer I've seen since maybe Sleepy Hollow.

Black Death
by Chris Smith
Osmund is a young monk whose faith has been shaken. There's the plague that's been killing every third person for miles that not even his superiors have been able to satisfactorily explain using religious thought and then there's the small matter of his girlfriend. Yes, for a man who's supposed to be living a life of celibacy, he certainly does a lot of making out. His girlfriend Averill who Osmund has known since childhood is just as scared as he is of dying and thinks the answer is getting as far away from their village as possible. Osmund's understandably torn between serving god and maybe surviving until the end of winter so Averill gives him an ultimatum with an expiration date. She's going to meet him at a clearing they used to play in when they were children every morning for a week and then she will be gone whether Osmund has shown or not. Fate makes up his mind for him when it throws open the doors to his church in the form of the knight Ulric, a grim figure indeed. He and his band of mercenaries are here to report to the church. They have heard rumours of a place untouched by the plague and this must be because they are in league with the devil. They'd be on the road right now but no one in his gang knows the way, they just know that it passes by a certain clearing. Osmund volunteers so fast it gives his superiors whiplash and despite their protestations he leaves with Ulric later that day.

Though their noticeably less intense, the men in Ulric's band are equally as unwelcoming. Of the five men who follow him Wolfstan seems to be human under all that armour. Their first encounter with civilization outside the monastery sets the tone for their journey. Osmund sees a group of people preparing to burn a woman to death because they believe she's a witch who poisoned their well. She claims she meant to bless it, but the villagers won't be appeased. Osmund won't stand by while they kill her and only when Ulric intervenes on her behalf are they quieted. But when he gently leads her away from the group and then slits her throat with his sword a horrible quiet falls over the scene. After this Osmund starts to have second thoughts about his chosen path if these are the men doing god's work. When they make it close enough to the clearing where he promised to meet Averill, things somehow only manage to get worse. Not only is there overwhelming evidence that she was killed but her killers, a tribe of men made almost feral by superstition and disease, show up and follow him back to camp. The group is one man short when they continue their hike toward the cursed village. But of course when they arrive nothing is what it seems. Indeed the place is clean, pleasant and inside they claim such distance from the ravages of the plague that it actually takes one man a few seconds before he remembers that it's killing hundreds of people every day. The men are given food, hot showers and plenty to drink and it's here that Osmund's faith in their absolute right is at its shakiest. When the village doctor invites him into the marshes to witness something while the others drink and scheme, his world is thrown even further into chaos. There in the woods the women of the village seemingly resurrect his girlfriend before his very eyes. He'd have a stronger reaction but the wine everyone partook of at dinner puts them all to sleep right at that moment.
I was wondering how Chris Smith could possibly make things darker than he already had but when Osmund and the knights wake up caged and immersed to the neck in freezing water while the whole village looks on, I had to applaud his conviction. I won't spoil what happens next but things get a lot darker from here. Black Death is a film that starts with the plague and then plunges you further down into the ice cold waters of hopelessness than you thought a film capable of going. A few things prevent it from being quite the nihilistic slog it sounds like. Barring a few scenes, the movie is too well-lit to be all that hopeless feeling, even as we see lines of men in hoods carrying giant crosses downstream for some unholy ritual involving animal bones. Also there's the casting. David Warner on the side of god isn't a good sign. He does a great job as the abbot and I was incredibly impressed that Smith got him for the part, knowing what kind of baggage he carries with him these days. Carice Van Houten doesn't have much to do but knowing that she was the girl from Black Book made me want to see how crazy she would get. She's the only person who seems totally in control throughout and she's ostensibly the villain. Sean Bean has, I think, once in his life, played a character you're supposed to like without reservation, and he certainly goes way out of his way to play the bastard here. The only problem with this is that even as a man who'll cut an innocent woman's throat if it means getting back on the road, I can't help but like him. The man was born to carry a sword in medieval genre films and if I ever get the chance I'm going to make a movie where he gets to do just that. If I can make a film where Sean Bean kills someone with a sword, I'll be able to die happy. Sean Bean is just too likable for me to hate him and this made for some fascinating stand-offs between Smith's intentions for the character and my expectations. John Lynch's Wolfstan, who is Ulric's ally, is really the only person you sympathize with (side note: why does John Lynch not get work? He's excellent. No one does wounded spirits like he does). I'd like to have sympathized with Osmund but Eddie Redmayne isn't even as likable as Sean Bean, slitter of throats. His unchanging expression and limited emotional range make him hard to commit to liking and after the ending I actively hated him. Don't get me wrong, I think the ending in the script is great and dark and really troubling in a good way, it's that Redmayne nearly dismantles it. Granted Smith wants us to see the effects of religion but the reveal he sets up has no effect on a personal level because I found Redmayne weak and passive at the best of times and don't really care what happens to him. He isn't motivated by the same strength of convictions as Sean Bean's knight or Chris Smith.

Smith's direction is very good but I found myself wanting a little more from the landscape. With competition like Valhalla Rising, Smith's cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid should have been working overtime to find the moodiest possible lighting for every situation. Because he didn't go out of his way to find truly intense dark colours outside in the wilderness and truly breathtaking ones inside the village, instead of looking angelic, the village just looks slightly less ominous. The quality of the light doesn't change drastically enough to evoke much feeling on its own and the performances alone aren't enough to do it either. We know that things aren't right because we just fucking know. We've seen ten trillion movies and of course something evil's going on, them's the breaks. Smith's problem is atmospherics. He paints in broad strokes and there are no little gestures to be found here. It's true that Hammer Films rarely dealt in subtlety and as a tribute Black Death gets an A+, but as a moody, cynical horror film that doubles as a treatise on religion, it loses points for playing the same hand over and over again. In the end it feels like a very slight film and doesn't mask it's budget cleverly enough. It also loses points for losing its way during the climactic set piece. At its worst the scene with the underwater cage reminds me of the execution scenes in Red Zone Cuba (never, ever a good place for your mind to wander to) though it does save itself in the end by matching grimness with even more grimness, one of the most badass quotes in film history and a death scene that simply has to be seen to be believed. But for a split second I found myself wondering if we were just going to watch one execution after another.
Black Death is compelling from start to finish despite my complaints and considering that Robin Hood got an international multiplex release while this and Centurion saw almost nothing but festivals and press screenings is just baffling. Black Death is a better film than Robin Hood even if it wasn't quite as well crafted on a technical level. If the two films had changed directors, then both would be really terrifying. But Robin Hood is dull and pointless if very pretty and Black Death wants for some of that Ridley Scott visual magic. I think the key to a film set in this time period is that they have to act as window into how dark days really were. Smith understands how miserable the past is and lets reality feed the horror. Michael Bassett tried to do the same thing but he's playing with magic and so any realism he strove for doesn't amount to anything, which is a shame because they both stem from the same Religious-men-as-conqueror motif, which is powerful enough to make Black Death's opening half hour relentless and harrowing all by itself. Not one of the many knights-on-a-mission films released this year is perfect but the ones that come closest are the ones that eschew cliches in favor of the nightmare of living through that time period, or who simply work overtime to keep you riveted to the screen, which is why while Valhalla Rising wants for action it's never boring or why Centurion and Black Death are exciting all the way through. They hit familiar beats but they're made by guys who are hellbent on entertaining you quickly and furiously (another side note: if you haven't seen Centurion or Valhalla Rising, do. They're not quite horror films so I can't review them here but they are brilliant and well worth your time). Ultimately what needed to happen was for someone to look at the rushes and ask why the movie didn't look as a dark as it is. A few changes and Black Death might have entered the new classic pantheon. It's still great but it falls maddeningly short of perfection.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"....I've been working on the road now, I've been working by the sea...."

I'm kind of amazed that The Big Bird Cage isn't remembered as anything other than a minor exploitation classic. I mean really if The Big Bird Cage had never been made there's a good chance that American International Pictures would never have fronted Jack Hill the money to make Coffy and Foxy Brown, two of the most important blaxploitation films in history. The movie showed that Pam Grier could carry a movie and she went on to become the female black icon of the 70s. She made such a splash that years after the exploitation boom had been silenced, an up and comer called Quentin Tarantino would never have tried to revive his career in his third movie Jackie Brown, which opened to middling reviews and poor box office, which sent our young man into the business of making pastiche/rip-offs of his favourite genre films to standing ovations that have yet to cease. If The Big Bird Cage had never been made, Roger Corman, the head honcho at New World Pictures, would never have attempted to recapture the magic by making three additional Women In Prison films, one of which was the debut of an unknown novice director called Jonathan Demme who was beginning a few-picture tenure with NWP. Demme, along with future producer Gary Goetzman and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, had bigger things in mind than exploitation cheapies and thanks to their collective resumes cultivated under Corman, were able to establish themselves as quite the talents. But before all that Corman had to earn enough good credit while simultaneously running out of ideas. If the Philippines hadn't quit on him, he'd never have needed to relocate and it just so happens that two continental changes couldn't save the Golden Age Women in Prison film from dying a much mourned death.

The Woman Hunt
by Eddie Romero
Silas, a slimy thug, is running around the jungles of the Philippines rounding up undesirable women who he thinks no one will miss. He's not the only one. A steely femme fatalle called Magda is out buying prostitutes from disreputable sources on the orders of the enigmatic Spyros, a man of power who's feared by most everyone. Silas has picked a number of forgotten women himself but he's also made the mistake of picking up foreign correspondent Lori, who isn't nearly as willing to go quietly as some of her fellow captives. After a botched escape attempt the girls (among them Pam Grier surrogate Billie and McGee, played by a very tired looking Pat Woodell). Most of the girls are pinay who won't be missed and even McGee seems fairly resigned to whatever Spyros has planned. Spyros is a corpulent ex-military man who has invited a group of his billionaire friends to his estate to coincide with the arrival of the girls. These guys have all made their money doing rather seedy things but what Spyros has in mind has even them shocked. He's hired a staff of bastards to go out looking for these women because Spyros plans to hunt them for sport. That's a new one even for these louts, but, then what do you get the man who has everything? Well this is the last straw for Billie, Lori and a reluctant McGee who orchestrate an escape with the help of Tony, one of the guards who's started thinking twice about his commitment to his lifestyle as a henchman. And because this is a film modeled both on The Most Dangerous Game and The Big Bird Cage, a happy ending for everyone seems pretty much out of the question, doesn't it?

Not that I particularly cared. The Woman Hunt is the biggest letdown of all the WIP films in the wake of The Big Doll House. First of all, what a premise to squander! A sexed up version of The Most Dangerous Game? Sign me right the fuck up! When I learned about this movie I went into such a furious search for it that I didn't bother asking why no one seemed to have heard of it. Well turns out no one talks about it because there's a good chance that the seven people who saw it promptly forgot everything about it. And I went way out of my way to find a bootleg copy of this movie. So imagine my frustration when I was given not only a pisspoor VHS rip but a pisspoor VHS rip of one of the dullest sexploitation movies I've ever seen. I already forget most of what happens between character unremarkable, terribly lit death scenes. It would be bad enough if The Woman Hunt were only dull but it so fucks up the awesome potential of its story that I had to fight to pay attention during the last twenty minutes. The titular hunt doesn't actually happen, at least not in the traditional Most Dangerous Game mold. The girls escape sort of devolves into the hunt but its disorganized and the girls are equally well armed by the time the billionaires catch up with them. And yet the advantage is clearly with the women, which doesn't feel earned in the slightest. I can't tell you how anxious I am to make my name as a filmmaker so I can get my hands on someone's money and remake this thing pronto because this I can say without hyperbole that this is the greatest idea in the history of film given the lamest possible treatment.

The problem is Eddie Romero, to oversimplify a bit. As a horror director he rarely disappointed. He was responsible for the brilliant Terror Is A Man and its staggering number of sequels, after all. But give him anything that doesn't have a touch of Dr. Moreau and he just couldn't deliver the goods. The Woman Hunt is listless from start to finish and any actor incapable of directing himself winds up personality-free. So that means that the only two people who exit the film having earned their paycheck are Pat Woodell and Sid Haig. Speaking frankly I wish Woodell had sat this one out. She is one of the best things about the wildly enjoyable The Big Doll House but it wasn't because of her chops as an actor. She was an idea given beautiful human form who goes out with two machine guns in her hand. She's the intangible, she's the revolution personified. Who wouldn't want to fight for her? Here she's apparently learned how to deal with no direction and her response was to create a character who barely has it in her to raise her head and yawn her lines. She's so often looking at her feet in dismay that I spent the whole movie wondering when the hell she was gonna show up. Her short hair doesn't help matters any. Romero not only wasted her, he neutered her and that shit is a crime. Sid Haig was a bit more fortunate. Oh to have been Sid Haig in the early 70s! He got paid to play himself with slightly varied accents in film after film for most of the 70s (he spent the 80s chasing paychecks into the likes of Zombie Aftermath but I call that a small price for never having to learn how to show depth in order to pick up a well-earned paycheck). In fact if I had to reccomend The Woman Hunt, and I kinda do for this reason alone, it's because it features the oiliest, sleaziest role Sid Haig EVER PLAYED. I know, that seems like something you can't calculate, but his behavior in the first half of this movie is just...it's like Burgundy made in a used toilet. It's so disgusting, but it does down smooth. Once he leaves the story the film quickly runs out of steam and has to settle for fumes.
And all that might mean a little more if The Woman Hunt weren't so ass-achingly dull. Romero posseses neither Gerardo de Leon's eye for composition nor Jack Hill's astonishing wealth of sleazy set pieces. His Women In Prison films all have the feeling of just going through the motions, putting emphasis on all the wrong things and missing the point completely. Just look at this film's nearly rapturous conclusion, which juxtaposes a pretty intense suicide with two characters frolicking in an Edenic oasis in the middle of the jungle after having murdered a bunch of motherfuckers. Romero just didn't have the knack for these things, though luckily The Woman Hunt is the worst of the three he made in all. Despite his having no talent for WIP pictures Romero was quickly poached by AIP which left Corman in a bit of a situation. Jack Hill was busy making Coffy and Foxy Brown for AIP (they really did take all his rising stars, didn't they?) but he still thought there was money to be squeezed from the caged teat. So he thought fast. Where could you make an exploitation film cheaply with people sympathetic to your plight? Where do you think?

The Arena
by Steve Carver & Joe D'Amato
That's right, Italy! Corman convinced Pam Grier to come back for one more New World film before she became the nearly exclusively property of AIP. The move to Italy and a partnership with the great Joe D'Amato meant a few things. Corman and director Steve Carver decided that they might as well play their location to the hilt and so converted their usual narrative to a setting more geo-appropriate. Instead of working for a crazed warden in the sweltering jungle, Pam Grier and newly-minted leading lady Margart Markov would reteam after Black Mama, White Mama as Roman slaves forced into gladiatorial combat. Now if that sounds like a genius subversion of the formula, it is, but The Arena is a film that fucks up almost as often as it kicks ass. For the other thing that the Italian location and crew meant is that costs were cut on everything, including synch sound, which meant dubbing all around. In an opening not all that different from The Woman Hunt, slaves are rounded up from all over the country side surrounding Rome and are bought at market by Timarchus and Lucilius, the guys who run the Gladiator bouts on the other side of town. These two are in a bit of a pickle; in one of those only-happens-in-movies-or-to-movies things, people are no longer showing up for Gladiator matches. Timarchus is running out of cash and he's got to spice things up a bit before people decide they'd rather just...i don't know, screw in the streets or something instead of paying to see grown men fucking kill each other with swords. Well a few extra women around, especially women as different as the former priestess Bodicia and the tribeswoman Mamawi, things are a little tense. The new slaves have not hit it off, to put it mildly. In fact they bitch and cut each other down so much that it only takes something minor for the girls to throw down their tools and start a giant brawl in the kitchens one night (the spectacle is not unlike your standard prison food fight). When Lucilius gets a load of this, he reasonably concludes that where violence alone fails to draw a crowd, violence and an erection is a combination no Roman would pass up.

The girls enter training with Septimus, the reigning champion at the arena, the next day. It doesn't go particularly well and the first fight is a bit of a joke. Dierdre, one of the newer slavegirls, gets wasted rather than face both stagefright and deadly combat and Bodicia pins her with no effort. The crowd is amused enough to let them both live and the next day Mamawi is set to fight Livia, the bitchiest of all the slaves. Livia, however, is a Roman citizen with a trick up her sleeve. She uses her citizenship to curry favour with the crowd, who won't stand by while woman of high birth is maimed and killed. So a girl called Lucinia takes Livia's place. This has some pretty serious consequences. Lucinia is Septimus' longtime mistress and once Mamawi is forced to kill her under threat of execution, everyone in the slave quarters has second thoughts about this whole female gladiators thing. Bodicia, Dierdre, Mamawi, Septimus and most of the other slaves (Livia's the hold-out) start organizing a revolt that will not only free everyone but cripple Lucilius and Timarchus for good. But, this wouldn't be a Women In Prison film without some pretty major hiccups in the plan.

There's a reason you've never heard of Steve Carver. Aside from The Arena and the semi-famous Big Bad Mama, he never directed anything that amounted to more than a blip on anyone's radar. And if The Arena is any kind of marker for his style, I can't say it's all the surprising. The Arena is by-the-numbers and the only thing new or different about it were the few bits of set design that came standard with the period setting. And frankly the most exciting thing in that department is the sight of Pam Grier carrying a trident wearing what looks like half a burlap sack as a bra. And as boss as that image is it doesn't make up for the terrible cinematography, the airless direction and the most damning mistake of all, the atrocious dubbing. It's not even that they do a bad job synching up the lines to the moving mouths, it's that when you take away Pam Grier's voice, you cut her presence in half. Same goes for Margaret Markov, who I hadn't yet seen in Black Mama, White Mama. Thanks to the strained vocal performances The Arena is almost just another Italianate gladiator film, saved by its similarity to the New World WIP films and by the moments when Pam Grier's ferocity transcends language and her body language and inimitable sneer speak louder than whoever's doing her voice. It still can't be heard over the volume of the mediocrity, though.
The well wasn't completely dry by the middle of 1974 even if between AIP and NWP they'd done almost everything you could think of that involved both women and jail. After all, they'd never made a film set on their home turf. And where else did the inspiration for the first Corman-produced WIPs come from but the American women behind bars films of the 50s. So, Corman turned another fresh face loose behind the camera, one Jonathan Demme and whether he knew it or not, commissioned the last (great) Women In Prison film of the 70s. What he also probably dind't realize was that Demme was a kid with dreams. Like a confused young auteur by the name of Martin Scorsese before him, Demme took his cheap-ass assignment way more seriously than anyone could have predicted. But whereas Scorses turned Boxcar Bertha into a jerky, frenetic, ultra-violent tragedy, Demme pulled out every last stop in turning what would have been an ordinary and merely watchable exploitation film into one of the strangest movies Corman ever funded. From the avant-blues soundtrack to the bizarre camera-work to the hallucinatory dream sequences to the presentational performances to the aimless narrative to the fact that perplexingly this is the movie that usually gets ranked just behind The Big Bird Cage as best women in prison film of the 70s, Caged Heat is a strange bird, indeed.

Caged Heat
by Jonathan Demme
Right out of the gate things are pretty weird. We follow someone who turns out to be an undercover cop who kind of lackadaisacally walks into a crime scene where moments later three drug runners come out shooting. The sole women among the trio is Jacqueline Wilson and she's the only one of them who gets nabbed. It took me a long minute to realize what I'd seen before I could join the shootout, already in progress. Anyway, she's sent up the river to a prison run by the sexless Superintendant McQueen (one of the many, many subversions of masculinity in this flick). Her cellmates, or at the least the ones we'll concern ourselves with, are Belle the kleptomaniac (Let's hear it for Roberta Collins, making one last journey into the breach and looking like she could eat all these newbies alive), Maggie the bitchy latina, Pandora, this film's Pam Grier and Lavelle, the girl who sleeps in Jackie's top bunk. The dynamic here is nothing new. Pandora and Belle look out for each other, Maggie hates both the new girl and Belle, Belle's trying to either just break out or steal food, an operation that requires a kind of OCD countdown and memorization of the vents, and Jackie wants out but quick. The oppurtunity presents itself when Maggie makes a break for it during one of their labor days working on a farm up the road from the prison. Not thinking, just acting, Jackie runs for the truck even as the guards shoot at it and the two former enemies are now forced to work together to evade capture once again. It isn't long before they decide that the right thing to do is to go back and break out their friends (with the help of Maggie's acquaintance Crazy Alice), especially because they know what the prison's doctor is up to; Jackie herself was subject to his version of corrective treatment - shock therapy - and doesn't want him fucking with any of her friend's heads. And both girls would kill to get in one last crack at McQueen.

Now, this might seem like a kind of a thin plot for a short film, but even at only 79 minutes, there is a lot of weird shit going on here. The first thing I'd like to draw everyone's attention to is the name John Cale listed under soundtrack. John Cale was the organist/bassist/violist/occasional singer for The Velvet Underground. He left in late 69 to pursue a solo career that was split between making some of the best rock albums of the 70s and truly strange contemporary avant-garde music. The score for Caged Heat lies perfectly between the two styles. For every jew-harp-and-slide-guitar arrangement to emphasize just what a sweltering day it is there's a furious viola solo during a dream sequence or as a prelude to a catfight. Jonathan Demme is pretty famous by this point in his life as being someone who knows his shit record collection-wise, but even still; asking John Cage to score a Roger Corman-produced prison movie is a little like asking Daniel Day-Lewis to do a guest spot on Burn Notice. Yet, as I'm sure it would in my hypothetical, somehow it works. Then there is the wildly different styles of photography in use here. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto was a long way from The Sixth Sense, but he was clearly no slouch, even this early in his career. The first establishing scenes of the prison are gorgeous, solid tracking shots, the kind that you'd find in respectable films, yet somehow because it's Caged Heat, I respect them more than I would in, say, Brother John. And when he wasn't sneaking calling cards in, he was trying his best to help Demme craft some junior Buñuel-type surrealist images, like the two dream sequences which look directly influenced by Los Olvidados. That shit just doesn't happen in these kinds of films and if I didn't know better I'd say that this guy's crazy ass vision would have gotten him banned from major studios. Not that his crazy divergences aren't wholly welcome. I was sick to death of how predictable and tired these films had gotten and Demme managed to make a pretty good cup of coffee from day old grounds.

And you know that he was someone who'd done his homework, otherwise what would Barbara Steele be doing here? Like Joe Dante and David Cronenberg after him, Demme used his limited resources and somehow got ahold of one of the finest actresses genre films ever laid claim to. Maybe because Steele, like most of her early collaborators, didn't realize what a talent she really was. Her spastic, twitchy brand of wheelchair-bound evil makes her seem human despite her villainess credentials. Demme makes something unique here in that he shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that this woman is weak and probably just wants a hug but her actions are vile and unreasonable and yet they make perfect sense. That's synergy between an actor and a director if I've ever seen it. For instance her response to what has to be the single goofiest thing in the movie, the drag-variety show that Belle and Pandora put on, is totally unfair but just look at her face as she passes judgment. Her words are fierce and suitably tyrannical but her face betrays her. But as confusing and eccentric as the first half of Caged Heat is, the stuff that takes place in preparation for the big bust out is genuinely thrilling and smart. Take the scene where Maggie, Jackie and Crazy Alice (by the way, what a stroke of genius that was. If this film had nothing but Crazy Alice, it'd be an instant classic in my book) try to rob a bank and show up in the middle of some guys already robbing it. It's not crucial to the story but it's a divine little set-piece that Demme handles beautifully. The girls get the drop on the boys, then send them into the waiting arms of the cops before strutting off with the loot, cool as can be. But of course while they're doing this, we quickly lose interest in the goings-on back at the prison, which brings me to the biggest strike against this movie: Roberta Collins is wasted! No longer the feisty animal she was in the Philippines, she's desperate, vulnerable, and relies on physical humour in the first half and then spends the second half strapped to a gurney in anesthetized silence. That shit is just not kosher. It might not be as egregious as Pat Woodell's sleepwalking through The Woman Hunt but it was enough to make me rather disappointed.
And then on the seventh day, Roger Corman rested. Caged Heat was the end of the Women In Prison film as AIP and NWP knew them and they quickly went looking for some place else to strike. Taken as a whole these movies aren't quite as thrilling as when you view them out of context. It's hard not to judge everything by The Big Bird Cage, for instance, and maybe if I hadn't just seen it The Woman Hunt and The Arena might have been a touch more enjoyable. But then I'm pretty judgmental about the quality of sleaze films, so maybe not. All in all they make for a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of B movie production houses. No idea was beyond consuming way beyond its freshness date and, astonishingly, even after anyone could have convinced that another middling WIP film was a good idea out comes one of Corman's many talented proteges and he up and turns the whole game on its head. Caged Heat is a fascinating watch and a fitting close to something that started as brilliantly as it did. If Savage Sisters had been the last of these movies to hit screens, that would have been a damn shame indeed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is there life on the earth? Is there life after birth?

Obscenity is a term that has dogged cinema for a long time. In fact for every development made in technology or form there have been two steps back thanks to religious posturing and political illogic designed to provoke fear and votes. Every country in the world has had, at one time or another, a pretty harsh censorship board in charge of what people see, and I'd put money on all of these people seeking something other than just piece of mind by being there. But what no one has ever been able to define is just what makes something obscene. Never once have I encountered a satisfactory explanation of why and where the line is drawn. In fact there seems to be no rhyme or reason at all. The Hays Code and the Video Nasties Scare (just two of the more famous censorship benchmarks) demanded cuts and considerations left and right but if you look at the films that were altered under each, they have almost nothing in common. If someone were to look at each movie banned by the BBFC in the 80s, you'd be forgiven for thinking that anything scary was pornographic. When lines are drawn only for similar images, forgoing a look at content, what you do is essentially give terrible movies and great ones the same power because they happened to feature naked breasts or a graphic murder or two, the former of which half of every person on the planet has, the latter of which happens everyday. Yet restrictions of realistic depictions of the violence of warfare went uncontested, ditto drug use, misogyny/objectification in films, commercials and music videos, gun violence in westerns, nudity in sex comedies or depictions of racism or homophobia, both unflinching and 'comedically' overblown. Look at it this way, think back to your days on the playground: how many boys said they wanna grow up to be a cowboy/soldier vs. how many say they wanna grow up to be a serial killer based on what they saw on tv? Even someone as impressionable as me didn't identify with the many, many horror films I watched. Sure I may have pretended to combat some of the shit I'd see in horror films (even something as terrible as An American Werewolf in Paris, which I only ever saw the trailer for) but I never identified with the villain. None of us did. Mere exposure taught us that they were not to be identified with. That's why you rarely if ever find kids willing to be the indian. They're the other and movies made us see racism as ok, gun violence, smoking and drinking as necessary and cool, and caused many of us to parrot slurs we didn't understand because we saw them in films. I'm using my own childhood as an example here but it can't be unique. And yet there was never any kind of decree about institutionalized racism (incidentally I'm not for any kind of censorship. I happen to think that extreme cases, like hate speech, should be kept off of screens because of their active violence. It's one thing to depict violence, quite another to call for it against a whole ethnic group or religion). What can't you see on tv? Naked breasts. The very things that nourished you as a child. When you show something, it normalizes it, when you censor it, you give it power it never had before and you make it taboo. Why should all women feel they are born with something indecent on their bodies? And this is all the more jarring when you consider what a splash pornography, both soft and hardcore, made in America and Europe in the early 70s. You can't see women naked on tv, but your parents could go downtown and watch them blowing a guy in Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door or some imported blue film. Today porn makes up so much of the digital cable spectrum it almost outnumbers regular film channels. And yet? You can't say fuck or look at a penis but Pat Robertson's got his own show where he gets to say that feminists make women hate their children. It's exactly this kind of lunacy that Dušan Makavejev was thinking of when he made Sweet Movie in 1974. You like violence and unsimulated fucking, huh? Well, then, this should pose no problem at all. Except it did and he didn't make another film for almost ten years. Let's figure out why.

Sweet Movie
by Dušan Makavejev
The first thing we see is a chair, not unlike the ones you'd find in a dentist's office (or an OB/GYN) as it makes it's way to the Miss World Pageant. Hold on a second because whatever you were thinking that meant is way off. As our TV commentator and host tells us, the purpose of the Miss World competition is to find a wife for the world's richest man Mr. Abdemel (or Mr. Dollars as he's listed in the credits). The winning girl is set to inherit his billion dollar fortune, all she has to do is impress his mother, who's throwing the competition. The criteria for winning is simple. Dr. Littlefingers, a gynecologist and obstetrician, has to examine each girl's hymen and decide whose is the best, for lack of a more descriptive term. Miss Southern Rhodesia seems like a shoo-in, especially after the tawdry display by Miss Yugoslavia, but when Miss Canada walks in, the show's over. To a light and beautiful string arrangement, she walks out in furry knee-high boots and when she reveals that she doesn't have any underwear on, there almost doesn't seem to be any point to examining her, but when he does Littlefingers is confronted with a heavenly, golden glow springing from her loins like the briefcase in Kiss Me, Deadly. Let's meet her new husband.

Mr. Abdemel is a brash, cartoonish billionaire who wants to pay to have Niagara falls shut off and who thinks Karl Marx shot archduke Ferdinand. The reception waiting for them at his house is nice enough, a hippie band bearing flowers, a beautiful estate (for a lout, Dollars has nice taste in homes), and a honeymoon that seems to be ripe for intimacy and genteel married sex. That is until Dollars starts rubbing Miss World down with alcohol and pulls out his gold-plated penis and starts urinating on her. Our heroine draws the line there, even with a billion dollars at stake She wants to escape but that won't look good for the mogul so his mother has her shipped off to France in a suitcase (after an interesting period of naked captivity with Jeremiah Muscle, her gigantic black servant). When she gets there she runs into all kinds of mishigas involving a singing Spanish heart-throb, a tryst on the Eiffel Tower that almost ends in tragedy, a stint in an actionist commune and finally as a model for a chocolate commercial. I should point out that we occasionally flash to Anna Planeta, the captain of a barge called Survival headed down the Seine with Karl Marx as the bearded figurehead. She takes on a soldier, a deserter from the battleship Potemkin, as her lover. She welcomes children aboard first enticing them with candy and then appears to seduce them. Before the police raid the boat, you realize that her commitment to an ideological extreme drove her more than a little mad, at least in the eyes of outsiders.

And that incidentally is what most people thought of Makavejev when he released Sweet Movie. They thought that like Anna Planeta, his incendiary brand of socialism had driven him off the deep end and Sweet Movie was just excess unchecked. In one sense he is the captain of a great ship headed through a country that had once held so much promise and now seemed so quiet and conformist. He was looking for survivors and his movie was meant as a kind of password between members of the underground, but it seemed like he stood utterly alone. The most popular response was to simply stand aghast at the things presented, as if there was nothing else to the movie but nudity and baffling set-pieces. It's been described as a love it or hate it movie, though I don't think that's true. I certainly love it but I think that even if you didn't like the things you were being shown you could absolutely love the cinematography, the lush production design and the beautifully underplayed score, just as a for example. Pierre Lhomme's photography really is astonishing. Makavejev had said that he wanted Sweet Movie to be a love letter to colours and Lhomme was only too happy to oblige. Every room and person Miss World encounters has such a well defined and fun palette it's like the movie is set in FAO Schwarz (Otto Muehl, the leader of the commune, later called the movie pure kitsch, but the depiction of his group ought to have shown him otherwise). And because they're so clear, when we enter darker spaces, the colours become textures just like the wood inside the bowels of Anna Planeta's ship or the walls of the Therapie Kommune, when Lhomme's camera is noticeably handheld. There is something almost magical about these scenes and they're certainly ahead of their time. I remember watching these and being totally hypnotized, totally in awe of the fact that so much of this film could have been made yesterday. There are so many scenes that are enchantingly shot, especially when contrasted with the flash of the opening competition or the sight-gags that serve as the introduction to the sailor. The reason I think they work so well is because they make us feel like the cameras are spectators as much as we are; we're just observing this behavior and that's crucial in the Kommune scenes. If he'd properly lit and framed vomit and shit, we'd probably all puke ourselves. Instead the effect is that of a whirlwind of senses and events that no one is in control of and everyone is experiencing like an outsider. It's an intoxicating style that greatly helps one to get lost in this sea of political imagery and strange behavior. In fact it wasn't the revolutionary ideas that initially struck me initially about Sweet Movie. I remember the first thing that stuck out as being completely unforgettable was the song that Ann Lonnberg sings when we first meet Anna Planeta. That's the thing that always grounded every bizarre ass thing that happens in the realm of storytelling and film, rather than of weird-for-the-sake of weird. No one actually depraved could have gone looking for a song as perfect as this. And no one could have found so much beauty in hopelessness.
Sweet Movie as a list of obscene set-pieces dares you to take it seriously, but in practice it's something much different. Sure there's sex, violence, implicit pedophilia, unsimulated pissing, shitting and vomiting but in the proper context, that is to say with an open mind and a little help from a sympathetic political viewpoint, Sweet Movie is more than the sum of its bodily functions. The thing I love about its portrayal of sexuality is that it's so unsexy. There's enough skin to satisfy anyone in a raincoat but not one encounter is without baggage. Take the two stories' climaxes. On board the Survival a final tryst takes place in a vat of sugar and ends with a rather sudden burst of violence. It's so conflicting and beautiful and otherworldly that by the time you have a fix on things, it all changes. In Miss World's story, she writhes naked in melted chocolate. It's fascinating as hell but it's far from exploitative and I wouldn't even call it sexy. So, yes, it hits the beats of a sex film but then it runs right past them until 'decency' and 'sexiness' have to be pretty seriously re-evaluated. I love reading negative reviews of this film because their problem stems from their being unwilling to look at things that everyone of us does every day. I admit that the vomiting is the one thing that will occasionally send my eyes to the corner of the room depending what I've just eaten but there is absolutely nothing in this film that I would call obscene or gratuitous. And I can't tell you how important that distinction is in a film like this. Intent is everything and Makavejev wasn't trying to offend anyone (their sensibilities, sure) but he was trying to wake people up and he seemed to know that this was the last chance he'd get to say anything so he made sure to say it all. In fact the movie's reputation became so great that Anna Prucnal, who plays Anna Planeta, was actually banned from her home country, Poland, for so long that she missed the death of her mother. This is why I so love film. What album or book has had this kind of impact in the last fifty years that was also artistically satisfying? People go crazy when confronted with the truth and in the cinema, they can't escape it; Makavejev blocked all the exits and lit the place on fire.

Dušan Makavejev was one of the first generation of Yugoslavians to have access to cameras and film schools and is one of the only people to ever break into the international scene in any meaningful way. He made four films in his native country (the best of them, Innocence Unprotected, is one of the best films about film ever made) before finally getting himself effectively evicted. The film that did it was W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, a kind of slavic I Am Curious that fuses documentary footage of sex therapy and sexual curios with a free-form narrative a la Godard about a woman who takes a break from hammering home Marxist dogma to seduce a figure skater who's the pride of the nation. His movies all drew lines between fascism and modern life and poked fun at Yosip Broz Tito's government with a knife. After W.R. pointed out that in practice nazism, Tito's communism and Nixon's republican government were not really all that dissimilar, the government film board gave him his pink slip and he went looking for money elsewhere. It didn't take him long to find it and before long he was using French, Canadian and English money and a cast of outsiders like Sami Frey, Pierre Clementi and Carol Laure. But needless to say it didn't go down quite so easily. Where W.R. had excited the international film scene and was the reason he so easily secured financing for another film, Sweet Movie made most people avert their eyes out of shame. Reviews were unkind enough that it waited almost thirty years for a DVD release and thanks to its showing the human body doing what the human body does it's still banned in England. Makavejev may have made other films after this, but none so unflinching and none as good (though Manifesto really is quite excellent). The reason no one wanted Sweet Movie is because the spirit of 1968, every new wave the world had produced and all the revolutionary fervour that had so captured the heart of everyone under thirty had failed. It was business as usual as far as everyone was concerned and they didn't need some foreign eccentric shitting all over their blissful conformity. All the strikes and rallies and progressive candidates were dead and Makavejev was one of the few people actively grieving. Hence the film's one foray into documentary footage, that of the Germans discovering the bodies of dead Poles in Katyn forest. You may have moved on, he seems to say, but these people are dead and injustice is still everywhere. Sweet Movie is thus a big, New Orleans-style funeral for idealism. Unsurprisingly attendance was low.

As a statement it's perfect and I couldn't ask for anything more from it. Everything, down to the posters and trinkets that hang on Anna Planeta's boat like some Maoist TGI Friday's, have meaning to them. Nothing was accidental. To look at but a few almost imperceptible things that have no effect on the story. The sailor who boards the Survival is a cast away from the Potemkin. "Isn't that the revolution that failed?" she asks him. It is, but it's also the name of the flagship film of Soviet montage of which Makavejev was a fervent disciple. Soviet Montage influenced his first four films heavily and this is especially fascinating when we realize that Tito's government had broken from the soviets in Makavejev's lifetime. Makavejev went looking for inspiration in the culture of a national antagonist at a time when the man running the country wasn't above burying his enemies in quicklime. It's a small gesture, I suppose considering how new and insignificant the film schools in the country were when Makavejev was starting and by 74 he saw that his revolution, too, had failed and had only managed to get him ejected from his homeland. Battleship Potemkin is about one sailor causing a rebellion on a great ship, Sweet Movie is about the same soldier boarding a smaller one and being eaten alive by his own ideals. The authorities show up at the end of both movies and find revolutions in progress, except one is led by a woman alone surrounded by the bodies of her allies. And again, this is just in one piece of wardrobe and one line of dialogue. When you realize that such things appear every thirty seconds, you see why I'm so in love with this film's theory and design, to say nothing of its assaultive content.
I found Sweet Movie at a crucial time in my life. I'd landed at Temple University after having not been offered enough scholarship money to go to my first choice, Emerson College. I had, however, resolved to get into Emerson again and nothing was going to stop me. My time at Temple was short, cold, lonely and pretty disappointing. I couldn't function there; the classes were huge, no one, least of all the other kids, cared for my anarchic "do whatever feels right" attitude toward filmmaking, everyone was wary of everyone else, and I had few friends but it wasn't without its high points. I had already decided that I needed to be somewhere a little less hostile but I was also going to take advantage of everything here. I got to know Final Cut, the editing software, intimately, I wrote a lot, fine-tuning the script that would grant me entrance into Emerson and also writing a 350 page war film I don't have the heart to look back at. But the thing I'm most grateful for at Temple was their mammoth DVD library. I took out ten films at a time and watched all of them before returning a few days later to get more. I watched nearly everything the Criterion Collection released to date and began exploring the lesser films of some of my favourite directors. They also bought most new films and so when I started reading about Sweet Movie's release I knew I had to see it. And when I did, I instantly fell in love. Along with The Battle of Algiers, Playtime, The Human Condition, Children of Men, Au Revoir Les Enfants and If.... it filled me with contempt at all the broken promises made by past generations. How had we failed so spectacularly? Bush was still president and I was at a school where seeing a stretcher dispatched to collect a rape victim somewhere on campus wasn't uncommon. Where the fuck did the future go? I was filled with indignation and that kept me motivated enough to get out of North Philadelphia and into a school that I thought I deserved to be in. The intervening years have proven Emerson a place just as stubbornly resistant to my attitude as Temple and I'm still a disrespectful malcontent but these films, If...., Children of Men, Sweet Movie, keep me in check when nothing else does. If graduating gets me a step closer to making movies riddled with Sweet Movie's influence, then I'll write anything and happily listen to someone telling me there is one right way to make a movie. Makavejev had so much more to contend with that my problems frankly don't exist in the grand scheme of things and I can't wait to get my chance and blow it by asking just what the fuck happened. Why did the world get together and agree to forget him and his questions? Sweet Movie is a film that to love it means not settling for the violence of the modern world. Not settling for conformism, misogyny, racism and censorship. It means trying to love people and everything they do, committing to revolution so that we can make the world a little nicer, a little more sweet.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"....I've been working near them cane fields and I wanna be free!"

Evidently I wasn't the only one less than satisfied with Women In Cages. Roger Corman, never one to throw away scraps, decided that there was still money to be made in his newly minted modern Women In Prison genre and one sequel just wasn't going to cut it, especially one so low on the charm that gave him that license to print money. The solution? Return to basics. Jack Hill was sent back to the Philippines along with Pam Grier and Sid Haig and a bunch of fresh faces (I guess New World Pictures were hedging their bets on disassociating themselves from Women In Cages?) and re-upped their political fervour. This time the revolution wasn't just off screen and in smuggled letters, this time Haig and Grier were going to bring it into the prison themselves. They were going to teach it to every prisoner and then they were gonna either bust out and join the fight or die trying. And, luckily for us, the other thing Hill brought back was a sense of humour to go with his unrepentant lowbrow screenplay. For while there is enough merciless sleaze to satisfy anyone, there's room to breathe and enjoy it as something a touch more knowing than it would be in either The Big Doll House, Women In Cages or any of the WIP films that followed. The Big Bird Cage is really the best of the best: not only is it simultaneously fun and knowingly awful (and make no mistake things get awful), but it's also the closest thing to a real revolution the Philippines saw in the 70s.

The Big Bird Cage
by Jack Hill
I have to admit that the sound of delayed conga drums is now as welcome as the sound of birds chirping on a summer morning. Terry is a woman that every important politician in the Philipines has vied for at some time or another. According to the hushed tones that accompany her arrival at a dive bar, nameless powerplayer on her arm, the prime minister once fought a duel over her. So it's fortuitous that this particular bar is the subject of a robbery by a group of cash-strapped revolutionaries posing as the evening's entertainment. After their leaders, Blossom and Django (Grier and Haig), have cleaned everyone out they make a break for their hideaway but in all the hubbub Django is left behind. He grabs Terry as collateral and hijacks the nearest cab. But contrary to his expectations Terry's thrilled to have been taken, she even balks at the notion of the bearded gunmen having to force himself on her. Django's thrilled about this until he figures out that this is the girl who slept her way into the confidence of every decision maker in the country. Django realizes she's more trouble than she's worth ("They'd pay me to get rid of you!") and ditches both her and the car. The police willingly close one eye to the reality of the situation and send her to prison (well government work camp, but same difference really) as an accomplice to the crime and by extension a part of the revolution. And every politician she's ever slept with breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of the back of her.

Let's meet her cellmates, shall we? There are too many native prisoners to name in cottage #2 so let's stick to the ones who share a first language. There's Rina, a woman who arrives on the same boat as Terry who the former social-climber has taken it upon herself to protect, Mickie, the sassy black girl who loves torturing Karen, the tall, slender lesbian who evidently hasn't convinced anyone to bed down with her, Carla, this movie's Roberta Collins surrogate, Bull Jones, the would-be slut and running the place are Rocco and Moreno, the head homosexual guards and Warden Zappa, the guy who acts the vicious overseer of the camp. His pet project is a giant sugarcane mill run by the prisoners that extracts sugar from coconuts. It's where dissidents, informers and delinquents ends up so that if they happen to die in some unforseen accident, no one thinks twice. The mill is also the Big Bird Cage of the title, so you just know it's going to wind up being Zappa's undoing. Meanwhile Django finally hoofed it back to the revolution's secret camp in the jungle. Blossom assumes he's been away this long because he'd been making time with Terry but after a knife fight and some mud wrestling they quickly find themselves having house-shaking reunion sex. The sight of the whole house shaking gets the other guys thinking that if they had a few more girls around the average joe might be compelled to join the fight. Can you think of someplace with enough women to spare, just off the top of your head? You'll get there, take a sec. So Blossom and Django hatch a plan to get her incarcerated so she can organize a prison break, and him on the staff so he can dismantle the guards. I don't think it takes a genius to see that things aren't going to go exactly as planned.
The Big Bird Cage hit theatres in July of 1972; by September president Ferdinand Marcos had refused to yeild to the constitutional limits of his reign and declared marshall law. The lead-up to this was a desperate time, to be sure, but Marcos was basically responding to his own opposition rather than any kind of need for change. His government had spent wildly and put the country thousands of dollars in debt. Students protested, shutting down every major university and the remaining communists in the country banded together and tried to rebel but lost as many people as they killed and when Marcos seized control he had all his remaining opponents either killed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Incidentally, one of the senators he arrested, Benigno Aquino, Jr., would eventually be his undoing, for after his release, he ran against Marcos for President in 1983; Marcos had him killed and didn't cover his tracks. It took time to prove it conclusively but by '86 he and his party were gone. There's a scene in The Big Bird Cage that actually predicts Marcos' attitude toward his country. In the early 80s he hosted Pope John Paul II and before his arrival publicly declared an end to his complete control over the government, but things went back to normal after the pope departed. In The Big Bird Cage some officials come to check on Zappa's progress and the whole time Rocco walks a few paces behind them pantomiming a big smile for all the girls to see. He might not have known it when he let Jack Hill back in the country but Marcos was the villain of The Big Bird Cage.

The Big Bird Cage was the first of these movies to function nakedly as a metaphor. The camp is a stand-in for the country it was filmed in (or really any country undergoing totalitarian rule) and the stuff about sex is mostly window-dressing. You'll notice the sexual content is perfectly symmetrical. Terry's first escape attempt leads to her being gang raped by some local horndogs and her second one leads to one of the guards being gang raped by the prisoners. Carla's all encompassing need to get laid is matched by Django's fellow revolutionaries wanting to break into prison to steal women. Horniness drives everyone in the movie so it has to come down to politics. The women in cottage #2 were already looking for a reason to escape and though Blossom has to prove her point using brute force, she only suceeds because she has the revolution driving her to success. Her sleeping with Django is just an extension of that. And then there's the shift in the dynamic between Karen and Mickie. After the scene when the bird cage breaks down and Mickie is sent below to fix it, the metaphor becomes double what it was. Watching labour bosses ignoring work conditions to the point of fatal ignorance is the kind of thing you'd expect in a Jules Dassin film. So when Pam Grier puts a machete in the arms of every prisoner and organizes the raid she's not just starting a jailbreak, she's arming the work force and seizing (and destroying) the means of production. The machetes they work the fields with become the thing they hack their oppressors to pieces with. It might not mean much to some people seeing as how this is a movie that features the line "You can't rape me, I like sex!" but that I can find Marxist overtones in a movie I already like on dirty, shameful principle is icing on the cake. It's films like this that sent Mark Hartley looking into movies from the Philippines in order to find the rebellion the insurgents were never able to pull off.
And while we're at it, let's talk sleaze. The Big Bird Cage has all the requisite mudfights you could ask for, as well as purple sex talk and all kinds of batshit imagery I can't say I've ever seen doubled. The scene where Karen covers her naked body in chicken fat so that the other girls can't grip her long enough to prevent her finally beating the shit out of Mickie is a stroke of mad genius on Hill's part. The sight of a woman as tall and thin as Karen McKevic running naked is weird enough without the addition of her choice of lubricant and the scene where Carla starts the huge rape of Rocco is pretty goddamned filthy, too. I can't get behind the use of gay stereotypes but I still like the methods Sid Haig employs to infiltrate the guards. It's hard not to laugh at lines like "Alright you silly bitches, back to your cottages" when delivered through Sid Haig's lisping southern accent and there is something kinda sweet about the scene where Rocco stares at Haig while he's pissing then hastily makes a comment about his shoes. It helps knowing that while he was giving the role of Django his all, Haig was also shooting second unit for Jack Hill. His chemistry with Grier is also endlessly watchable after the first viewing, where it's just kind of jarring because until now he's just been either psychos or generic heavies. But once you get used to it you really dig their brief time together and really love it when Grier smashes a guitar to snatch her machine gun and Haig grabs two .45s. Hill didn't call them his Tracy and Hepburn for nothing. Pam Grier for her part gives her best performance to date. When she runs onscreen after Django's return to camp and delivers easily my favourite piece of dialogue in the film "I told you I was gonna cut it off if you try to pull that shit on me!" she's no longer Roger Corman's former secretary. She was Coffy, she was Foxy Brown, she just needed a change of warddrobe and she could take down either white dope dealers in LA or Ferdinand Marcos. There isn't a moment where you don't believe she could kick your ass. Anitra Ford, Karen McKevic, Candice Roman and Carol Speed are all a lot of fun to watch and their respective subplots make for engaging detours from the revolution/prison break. And considering that the prison break is the only thing guaranteed by a women in prison film, this film more than delivers in so many ways. Hill had a bigger budget and was able to deliver a conclusion long on action and explosions, even if he still couldn't do better than that image of Pat Woodell leveling two M-3s at her captors. Women In Cages proved that these movies could be perfunctory and still make a pretty penny and this one proved how good they could be. The Big Bird Cage is so much more than the sum of its parts; a sex-crazed, machete-wielding warrior that looks good in skimpy prison clothes.