Thursday, November 24, 2011

Machete Maidens Unleashed!


(Unrated; 88 minutes; 2010; Dark Sky Films; street date: November 1, 2011; SRP: $24.98)

“There are a lot of responsible filmmakers, but sometimes what’s fun are the irresponsible ones,” says John Landis at one point during the latest documentary from Mark Hartley, who no doubt shares in Landis’ enthusiasm. Hartley’s 2009 schlock-umentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation preached the gospel of blood and chunder from the vantage point of his native Australia. Paying equal attention to the erotic, the psychotic and the pyrotechnic qualities of the territory’s overlooked genre history, Hartley made a case for Australia as one of drive-in cinema’s great forgotten epicenters, with due attention paid to the directors (Richard Franklin, Brian Trenchard-Smith), producers (John D. Lamond, Anthony I. Ginnane), writers (Everett De Roche), and actors (Roger Ward, Cassandra Delaney) behind nearly two decades worth of over-the-top fare from Down Under. I still haven’t quite erased from my memory Delaney’s topless hell ride from 1985’s rape-revenge obscurity Fair Game, and probably never will, at least for as long as I can still hold a beer bottle.

Hartley’s dedication to exploitation remains just as infectious if less cohesive with Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which treks out to the Philippines to celebrate further lawlessness in B-movie history. The deviant template does not deviate from the journey before: enthusiastic yet frank commentary, jaw-dropping film footage (topless multi-racial gunfights and kung fu battles!) and a colorful deployment of animated still photography and artwork, held together with the same brisk editing and chronological thrust that made Not Quite Hollywood such a reckless joyride. You even get the concession stand and theater etiquette interstitials before and after the movie just like in the previous go. You know the thrill drill: all the forbidden fun of a trip to the outdoor cineplex but none of the hassle of lying claustrophobic inside the car trunk for the hour-long drive to Scottsdale.

The first thing on the screen is a text crawl explaining that the Filipinos could churn out up to 350 films a year in the wake of their liberation from Japan after the second World War, but that none of them saw any overseas distribution. Foreign territories wanted something more market-friendly, and since the Philippines had a respect for Western culture, the natural result was an influx of monster movies being directed by local legend Eddie Romero and released via Hemisphere Pictures, which Romero founded alongside Kane Lynn and Independent International chairman Sam Sherman. Herschell Gordon Lewis concocted the “Blood Trilogy,” so Eddie Romero served up the “Blood Island Trilogy” with 1968’s Brides of Blood (a.k.a. Danger on Tiki Island to those in the know with Cinematic Titanic) & Mad Doctor of Blood Island and 1970’s Beast of Blood. In true carnival barker fashion, the first two were promoted with gimmicks involving fake engagement rings and vials of “Green Blood” you’d have to swear an oath to and ingest so as not to become one of the papier-mâché monstrosities and break out in a blood orgy during the show.

The focus immediately and extensively shifts on the influence of one Roger William Corman, who saw the Philippines for himself in 1970 and decided that it would be an ideally economic backdrop for his women-in-prison opus The Big Doll House. Both Corman and hired gun helmer Jack Hill expressed repulsion at the material, but after turning a huge profit, it paved the way for future respective triumphs, primarily Hill’s later collaborations with BDH stand-out Pam Grier as well as his 1975 gem Switchblade Sisters. Corman continued to establish his New World Pictures by importing the burgeoning blaxploitation genre (with the female vampire variant Night of the Cobra Woman and the ass-kicking heroics of Cirio H. Santiago’s Savage! and TNT Jackson) to the islands even as Ferdinand Marcos’ regime of martial law came into effect.

Corman furthered Eddie Romero opportunities to direct, resulting in several more babes ‘n’ bullets barnstormers (The Woman Hunt, Savage Sisters) as well as a couple of ill-received fantasies (Beyond Atlantis, The Twilight People) before the Manila-born Cirio H. Santiago became the resident foreign talent. The movie proceeds to thumb through his resume with rapid fire ridicule, especially from then-trailer editors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, who also poked fun at the interchangeable product of these action films by memorably recycling an exploding helicopter shot as a running gag for many of Corman’s trailers as well as incorporating stock Filipino shootouts into their feature-length studio send-up Hollywood Boulevard.

A lot of the perspective that pervades Machete Maidens Unleashed! comes from the Westerners as opposed to the Asians. Hartley justifies this in the special features by pointing out that a lot of the local crew members and stunt people worked at such deathless pace that their memories couldn’t be isolated on a film-by-film basis. Furthermore, the project originated with The Search for Weng Weng, focusing on the three-foot-tall cult legend, born Ernesto de la Cruz, who worked as a decoy for General Marcos during raids before appearing as a diminutive 007 in films such as For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid. There wasn’t much to be said about him seeing as how he had a heart attack at age 34 in 1992, so Hartley decided to paint broadly. Machete Maidens Unleashed! was researched and assembled in a much shorter span than Not Quite Hollywood, which made use of Hartley’s background producing special features for Umbrella Entertainment and the various connections he made with filmmakers, including Brian Trenchard-Smith and Quentin Tarantino.

Hartley gathers together many of the towering figures of Corman’s New World Pictures era, from Jack Hill and Sid Haig to Dante and Arkush to Dick Miller and even a fleeting appearance by Pam Grier, who remembers getting schooled in Stanislavski even if her performance was that of a knife-wielding ebony prisoner. Filmmakers Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Kaplan also appear in vintage behind-the-scenes clips from the 1970s. A lot of attention is paid to the surreal, staggering conditions of shooting in the third-world tropics, from the gigantic insects and rodents to the accusations of civil disobedience through subversion, which was a double standard in regards to local protestors getting suppressed and the American visitors shooting on-location and purchasing rentals of Marcos’ own rebel-mowing battle copters. Judy Brown, Laurie Rose and Andrea Cagan are but a few of the WIP stars who bring up the influence of feminism and empowerment even in a tawdry T&A torture scenario. The result is a substantive part of the film that, despite all the socio-political context, often plays like a glorified special feature that could’ve been assembled exclusively for the “Women in Cages” trilogy that Shout! Factory released.

The notion of cultural identity that was amusingly analyzed and lampooned throughout Not Quite Hollywood is in short supply. The best of these moments are glimpsed by the movie’s end, when in the wake of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (recounted here primarily by military advisor and future character actor R. Lee Ermey), Imelda Marcos seized the moment by establishing the Cannes of the Orient, the Manila International Film Festival. These topics are treated rather morbidly, with rumors of corpses in coolers being strung up to simulate a hyper-real Vietnam and the tragic collapse of an entire floor that literally buried over a hundred of the workers under wet cement. Better incorporated and more revealing are the moments that focus on the gun-wielding maverick personality of Bobby A. Suarez (They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, The One-Armed Executioner), who did not work under Roger Corman, and the underpaid commitment of the Filipino stuntmen and actors (Marrie Lee, Franco Guerrero), the results of which parallel some of the more captivating and dangerous stories from the final third of Not Quite Hollywood. Even the ending of Machete Maidens Unleashed! provides a sober understanding of why the Philippines stopped being an unkind environment for filmmakers.

Tarantino dominated the previous documentary with his hyper-affectionate and succinct observations on what made films like Long Weekend and Stone so unique. Although his presence is missed, Hartley secures the next best thing in the equally gleeful John Landis, whose interview was conducted at the end of a 23-hour shooting day in England for his anticipated recent effort Burke & Hare. The veteran director of The Banana Monster, Kentucky Fried Movie and An American Werewolf in London, Landis reveals a bountiful wealth of blunt humor in his cynical observations on exploitation marketing (“Never before have you seen material so ripe for masturbation!”) and the pretentious use of hindsight in elevating sleazy, fast-buck movies as to the level of profound auteur statements. He even admits (to his regret, as Harley accounts on the DVD audio commentary) that Roger Corman, for all of the breaks he gave major talent in their hungry ‘n’ angry years, was indeed a tightwad. As a hearty voice of reason and articulate humor (“You have these movies being made about revolution against fascist dictatorships in a fascist dictatorship!”), Landis is this project’s own indispensable scene-stealer.

Not to overlook the counterpoint recollections of several of the other participants, who rightly recall certain films as being more equal on a racial standpoint. Criio H. Santiago's The Muthers was the rare film to feature four black actresses, including Jeannie Bell, Rosanne Katon and Trina Parks, whereas Eddie Romero's Black Mama, White Mama chained Pam Grier and Margaret Markov together in a riff on The Defiant Ones. "The only other parts available for me were hookers,” remembers Katon, “so I’d rather beat ‘em up than be beat up.” Gloria Hendry, co-star of Romero’s Savage Sisters, is less proud but certainly understands how over-the-top the film was. This is the one where Sid Haig, as an Alfonso Bedoya-style bandito, beds and guns down four hookers only to gripe about wasting so many bullets, and also where Filipino schlock regular John Ashley gets the deathless line “I used to think I’d let all of you pee in my face just to see where it came from but not anymore!”

Machete Maidens Unleashed!, like the 2009 Ozploitation celebration, is a bracing distillation of the blood, breasts and beasts which (dis)graced the Philippines until the drive-ins were depleted. There is a sense of nostalgia for the days of caves being used simultaneously as women’s changing rooms and men’s urinals, when the projected image of naked women being spun on spiky wheels could be seen like smutty billboards from the distance of travelers, when a midget super-spy with a comically dubbed voice (thank you, Dick “the producer of Pieces” Randall) functioned as a sly critique of the Anglo influence in major motion pictures. Mark Hartley understands that such audacity was a natural product of its time, one that will never come again.

Stop, chop, and let ‘em roll, Machete Maidens are in control.

Dark Sky Films’ Region 1 NTSC DVD release of Machete Maidens Unleashed! is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio and optional English subtitles. The most noticeable difference between Not Quite Hollywood and this is that there wasn’t a lot of preservation for several of the movies on display. Tape masters and 35mm prints were often used in the absence of original materials, and there doesn’t appear to be as much striking restoration work done as there was before. Take the segment on the 1981's Firecracker, which alternates between a widescreen print of the original theatrical trailer and a gauzy VHS source in full frame. Taking into account the various source materials, it comes as no surprise that Apocalypse Now looks the most pristine of all the movies catalogued. But that’s part and parcel of the appeal of discovery, be it buying a ticket or renting a tape or getting a bootlegged DVD. Luckily, all of the recent interviews boast solid dark levels and detail on all of the various participants. Even the audio for the movies are beefed up with loud explosions and gunshots, the better to make for directional effects and some low end for your home theater. The incidental wakka-chikka 1970s funk music composed by Jamie Blanks does it to your ear hole through all of the speakers, with crisp speech anchored firmly in the center channel. The subtitles are a plus for those who may get thrown off by the thickness of Eddie Romero or Cirio Santiago’s accents.

“Welcome to the DVD audio commentary for Machete Maidens Unleashed! which means, if you’re listening to this, you are either a documentary nut or an insane Filipino nut.”

Mark Hartley headlines a casual but extremely informative commentary track for the feature alongside sound recordist Jock Healy, assistant cameraman Angelo Sartore and production manager Melissa Hines. Keeping true to whom Hartley feels this is geared towards, nuts like me will hear plenty of behind-the-scenes stories that dig a little deeper into the pressure of trying to secure interviews, from the multiple delays that kept Savage! hero James Iglehart from appearing in the film to the uncertainty of getting anything from Roger Corman to the blistering snowstorm which buried Sam Sherman’s house. They note some of the peculiarities in certain settings, like the self-portrait hanging behind Beast of Blood actress Celeste Yarnell, and comment on some more embarrassing scenarios with the likes of Chris Mitchum (Master Samurai) and Judy Brown. We also learn that this was produced for television and Hartley points out some differences between the broadcast and theatrical versions, as well as certain compromises which resulted in the reappearance of Brian Trenchard-Smith and the use of Apocalypse Now.

Another advantage to being a nut is that you can watch a feature-length collection of unused and extended bonus interviews. “Every piece of that country is alive,” sums up Sid Haig in the opening montage of discarded comments related to health & safety. Landis’ uncut testimonies make a case for the magic of editing, but a lot of the real surprises come from unlikely sources. Chris Mitchum, in particular, looks positively giddy throughout his 16 minutes of outtakes, which flow with the stream-of-consciousness pace of a real raconteur. There’s a great recounting of a run-in with the Korean mafia not to be missed. Other highlights: Marlene Clark almost getting raped by midgets during the filming of Black Mamba; Arkush & Dante firing off a should-be legendary quote from Roger Corman about the promotion of Fellini’s Amarcord; Darby Hinton incurring Roger’s wrath after walking out on Firecracker reshoots for getting gypped out of his paycheck; Rosanne Katon going shopping with Colleen Camp in the midst of a typhoon; and wholly deleted segments chronicling Alan Birkinshaw’s Invaders of the Lost Gold and actor Leo Fong’s screenplay for Blind Rage, two Filipino productions likely dropped due to lack of salvageable footage.

A 36-minute trailer reel presents the original theatrical adverts for fourteen titles, starting off with an early Eddie Romero war film called The Raiders of Leyte Gulf and concluding with a lengthy trailer for Weng Weng in For Y‘ur Height Only. “Much slight-of-hand and ballyhoo was utilized to sell these films to an unsuspecting western audience,” warns the opening text. The most common trick is the lurid, descriptive narration, describing “water torture” and promising “warning bells” for the squeamish. The Mad Doctor of Blood Island trailer takes this tactic to the extremes of high camp by hiring Brother Theodore to write and perform the narration with his insane Kraut accent. Other featured trailers include Twilight People, Beyond Atlantis, Ebony, Ivory & Jade, Master Samurai, Devil’s Angels (presented here as Devils Three), and They Call Him Chop-Suey, which is not in Machete Maidens Unleashed! despite a story credit to Bobby Suarez. No New World trailers, alas, but a fine selection that covers a linear trajectory and spotlights each of the key Filipino directors profiled in the film.

The original “Oath of Green Blood” intro from Mad Doctor of Blood Island is included as is original monster test footage (courtesy of Joe Dante) from the 1979 Jaws rip-off Up from the Depths, produced by Roger Corman and Cirio H. Santiago. Future make-up FX master Chris Walas designed the giant killer fish head, but the main attraction is the topless scuba diver, which brings back cozy memories of Fulci’s Zombie.

A 29-minute interview with Hartley for Rue Morgue Radio overlaps on occasion with the commentary, but is thoughtfully researched and preferable to the 13-minute Q&A and four-minute red carpet segments from the 2010 Fantastic Fest premiere in Austin, which also includes Roger & Julie Corman and was where Machete Maidens Unleashed! preceded the SyFy Channel cast-off Sharktopus, which is like having Not Quite Hollywood go on before Young Einstein. Two extensive still galleries are devoted to posters and production photos for the various movies featured in the documentary as well as the making of Machete Maidens Unleashed! itself. Finally, there’s the original red-band theatrical trailer.

Though it’s not quite Ozploitation, Mark Hartley wields razor-sharp affection for the over-the-rainbow entertainment of the 1970s with Machete Maidens Unleashed! There could’ve been more focus on Sam Sherman and less on Roger Corman, since the film doesn’t even mention Gerry de Leon’s 1960s vampire movies The Blood Drinkers and Blood of the Vampires, which preceded the “Blood Island” trilogy. Even more disappointing is that the Filipino film industry didn’t have as much of an arc as Hartley’s own home continent. But the mix of fists, tits and wits on display here does a good enough job of encapsulating an entire decade of potential guilty pleasures shot in the crossfire, finding some semblance of rebellion and revolution amidst the hot boxes and savage sisters.

Movie grade: 4/5.
Video grade: 4/5.
Audio grade: 4/5.
Extras grade: 4/5.
Final grade: 4/5.

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