Wednesday, September 4, 2013

La montagna del dio cannibale (1978)

... aka: Mountain of the Cannibal God, The
... aka: Mountain of the Cannibals
... aka: Primitive Desires
... aka: Prisoner of the Cannibal God
... aka: Slave of the Cannibal God

Directed by:
Sergio Martino

Italian jungle / cannibal films have always been polarizing; not so much for the graphic gore and plentiful nudity, or for an underlying cultural ignorance / racism I see a few complaining about, but almost entirely because many of them include scenes of real animals being killed. Should any living creature die simply to enhance the shock value of a film? Beliefs usually fall into two very vocal camps and I seldom see the grey area in between mentioned, though there is a lot of it. The first group claim it's no big deal, and usually follow their defense by stating that those who have an issue with it are either being overly sensitive or - in the case of the meat-eating dissenters - huge hypocrites. To them, there is no difference between being a regular human being; a carnivore by nature, and being a filmmaker slaughtering animals simply for the sake of entertainment. The animals die either way, right? Who cares about specifics? Most in this group simply do not think an animal's life is equal to that of a human life; a point-of-view grounded in the majority of religious beliefs. To many, animals can be used in the same way one would use layers of latex, a rubber leg or a gallon of fake blood.

The second faction consists of people who find this all beneath contempt; cruel, sadistic and completely unnecessary. Some will go so far as to question the sanity of those who enjoy watching such things. Others wonder why these scenes had to be real. Couldn't they just imply them, or simulate them with special effects? As far as I'm concerned, I hate seeing it. It just makes me feel bad. I don't find it entertaining. I can't say "Ew!" and laugh it off. I simply gain nothing positive out of seeing anything die. However, I also have distinct memories of renting all of the Faces of Death and equivalent tapes in my youth with some friends from school. There have been times in my life I've felt the need to quench my own morbid curiosity so it would be unfair of me to bemoan others for doing the same exact thing. So no judgment calls here from me either way. If you want to see this stuff, fine. If you don't want to see this stuff, fine as well. I do personally take heart in knowing that these films are pretty much a byproduct of the past.

All that said, there are scenes in Mountain of the Cannibal God that go into a realm I'm personally uncomfortable with. Sorry, but nothing - no human, no animal - should be tortured for the sake of a film. There are several real animal killings in this one where the animals have clearly been pitted or forced together simply so a slow, gruesome, torturous death is guaranteed. Forget National Geographic-style observational documentations of nature at work, these are staged scenes orchestrated by the filmmakers themselves with one sole purpose in mind. This film feigns wanting to capture the natural world at work, but what it really does is go against nature because 'civilized' man has stepped in to force this stuff to happen. This no doubt hits its low point when a small monkey is thrown at a huge, hungry boa constrictor. The scene is completely gratuitous and the camera lingers over every disgusting detail. Monkeys are very lively creatures with highly expressive faces, which makes this even harder to take as the animal in this scene is clearly terrified as it dies a very slow, painful and agonizing death. It's disturbing, almost impossible to watch and harms what is essentially an old-fashioned adventure tale that did not even need such scenes in the first place.

All watching Sergio Martino's interview on the DVD did was further incense me. Though he's talented and I've enjoyed many of his earlier films, I didn't appreciate listening to him lie through his teeth like we're all a bunch of idiots. He admits to filming the monkey scene and claims he regrets it but he also says that the snake kept showing up on set and the monkey just happened to stroll along at the wrong time when he just so happened to be filming. Actually watching this scene tells another story entirely; one where the monkey - perhaps unwisely entrusting these filmmakers enough to be handled - was clearly tossed to the snake. In the same interview, Martino claims the movie isn't erotic, which doesn't account for an X-rated female masturbation scene - complete with finger insertion - wedged in at the end. He may have had in mind the heavily censored print (Slave of the Cannibal God) when he talked about the film but either way his interview is an insulting load of crock. I'm glad there are laws now in place from allowing people like Mr. Martino from doing things like this in the future. And at least other filmmakers in the sub-genre have owned up to what they filmed and not blatantly lied about it. Ruggero Deodato for instance has stated in numerous interviews that the animals who've died in his films were immediately eaten by the natives who'd have killed them anyway. Death is part of the circle of life. It's sustenance. It's protection. It's sometimes kill or be killed. And, it's entirely natural. But killing animals for "entertainment" is an entirely human endeavor and one I personally neither like to participate in nor see on film.

Despite my above ramblings, I'm not going to really penalize this otherwise fairly entertaining exploitation jungle adventure just because it has a few unfortunate and cruel scenes. The same can be said for most other films in this sub-genre and I've given many of them (Jungle Holocaust [1977], Cannibal Holocaust [1980]) good scores. Even here recently I gave a positive review to Man from Deep River (1972), which itself had a scene of a mongoose and cobra staged strictly for shock value. Mountain's score is strictly a reflection of it being compared to others of its type. While it's not as good as the above mentioned titles, it's not the worst of this type either.

Searching for a husband who disappeared in the jungle months earlier, Susan Stevenson (Ursula Andress) arrives in New Guinea with her obnoxious, ill-mannered brother Arthur (Antonio Marsina) in tow. After unsuccessfully trying to get help from the British consul there, she decides to take matters into her own hands and enlists the aid of local American doctor Edward Foster (Stacy Keach), who'd previously spent some hellacious time in the jungle himself, in putting together an expedition. They gather up a small group of local natives and have a helicopter drop them off deep in the jungle. From there, they must trek through dangerous territory until they make it to the ocean. And from there, it will be an even more dangerous venture onto a mountainous island whose top peak is rumored to occupied by a tribe of cannibals. Along the way, they make a pit stop at a mission run by Father Moses (Franco Fantasia), where Susan encourages Manolo (Claudio Cassinelli) to join them. Manolo will soon have no choice since the group of outsiders bring death to the peaceful village and he's promptly ejected.

The rest of the film plays out as your standard lost world adventure with our heroes trying to avoid vicious animals, the elements, water rapids, steep rocky cliffs, booby traps set by the natives and the like. After all of their native help die in one way or another and several of the principles have been killed, the surviving two find themselves abducted by a slew of stone age cannibals, who keep them prisoner in their cave dwelling and subject them to various tortures. Being fair-haired, Susan of course gets the "Blonde Goddess" treatment. Though the film starts out relatively slow, the final half hour tries to make up for it by piling on the nudity, gore and tastelessness in huge doses. Ignoring the frequent animal death, this - in its uncut form - has lots of spearings, a decapitation, a castration, guts and hearts being ripped out of bodies, an arm bitten off by an alligator, a sadistic dwarf, rape and a scene of a man simulating sex with a huge boar (!), among other things. The Sri Lanka locations are great and the photography and score are both decent.

I doubt Swedish actress Andress, who became an international sex icon thanks to her performance as deadly bikini-clad sexpot Honey Ryder in the James Bond flick Dr. No (1962), knew what she'd signed up for when she agreed to appear in this one. Then in her 40s, Andress' career was starting to sag by this point so I'd venture a guess and say she felt that taking on this sexy role (which somewhat echoed the title character she's played in the successful Hammer fantasy-adventure She [1965]) would revive her career. Needless to say, being featured in scenes where she has to consume native vomit and get the juicy remains of her decomposing husband rubbed all over her face did nothing of the sort. The moment most people is remember is when she's stripped and covered with some kind of orange goo by two nude native women. Though Keach receives star billing, he's not really the actual star. It's quite possible that none of them knew the animal scenes would be added later since all they do is look off to the side and gasp, which is when that footage has been inserted. I do have to praise the actors for one thing: this does not look like an easy shoot and the leads appear to have performed many of their own stunts. It also showed a level of bravery for Andress to have a real boa wrapped around her and for Cassinelli to handle what appears to be a real cobra.

The DVDs are from Anchor Bay and Blue Underground, which feature the extended 103-minute print. The original U.S. theatrical release and most of the earliest VHS releases use the heavily censored R-rated cut, which runs just 86 minutes. In the UK, it was banned for years as part of the 'video nasty' list.


Trauma (1962)

... aka: Appuntamento col cadavere (Appointment with the Dead)

Directed by:
Robert Malcolm Young

A psycho is running rampant in the small town of Oakmont and fifteen-year-old orphan Emmaline (Lorrie Richards) is shaken up after having to go to morgue to identify the body of one of the victims. Later that night she returns home to the large mansion she shares with her wheelchair-bound aunt Helen Garrison (Lynn Bari), who tells her headstrong niece to stop going out at night all alone less she wants to become the next victim. Emmaline is awoken from her sleep by the sounds of arguing and then screaming outside by the swimming pool. Before she can make it out there, her aunt has been drown. Witnessing the murder traumatizes Emmaline so badly she goes into a deep shock and suffers from amnesia. She's shipped off to live in Europe and undergoes years of therapy while developing a talent for painting. Finally cured, she marries Warren Clyner (John Conte), a much-older man who'd had business dealings with her late aunt, and the two return to States to take care of business. Since Emmaline was the last remaining descendant of the Garrison family, she's acquired a considerable fortune, which can now be dispersed to her and her husband because she's just turned 21.

Upon arrival, Warren instructs the hired hands not to stoke the fires of the past by saying anything that'll make Emmaline recall her previous life. She's since forgotten it and, in fact, cannot remember anything at all about her life after witnessing Helen's murder. Luther Schoonover (Warren J. Kemmerling), the handyman and caretaker of the estate who's known Emmaline since she was a child, and his nephew Craig (David Garner), an architect who's just here helping his old uncle out, are also around to help get things in order. Warren immediately calls up lawyer Thaddeus Hall (William Bissell) about getting the inheritance and learns they'll have to wait six to eight weeks to get it. Till then, it's just biding time. Despite being newlyweds, Warren seems highly annoyed by his attractive, sweet new wife. He's out of town a lot, ignores her when he is there, has a tendency to snap over small things and isn't the least bit interested in her paintings or her feelings. All he cares about is the money. It's no wonder Emmaline then finds herself being drawn to Craig instead.

Being back in the home triggers brief memories in our heroine, but just like dreams, they only come to her in small bits and pieces and are quickly forgotten. A image here, a voice there... None of it makes much sense. Her subconscious memories sometimes even manifest themselves in her paintings. One of a horse stable larger than it appears gets Craig thinking that there may be a secret room hidden inside and, sure enough, there is. Once he finds it behind some paneling, he and Emmaline discover it's a child's room. That child was Everett; Emmaline's mentally-impaired cousin, who suffered a brain injury when he was just 3 years old and became emotionally stunted. Helen claimed to the outside world that Everett had died when he was eight. In actuality, she faked his death and kept him hidden away in the secret room as the family shame. Since Warren turns out to be a con artist in desperate need of fast cash and Everett may still be alive and lurking the grounds, which of the two actually murdered Helen?

Advertised as an all-out horror film (the biggest startle is actually the announcement of the opening credits 15 minutes into it!), this is more of a mystery / psycho-drama. It's very low-budget (69,000 dollars) and very talky, but it's done with some basic skill, the mystery elements hold together reasonably well and it wisely saves most of its curve balls for the last 15 minutes. Top-billed "stars" Bari (who'd had lead roles in Shock [1946] with Vincent Price and The Amazing Mr. X [1948] with Turhan Bey) and Conte are not the actual stars. That honor goes to Richards; a pretty, competent actress whose only other credits were on TV and in the same year's fantasy-adventure The Magic Sword. In fact, Trauma is her last known credit. This was the only film for its director, who is best known as a writer who'd pen The Crawling Hand (1963), Escape from Witch Mountain (1975) for Disney and episodes of Night Gallery and Tales of the Unexpected.

Now in the public domain, Trauma is easy to find online to view for free (it's on both archive.org and Youtube). The most common DVD release is through Alpha Video Distributors.

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