Friday, March 1, 2019

Il paese del sesso selvaggio (1972)

... aka: Cannibalis: Au pays de l'exorcisme (Cannibalis: In the Land of Exorcism)
... aka: Cannibal World
... aka: Deep River Savages
... aka: Man from Deep River
... aka: Man from the Deep River, The
... aka: Mondo cannibale
... aka: Sacrifice!

Directed by:
Umberto Lenzi

1970 saw the release of Elliot Silverstein's A Man Called Horse, a western set in 1825 detailing British aristocrat John Morgan's (Richard Harris) capture by, and eventual integration into, a tribe of Sioux Indians. The film quickly gained notoriety thanks to a lengthy, gruesome "Sun Vow ritual" scene where John is strung up in a tree by ropes through his flesh in order to prove his worth. It was hugely successful; eventually spawning the sequels The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) and Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983), both of which also starred Harris. As with most lucrative films, others quickly jumped at the chance to emulate its success. Producers Ovidio G. Assonitis and Giorgio Carlo Rossi got in contact with director Umberto Lenzi about directing a cash-in, based on an idea from erotica novelist Emmanuelle Arsan ("Emmanuelle") of all people, relocating the same basic story to the jungle. Instead of Native Americans, there would be Asian native tribes and, instead of one gruesome key set piece, there would be numerous. Italian actor Ivan Rassimov and Burmese / British actress Me Me Lai landed the lead roles and they, along with a small crew, traveled to Thailand and Burma for a difficult 4 month shoot.

Despite copying another film rather closely itself, Man from Deep River ended up being just as influential in its own way. It established and set down the groundwork for later cannibal / jungle shockers to come. You know: White people venture into the jungle. White people are captured by a primitive tribe. White people are tortured and killed by the tribe. It also included scenes of real animals being slaughtered, which would also be included in most of the later films to up the shock factor. Among the titles Man influenced are MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978; starring Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach), Ruggero Deodato's infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) and two more from Lenzi himself: EATEN ALIVE (1980; which also featured Rassimov, Lai and recycled much footage from others in this genre) and the notorious CANNIBAL FEROX (1981). Interestingly, Man itself only contains one brief scene of cannibalism.

American photographer John Bradley (Rassimov) is on a sight-seeing trip in Bangkok when a man in a bar pulls a switchblade on him. During the scuffle, John accidentally stabs him, runs off and then gets on a train taking him far away from the big city. He hires a young guide - Chuan (Prapas Chindang) - and the two of them end up in a small village, where they charter a boat to head out deep into the jungle so John can take photographs. Before leaving, John pays off a man to keep quiet in case the authorities should show up there looking for him. That turns out to be a huge mistake. John falls asleep for a nap, wakes up to find his guide dead and is then captured in a net by tribesmen, tied to a pole and dragged off to a village. Tribal elder Lahuna (Ong Ard) believes he is a "fish-man" and puts him to work capturing turtles, but Lahuna's daughter Maraya (Me Me Lai) wants him as her personal slave, so father (sort of) complies with her wishes.

John is kept in a hut tied to pole when he isn't out doing labor at spear-point, but finds an ally in Taima (Sulaleewan Suwanthat); an old woman who was raised by missionaries and knows English (unbeknownst to the rest of the tribe). Maraya falls in love with him and she makes him work naked, but scar-faced warrior Karen (Prasitsak Singhara) is pissed at all of the attention Maraya bestows upon the blonde-haired visitor. When John tries to escape, he ends up in a duel-to-the-death with his rival and manages to kill him, which puts him up for a position as a warrior. He's tied up to a slowly-spinning contraption and natives use blow guns to shoot tiny arrows into his flesh. He's then tied up outside to bake in the sun for awhile. John manages to survive the ordeal and finds his rank among the tribe increasing, particularly after he saves a young boy's life. 

As John gradually becomes accustomed to their ways, rituals and language, he realizes it may not be such a bad life after all, especially after Maraya picks him to be her husband and becomes pregnant with his child. A jealous witch doctor (Song Suanhud) in the tribe burns voodoo dolls in their likeness and soon Maraya becomes sick and goes blind. Another nearby tribe - The Kuru's - are blood-thirsty cannibals who like to swing by every so often to gang rape the women, dismember them and then consume their flesh.

Man from Deep River contains just what one may expect of it if they've seen other films in this sub-genre. Arms are hacked off, tongues are cut out, people are periodically speared, stabbed, sliced and tortured and lots of animals are actually killed; including many snakes (including a cobra during a fight with a mongoose), as well as pigs, goats, a monkey and other poor creatures. There's plenty of nudity, too. There's rape, several sex scenes and a woman whose husband is killed in an accident has to have a gang bang with all interested parties on top of her husband's ashes to allow her to marry again (a scene repeated in Lenzi's Eaten Alive).

Still, this movie feels different than the later films. For starters, Riccardo Pallottini's photography is bright, vivid and crystal clear, which is appropriate since this is more of a gory drama than an all-out horror film. Unlike in the later entries, the tribes people in this one aren't cruel, unreasonable savages bent on doing horrible things to whatever unlucky person stumbles upon their village. The ones here have personalities and are better defined as individuals with clear positions among the tribe. Some even wear colorful sarongs and regular clothes and their huts are even pretty nice and well-decorated. The village is set in a rather wide-open space near a river where a helicopter periodically flies overhead so the usual sense of dense, dark, impenetrable jungle and complete isolation from the 'civilized' world isn't quite established.

Approached on its own terms without certain expectations brought upon by what would come later, this is a pretty good film and is perhaps Lenzi's best all-around feature. It made a huge amount of money all over the world (including in America where it played under the title Sacrifice!), so Lenzi was approached about reuniting Rassimov and Lai for a follow-up. When the producers refused to meet his salary requirements, they instead hired Ruggero Deodato and the resulting film was JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (which was filmed in 1976 and hit U.S. theaters in 1978 under the title The Last Survivor).

Femina ridens (1969)

... aka: Frightened Woman, The
... aka: Laughing Woman, The
... aka: Le duo de la mort (The Duo of Death)

Directed by:
Piero Schivazappa

Newly-hired journalist Maria Egstrom (Dagmar Lassander) shows up at a philanthropic organization looking for material on an article she's working on about forced male sterilization in India. Before agreeing to hand over said documents, organization director Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) first engages her in a conversation about the topic. When she expresses favor for the program as she doesn't feel as if women should always bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to taking precautions, Sayer gives her a long, impassioned and bizarrely angry rebuttal. To him, the practice is monstrous and barbaric. He likens it to a "permanent incapacity" and insists that "the potency of the male" must always be protected. Instead of taking such drastic measures to curb population growth, he instead wants to focus on sound educational programs and what he feels is "a practical appeal to responsibility." Despite his annoyance, he agrees to allow her access to the research papers, but she has to stop by his home, which is out in the boonies and difficult to find, to get them.

Upon arrival at the doctor's mansion, she's taken aback by his décor, which isn't exactly fitting for someone known for their generosity and philanthropy. For starters he has a massive collection of daggers but even more curious is his idea of charming decorative art including paintings of various bacteria, protozoa and viruses like the bubonic plague, rabies and leprosy. He offers her a scotch, which he's drugged. After she passes out, he takes her to a large, secure bunker, handcuffs her to a wall, threatens to stab her and goes on paranoid rants about a conspiracy of women planning to make themselves both socially and sexually self-sufficient. He believes women have secretly been conspiring together to collect male sperm and deep freeze it, and then incubate their offspring instead of giving birth, in their quest to eventually make men completely obsolete.

This is all the arrogant, crazed doctor's idea of weekend entertainment and Maria certainly isn't the first unwilling female to take part. Sayer likes to document (via audio recordings and still photos) the torture and murder of his captives. He even shows Maria a slide show of his various activities to give her an idea of what she's in for. But before he murders her, he first wants to play with her, torture her and try to break her ("You must face the fact that you are my slave. I can do everything to you for my pleasure.... kill you if I want."). He makes her simulate sex with a mannequin in his likeness and rub his feet and legs. He gags her and makes her watch him eat in silence, cuts off her hair and sprays her down with a high-powered hose. He eventually reveals that the only way he's capable of having sex is through torture as foreplay and then murder as climax.

After about an hour of psycho thrills, this takes an entirely different direction in the final third as we learn that a few things we were led to believe aren't true at all. Sayer remains a disturbed, confused individual, though he explains that as a child he saw a female scorpion eat the male during sex and was forever affected by it. He perhaps would even be open to the idea of Maria potentially "curing" him. However, after the hell he's put her through, she may not even be interested in helping... and who could blame her! There's also the chance she has, and has always had, her own agenda or will opt for revenge now that he's in an emotionally vulnerable state.

Visually, there's some pretty neat stuff in here, most especially the production design from Francesco Cuppini. The doctor's residence; a labyrinth of minimally-dressed rooms which have no real personality, is pretty interesting. Everything is uncluttered, sterile, pathologically orderly and electronically operated by push button. This is the kind of home where if something doesn't serve a purpose or have a direct use there's no place for it, which tells you a lot about the lead male character. The most memorable bit of wacky production design though occurs during a hallucination scene where we get a giant papier-mâché prop of a woman's spread legs with a doorway in the center complete with toothy doors. It's so big it had to be constructed in a warehouse! Subtle imagery it's not. But it's great, anyway.

The kitsch, psychedelia, feminism, psycho-drama, mild camp and Sayer's amusingly demented little monologues all make for a fairly entertaining movie, even if the events and characters don't have much emotional weight behind them. Seeing how we're squarely in the female corner from the very beginning as the male is portrayed as a cocky, paranoid control freak fueled by an irrational and ridiculous philosophy, this isn't so much a "battle of the sexes" as it is an inner battle of a disturbed man who can't handle assertive women.

There's a great score by Stelvio Cipriari, which was released on vinyl by CAM and on CD by Digitmovies, and Carlo Rambaldi, billed by just his last name, is credited with the special effects, though I'm not sure what exactly that entails. He probably either built the leg statue or the car that turns into a boat (yes, there's one of those in here, too). Or both. Or neither. I have no clue. Those seem to be the only real "effects" in the movie.

Some sources claim the uncut version runs 108 minutes but I don't believe it. The 86 minute version commonly available is also the version endorsed by the director himself so I doubt he'd be cool with a version that has a whopping 22 minutes removed! There was a tie-in novelization by Hadrian Keene released in 1970, the same year this debuted in U.S. theaters with an X rating under the title The Laughing Woman. The DVD title is The Frightened Woman. Fans of Italian thrillers / giallo and gaudy art films will most definitely want to check this out.

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