Wednesday, August 22, 2018

THE MAFU CAGE 1978






      Sisters Ellen (Lee Grant) and Cissy (Carol Kane) live together in sprawling Los Angeles mansion which is festooned with African art and tropical plants. Their father was a famous African anthropologist who spent most of his life over there with the younger daughter Cissy and after his death she has moved in with her older sister. Ellen works at Griffith Park Observatory and seems to indulge her younger sister's fascination with all things African allowing their home to be turned into a shrine to their father's work. Ellen had promised her father that she would always take care of the fragile Cissy and having spent most of her life with her father in Africa Cissy has become a virtual shut-in in her fantasy world that Ellen encourages. 
    Right off the bat we're shown that perhaps things are not all right as far as Cissy's mental stability is concerned. Child-like and never leaving the house she walks around near naked or dresses in African tribal clothing and constantly refers to her "mafu" and when she can get a new one. A large empty cage sets in one of the rooms and it's reveled that Crissy has had a series of primates she keeps as pets before she loses patience with them and kills them. Understandably Ellen is reluctant to provide her with a new companion while at the same time she's involved in a relationship with a co-worker David (James Olson) who she pushes back on when he tries to get serious with her.
     A family friend named Zom (Will Greer) brings over an orangutan (credited as 'Budar") to Crissy for a short period before it's and Ellen agrees to let her keep it if she promises not to harm him. When Ellen is forced to leave town for a few days and her boyfriend David makes an unexpected visit to the house things begin to spiral out of control and the feeling of queasiness and underlying terror that's been lurking in the plot he's brought to full force in the film's insane final act.




     Directed by Karen Arthur (who later went on to have a prolific TV career) it was marketed to play up the perceived horror elements but it really plays out as psychological terror and along such films as THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976) and 1971's LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH it also mixes feminism along with those psychological terror elements (with a bit of GREY GARDENS mixed in too.) Set almost entirely inside the bric-a-brac stuffed house which combined with the small cast brings a very claustrophobic feeling to the film's atmosphere which adds to slowly encroaching fear of what's going on with Crissy's escalating mental state. You get the feeling Ellen knows deep inside what's going on with Crissy and Ellen's oblivious denials which are brought on partly by loyalty and love none the less.
   The film moves into almost black comedy at certain points and almost makes you laugh nervously as we watch Crissy interact with her new mafu which are set against not to subtly implied incestuous relationship between the sisters (at one point Cissy remarks to Ellen "it's been a long time since you made me gush") along with it being implied that Crissy has had sex with her simian companions. Sadly these sordid plot points would become the selling factors for the film in some of its later release under titles such as MY SISTER, MY LOVE and DEVIATION.




    A criminally underused actress Carol Kane is wonderful here alternating between child-like innocence full on creepy an bring some genuine pathos to a role that could have easily been just crazy psycho. An amazing performance, most of her dialogue  with the orangutan seems to be ad-libbed. In almost any other scenario Kane would over-shadow anyone else in the film , but Lee Grant brings a delicate sensitivity to the role as someone who cares deeply for her sister while also realizing she is complacent in her sisters downward spiral.
    Written by Don Chastin and based upon a stage play by Eric Wespal it failed miserably at the box office even at one point being picked up by exploitation guru Jerry Gross (who also distributed ZOMBIE and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD) who ran it under the DEVIATION title. Baffling many a viewer who caught it on late night TV it even showed up in one of those big ol' Wizard video boxes.
    A big thanks to Realweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place for hosting this blogathon in honor of the lovely and talented Lee Grant whose 93rd(!!) birthday is coming up this Oct. 31.









Friday, August 10, 2018

LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY 1970




     Marketed as "biker" movie to latch on the then still popular drive-in genre, LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY is actually less of a motorcycle movie then a road movie/character driven film involving male bonding and friendship of guys that just happen to race motorcycles.  Playing a totally unremorseful a-hole it's probably Robert Redford's best role and thankfully has recently made a long overdue appearance on home video. Directed by the prolific Sidney Furie (DR. BLOOD'S COFFIN), it was written by Charles Eastman (who played bit parts in Monte Hellman's 60's counter-culture westerns RIDE THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING). Character actor Brad Dexter (the one member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN that people always forget) was the executive producer. Immediately preceding his big box office hits of the mid/late 70's this film has always been the odd man out on Redford's resume and its frequent showings on TV after he become a big star reportedly rankled him.
    Opening on beautiful long shot of motorcycles racing through a vast expanse of empty desert while Johnny Cash's title song plays over the credits we're introduced to Fauss Little (Michael J. Pollard) and Halsy Knox (Redford) two participants in a motorcycle race. Immediately we're shown the two distinct personalities of the pair as Little clumsily falls over his bike and ends riding in the wrong direction while a bare-chested Redford arrogantly strolls about the track and steals a sandwich from a vendor who happens to be Fauss's mother & father. The parents are a pair of delightful performances by Noah Berry Jr. THE ROCKFORD FILES and Lucille Benson who along her numerous credits played the owner of the roadside zoo in DUEL as you can really picture them being Pollard's parents. 




   Halsey catches the eye of a photographer (ubiquitous TV character actor Ray Ballard) who notices a long scar down Halsy's back which we're shown in a long pov pan shot in close-up. The scar figures into Redford's character in that he gives various stories to its cause and adds to his shifty personality while also adding a touch of sympathy for someone who can never be completely honest. Using his girlfriend (Erin O'Reilly THE BABY 1973) to seduce the photographer the next morning Halsy steals his wallet and camera while sneaking out on the sleeping pair.
    Hooking up with Fauss, Halsy convinces him to go on the road together with Fauss acting as "tuner" or mechanic while Halsy races under Fauss's name as Halsy in banned from racing as we in leaned in an overheard conversation "that's the guy that was boozing it up in the pits". At first the pair seem to bond as Fauss looks up in awe to the womanizing braggart Halsy including an encounter with Linda Gaye Scott (THE PARTY 1968). The pairs journey takes them on what seems like endless miles of barren road with the only other encounter with other people being when they stop to race.
    They meet up with wondering hippie Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton in an early role) whose introduced in a long shot as she runs naked through shimmering heatwaves appearing like a mirage to a group of open-mouthed men. Although both men are dismissive of her when she hitches a ride, they both slowly become attracted to her which leads to clashes and Fauss slowly distancing himself from Halsy. Rita while initially coming across as bit spaced out eventually becomes the most mature of the trio while still being attracted to Halsy sees him for what he is while still felling some sympathy for him and at times treating him like a child.




   It's to Redford's credit that he makes Halsy a compelling figure that the audience does feel something toward especially during a couple of his monologues where he relates conflicting stories of his back injury. Michael Pollard is an actor that although always playing basically the same type of character also has that magical quality to quietly steal whatever movie he's in and reportedly Redford and he did not get along on the set.
     A great example of the road movie genre that proliferated during the 70's (starting with 1968's EASY RIDER) LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY like many those other films is set in the barren landscapes of the American west and with its scenes of dilapidated roadside buildings, seedy highway motels and greasy diners most of which have disappeared that make these films snapshots of a vanishing landscape.
     Long unavailable on any form of home video (I had an old VHS taped from Speedvision that I kept for years) it was only available via bootleg from random TV broadcasts that all but destroyed the widescreen cinematography, it's been released on Blu ray by Olive.





















   

Friday, June 8, 2018

THE TOUCH OF SATAN 1971



     One of the countless low budget Satan based occult films that proliferated in the 70's this slow- moving oddity was released numerous times over that decade under various titles usually meant to cash in on whatever movie was popular at the time such as 1973's THE EXORCIST. It's best remembered today as an early work for cinematographer Jordan Cornenweth who later shot BLADERUNNER and had just completed BREWSTER MCCLOUD for Robert Altman. Director Robert Henderson also directed the Crown drive-in classics THE BABYSITTER (1969) and WEEKEND WITH THE BABYSITTER (1972) and there've always been persistent rumors that it's Tom Laughlin (BILLY JACK) working under a pseudonym.
    In a prologue where shown what appears to be an elderly woman with a horrifically scared face killing a farmer with a pitchfork and setting his house on fire. Stumbling home, she's meet by her family consisting of an elderly couple and a young girl who argue over the best course of action and allude to the fact that this has happened before.



     Nice guy Jodie (Michael Berry) is rambling about the USA in his new Ford Mustang when he stopping to eat he meets Melissa (who was the young girl from the prologue and his played in all sorts of beguiling 70's cuteness by Emby Mellay (BLACK JACK 1972). Instantly attracted to each other Melissa explains that she lives on a nearby "walnut ranch" (??) and invites him home for dinner.
     Her parents (the couple from the prologue) while initially hesitant about his presence soon warm to and discuss among themselves how it'll do Melissa good. Jodi who's under pressure from his father to settle down accepts their invitation to stay on for a few days with the burgeoning romance with Melissa also factoring in. His first night there the elderly woman from the initial killing scene wanders into his room and warns him to leave after which Melissa explains her away as her grandmother.
     There's a flashback sequence showing the burning of a with during the 1800's which ties into modern times regarding Melissa and her "grandmother" which shouldn't be too hard for most viewers to see coming, but the ending does have a bit of a twist and 70's downbeat vibe. The juxtaposition of New England folk-horror and witchcraft into sunny California is an inter sting idea but the movie spends way too long on the romance between Jodie and Melissa and too little in the witchcraft side of things. The script is full of odd little phrases and asides including the above mentioned "walnut ranch" and Melissa pointing to a pond and saying, "That's the pond where the fish lives".



     Some more fleshing out the supernatural/witchcraft elements would have helped, and if you want to see just how effective a story of an outsider blundering into a modern witchcraft setting can be just watch 1960's CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) or THE WICKER MAN (1973) - although to be fair the British do have a knack for this type of thing. Several bloody killings help elevate it above 70's TV fare and Emby Mellay is good in her role as the mysterious child-like Melissa. Although she has zero chemistry with Jodie,  it's easy to see how a young man could fall for her. Not a great movie (or as some would argue not even a good one) it consistently falls into one of those "worst movies ever made" discussions and it even had the requisite MST3K drubbing. I find those low budget oddities from the 70's & 80's endlessly fascinating and there always seems to be one more of these weird little "gems" waiting to be discovered with each having their own little charms.
    Cornenweth's work as DP helps elevate the film a bit including some beautiful shots of the sun dappled California countryside (in was filmed in Santa Ynez which is near Santa Barbara) and an impressive 360 degree shot as it circles Melissa when she slowly realizes the true horror of her grandmother.
    Under various times this has been released as THE TOUCH OF MELISSA, THE CURSE OF MELISSA, PITCHFORK and it even popped up in the early 80's as NIGHT OF THE DEMON (not to be confused with the 1957 Jacques Tourneur classic or James Wasson's 1980 bigfoot gore film). It's been released on various budget labels and is paired with James H. Kay weird SEEDS OF EVIL (1974) on a Code red DVD with the colorful, but emulsion scratched TOUCH OF SATAN (bearing a NIGHT OF THE DEMON title card) looking like it was dragged through the parking lot of a drive-in which does add a nice bit of grindhouse flavor to the proceedings.