Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Machete Maidens Unleashed!"

(Reel To Real)

(Australia, 2010, 90 minutes)

Directed by: Mark Hartley

Cast: Eddie Romero, Roger Corman, Judie Brown, Joe Dante, Sid Haig, Lee Ermey, Colleen Camp, Steve Carver, Sam Sherman, Celeste Yarnell

As a life-long fan of exploitation films, critic of shrill anti-horror/anti-porn/anti-videogame demagoguery (often against my better judgment at social gatherings), and champion of most marginalized art forms, I probably have Gerardo de Leone to blame: I was something like 9 or 10 when my hometown's Centre Theatre offered its usual matinee double-bill for the kiddies and I was exposed to the miracle that is/was "Brides Of Blood". I haven't seen it since the late 70s, when "Star Wars" and home video materialized and killed the matinee tradition, nor have I come across it on bootleg VHS or, no doubt, some brand-spankin' new Blu-Ray deluxe edition limited to 5000 copies. I recall it involved a group of Yanks who journeyed to "Blood Island" for various uninteresting reasons. What was most interesting was that the island natives had to appease some jungle-dwelling monster night with sacrificial virgins. Breasts, blood, beasts--Joe Bob Briggs' "The Three B"s right there--were emblazoned onto my young cranium and pretty much corrupted me for life (and this wasn't the worst thing that was screened for us over the years). Not that I'm complaining--if I hadn't have seen BOB I might have ended up a certified public accountant. You've gotta have fun with this stuff.

There's much fun to be had with "Machete Maidens Unleashed!, a riotous tour through 60s and 70s Filipino exploitation cinema that's a worthy companion piece to Hartley's "Not Quite Hollywood", his adrenaline-surged chronicle of Aussie B-movies. It offers up a treasure trove of vintage clips, trailers, (punctuated with witty graphics) and latter-day interviews with many of the surviving participants (many who are lucky to have survived their film careers at all) and unabashed fans of "Pinoy" potboilers.

The history of how the Philippines became a back lot for the American grindhouse is a bit murky, but essentially, Americans were still viewed as liberators after World War 2, so despot Ferdinand Marcos, perhaps in a bid for acceptance of his "New Society", opened his country's doors to filmmakers (lead by Roger Corman, of course) more than welcome to fly over the ocean to pillage cheap exotic locations, cheap labour, access to government resources (esp. the military) with no pesky union rules to hamper speedy production. There were few rules, period.

Despite Marcos’s corrupt Bagong Lipunan campaign of martial law over the entire nation, visiting and even native filmmakers were given free reign to put just about anything up onscreen they desired, and a great many of their efforts featured anti-authoritarian plots.

Not that plot mattered: in a little under two decades, schlock-meisters and starry-eyed ingénues and their betrayed film school idealists churned out monster yarns, women-in-prison sexploitation melodramas, and action scenarios featuring heroes that ranged from washed-up American matinee idols to midget martial-artists.

The cycle came to an abrupt end as political realities made the living conditions perilous: as Marcos' dictatorship unravelled, so did violence increase. The advent of home video would offer the exploitation circuit a new avenue of profit.

Too many anecdotes to even attempt to recount here come fast and furious like verbal mortar rounds: director Brian Trenchard Smith recalls that the Mitchell camera he used was so old it's serial number was "6" and that he'd have to remind the military brass to replace their choppers' live rounds with blanks after a morning strafing the country. Amazingly, there were performers labelled “breakables,” in that for a few bucks, they gladly jumped through glass windows, were set on fire, or jumped from moving vehicles.

Legendary producers Sam Sherman, Roger Corman, veteran performers Sid Haig, Pam Grier, and Colleen Camp, and directors Allan Arkus and Joe Dante, who earlier in their careers edited the trailers for many of these films, talk candidly and humorously of their participation in this bizarre cycle (the latter duo, specifically, on the circumstances behind their notorious helicopter-cutaway shot). Director John Landis, who never directed a film in the Philippines but operates here as a fan and commentator, doesn't really buy the whole "female empowerment" subtext of the women-in-prison cycle, and when some of the actresses--particularly "The Big Dollhouse"s Judy Brown--tell of their treatment, he might have a point...

Two more memorable bits: Roger Corman visibly miffed at having to defend his reputation as being "cheap", and Lee Ermey confessing that he felt "Apocalypse Now" did the men who served in Vietnam a disservice (there some time devoted to Coppola's turbulent and legendary shoot, already well-documented in "Hearts Of Darkness").

There's a fair bit of screen time devoted to acknowledging the contributions of Pinoy cult stalwart John Ashley, who died in 1997. His collaborators speak affectionately of his contributions as actor and producer, which were the polar opposite of his experiences as a teen idol for American International Pictures.

Good-humoured, articulate Edie Romero exudes a sophistication and scholarly knowledge of cinema his actual movies certainly did not. It's perhaps not so strange then, to learn that he was later an ambassador of cinema appointed by Marcos (which is something akin to Andy Milligan getting a Kennedy Center Honour).

No release date as of this writing, but if you're at all remotely interested in the subject matter, you'll find "Machete Maidens Unleashed" a dizzying, dazzling experience. One that's superior to actually having to endure many of the films covered themselves...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis