Macumba Sexual

Macumba Sexual (Jess Franco, 1981)

 

After years of strict censorship under General Franco’s regime, Spanish cinema went through a big change when censorship was finally lifted in 1977 – two years after Franco’s death. The dictator’s namesake, prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, had been spending most of the 1970s making movies in other European countries like France , Switzerland and Italy , but chose to return to his homeland in the early 1980s. Here, Franco would make use of the newfound filmic freedom in Spain to make a number of strong erotic films, among which MACUMBA SEXUAL is one of the most revered by Franco fans.

Once again, Franco casts his life partner and muse Lina Romay (credited here as ‘Candy Coster’) in the leading role. Romay plays Alice Brooks, an attractive real estate agent who is vacationing in the Canary Islands with her novelist husband (Franco favorite Antonio Mayans – credited under his usual ‘Robert Foster’ moniker). They relax, enjoy the sun and have lots of sex but at night, Alice is haunted by a recurring sexual nightmare. In this vivid dream, she encounters a striking black woman named Tara (Ajita Wilson), who keeps a crawling naked man and woman on leashes, as if they were dogs. Tara then lets her “pets” loose and laughs creepily as they attack and ravage the screaming Alice .

In the middle of her holiday, Alice receives a phone call from her boss, who tells her that a certain Princess Obango is interested in buying one of their properties in Atlantic City . Since the princess is living close to where Alice is vacationing, Alice ‘s boss wants her to secure the business deal, to which she agrees. But once she meets with Princess Obango, Alice is shocked to see that the princess is the sinister black woman from her nightmares. Poor Alice is powerless against the princess’s dark powers and quickly falls under her seductive spell. Little does she know about the frightening fate Obango has planned for her…

With a filmography as immense as Jess Franco’s, it goes without saying that different fans are going to like different films. Some may prefer his early Dr. Orlof films, while others may like his Swiss films better, and others yet may have a penchant for his films with Soledad Miranda etc. Personally, I tend to prefer the films Franco made in the late 1960s and early 1970s; particularly the ones he made for Harry Alan Towers . His work from the early 1980s and onwards, however, is quite erratic. Sure, Franco enjoyed more freedom to make the films he wanted during this period, but many of these projects are plagued by the fact that Franco was starting to get a bit too productive. He was churning out up to eight movies a year and not really taking the time to polish one film before starting to shoot the next. And whereas his earlier films had been made with decent means, many of these 80s productions were obviously made on poverty-row budgets – typically taking place in minimal surroundings and inhabited only by a few (mostly naked) actors. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t – resulting in some rather carelessly made films. Fortunately, though, MACUMBA SEXUAL is one of Franco’s films from this period that really works. It manages to betray its low budget by shooting in the beautiful Canary Islands ; putting the picturesque locations to great use and cleverly throwing in all sorts of interesting stuff that happened to be there: beautiful buildings, exotic African statues and figurines etc. Franco’s trademark zoom lens is also present but it doesn’t matter as Juan Soler’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; showing great detail for both composition and visual flair as he captures the atmospheric surroundings.

Plot-wise, MACUMBA SEXUAL is pretty much a remake of VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), one of the most popular films in Franco’s oeuvre. This is nothing new as Franco has always been fond of reworking many of his plots and themes in different films. However, not a whole lot actually happens in this film but it still works pretty well because of its eerie atmosphere and visual style. The opening third is especially impressive; setting the tone early on with Alice ‘s unsettling and bizarre sexual nightmares. The pace does slow down a bit in the middle act but there is still a lot to enjoy as the film is full of arresting images, such as Alice struggling as she runs through the giant sand dunes, her husband being locked up in a big bamboo cage, and an amazing sequence where Princess Obango descends into complete delirium by sucking on a phallic figurine while frenetic drum music plays. Eventually, dream and reality are successfully blended together; leaving the viewers confused about what is real and what isn’t.

In an inspired choice of casting, Franco awards the role of Princess Tara Obango to Ajita Wilson, a prolific actress in numerous erotic European films (both soft and hard), who had already acted for Franco in his sleazy WIP flick SADOMANIA (1980). Much of Ajita’s popularity throughout Europe (she worked regularly in Italy , Spain and Greece ) was no doubt a result of both her uninhibited nature and her fascinating personal life as she was reputedly a post-op transsexual. Unfortunately, Ajita died in an automobile accident in 1987, and her personal life remains a fascinating enigma to this day. As Franco himself states in the interview on the DVD, Ajita was really more of a presence than an actress but what a mesmerizing presence! Her enigmatic real-life personality lends an aura of mystery to her character and she is nothing short of the perfect embodiment of the dark, frightening sexuality the film deals with.

I must admit I’ve never really understood why so many fans worship Lina Romay as an outstanding cinematic beauty. Frankly, she always struck me as rather mousy and plain-looking in several of her 1970s films. In my eyes, Lina only gradually grew more attractive towards the end of the 70s, and in this film she looks the most appetizing and sexy I’ve ever seen her – wearing a blonde wig that really becomes her. Like Ajita, Romay is perhaps a better presence than she is an actress, and manages to emote immensely through her expressive sexuality. Romay’s big, vivid eyes are very telling too, and she’s extremely effective as the victimized Alice – delivering a strong and sometimes unsettling sexual performance.

The sex scenes are very strong and explicit overall, and although this is a softcore flick, some of the sexual going-ons look as if they were non-simulated. Just keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch some brief naughty bits in the scene where Alice is giving her husband a blowjob. Playing the role of the husband is Antonio Mayans, another frequent Franco collaborator since way back in the 1970s. Mayans is usually a welcome sight but here he plays an awfully boring character and is actually given very little to do. He gets to participate in several sex scenes, though, and has a pretty nice THE SHINING-inspired moment where he keeps typing the name ‘Tara’ over and over and over again on his typewriter. And as usual, Franco gives himself a supporting role; playing a sweaty and creepy hotel manager. It’s more or less the same character he played in VAMPYROS LESBOS but he’s somewhat more sympathetic this time around.

Previously available mostly through fuzzy-looking, unsubtitled bootlegs, Severin’s DVD release of MACUMBA SEXUAL is a true revelation. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, it looks absolutely stunning, with striking colors and no print damage in sight. The Spanish mono audio sounds very clear and nice even though the actual dubbing could have been better (Romay’s moans during sex scenes are never all that convincing). Optional and easy to read English subtitles are also included.

There’s only one extra but it’s a good one: a 22 minute feature named “Voodoo Jess”, in which Franco (speaking in accented English with available subtitles) and Romay (who speaks in Spanish with English subtitles) recount their experience with working on the film. Franco talks about his returning to Spain and how he feels the two things necessary to make a good film are simply a camera and freedom. He also praises Ajita Wilson and even draws some comparisons between her and Christopher Lee. He is somewhat unsure about whether or not Ajita was a transsexual, but Romay (who got ample opportunity to inspect Ajita’s private parts during their lesbian scenes) confirms that she definitely was.

All in all, this is an extremely satisfying package. Severin have given us a fantastic DVD release of one of Franco’s best films of the early 1980s. Like most other Franco films, MACUMBA SEXUAL isn’t for everyone’s taste but for fans of Jess Franco and Ajita Wilson, this is an essential purchase.

(Johan Melle)

 

Devil Hunter

Devil Hunter (Jess Franco, 1980)

aka Sexo canibal / El cannibal

Scouting locations for her new film, actress/model Laura Crawford (Ursula Buchfellner, LINDA, HELLHOLE WOMEN) is kidnapped from her bubble-bath and carried off into the jungle to be held for ransom by her former assistant (Gisela Hahn, CONTAMINATION, MR. SCARFACE), suave Thomas (Antonio de Cabo, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, CECILIA) and unstable Chris (Werner Pochath, MOSQUITO). While Laura spends most of the time chained up naked and under threat of sexual violation, Vietnam vets Peter (Al Cliver/Pier Luigi Conti, ZOMBI 2, LAURE) and pal Jack (Robert Foster/Antonio Mayans, MACUMBA SEXUAL, CECILIA) are dispatched to rescue her. Complicating matters is a seven foot, bulging-eyed, buck naked, cannibal revered by the locals as a god (cue zoom into hilariously fake totem pole) and regularly supplied with fresh, nubile – though not necessarily virgin – sacrifices and Laura seems like the likely next candidate after the requisite number of second-string good and bad guys are picked off by cannibal or gunfire.

Criticized as another racist cannibal film (probably mostly on the basis of its alternate title MANDINGO MANHUNTER and its “Video Nasty” status in the UK), Franco’s DEVIL HUNTER aka EL CANNIBAL is really too ridiculous to take seriously; even in a politically correct context. Like Franco’s other cannibal films of the period, it’s more of a throwback to the jungle epics of thirties and forties (even Sergio Martino’s better-budgeted, khaki-and-pith-helmeted throwback MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD has more in common with the more exploitative and casually racist MONDO CANE-influenced Italian cannibal sub-genre). A co-production between Eurocine and Julian Esteban’s JE Films – producer of Franco’s superior EROTISMO and another Eurocine co-production SEXUAL ABBERATIONS OF A HOUSEWIFE (the longer French Eurocine revision of which is available from Blue Underground as CECILIA) – and Germany’s Lisa Film, it seems to be generally agreed that this is the better of Franco’s cannibal films and having seen WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN (on DVD from Blue Underground in an undeservedly flawless transfer as CANNIBALS) I’m inclined to agree.

In addition to Cliver, who had also starred in Franco’s other cannibal film, the film features a higher profile cast including Playmate Buchfellner and German actor Pochath. The cast also includes infrequent Franco collaborator Muriel Montrosse/Vicky Adams (CECILIA, INCONFESSIBLE ORGIES OF EMANUELLE) and Franco regulars (both in front and behind the camera) De Cabo and Mayans. The gore is nowhere near as “accomplished” as DEVIL HUNTER’s Italian competitors and even the raison d’etre sex scenes seem more gratuitous than usual (Montrosse and Mayans seem to have been cast simply to couple and be killed). What positive qualities the film possesses lie with such familiar presences and the attractive cinematography of Juan Soler (hampered as it is at times by that ridiculous monster POV smeared lens that even extends to shots preceding the monster’s appearance in the scene and shots including him) whose talents are better served in some of Franco’s more personal eighties works. Franco and longtime musical collaborator Daniel White provides an undistinguished electronic score all-too-typical of their eighties’ work.

Although licensed from Eurocine, the Spanish-language credits suggest that this was at least partly sourced from Spanish elements (note the JE Films logo rather than the more familiar block-lettered “EUROCINE presents”). I cannot be entirely sure about this as my only other source of reference was Video Asia’s absolutely horrid bootleg disc – which paired a rip of the optically-fogged Japanese tape release with a ridiculously large bottom matte to cover up the subs – which cut off the opening credits but featured the Spanish end credits; Eurocine may penny-pinch with production costs but they always created French and English credits for their films (as well as creating new ones in preparation for video releases in the eighties and DVD in the nineties). As the film was shot in the early eighties so there are no concerns of alternate clothed takes which one usually runs into with Spanish films of the seventies.

On the other hand, DEVIL HUNTER has been available in a number of cuts over the years; none of which could be deemed integral nor apparently could they be described as butchered (save the Japanese fogging). With several versions to consult, Severin has utilized every single scrap Eurocine had available (as such, most of the rediscovered footage are lengthier views of writhing naked ceremonies. Letterboxed at 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, Severin’s HD transfer does have some contrast issues with hazy shadows. Ghosting and saw-tooth artifacts suggest that the HD master was downconverted to PAL before standards conversion to NTSC (which is disappointing given that Severin’s LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH DVD was progressive and time-corrected unlike the previous Japanese NTSC release). English and French audio tracks are included along with English subtitled. No theatrical trailer seems to have been available but Franco contributes another typically engaging interview in English with helpful English subtitles.

(Eric Cotenas)