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.