Machete Maidens Unleashed

Certificate: 18
Running time: 88 mins
Director: Mark Hartley
Starring: Marlene Clark, Carmin Argenziano, Roger Corman, Leigh Christian, Eddie Romero, Jack Hill
Genre: Documentary
Format: DVD
Country: Australia

When you sit down to watch a documentary about Filipino exploitation cinema it’s pretty much with a preconceived notion of how you are going to feel about it as it’s hardly a film you’re going to pick at the spare of the moment, you’re pretty much assured you’re going to like it the only question is how much.  Mark Hartley, director of Not Quite Hollywood and Jaws on Trotters (the documentary from the truly wonderful Australia horror Razorback) take his love and knowledge of exploitation cinema and focuses the lens on the most creative realm of the genre.

Kung Fu Cannibals / Raw Force
Like any other documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed is filled with educated and knowledgeable talking heads including John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), Joe Dante (Gremlins, Inner Space) let alone Roger Corman and Steve Carver and memoirs of the real experiences of filming in the Philippines.  Unlike most documentaries there’s something more to their talking head sequences, they all seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about the jaunt down memory lane.  The enthusiasm and joy presented on screen creates a wonderful euphoria in the audience and where it should create an almost them and us mentality to the film the genuine joy transcends that and becomes something that’s closer to allowing the audience to relocate themselves to the warm and fuzzy nostalgia of the directors and actors (including Sid Haig, Suzanne Reed and the excellent Marlene Clark).  Some of the stories demonstrate wonderfully the true frontier spirit that existed in Filipino exploitation film shoots and is still apparent on the screen some forty years on.  Whether it’s Sid Haig recalling the conditions on set and the fact that he once saw a rat jump out a window with a kitten in it’s mouth or the relaxed approach to health and safety (stunt men where advised shortly before being set on fire to jump into the river when they get too warm and to be careful when jumping through glass windows as they were yet to discover candy glass).  When this is taken into consideration the kung fu kick through the moving truck window in Kung Fu Cannibals and the prison escape in The Big Bird Cage are even more impressive than the first time you experience them on screen.

Terror is a Man
The film, even though it only lasted 88 minutes, wasn’t afraid to take it’s time to get to where most people watching wanted it to go.  When you speak of Filipino exploitation films you think of the films of Jack Hill and Cirio Santiago but rather than rush through the origins of the movement it took time to establish the roots than gave the richest and most creative fruit.  Gerrardo De Leon and the young and eager Eddie Romero in the early days with horror offerings like The Raiders of Leyte Gulf and Terror is a Man which surely pioneered the art of the “event gimmick” with the scary moment horror bell, fans of The Beast Must Die will fully understand.  These films established the Philippines as a thriving spot for film making and made it the cinematic home of Roger Corman and his directors for many years to come.  The early war and horror titles gave way to Jack Hill and what Jack Hill did best, lawless women that was more than a little tongue in cheek and a partnership with an inexperienced but highly motivated young actress called Pam Grier.  Upon exporting The Big Doll House back to the U.S the film became the most profitable independent film of the time and gave rise to an entire genre and an opportunity for dozens of directors and hundreds of performers to create something that can truly never be recreated.

For Y'ur Height Only
It’s not just the films that are interesting though, the time period and the different climates of the time are what help to make the Filipino exploitation films even more amazing.  So many of the offerings involved some form of revolutionary, The Big Bird Cage for example features a rather lazy revolutionary (Haig) who breaks the women out of prison with the hope that they will help win the fight against the dictatorship, this in itself isn’t amazing but when you consider the fact the Filipino directors were being disappeared for even looking sideways at the Marcos regime let alone promoting the virtues revolution it’s even more amazing that, not only, these films were made but that those involved were able to leave the country and return later to make another and another.  The fact that these films were so well received in the U.S is one thing but the true proof of their value is the fact that it managed to inspire the film makers of the Philippines to create a cinematic movement that would be Nationalistic which it did.  The fact that one of it’s figure heads, Weng Weng, became an International icon (all two foot nine inches of him) and his films The Impossible Kid and For Y’ur Height Only achieved cult status outside of the Philippines is simply amazing.  John Landis (in the film) would poo poo the idea of having an intellectual interpretation of the exploitation films he (and others) have made which seems a bit like professional snobbery.  Once a film is made it belongs to those who have chosen to watch it.  Yes exploitation cinema is exploitive (the clue is in the name) but it also more.  The difference between an exploitation film and a film that’s just bad (like a Michael Bay film) is that it strives to be more than budget or talent will allow but that attempt is what makes it better, regardless of whether it actually achieves what it sets out to do.  It’s also under credited with being a genuine forerunner in the feminist movement.  Granted women are exploited in these films (hence the title) but a film that stars four strong confident black women in the central roles.  The Muthers would be one, it’s an exploitation film but is there a mainstream Hollywood one out there?  Even now?  Exactly.

TNT Jackson
The best thing about Machete Maidens Unleashed is what everyone has paid for, the footage.  This film has a mountain of footage from exploitation films.  From Black Mama, White Mama through The Woman Hunt to later offerings like Savage Sisters, TNT Jackson and They Called Her Cleopatra Wong (a huge source of material for modern day film pickpocket Quentin Tarantino) the film must be a decent 50% exploitation footage with quality voice over.  The dialogue in these sequences is nothing short of brilliant, dialogue just isn’t written this way anymore “things were a little tense but it came off alright”[1], “it’s not just blood they suck”[2].  The only issue with the amount of exploitation footage that Machete Maidens Unleashed contains is that it becomes more than a little distracting as you begin to take notes on movies you haven’t seen, haven’t seen in a while and begin to ponder how much money it would cost for you to purchase every movie that Roger Corman, Marlene Clark, Joe Dante and co reference.

This is, unfortunately, not the only fault with Machete Maidens Unleashed.  It’s understandable that they would want to introduce some of the exploitation spirit to the talking heads sequences so that it doesn’t feel like two very different films but the music used in these moments is just flat out terrible.  It’s reminiscent of Nightscreen mixed with the jingle you would hear while on hold with a customer complaints department of a third rate supermarket.  It’s not even funny, like the awkward score of Three Tough Guys, it’s just distracting and takes a lot of effort to ignore without blocking out the amazing and interesting gems being unearthed on screen.  Just awful.

All good things eventually come to an end and eventually the spirit and thematic tones of exploitation cinema were co-opted (primarily by Steven Spielberg [with Jaws] and George Lucas [with Star Wars]) and the most creative period since the second World War and film noir was closed for business.  Machete Maidens Unleashed like the Filipino exploitation films it highlights is a bona fide piece of entertainment.  Like the exploitation films it sits within the boundaries, codes and conventions of it’s genre but manages to deliver not only what it promises, and to an audience that is knowing and expectant, but creates an understanding of the complicated and often disturbing world in which these films were made.  Though it helps to be a fan of exploitation cinema to get the maximum amount of pleasure available from this documentary it’s absolutely not necessary.  If you love film, chaos and a spirit that screams never say die through broken teeth then you’ll love Machete Maidens Unleashed and spend a fortune collecting three decades from the Filipino frontier.

[1] Glora Hendry in Savage Sisters after tearing the penis of an evil prison guard from his body using some rope and the interrogation room door.
[2] Line from Vampire Hookers


Ty said...

Great write-up! Will definitely watch this soon.

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