DIRECTED BY: Mark Hartley
PLOT: Documentary covering exploitation films made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, both by Filipinos and by American companies looking for cheap labor and exotic locations.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few of the films mentioned (For Y’ur Height Only?) might be worthy of consideration for the List, but this documentary survey is a curiosity piece—and possibly a place to get ideas for your Netflix queue.
COMMENTS: There are two strands to Machete Maidens. One is the history of an enterprising but anarchic third-word film industry and the American carpetbaggers who flocked there to make cheap pictures, packed with war stories from those who were there. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who loaned army helicopters to American filmmakers in the evenings after they’d spent the mornings strafing Islamic rebels) and notorious first lady Imelda (who allegedly ordered dead workers’ bodies to be left in the cement of the Manila Film Center so the project could be completed in time to host a film festival) remain in the background as villains throughout the entire epic. On the front lines, American filmmakers and actors relate stories of pistol-packing makeup men and cockroach-infested living conditions (at one point Sid Haig describes his accommodations by saying “I saw a rat carrying a kitten out the window”).
But as interesting as this backdrop might be, the main attraction is not the island’s political scenery, but the movies made there for export. These reflected the evolving shock aesthetic of the American drive-ins, not tropical politics. The scandalous profit margins of native filmmaker Eddie Romero’s “Blood Island” horror movies, with their cheap rubber-masked monsters menacing topless Filipino babes, were the proof-of-concept legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman needed to ship contract director Jack Hill off to the islands to produce his smash hit The Big Doll House. This revolutionary sleaze introduced the world to the concept of women’s prisons as topless entertainment centers, and also to the enormous talents of burgeoning bust icon Pam Grier. When Doll House—which cost $100,000 to make—grossed four million in receipts, the game was on. Throughout the 1970s Corman and copycats outsourced action films, family fantasies, and blaxploitation flicks to the Philippines, with subject matter dictated by audience trends back in the States rather than events on the island. Before Marcos became too crazy and the Americans packed up and went home, the Filipino film craze peaked with the most delirious movie of them all: the legendary Apocalypse Now.
The clips are the meat here, often isolating the single weird or memorable moment out of a 90-minute schlock feature (as Pete Tombs remarks about the over-the-top nuns-n-guns massacre finale of Cleopatra Wong, “if all of the movie had been like that, it would be some kind of a masterpiece.”) In Machete Maidens the viewer gets the distilled essence of what made these flipped out, depraved movies unforgettable. Flaming braziers stuck between a nude woman’s legs! Bat boys gliding through jungle canopies! Topless ladies strapped to tables and menaced with cobras! Three foot nine kickboxing secret agents! And yes, machete maidens! Your reaction to the doc depends on your level of exploitation sophistication. It could serve as a fond trip down memory lane, or a giddy introduction to a new world of malarial movie madness. And if you favor the arthouse over grindhouse, it’s the ultimate cinematic guilty pleasure: all the blood, beasts and breasts with just a taste of the monotonous plots, horrid acting and vapid dialogue.
And it’s all worthy of your time because it’s a slice of movie history. There’s even a discussion of the feminist ramifications of plots wherein the leading ladies get degraded, abused and exposed by men, then turn into avenging bitch heroines who grab automatic weapons and mow down their tormentors. Wherever you’re coming from, you’re likely to enjoy your brief tour of the exploitation jungle. It’s a nice place to visit, even if you’re happy to return to civilized filmmaking when it’s all over.
The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film may be long passed, but we’re living in the Golden Age of the Exploitation Film Documentary right now. First came Mark Hartley’s Australian exploitation exposé Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! In true exploitation fashion, Ozploitation‘s unexpected success kicked off a host of imitators, including releases just this year of Nightmares in Red White and Blue, American Grindhouse, and Trailers From Hell, Vol 2. If you watch more than one of these, you’ll notice a familiar gang of talking heads turning up over and over: Corman, Dante, Landis. Here, writer and film historian Pete Tombs, who began exploring and cataloging world cinema oddities back in the VHS era, is a most welcome addition to the usual crew. In fact, Machete Maidens Unleashed! plays almost like a film adaptation of his chapter “Shoe Queen of Blood Island” from his seminal 1997 tome “Mondo Macabro : Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World.” (Another 366 fave scribe—Danny Peary, inventor of the term “cult movie”—also makes a brief appearance).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Hartley dives headlong into how this explosion of the perverse and bizarre came to be in the first place setting it all into context while also reveling in the sheer lunacy of the films he’s putting on screen.”–Todd Brown, Twitch (festival screening)