The Mafu Cage (1978)

SEPTEMBER 25, 2012


Ordinarily, the revival screenings at a film festival don't interest me much, as they're often widely available movies and/or ones I've seen with a crowd (like last year's FF selection of Fulci's Zombi), so I'd rather go see something new. But I didn't get to spend much time with my buddy Sam, and he was all about The Mafu Cage, I opted for it over the other films playing in the same slot (none of which excited me much anyway - plus, if I didn't see this I'd have to find a horror movie to watch on Netflix or something and watch it at the bar, since none of the other films playing today were HMAD-ready).

And man, I'm glad I did. This is the sort of movie where you NEED to watch it with others, because otherwise I'd be convinced I made it up after a fever dream or something. Before the film began, Kier-La Janisse (who wrote a book called "House Of Psychotic Women" and chose Mafu Cage (as well as The Entity) to show at the fest to help promote it) claimed that the film featured Carol Kane's all time craziest performance, which is a very bold claim to make - that's like saying "This Spielberg movie has the most shots of people looking ever!" But damned if she wasn't exaggerating - Kane starts the movie off already pretty nuts, and just gets crazier from there. And she's fully committed to it, to the extent that I often wondered if co-star Lee Grant ever felt unsafe during their more heated scenes.

Now, she's not some generic psycho character - she's a childish, VERY anti-social woman who was raised in African jungles (their father was an explorer/activist type) and has taken to their customs. She's also obsessed with having an ape, and when the film begins she has apparently killed her previous one and is desperate for another. After some concerns are raised, Kane gets her way, and the film gives us one of the most batshit montages I've ever seen - Kane and her new pal (named Mafu) bonding as they play together, share food... it's one of those scenes where the movie could really go either way from this point. Does the ape get possessive, a la Monkey Shines? Does Grant get jealous that her sister no longer depends on her as much?

Well, I won't spoil the answer, only to tell you that things go horribly awry, and the film gives us one of the most horrifying things I've ever seen in a film. And so the madness continues, the levity of the montage a long forgotten memory by the time it reaches its grim conclusion. Sure, there are still moments where one might laugh, but not because it's funny or even pleasant - it's just so damn nutty that you might have to laugh because there's no other way to react to what you're seeing. Even independently, I remain baffled how such a strange, upsetting film ever got produced and theatrically released (and now given a special edition DVD!), because there is absolutely nothing commercial about it. I would love to hear from someone who saw it under the alternate title "Don't Ring The Doorbell", which would suggest it belonged in the same section as Don't Go In The Basement or Don't Answer The Phone - i.e., sleazy drive in type stuff (our very faded print had another title: Deviation).

But in reality director Karen Arthur shies away from anything too exploitative - the film's occasional violent bits are very brief (or off-screen entirely) and the hints that the sisters have had an incestuous relationship are just that. Given the setting (a festival heavily populated with boundary-pushing films), you might expect some full blown exploitation, but it's admirably tasteful. Even when Kane paints herself black as part of a ritual, it doesn't come off as racist ("blackface" aside, she's actually celebrating their culture in a very dedicated way).

And both actresses are so good that it never feels like camp; if I were to describe any scene in detail you might think this was one of the most ludicrous, garish movies ever made, but on-screen it always plays very real and even somewhat sad. Both women are victims of a weird upbringing and have just become broken in different ways (it reminded me a bit of Mysterious Skin in that regard). It's only because she's the more colorful character that the focus lands on Kane - Grant is just as solid, and without her character's turmoil the movie wouldn't work. Kane's just nuts, but Grant is forced to protect her sister and care for her while trying to have her own life. The consequences of those actions are what gives the film's 3rd act its drive; needless to say, it wasn't exactly a stand up and cheer type of ending.

Now, going in expecting a horror movie is not the way to see this, so don't take my vagueness as me trying to hide the fact that a giant monster shows up or something. It's definitely closer to drama territory than horror, but that doesn't mean it's not terrifying. An odd choice for me to close out my time at Fantastic Fest (I proceeded from the theater to a Highball karaoke room, where I remained until a heroic friend drove me to the airport at 2am), but also exactly the sort of thing I fly to Austin to see in the first place: strange, unusual films that will never find their way into a multiplex. That it happened to be 35 years old (and so obscure that it still doesn't have a Wikipedia page or a trailer on Youtube) is irrelevant.

What say you?


  1. Were there a lot of horror films in the 1970's? I only found a couple and Netflix has very few selection.

  2. The 70s were rife with horror! That decade gave us some of the best ever, with Halloween, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tales From the Crypt, The Exorcist, and many many more. You can find plenty of great stuff. It's a shame Netflix doesn't have more.

  3. I've seen pretty much all of the big ones. Some other ones I've seen are Don't Look in the Basement, and Frogs.

  4. I always wanted to see this ever since I read a review in an old issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE. I think it was in one theater here in NYC, but I was too young to see it back then.

    Oh, if you want the truth, Netflix STINKS when it comes to these types of films. I'd say physical DVD's are still the way to go from retro places that CARE about this stuff. Sinister Cinema (if they're still around) had a wild selection of VHS and DVD genre flicks from decades past and I think Movies Unlimited (which is overpriced) stocks some rarities.

    This digital dl age is absolutely awful when it comes to keeping track of many movies I can remember that aren't even thought about these days.

  5. When I saw this film, it was called "My sister, my love."


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