'Get It Up or I'll Cut It Off': A Meditation on the Cinematic Brilliance of Machete Maidens Unleashed!
A few days back, after a festival day that began with two-hours-plus of French people talking incessantly while hiding their secrets from one another (Guillaume Canet's snoozy Little White Lies), progressed to a moody meditation on the agonies of preteen vampirism (Matt Reeves' bracing Let Me In), and was rounded off, just before dinner time, with a trapped James Franco sawing his arm off with a teensy knife (thank you, Danny Boyle), I wandered listlessly around the excessively dazzling and noisy Scotiabank screening complex. I wanted one more movie to finish the day, but what? A nice little Macedonian film, perhaps? Maybe I could find some three-hour Japanese thing with nice scenery.
Who was I kidding? Instead, bleary-eyed, I was pulled as if by invisible magnetic forces across the street away from the multiplex, which hosts most of the festival press screenings, to the much quieter National Film Board of Canada screening room. Over there, they only show quality films. With every fiber of my being, I needed to see Machete Maidens Unleashed! And boy, am I glad I did.
Machete Maidens Unleashed! is Australian filmmaker Mark Hartley's fleet and hugely entertaining assessment of the low-budget cheapies, many of them produced by Roger Corman, made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s for the American market. At that time, the country was the fertile crescent for horror quickies like Eddie Romero's Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Brides of Blood, blaxploitation kung-fu vehicles like T.N.T. Jackson (starring martial-arts "champion" Jeannie Bell), novelty James Bond ripoffs like For Y'ur Height Only featuring little-person star Weng Weng, and, my personal favorites, women-in-prison movies like those directed by Jack Hill (among them The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, both featuring the great Pam Grier).
Hartley includes interviews with many of the filmmakers in Corman's stable, including Hill, Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, as well as grand pooh-bah Corman himself. He's also sought out many of the actors who appeared in these pictures, among them Sid Haig, Gloria Hendry and a host of others who are either proud of the work they did or can at least laugh it off good-naturedly. (Incidentally, many of these B-movie actresses, now in their 60s, look pretty terrific with no signs of plastic surgery; let that be a lesson to their A-list contemporaries.)
The filmmakers and actors interviewed in Machete Maidens Unleashed! spin out wild tales about Filipino stunt guys who would work for cheap and do just about anything, including hurling themselves through glass windows (they had no idea candy glass existed). They also explain the essentials of hiring explosives experts circa 1975 (the first thing you did was count all their fingers). Some of the principals admit, ruefully, that in making exploitation, they were themselves exploiting the Filipino locals, who worked hard and worked cheap.
But everyone speaks affectionately of their stints in the wild, untamed jungle of the Philippines (even the guy who swears he once saw a rat run off with a kitten in its mouth), and of the movies themselves. And watching the clips Hartley uses to illustrate this rapturously sordid tale, you can see why. In one of these clips, a hot blond brandishes a knife in a baddie's face and sneers, "Get it up or I'll cut it off." On-camera, Hill notes that he himself wrote that line, adding, with a mischievous half-laugh, that he's not sure he should be advertising it. Then again, in a day of festival-going spent watching movies made by filmmakers from around the world who had poured their hearts, souls, and in some cases fairly large budgets into their movies, it was the best line I'd heard all day. What does that tell you?