Although I wouldn’t call the adventures of Americans making B-movies in the Philippines a dry subject, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a joyride of a documentary, breezing through talking heads and endless clips of guns, girls, and gore with one adoring and one ironic eye to exploitation films. Writer/director Mark Hartley is quickly establishing himself as the top archivist of cinematic trash, chronicling Ozploitation (Australian genre filmmaking) in Not Quite Hollywood (2008).
Turning his gaze two dozen degrees northward, Hartley starts in the mid 1960s, when the domestic Filipino film industry was churning out over 350 titles a year. Kane W. Lyn, an American G.I. who had made the tropical islands his home, partnered with director Eddie Romero to attract overseas investment. The country had everything you could want for economical production: cheap labour, dense jungles, and available exotic women. Lyn and Romero sold horror flick after horror flick to American drive-in audiences with what critic Mark Holcomb calls the requisite three B’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.
After cult producer/director Roger Corman saw one such masterpiece, Beast of the Yellow Night, he visited the Philippines and his New World Productions oversaw a decade of astonishing qualitative, if not quantitative, output. Notable for mediocre film history was the desperate-women-in-prison genre, which Corman updated in Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier’s breakout role.
In interviews Grier and her co-stars suggest the girls-gone-wild film empowered women in cinema, giving black actors roles they would not have found in the Hollywood system. I find this a stretch, a moment when Hartley is looking too hard for a redemptive angle. Did Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage pave the road for Ripley in Alien? Maybe, but turning abused objects into gun-spraying killers is a pretty limited arc for feminist liberation. As director John Landis says: “They took control. But they’ll show you their tits!”
Well, at least Hartley shows both sides of the argument. What he tends to hurry over is the mutually exclusive relationship Corman had with the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. New World was truly exploitation filmmaking, using reckless stuntmen happy to get five pesos even if it meant breaking limbs. Marcos volunteered the use of his army, especially ironic in films like The Hot Box (1972 – one of Jonathan Demme’s first) sporting revolutionary, anti-fascist messages.
But apart from an unnecessary sequence on Apocalypse Now’s troubled shoot (better see Hearts of Darkness: Apocalypse Now for the full story) the doc sticks to its trashy subject, capturing a unique moment in place and time before multiplexes and Star Wars. Now our bad taste comes in big budgets too.
You can also find this article at The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.