08 October, 2006

MACUMBA SEXUAL: The Severin DVD Review


"I'm an unspeakable dream. I'm everything that's forbidden, that's shameful...a black woman with undefined sexuality...shameless and irresistable." Princess Tara Obongo

Bahia Feliz, Canary Islands: Princess Tara Obongo (the late, legendary Ajita Wilson)is the living dead "mirror of evil" warns Meme (Jess Franco), capable of possessing her victims through a sinister form of sexual voodoo. Her most recent targets are tourists Alice Brooks (Lina Romay), a real estate agent, and her husband (Antonio Mayans), who is working on a new novel. Their vacation at "Happy Bay" is interrupted when Alice's employer calls to ask if she can locate the wealthy local resident Tara Obongo and offer her a property in Atlantic City. Tara eventually seduces and sexually enslaves the couple , but each time they believe they have escaped her erotic snares another level of the nightmare begins. Is it all an obsessive, macabre sex fantasy, a premonition, one of her novelist husband's stories coming to life, or something else altogether?

Ever have a nightmare from which you couldn't awaken? You know it's only a dream but each time you think it's over another chapter starts. MACUMBA SEXUAL (1981) opens in the midst of one of Alice's serial erotic fever-dreams and ends with her encountering an omnipresent voodoo fetish signaling the onset of yet another hallucinatory state. And it all seems willed by Tara, a Black Athena who invades the Unconscious without having to leave her perch atop a sand dune under the blazing tropical sun. The disturbing fetish (which resembles a shriveled up Donald Duck!) keeps appearing as a kind of warning. There is no escape from the psycho-sexual curse according to Meme.  Every time Alice sleeps Tara takes control, thrusting her into totally alien reality: sexually magnetic, terrifying and rich in ancient African symbols.

One of Franco's most delirious films, MACUMBA SEXUAL is a mind warping, sex-drenched shocker set on the sun baked Canary Islands where the landscape and architecture evoke Mother Africa. For Jess Franco, who wanted to reclaim his Spanish cultural identity after decades abroad, it is a milestone and probably the most representative of his Horror y Sexo Golden Films Internacional period: made with total creative freedom, almost dialogue free, nearly hard-core and driven by the moaning, eerie voodoo rhythms credited to "Pablo Villa", a name which usually indicates the composing team Daniel White and Jess Franco. These synth-driven voodoo chants are  just about perfect in their uncanny ability to establish the locale and create a sense of floating dread.  They greatly enhance a film that immediately puts the viewer in an altered state mind which lingers long after the final chilling image. Lina is in her prime scream-queen mode, wearing a blonde wig, running around in a skimpy bikini or totally nude. Franco's own bit as the babbling Meme is a way over the top reprise of his role as Memeth in the similar VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), his first appearance amidst a collection of petrified subaquatic life forms is a jaw dropper worth the price of admission. Franco amusingly discusses how much he enjoys playing mentally defective characters in the accompanying documentary interview.

Note that a "Lorna Green" (the name of the main character in SUCCUBUS) is credited as a supporting actress, this is actually Genoveva Ojeda, who, along with Jose Ferro, appears as one of Tara's nude, dog-collared sex slaves. Ajita Wilson is absolutely hypnotic in the role she was born to play. Her overwhelming presence, the nightmarish music and visuals of this exotic chamber piece are far more effective than the minimal narrative, which is obviously derived from Franco's 1970 Soledad Miranda vehicle, VAMPYROS LESBOS. All these elements are finally given a proper chance to perform their magic in Severin Films pristine, luminously colorful DVD, which presents the film in 2.35:1 OAR, is 16X9 enhanced, DD Mono and offers the original Spanish language soundtrack with correct, optional English subtitles. For a film which is essentially Pure Cinema and so dependent on location, mood and music, seeing this DVD was like seeing it for the first time after having to suffer a fullscreen, fuzzy VHS mailorder dupe which was our only alternative until now. One of Franco's most carefully composed films, the compositions are stuffed with pertinent details--the African sculptures, the primitive local architecture, the geometric arrangements of the actors in the numerous group sex scenes can all now be fully appreciated, along with the almost phosphorescent hues and blinding sun devils.
Equally revelatory is David Gregory's excellent documentary VOODOO JESS, during which Jess and Lina Romay discuss the question of Ajita Wilson's transexuality (Jess says he wasn't sure while Lina, who also had numerous hardcore scenes with the late performer in Carlos Aured's 1981 APOCALIPSIS SEXUAL, confirms it); why Wilson was so right for the role (Jess calls her "a presence... a force of nature" and compares her to Christopher Lee; the creative challenges of making such a film with a miniscule budget (Franco notes that he had to use such local elements as the Ghost Galleon tour ship and the African wood sculptures as free but very effective props) and uncanny occurences which haunted the set (Jess tells of a day when there was a mysterous  onset incident where the atmosphere suddenly seemed to explode, breaking glass and injuring a technician). It's all fascinating commentary.

Essential Franco and an essential new DVD presentation available from Severin Films on Oct. 31st.


Adam Williams said...

Being a big De Palma fan, having read the Ellroy novel, and having a strong interest in the true crime case made me rather predisposed to see this film. I go the multiplexes much more than you do, Bob, but usually for late weeknight or early matinee screenings. For the Dahlia, I went opening night. While it was not De Palma’s best film or the best that could be adapted from the source novel (which is a fun read, but really a mess), it managed to envelope me in its wonderfully contrived atmosphere. As crazy as it may sound, the murder scene at the center of the film (where I’m sure you drew the Argento comparison) brought tears to my eyes. The murderers silhouette, the gleam off the knife, De Palma’s carefully roving camera, and, best of all, William Finley’s look of sheer psychosis---it was at once beautiful, exciting, and campy and it just overwhelmed me.

The day after I saw THE BLACK DAHLIA, I received the new DVD of De Palma’s first feature length film, MURDER A LA MOD. It’s amazing how apparent the lineage is between these two films, made almost 40 years apart. In the opening scene, we see screen test footage of a young woman coaxed along by the off-camera director, played by De Palma, just as in THE BLACK DAHLIA. MURDER also features William Finley as a babbling psychopath, which seems to obsess De Palma just as much as his manipulations of time frames, experimental film techniques, and shock endings. It makes sense that someone as obsessed with filming, and obsessed with obsession---like Jess Franco---would admire De Palma.

I don’t read a lot of today’s film criticism, but I do understand that THE BLACK DAHLIA is not well regarded at all. I appreciate your analysis of this truly outré film.

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your feedback, Adam. I may watch TBD again when the inevitable DVD appears, although I can't imagine spending money on it. Maybe I'll rent it or something. I saw the MOD DVD at Borders the other day and almost picked it up. As an obsessive-compulsive myself I appreciate Franco and his appreciation of DePalma. I just picked up the DVD today of Argento's DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK which could be the title of a DePalma biography. It seems to me that DePalma copies where Argento is inspired to create something original.