Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A (almost) Perfect DVD of the (almost) First Italian Cannibal Movie

Netflix does many things for me... sure, it doesn't do my windows, wipe my bottom, or help me with my taxes, but it does provide me with the infallibly awesome service of letting me watch DVDs before I decide to drop between $12 and $25 on them. Some films I've seen before and know are worth the investment. Others I've heard of and would probably love, but I'm not comfortable putting my wallet before my eyes. And some DVDs I know are twitching piles of crap, but wouldn't mind renting (or ripping) without the fear of having supported such a suck-tastic release.

Netflix let me learn that one such disc I've had my eye on for ages - the Shriek Show DVD of The Man From The Deep River - is perhaps one such release. It isn't awful on quite any level... but it isn't quite competent on any of them either.

For starters, what the hell is The Man From The Deep River? Released in North America as "Sacrifice!", in Germany as "Mondo Cannibale" (Cannibal World in it's native Italian), "Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio" in Italy (which means 'Deep River Savages'), and director Umberto Lenzi's prefered The Man From The Deep River pretty much everywhere else, it was - at it's core, anyway - the Italian remake of Elliot Silverstien's Western melodrama A Man Called Horse. The point of the film was actually suggested by Emmanuelle Arsan, the French writer who's novel "Emmanuelle: A Woman's Journey" (oft thought to be an autobiographical sexploitation epic) was adapted to the big screen in 1974, and inspired a non-stop slew of imitators bearing the same name. Anyway, she herself was born in Thailand, and at one point suggested that a film be shot there, a documentary showcasing the unique and - to a then naive Western audience - bizarre and barbaric customs of her homeland. In 1972, work began on making such a thing happen. According to both Lenzi and the opening credits, the story is fantasy, but the things you will see on-screen are indeed reality.

Starring Ivan Rassimov as an English photographer by the name of John Bradley, a trip to Thailand ends up going horribly wrong when after his guide is killed by natives, he himself is captured by a fierce tribe who keeps him alive for their amusement, calling him "Fish Man" for all the scuba gear he wore along the way. He particularly catches the eye of the chieftain's daughter (played by an adorably pre-boob jobbed Me Me Lai!) who asks that the funny creature's life be spared. While captured, he witnesses the cruelty they show towards another tribe they call cannibals, but also sees that they're people who learn, and love. After a failed attempt at escaping with the help of an old woman who was raised by missionaries, he finds himself becoming accustomed to the strange village... and when he bests the greatest warrior they have to offer, they give John the chance to prove himself and be a man, or die trying.

First and foremost, this film is a melodrama. Make no mistake, despite the constant parading of cute Thai boobs and genuine animal sacrifice this movie was never intended to be a horror film, despite the "brutal!" and "shocking!" nature of the adverts or the increasingly sadistic and horrific (and stupid) trials Lenzi would put his cast through in both of his later cannibalism themed epics, Eaten Alive!: The Emerald Jungle and Cannibal Ferox: Make Them Die Slowly. No, both of those films are filled to the brim with primitive techno, bad gore and a non-stop barrage of action, sleaze and lapses in logic the likes of which I've never seen before or since (apart from Lenzi's sole attempt at ripping off Romero in Nightmare City). The film we have here is very much trying to channel the vibe left by Prosperi and Jacopetti, the Godfathers of Mondo, in displaying mostly-accurate (or so we're always told) daily lives of people that no white man had before ever seen. The piece isn't even much of an adventure picture, since aside from a few fairly well-filmed spear battles and a fairly brief chase sequence (think Italian Apocalypto with a naked Russian as the target) the film is left without anything to truly get excited over. What we're left with is the character of John, and his interaction with a world he's never known. Rassimov (who's now deceased, despite interviews with him appearing on a few similar Shriek Show DVDs released only a year or two prior) is fairly good in the role, looking a bit like Charlton Heston - tan and in a tattered loin cloth, but skinner and not screaming nearly as much. It helps the archetype, and since he, the old woman and Me Me are the only people you'll hear not speaking Burmese the archetype actually helps. He plays the role seriously, and while he's not given nearly as much to do as, say, Massimo Foschi in Jungle Holocaust he comes across as a likable guy who's slowly changing attitude about the people who have captured him seems plausible. Rassimov isn't experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, rather the time he spends with them, and the interaction the village keeps as a whole in order to protect his own - particularly when contrasted against the less than civil life in Bangkok early in the film - convince him to start to like these people, rather than force him to.

Me Me Lai and the Old Woman, both characters who speak out language (quite literally), are... okay. Not amazing, but certainly serviceable. The biggest problem with the lovely miss Lai is less that she's a bad actress, and more that I refuse to believe that this remote tribe along the Burma border keep fake eyelashes and an eyebrow tweezer on hand. At least her not-fake breasts are a joy to see after the unconvincing lumps cut into her torso in later films, and her smile always shows better teeth than anyone else in the village (again, less so than in her later cannibal related films). Speaking about the other actors in the film is kind of tough though. To make the film as authentic as possible, Lenzi cast only the leads that needed to speak Italian or English and used genuine locals otherwise. This would be repeated ad-nauseum for later cannibal movies, and it works here especially well, due to the film trying like hell to be a Mondo psuedo-documentary.

The soundtrack is unimpressive, honestly... not bad, clearly an Italian trying to pick up some local Thai flavor and missing the mark, creating a fairly repetitive tune or two that don't bring much to the picture. Special effects are sparse, and while some of the fake limbs are obviously fake I'll give the film credit for ingenuity, including burying the limbs of a local prostitute who plays victim to a pair of wandering cannibals to make it appear as if she'd been dismembered. The film's infamy, if any is really to be attributed to it, comes in the form of authentic violence against animals: in the climate of mondo movie making scenes of animals being killed for food and sport was common place, and for better or worse, the most impressive scene to be had here is a monkey getting it's brains removed the fast and machete-based way. Other atrocities include a croc stabbed several times, a snake decapitated as a fertility rite, a genuine cockfight (bloody shit there), and a mongoose and cobra doing what they do best, which is of course killing one another. In the context of the film these scenes are used to try and create a feeling of brutality and documentary-like realism, but all they do is come off as disturbed and kinda' tacky. They did help sell the film in Japan however, and as every single cannibal film to come out of Italy for the next decade (Zombi Holocaust aside) would include authentic violence against animals, it was clearly at least a part of the success. The UK edition of the film cuts these scenes, and while compared to later Lenzi films it's almost... well, nice to furry critters, I almost wouldn't blame people for watching that one over the uncut version. That having been said, at least Lenzi's yet to get all emo over having killed some animals the local film crew would have eaten immediately afterwards anyway. Not once in the interview does he bring it up, and there's no "animal cruelty free" version like we had for Cannibal Holocaust's ultimate edition. So yay. I guess.

All things considered, there's nothing at all "wrong" with The Man From The Deep River. It's a competent film with some decent cinematography, some pretty good acting, and for a 1972 Italian psycho-drama it hits all the right notes of exotic locales, mindless violence, and a basic Hollywood styled structure to hold it all together. The problem is the film was out-classed in literally every way imaginable by Jungle Holocaust 3 years later - or as it was released in Germany, "Mondo Cannibale Part 2". After MFDR (Man From... oh, hell, figure it out) did very well internationally, they wrote up contracts saying they'd do a prequel/maybe sequel, starring Ivan Rassimov, Me Me Lai, and of course directed by Umberto Lenzi. Lenzi's career was starting to take off at that point, making films like Almost Human and Syndicate Sadists, so he did the smart thing and said "if I get 3 times what I got for the last jungle film, sure". The producers thought that Lenzi's name wasn't worth 3 times what he was paid the last time (despite this film having made a lot of money in Germany, Japan and the US), and thus they hired Deodato to make Jungle Holocaust in Lenzi's place. Deodato's film was bloodier, sexier, more surreal and above all else it played up the horrific and adventure angles over the drama, creating a film that was as ballsy at it was clever - despite my undying love for Cannibal Holocaust, it's hard to deny that Jungle Holocaust (or as I prefer, "Last Cannibal World") was overall the more subtle and effective film. Lenzi laid the groundwork for the genre, but the psuedo-sequel completely destroyed the original in every way. Deodato once again stomped Lenzi flat when Cannibal Holocaust was considered the best of the genre (now and forever baby!), stomping Lenzi's own Eaten Alive! like the silly derivative fantasy film it always was. (Sadly, I've not yet seen Deodato's Cut and Run, so comparing it to Cannibal Ferox would be unfair of me.) Lenzi doesn't in the interview included on the DVD - which gave me many of the random trivia above - notes that he thinks of Deodato as a comrade and equal as a film maker, and he's never bore him any ill will (despite Deodato being a crazy bag of dicks), he's just sick of people calling Ruggero the father of the cannibal genre. He ain't, and for anyone with even a passing interest in what's often considered to this day the most extreme form of exploitation cinema, this is still a must-see. Sadly for Lenzi, Deodato was clearly the best at it, and while I think The Man From The Deep River was the best film (technically and thematically) in Lenzi's cannibalism trilogy, it lacks the wanton violence - like castration, live lizard eating and poisoned bloody dildos - that made the later 2 cannibal films with his name so unintentionally awesome.

Media Blasters/Shriek Show presents the film in a completely uncut 93 minute print with (rather poor quality) English titles. The print used is pristine, and I wouldn't doubt that they used the original camera negative for this master, as there's very little grain, only some faint film damage, and lots of lush color and detail to be found. I doubt the film ever looked half this good on the big screen, and while the grain has probably been filtered a bit too much, making the backgrounds a bit soft, the anamorphic/progressive widescreen transfer is still the single most immaculate print that's available. Lenzi's compositions are always pretty nice, and I can't imagine how awful this film must have looked on non-anamorphic prints taken from theatrical prints (like in Germany), let alone on cropped VHS bootlegs. Both Italian and English audio are included, along with English subtitles... and that's where the big problem is.

See, the film was shot in English, Thai and Burmese the whole way through (since Rassimov, Me Me and the old woman played by Pratisak Singhara). A few minor characters early in the film speak a combination of Thai and English, but whatever. The tribe's dialog in Burmese, as well as the local's Thai, was all shot with synch sound while the English actors were dubbed later. Interestingly the film is played with Rassimov and Singhara speaking English at all times, with Me Me slowly learning English from Rassimov, her Brumese slowly being replaced with fairly broken English. It's a smart and logical way to play the film... but what about all that Burmese?
Well, you're allowed to watch the film in English with no subtitles, in English with subtitles, and in Italian with subtitles. Italian with subs subtiutles all dialog - Thai, Italian and Burmese. Great. English has a second subtitle set. To subtitle just the non-English stuff, right?

Ha. No, that would be the case if Media Blasters could release any DVD without fucking something up. The English subtitles subtitle all the dialog, including what's already in English. Based on the fact that there are 2 identical subtitle tracks, I assume this was just a mistake, but it is frustrating as fuck to see a less-goofy and racist translation while we hear a white man speaking English to us. The easy way to avoid this problem is to watch the film in Italian: most of the dialog is in Burmese either way, and whoever dubbed John in Italian was pretty good, playing him more serious than whoever did it in English. (I've never seen the film in German, and wonder if the natives spoke Burmese in that too?) I can only imagine the US release subtitled the Burmese dialog as well, since the trailer was careful not to let the natives say much of anything other than "Grr!" or "Augh!" There's also talk of "going to sleep" during daylight, making me think a day-for-night shot wasn't tinted right... but that's the fault of whoever did the remaster in Italy, not MB directly. It happens - even Blue Underground did that on Jess Franco's Sadomania, but of course they fixed it later for everyone who was upset. MB's never heard the word "mail-in fix", unless something they said was on the box wasn't there (like the Zombi 3 commentary track).

If you don't mind a scene not being tinted and watching the film in Italian (and you really should anyway), go for the MB/SS DVD. It's cheap, it's uncut, it's adequate... it fits the film perfectly, actually, it just required better quality control. Extras include a 10 mintue interview with Lenzi, an original English language trailer, a 2 minute gallery with German lobby cards and some posters (though sadly it's missing plenty of video covers), and propganda for other Shriek Show releases. Certainly not the special edition given to Jungle Holocaust, but for about $12 at Deep Discount, who am I to complain? 'Specially since I rented it. It'll be on my shelf someday, alongside Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Mountain of the Cannibal God and other second-stringer cannibal films. Just know that the likelyhood of a better release of this film happening is basically nada-over-nuttn'. So far, the MB DVD of Zombi 3 is still the best DVD of the film available, despite all the gore being taken from a BETA pre-record. About the only flick they ever screwed the pooch totally on and then had a fix for internationally was Werewolf Woman... another film for another blogging.

Finally, I'll put something to rest, just because it makes me happy: while most Italian exploitation films went under about 20 titles around the world, Lenzi's favorite title for this film is - and I quote, in his cute little Italian accent - "The Man From The Deep River". Why would he go with that one over Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio? Simple, the English title sounds a lot like "A Man Called Horse", the film from which the bulk of the story was culled from. So Lenzi freely admits (though not in so many words) that his film is a knock-off meant to exploit foreign cultures and international ignorance thereof. Granted, Lenzi also admits that he thinks Cannibal Ferox and Nightmare City are important, meaningful films that have a lot of smart commentary on modern Western society.

What I'm getting at is Lenzi is a friggin' nut case. And that's exactly why I love him.

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