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Breaking into a creative role in Hollywood has never been easy, even for people already working in the industry. The ambitious and energetic actress Karen Arthur wanted to become a director, and succeeded by making an independent movie of her own, a feminist-inclined tale of a wealthy woman whose mind begins to fall apart. 1975's Legacy enabled Arthur's producer friends to tout her as a TV director, and she eventually made her name in TV movies. But early on she went for broke with a bizarre horror film that nobody would confuse with your average exploitative shock effort of the day. Quite well directed and beautifully acted, 1978's The Mafu Cage won't immediately remind you of anything you've ever seen -- unless you can picture Repulsion blended with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with a little bit of The Bride and the Beast thrown in for good measure.
Ms. Arthur found a strange play (by Éric Wesphal), encouraged her friend Don Chastain to write a screenplay and lined up the entire production, which is small in scale but never dull: the main characters live in a Los Angeles house decorated in elaborate African motifs. Arthur's instincts for picking talented collaborators led her to a cameraman and an editor just starting out, John Bailey and Carol Littleton. Both have gone on to stellar careers.
Adult sisters Ellen and Cissy (Lee Grant & Carol Kane) were raised in Africa at their late father's research station. Their strange relationship borders on incest. The developmentally challenged Cissy depends on Ellen for everything. Ellen goes off to work at the Griffith Observatory, while Cissy stays home to live in a fantasy world centered on paternal worship. A highly gifted artist, Cissy makes beautiful drawings of apes "loaned" to her by Zom (Will Geer), a importer of wild animals who is the sister's main connection with their past in the wild. Cissy renames all of her ape guests "Mafu", and when things are normal, feeds and plays with them. The simians live in a large cage built into the house's jungle-like downstairs living room.
Feeling threatened by Ellen's attachment to David (James Olson), a colleague at the Observatory, Cissy becomes unstable. Ellen comes home to find that she's beaten her latest Mafu to death. Ellen refuses to replace it until, after a war of pleading, whining and screaming fits, Cissy threatens to cut her wrists. A new Ourangutan is borrowed from Zom, and all returns to normal ... but not for long.
The generic horror framework of The Mafu Cage is a rather extreme way to dramatize a perverse, negative relationship. Until things become violent, Ms. Arthur's movie has little in common with commercial horror product. Excellent acting and an intriguing setting keep us more than entertained, wondering where in hell this bizarre story is heading. The art directors do wonders creating Cissy's all-African fantasy world. Although the film's budget is slight, we're constantly impressed by details, like her elaborate native clothing (which she wears well) and the way she paints her face with tribal markings. Ms. Kane's hair is done up in an exotic African style that appears to use caked mud. When Cissy rinses it off in the bathtub we marvel that the modest production had time for such complicated, convincing touches.
The movie isn't simple horror fare, because Cissy isn't the only one who is disturbed. Cozy in her African-childhood illusions, Cissy is sustained and enabled by the indulgent Ellen, who has sexual issues of her own. Ellen is both flattered and intimidated by David's advances. At home, she luxuriates in Cissy's all-too intimate oil rubs. They spend nights snuggling in a hammock, and Cissy mentions other things they "used to do" together. Ellen indulges Cissy's fantasies, to the extreme of providing the Mafus that inspire her drawings. But whenever her obsessive desires are thwarted, Cissy goes berserk. It's an infantile tantrum writ large: "If I'm not going to get my way, you'll be really, really sorry."
The writing and acting are of such a high caliber that we're still shocked when the inevitable happens. In a beautifully staged and edited scene, Cissy attacks her Ourang Mafu with a chain. The cage is locked so Ellen can't stop her. It's so well done that we get the full impact of the slaughter, with only a couple of cuts of the Ourang being struck. The actresses carry the scene, and Carol Littleton's editing makes it play like quality cinema.
These animal corpses end up being dragged to the backyard and buried. 1 Zom and Ellen decide to wean Cissy away from her manias, and pretend that no new Mafu is available. Cissy's apparent recovery is so dramatic that Ellen decides that she can risk leaving for ten days or so to do some important work in Arizona. Her departure does not bode well, as it recalls Roman Polanski's Repulsion, where isolation accelerates the madness of a similarly disturbed woman. Ellen doesn't know it, but Cissy is well aware that the "David" she's heard about is a competitor for Ellen's attention. Unfortunately, David decides to pay a friendly visit while Ellen is away. With her hair done up in wooden beads and bones, Cissy looks like a benign, amusing kook ... but she's as harmless as Vincent Price. The house is stocked with African weapons, and her Mafu cage is a ready-made dungeon complete with iron shackles.
Does The Mafu Cage work as a horror film? I'd say yes. It's an odd suspense drama with two great actresses energizing some edgy, potentially ludicrous material. I'll bet that Grant and Kane could have made The Womaneater into a good movie. Neither actress embarrasses herself or lets the tone slip into Camp. Carol Kane's Cissy is a fascinating collection of immature behaviors and adolescent grace. She looks fantastic in situations where any number of actresses would appear ridiculous -- dancing about in those strange costumes, or rolling around on the floor playing tickle me with an ape almost as big as she is. Lee Grant plays everything low key, but seems to know that we will look to her face for clues as to what's going on. We're rewarded with fleeting expressions that tell us all about her conflicted Ellen. The woman is actually quite attracted to David, and she gives in to Cissy's tyranny because she feels she has no choice. Most importantly, none of the extreme, weird events catch either actress in an inappropriate expression or attitude -- which keeps this odd story on its feet. The relationship is symbiotic poison.
I remember seeing a big newspaper ad for The Mafu Cage here in Los Angeles when it opened. In her interview, Ms. Arthur regales us with memories of its glorious reception at Cannes, but it became quite an obscurity, perhaps not as unknown as was Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, but getting there. Made as a career showcase picture, it would serve now as a good example for aspiring filmmakers -- a tiny picture made by some very talented filmmakers.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD Blu-ray of The Mafu Cage will impress those viewers (stand up, will you please) that lost their eyesight squinting at an earlier DVD, trying to make out what was happening on screen. The properly matted and widescreen enhanced image is sharp enough to display the film's excellent art direction, as well as cinematographer John Bailey's interesting lighting choices. When Carol Kane prowls the house with her face painted like a tribal mask, the film takes on a really weird atmosphere. The clear track flatters composer Roger Kellaway's interesting music, which naturally uses plenty of African-inflected themes.
Scorpion and Karen Arthur got together on the extras for this edition, which return me to the day when long lists of goodies for genre product were common. The feature carries two commentaries, one from the director and one from John Bailey and Carol Littleton. All of the principals also appear in new interview featurettes. Bailey and Littleton have fond memories of the experience, while separate interviews with Lee Grant and Carol Kane give us some interesting, non- BS views on how they approached the material. Ms. Kane, who often played adorable young women (Hester Street), comes off as a creative powerhouse. Director Karen Arthur is the only interviewee compelled to embellish her achievement (we already bought the disc, ma'am). Her long story convinces us of her energy and show biz smarts. But she oversells her appearance at Cannes while telling us nothing of how her picture fared commercially.
In addition to a big stills gallery (Zom's menagerie was filmed at Tippi Hedren's Wild Animal Park), the extras include several alternate title sequences, including The Cage and the absurd My Sister, My Love. The actual title on the video sounds like it belongs on a porn film: Deviation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mafu Cage rates:
1. There are no actual burial scenes, which is a shame: if there were, cameraman John Bailey would have been able to boast to Billy Wilder that he'd pulled off "your standard monkey funeral shot".
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T'was Ever Thus.