Based on the play by Eric Wesphal and directed by Karen Arthur, The Mafu Cage has had an odd and checkered release history, as the supplements on this excellent disc will relay in some detail. It did well when it played Cannes but then failed to find a theatrical audience before being dumped to VHS in a version running about seven minutes shorter than its theatrical counterpart. A few years ago it was given a budget DVD release and it's been released on DVD in the UK as well, but none of those were proper, authorized releases. In fact, this DVD from Scorpion, which is still the truncated version (proper elements don't exist for the longer cut anymore) marks the first time it's ever been respectfully released on home video in anything even remotely resembling a half way decent edition.
The film tells the bizarre story of two orphaned sisters, Ellen (Lee Grant) and the younger Cissy (Carol Kane), who live inside a massive mansion decorated in odd African style décor. Since their father has passed away, Ellen has been in charge of Cissy, who has grown up without a proper guiding influence and finds solace more frequently in the arms of the siblings' pet orangutans, each of whom shares the same name - Mafu, than with any people. Ellen, whose beliefs in astronomy are rigid, lets Cissy rub her down with oil and has an unusual attraction to the younger girl but it all starts to come crashing down around them when Cissy's temperament becomes increasingly more violent, resulting in the orangutans being butchered. Eventually a social worker named David (James Olson) enters the picture, though his attraction to Ellen just makes things worse.
Featuring striking cinematography by John Bailey, The Mafu Cage is a dark, twisted, and frequently very melancholy look at mental illness and a certain characters complete breakdown. Heavily influenced by Albert Mayseles Grey Gardens documentary (which explored an eerily similar relationship between mother Edith Bouvier Beale and daughter 'Little Edie' Beale), Arthur's film was retitled a few times - Don't Ring The Doorbell passed if off as a horror picture while My Sister, My Love made it sound more like a taboo softcore picture. The print used for this DVD bares the title Deviation, which isn't much better or any more appropriate. Arthur, best known for her huge body of work in the television industry, directs confidently here and lets Bailey's camerawork really soak in the details of the ramshackle mansion, once proud and now full of decay, where the film plays out. The picture is all the better for it, as the house proves to be the perfect backdrop for the ensuing madness.
As interesting as the film looks, it wouldn't amount to much if the performances weren't where they needed to be. Thankfully both Grant and Kane prove more than capable here, delivering believable and sometimes very sympathetic performances. Kane in particular tends to steal every scene she's in, really letting us get under her skin and going as wild as the script will allow her without breaking character. Unrestrained but never unnecessarily over the top, her work here is remarkable and it really stands out.
Dark and periodically perverse, this is hardly feel good movie of the year material, but The Mafu Cage really is a well made and underappreciated picture worth of reappraisal. Scorpion's special edition DVD is absolutely the right way to do that...
Scorpion's anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Mafu Cage isn't a flawless one but it's pretty good considering how terrible the film has looked on home video in the past. The colors bleed a little bit in spots, the reds in particular, while the black levels vary from scene to scene and there's minor print damage throughout but the film is vastly improved over previous releases which were always far too dark and murky looking to really do the picture justice. Skin tones look pretty decent and the image is as sharp as you could want it to be and the disc is a well authored one showing no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement but it's obvious that the elements for the transfer weren't in amazing condition. Regardless, those who appreciate this film will be thankful to have it looking as good as it does here, even if it isn't perfect.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix even if there's some background hiss present in a couple of spots. Levels are well balanced, the score sounds strong enough and the dialogue is always easy to understand so whatever quirks and qualms may arise throughout don't really take away from things at all. Some scenes are a bit flat, but this is likely due to the limitations of the source material rather than the disc itself.
The best of the extras comes in the form of the two audio commentaries that have been recorded for this release, the first of which features director Karen Arthur who speaks at length about the film's history, distribution, and checkered past. A second commentary features cinematographer John Bailer and editor Carol Littleton and it covers some of the same ground but also touches on the set design, the mood on set, and some basic trivia. Both commentaries are pretty interesting and shed some light on the source that inspired the film and how it wound up being the movie that it is.
If that weren't enough, Scorpion also supplies a load of interviews, the first of which again features director Karen Arthur (44:33) - it covers some of the same ground as the commentary but it's interesting enough that you'll want to check it out. Cinematographer John Bailer joins editor Carol Littleton team up again for the second interview (26:59) and again cover a fair bit of the same ground that they cover in their commentary. More interesting are interviews with actress Carol Kane (20:07) and Lee Grant (16:51) that let us in on what it was like getting into character on an odd project like this, how they feel about the film in hindsight and what it was like working with the different cast members on the project.
Rounding out the disc are a still gallery, two alternate opening title sequences, and ten minutes of material that was taken out of the original cut of the film without the filmmakers' blessing. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
Much more of a psychological thriller than the horror movie it's sometimes been marketed as, The Mafu Cage is compelling, disturbing, and incredibly well acted to the point where the sometimes rather extreme subject matter because easy enough to accept that the film is able to hold our interest. Scorpion's DVD release is a welcome one, offering up the film in a decent transfer and with more extra features than anyone probably ever expected an oddity like this one to receive. Twisted, perverse, bizarre, and wholly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.