Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Shock 11.10.11: New documentary unleashes 'Machete Maidens'

A scene from director Jack Hill's "The Big Bird Cage."

If you want to make a movie today, you might seek out a location where the tax incentives are enticing (Australia, perhaps) or the production costs almost nonexistent (for example, Bulgaria).

During the 1970s, the place to be if you wanted to make a movie on the cheap and without a lot of pesky safety regulations was the Philippines, and "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" — the new documentary from director Mark Hartley — is a 90-minute crash course in the seat-of-your-pants filmmaking that resulted.

Throughout the decade, producers from the West looked east for a place to shoot inexpensive movies, mostly for drive-ins. Chief among them was B-movie king Roger Corman, who had formed New World Pictures and was instilling his penny-pinching ways in a new generation of directors.

When Corman learned he could make movies in the Philippines less expensively than in the U.S., or just about anywhere else, that was all he needed to know. He dispatched director Jack Hill, and Hill returned with "The Big Doll House."

"The Big Doll House" wasn't the first "women in prison" movie, but it was among the first to push the genre's exploitation elements to their limits. It was a huge success back in the U.S., kick-starting a boom in similar movies, like "Women in Cages" and Hill's camp follow-up, "The Big Bird Cage."

All three — recently released together on DVD and Blu-ray as "The Women in Cages Collection" — feature Hill's greatest discovery, and the only real star to emerge from the Philippine film boom, Pam Grier.

In 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, but that did nothing to stop producers and directors from setting up shop in his country. They kept making their exploitation movies, and Marcos was just happy for the money. As director John Landis says, these were sometimes movies about overthrowing fascist dictatorships that were being made in a fascist dictatorship.

Or, as another filmmaker puts it, "Human life was cheap. Film was cheap. It was a great place to make a picture." With a few bribes, you could rent the army's helicopters for a day, provided they weren't busy putting down rebels somewhere.

It's an eclectic cast of characters that populates "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" The Philippines was where actors like Christopher Mitchum and Patrick Wayne — sons of Hollywood royalty — could make their own fortune, or not. It was where 2-foot-9 Weng Weng could be the hero in the bizarre spy spoof of questionable taste, "For Your Height Only."

It was mostly schlock and exploitation, although some of it wildly entertaining, Hill's movies in particular. Yet into this stumbled a film with an undeniable pedigree — "Apocalypse Now."

Martin Sheen may have woken up thinking he was in Saigon, but he was really in the Philippines. Where else was Francis Ford Coppola going to get all of those real military helicopters to set to "The Ride of the Valkyries"?

The Philippines was nearly the death of them both.

As with his earlier documentary, "Not Quite Hollywood," Hartley gives us high-octane history. It's not deep, but it is fun, glossy and well-made pop. If "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" doesn't quite equal "Not Quite Hollywood," that's only because, as wild as the Wild East was, the Philippines in the '70s and early '80s still wasn't as insane as Australia during the same period.

Those tax incentives you get in Australia nowadays are just no substitute for driving too fast, setting people on fire and blowing things up in the Outback.

"Machete Maidens Unleashed!" is new on DVD from Dark Sky Films.

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