Monday, January 5, 2009

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978): or, Sometimes Shorter is Better

Most of my parishioners should understand by now that, while your ever-lovin' Vicar could not really be called a "perfectionist," he does take pride in having at least a rudimentary idea what he's talking about. That's why it's often not enough for me just to watch a movie and then foist my opinions on the breathlessly anticipatory blogosphere; no, sometimes I have to go that extra mile, do that extra little bit of research, find that one bonus tidbit that will make everyone's visit to the dungeons of the Vicarage worthwhile. Say what you will about me, but if there's one think I hate, it's going off half-cocked.

Sometimes, though, the knowledge I gain is hardly worth the torment of its possession. Such was definitely the case with my inaugural movie of 2009, Sergio Martino's infamous 1978 cannibal flick, Slave of the Cannibal God. The version in my collection comes from the Mill Creek 50 Drive-In Movie Classics box set, and clocks in at a lean 82 minutes. It had its gruesome moments, but even to an untrained eye it's obvious some censor has taken a hacksaw to the print. A cursory glance through my Internet Sources (the BEST sources!) told me I was missing anywhere from 9 to 19 minutes of prime sex-and-gore infamy. Not one to let an omission like that stand, I put on my pith helmet and struck out into the jungles of the web, searching for that elusive lost footage.

But before I discuss the result of *that* ill-fated expedition, let's talk about the shorter, kinder, gentler print.

In both versions, Martino (who showed a much defter touch in the previously reviewed All the Colors of the Dark) opens with a seemingly conservation-minded text crawl:

New Guinea is perhaps the last region on earth which still contains immense unexplored areas, shrouded in mystery, where life has remained at its primordial level. Today, on the dawn of the space age, it seems unimaginable that only twenty hours' flight from London there still exists such a wild and uncontaminated world. This story bears witness that it does...
Fair enough--but that green message is accompanied by examples of what Alfred Lord Tennyson famously called "Nature, red in tooth and claw": we get to see an alligator eating a snapping turtle, an albino cobra spreading its hood, and various other shots of animals basically being beastly to one another. Of course this is to establish the metaphorical backdrop for our tale's easy moral, which as usual has to do with men not being any better than komodo dragons when it comes to compassion and survival. However, next to the above sentiment, it seems a little out-of-context.

"Here I go again on my own...Goin' down the only road I've ever known!"

The plot-related portion of the movie begins when Susan Stevenson (Ursula Andress, whose forehead has never been higher) arrives in New Guinea with her brother Arthur. (Despite the preponderance of reviews claiming it's Helmut Berger in this role, it is in fact the only slightly less sinister and Germanic-looking Antonio Marsina. Minions of the Tenebrous Empire, you were warned.) The crowd of reporters that greets her lets us know she's rich and important, presumably for being the wife of a world-famous anthropologist who's gone missing in the New Guinea bush. She and Arthur have come to New Guinea to look for him, and there's your plot.

After striking out at the embassy, Susan heads to her husband's jungle compound where she meets his partner Professor Edward Foster, played by a young, buff n' scruffy Stacy Keach. Edward has a hunch about Professor Stevenson's whereabouts, as the old man had been fascinated by the legends surrounding the island of Roaka and its sacred mountain, Ra-Ra Mi. Unfortunately, Ed tells us, the island is off-limits--"They say it's for conservation reasons, but the truth of the matter is...they're afraid of the curse too." Resolved not to leave Papua without her Papa, Ursula recruits Keach and his band of merry natives to lead an illegal expedition to the mountain to get her husband back.

From there it's a short helicopter ride to the middle of jungly nowhere, and our intrepid band of explorers spends quite a bit of time hacking through the brush in close-up. Ursula gets the first brush with death in when she falls over to find herself face to face with a gigantic tarantula! The tarantula, in turn, gets the first ACTUAL death as Keach cleaves it in twain with his handy machete. (Yes, as is usual with this kind of flick, ANIMALS WERE HARMED.) Keach then delivers a chilling monologue about what Ursula could have expected had she been bitten by the deadly beast--a cautionary tale that would carry more weight, I think, if Keach himself were clad in more than mid-thigh camo shorts. I guess he's relying on his cunning to keep him alive.

"Of course the surest way to make them bleed is when you bust their ass and steal their weed."

As it turns out, the spider got off easy. Believing the killing of a spider was a bad omen, the natives in Keach's outfit set about appeasing the killing an iguana! The tied, writhing animal is gutted graphically for your viewing pleasure, and one of the natives goes the extra mile by pulling out the lizard's heart and using it for chewing gum. My brain was spinning a little--if killing the spider was bad, wouldn't killing the lizard be worse? Will they have to kill a goat to make up for the lizard? Then a tapir for the goat? Then a pygmy hippo and so on? WHERE WILL IT END?

Luckily the natives are untroubled by sacrificial escalation scenarios, and our group continues through the jungle, narrowly avoiding a police copter patrol and giving Arthur the chance to show his douchebaggy side when he interrupts the sacrifice and gets some Keach-knuckles to the gums for his trouble. Offended by the guy's Teutonic insensitivity to their customs, some of the natives split, leaving the band short-handed but still determined. They eventually reach the ocean and (presumably) sail across to the cursed island.

After a brief shot of a python eating a monkey, it's back to the close-up trek for several minutes, never showing more than a few square feet of coverage around the actors. Just when you think they might be filming this in a greenhouse, however, we're on-location and river-rafting! This is supposed to get us to the mountain quicker, but really it's just an excuse to show one of the native guides getting his arm chomped off by an alligator. Which admittedly is pretty awesome. A little later another native is caught in an animal trap, letting Keach show his acting chops by spouting nonsense "native language" to calm his rapidly dwindling crew.


About this time the Evil Cannibal Natives appear in Nightmare Mummenschanz masks and attack the crew, graphically beheading one guide and chasing Ursula through the forest, separated from her protective menfolk. Luckily another stranger, Manolo (Claudio Cassinelli) comes out of nowhere to save her. Danger averted and a few more expedition members gone, they make it to the jungle Mission of Father Moses, played by the awesomely named Franco Fantasia.

Not much happens at the village except for a booty-shakin' native ritual and Arthur availing himself of the opportunity to beat some native bush, IYKWIM. Unfortunately the Cannibal tribe attacks again, killing the girl in flagrante de douchebag and inspiring Father Moses to kick them (the fuck) out of the village. Having conquered the jungle and needing a new challenge (not to mention getting some serious play from Ursula), the manly Manolo agrees to join them as they press on to the last leg of their quest.

So on they trek--Keach dies in a freak waterfall-climbing accident (aided by Arthur's douchebaggery), we see our crew torturing and eating seafood, Ursula is attacked by a snake and saved by Manolo, we learn that the prof had actually been looking for uranium on the island, we get a nice heel-turn by Ursula, who reveals she doesn't care about the Professor, she just wants that radioactive loot. She asks Manolo to help, but the steadfast good guy refuses for reasons even a Greenpeace member would have to find suspect at this point: "Help you exploit this island and its peoples? Help you destroy the forests and bring your so-called progress to a place like this?" Um...dude, have you SEEN this place? It's crawling with fucking CANNIBALS!

Schnitzel on a Stick

As if on cue, the Cannibal tribe shows up, spears Arthur, and FINALLY they get taken back to the cavern where most of the grodiness the film is infamous for will take place. There they find the corpse of Professor Stevenson with a Geiger counter in its chest, Ursula is recognized from a photo the doc had with him and dolled up to become the Cannibal God's queen, and Arthur is gutted and eaten by the cannibals, leading to a meat-crazed sex orgy that in my version is cut very, very short. (More on this below.)

Highlights in the cut version include EXTENDED CANNIBAL DWARF sequences, a rapey native who snuggles up to Ursula and gets castrated for his transgression, and an escape that relies heavily on the Cannibal Warriors' practice of NOT shouting for help, even when mortally wounded. Clinging to a log in the raging river with the man(olo) she loves, Ursula has a change of heart and the movie ends happily. Ta-da!

So that's the cut version. Apart from few scenes of animal cruelty (which while bad, is nowhere near the level of what we see in most of the other films of the genre) and not much gore fx, it does have brisk pace with some entertaining twists to keep it moving. Actually, except for being a little bland, at 82 minutes I had to say it worked pretty well as a jungle-adventure movie--without the animal deaths, it would run even leaner and better, imo.

He may be little, but he eats a LOT.

So WHY couldn't I leave well enough alone? WHY did I have to pick at the scab? I can't tell you, but driven by journalistic integrity, I delved further and came up with an uncut print of the movie (under the alternate and more literal title Mountain of the Cannibal God) for research purposes. I didn't rewatch, but fastforwarded through just to see what, if anything, I missed.

The uncut version, as you might assume, is just MORE SICKER MORE. It was first noticeable in the monkey-eaten-by-python scene, which is much longer and more agonizing: you can see the primate looking at the camera several times, as if pleading for help, before his expressive face disappears into the snake's gullet. The snake/falcon fight is longer too, though with nothing like the same brutality.

As for the NON-real sections of the flick, those up the ante as well. The alligator-gets-arm scene is longer and grosser, as are some of the natives' deaths. When Arthur is made a douche-kebab in the cavern, the gutting and ripping out of entrails goes on much longer, with much more detail and gnawing on the part of the natives. The dwarf cannibal's death by falling backwards on a rock is more graphic too, as in this version he actually pops the top of his skull off, revealing the quivering brain beneath. The rapey cannibal gets a post-castration close-up as well, which while not exactly realistic, still gets the point across.

The centerpiece though is the meat-mad orgy the natives go into after feasting on Arthur's Germanic goodness, which makes up the bulk of the cut footage. Natives eat live snakes and hump each other against the walls of the cavern, and a native girl masturbates graphically for a good two minutes while the drumbeats blare. (I guess German food makes her horny.) But the ne plus ultra occurs when, in the midst of the frenzy, we see a warrior performing energetic (and hopefully simulated) intercourse on a BIG-ASS DOMESTICATED PIG. This probably only goes on for a few seconds, but believe me, a little dab will do you.

That pig has haunted me ever since I saw it. Where did it come from? These natives were obviously NOT agriculturally advanced enough to have domesticated livestock--no goats or chickens or ducks in evidence--and the thing was so large it was obviously fed well. And what about human meat made this guy immediately and uncontrollably want to go have his way with the cattle? And why eat people if you have all the pork you want? Then again, maybe that question answers itself.

Yes, there you have it--some things you see and can't unsee, and they diminish you. It happened to me.

Had I stopped with the 82 minute version, I might have given Slave of the Cannibal God 1.75 or even a soft 2 thumbs; however, getting a glimpse of it in its full terrible majesty, I have to knock it down to a 1.25 at the highest. In an attempt to get that piggy image out of my mind, here's a picture of Ursula Andress in a state of undress. And may the Cannibal God have mercy on us all.

"Let me change clothes...I feel dirty."


Tenebrous Kate said...

See, this is why the blogosphere is a beautiful thing, Vicar. I was *thisclose* to breaking my self-imposed cannibal movie boycott, thinking that the Fabulous Mr. Berger had a role in this film. It was hard math--which has more value in my universe: watching a Teutonic Hottie ponce about in a sweaty, jungle fashion, or NOT watching a monkey meet its gruesome and very REAL demise...? I'm so glad I no longer have to stare down this serious moral dilemma.

And just think, this is apparently one of the "tamer" entries in this canon. Yikes...

CRwM said...

Hunh. If the cannibals don't have cattle and they eat humans for the meat and this is the only pig we see and its sole purpose is sexual, maybe he's not jumping the livestock. Maybe its just his, um, "partner." Jungle cannibal cultures are very progressive in come ways.

Ugh. I can only assume the the righteousness of you holy mission is what grants you such intestinal fortitude. You are a braver man than I, Vicar.

Tennyson wrote "nature, red in tooth and claw."

The Vicar of VHS said...

Empress--glad I could help. :) I knew that the Berger-lure might lead some down this thorny path, and I'm glad to have put up the "No Pith-Helmuts Here!" sign to warn the unwary away.

CRwM--Sometimes the line between courage and foolishness is a very, very thin one.

>>Tennyson wrote "nature, red in tooth and claw."

That's what I said! ;) Just kidding--thanks for the correction, duly noted. It's been a long time since my Romantic Poetry class. I'm sure Matthew Arnold was known to quote Old Uncle Al over a sherry now and then, though. ;P

Karswell said...

So as suspected, I'm not really missing much from the shorter, kinder, gentler print... thanks for the pork warning, TV. Have to agree with Kate too, of all the genres of horror that I find detestable (not because of subject matter but because 9 times outta 10 they're just fucking BORING) cannibal movies are definitely worth the self imposed boycott.

WORD VERIFICATION today is: Grarie.

A rare form of gore film that leaves you feeling grarie bored from not only it's over use of nature stock footage, but also from its lack of Ursula undressed.

OCKerouac said...

Alas, I stumbled upon this flick pre vicar-treatment and ruined an otherwise enjoyable evening.

I applaud your public service. I only wish I had done the deed earlier, warning the fair blogger nation of the perils of the bearded Keach...

pot head pixie said...

When I was first living in Spain in the early 90s I remember the state TV's main channel TVE 1 showed the uncut version of this film one Saturday afternoon just after lunch time.

I guess the guy who programmed that had a fate worse than the snake-eaten monkey or cannibal buggered pig in store for him after that cock up.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Weren't we just discussing how disturbing Salò was? IMHO, it had nothing on this film, tootsie roll banquet included.

I watched this years before I knew anything of the genre. It was a $5 DVD, and I had my first DVD player. Add the promise of naked Ursula Andress, and you have a sale!

I don't eat anything with feet these days (I just cannot give up sushi), but remember now how disturbing the animal killings were. IIRC, the falcon seemed to be tethered down near the snake? Or its wings were clipped? I did not see the interspecies erotica in my copy.

I should have known better than to read your review... Now I see that monkey in my head... :-(

Anonymous said...

As having experience in this part of the world I was slightly troubled by your ignorance.

You find it hard that 'even' a Greenpeace member would want to save this island:

"Help you exploit this island and its peoples? Help you destroy the forests and bring your so-called progress to a place like this?" Um...dude, have you SEEN this place? It's crawling with fucking CANNIBALS!

Please do some research on what is happened to West Papua now since Indonesia have taken over. It's been ruined for the sake of money. It wouldn't be so bad if they got a fair cut of what was taken from their land.

Also you will find that they do eat pig.

Good point about these movies being like scabs that need picking though and cheers for the review.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for your comment and concern, Anonymous (if that *is* your real name! ;) ). I would hope it was clear that the observation you quote is in relation to the world of the film which I in no way think accurately reflects the real world. I have no doubt that the people of West Papua have been exploited like every other colonized indigenous peoples in the world, and I in no way advocate this exploitation.

I would also hope it was clear that the section you quote is what the kids these days are calling a "joke." I'm not sure my review would have been improved by exhaustive research into the history of the area, which it's obvious the filmmakers didn't do. While such a project would be interesting, I think National Geographic is a better place for it than a B-movie review site. Wouldn't you agree?

>>Also you will find that they do eat pig.

Do they also make love to them? Because that's what they do in this film, and it's the film I'm concerned with. ;)

Darius Whiteplume said...

I love Ursula Andress, but would never site her as a source ;-)

I think Mr. Anonymous has learned to find posts from the christians. Troll without reading, and when you do read, skip any available nuance.

Word Verification: dampleg

Darius Whiteplume said...

Sorry, next word verification was "thing" - too irresistible.

venoms5 said...

I avoided the cut version and went straight for the jugular when the more complete film became available. I think I find the fact that these Italian crews shot these movies in such dangerous climates and circumstances even more fascinating than the actual movies.

The cinematography and score I liked very much. Still, the brutal animal killings, as abhorrent as they are, really aren't too far removed from the treatment such creatures get in the "modern" world. I did an article on the subject some months back at my site.

Another thing I also find fascinating about the Italian cannibal sub genre are the excuses the directors throw the audiences way for the way the animals are utilized on screen. It's always this mysterious "producer" who shot that footage. Only Umberto Lenzi has been honest enough to at least admit to actually shooting such scenes.

As much as I enjoyed reading this, I would have given the film a bit higher grade considering the sense of adventure is in evidence far more than in other similar movies.

The pig scene apparently was simulated. I thought it was right humorous. Isn't the animal busy stuffing his face with sustenance whilst the native furiously "pumps" away at its rectum? Hope I didn't put that image back into your head, Vicar, lol.

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