After “Not Quite Hollywood,” his explosive expose of B-movies from Down Under, Melbourne maverick Mark Hartley should further please connoisseurs of sleazy cinema with “Machete Maidens Unleashed!,” a richly bemused and slickly produced overview of the lurid schlock inexpensively shot in the Philippines between the 1960s and ’80s. Featuring babes behind bars, blaxploitation bloodletting, kung-fu ass-kicking and mutant monsters making mayhem in the wild, wild East, pic could click as a homevid and VOD attraction after fest exposure and limited theatrical play.
Hartley traces the roots of the “Filipino exploitation revolution” to “Terror Is a Man” (1959) a shoestring-budgeted reprise of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” produced by Philippine film pioneer Eddie Romero, a frightfully prolific multihyphenate who was officially designated a National Artist of the Philippines in 2003. After “Terror” scared up impressive B.O. at U.S. drive-ins and grindhouses, Romero followed up with scores of high-concept, low-budget B-pics, ranging from boobs-and-bogeymen shockers (such as “The Mad Doctor of Blood Island,” “Brides of Blood” and “Beast of Blood”) to “Black Mama, White Mama,” the 1973 camp classic actioner co-written by a young Jonathan Demme.
By the late ’60s, Romero’s success caught the attention of U.S.-based B-movie moguls, who came to appreciate the Philippines as a place where labor was cheap, locations were colorful and government officials — from then-President Ferdinand Marcos on down — allowed foreign filmmakers to proceed more or less unregulated. In this wide-open era of exploitation production, pennies were pinched, corners were cut, breasts were bared — and actors were, well, exploited.Character actor Sid Haig, who appeared in several Filipino actioners during the ’70s, remembers being housed in a spectacularly seedy hotel (“I saw a rat carrying a kitten through a window!”) while other U.S. actors practically shudder as they recall dangerous risks taken by poorly paid and barely trained locals employed as stuntmen. One participant notes, “Human life was cheap. Film was cheap. It was a great place to shoot a movie.”
Even so, the overall tone is cheery, if not downright celebratory, as interviewees share, with equal measures of nostalgia, amusement and amazement, vivid anecdotes about their experiences. Legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman — arguably the doc’s “star” — maintains a smile just this side of beatific as he gleefully recalls for Hartley his misadventures in the Philippines throughout the ’70s while producing dozens of blaxploitation actioners, naughty-nurse sex comedies and, most memorably, action-adventures involving scantily clad (or entirely unclothed) women in prison. Latter pics are, unsurprisingly, the primary focus in “Machete Maidens Unleashed!”
A few vets of these exploitationers insist “Chained Heat,” “The Big Bird Cage” and similar fare had at least a smidgen of socially redeeming merit, in that they empowered women as action heroes, and often involved revolutionary movements against oppressive dictatorships. But director Joe Dante, who got his start making trailers for Corman pics of this era, breezily dismisses the exploitationers as formulaic guilty pleasures, impure and simple.
Hartley does find time to cover a few high-end U.S. productions filmed in the Philippines during the ’70s. Most notably: “Apocalypse Now,” which Francis Ford Coppola managed to film with the full cooperation of the local military (and more than a few helicopters and troops). For the most part, though, “Machete Maidens Unleashed!” wallows exuberantly and shamelessly in the lower depths of genre production, with an enthusiasm that may prove highly contagious for any B-movie buff. Romero, still hale and hearty in his 80s, appears unapologetically chipper in his on-camera interviews. He looks very much like someone who is savoring the last laugh.
Tech values — for the doc itself, if not the features excerpted throughout — are first-rate.