Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mafu Cage (1978)

          Boundary-pushing ’70s movies went to some highly inappropriate places, from the animated fornication of Fritz the Cat (1972) to the comedic infanticide of Bad (1977) and beyond. In some instances, filmmakers were after shock value, and in others, satire was the intention. Then there are films on the order of The Mafu Cage. Although this batshit-crazy melodrama depicts characters and situations that have no connection to human reality, director Karen Arthur and her collaborators play the material completely straight. In other words, the only thing  weirder that the events portrayed onscreen in The Mafu Cage is the notion that intelligent people thought this story was worth telling.
          Adapted from a play by Eric Wesphal by screenwriter Don Chastain, the movie is primarily set in a sprawling Los Angeles mansion, several interior rooms of which have been filled with plants and tribal art so the rooms resemble a sprawling jungle. The reason? Deranged twentysomething Cissy (Carol Kane) previously lived in Africa with her father. After he died, Cissy moved in with her older sister, a professional astronomer named Ellen (Lee Grant). For reasons that defy understanding, Ellen indulges Cissy’s desire for a simulacrum of her African lifestyle, hence the offbeat décor. Additionally, family friend Zom (Will Geer) regularly acquires primates that Cissy keeps as pets in a large cage. She calls each primate “Mafu,” but she has a nasty habit of beating the animals to death while screaming the phrase “Dumb shit!” over and over again. The drama of the story, such as it is, stems from Ellen’s overdue realization that it’s time to stop acquiring primates. She pays dearly for cutting off her twisted sister’s supply.
          Adding to the peculiarity of the piece are several overt scenes describing the incestuous lesbian relationship between Cissy and Ellen. (Very little sexual activity is shown, but in one scene, Cissy talks about cupping Ellen’s breasts and making Ellen “gush.”) The Mafu Cage also features many extended sequences of Kane behaving like a lunatic. She dances around the house to the beat of recordings featuring tribal drums, mimicking the undulating movements of African rituals. She slathers herself in face paint while eavesdropping on her sister. And she screams. A lot.
          Kane’s performance is a compendium of over-the-top antics, rather than a genuine attempt at rendering the dimensions of a troubled human being. Depending on your personal tolerance, she’s either fascinatingly terrible or painfully atonal. Oddly, the fact that Grant comes across as rational decreases the movie’s efficacy, because it’s impossible to believe that her character would tolerate such volatile life circumstances. And when you throw in the actor best known as Grandpa Walton dancing around the house with Kane while he wears a primitive-looking ape costume—well, let’s just say that the strangeness of The Mafu Cage increases exponentially with each passing scene. So, too, does the ugliness of the movie, because watching the crazed Cissy murder an innocent primate is enough to make any animal-loving viewer feel genuine hostility toward the filmmakers.

The Mafu Cage: FREAKY

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