Saturday, October 07, 2006

MACUMBA SEXUAL: Reign of Tara

Ajita Wilson as Tara, Princess of Darkness, in Jess Franco's MACUMBA SEXUAL.

MACUMBA SEXUAL
1981, Severin Films, DD-2.0/16:9/LB/ST/+, $29.95, 80m 12s, DVD-0

In the late 1970s, after making films abroad for decades, Jess Franco returned to his native Spain to rediscover his identity as a Spanish director in the newly-liberated cinema of his homeland. This erotic voodoo film filmed on Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary Islands, is one of his best films from this period, an elegantly shot, thinly-disguised remake of his Soledad Miranda classic VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), with American transexual star Ajita Wilson cast as the otherworldly temptress. Lina Romay, using the same "Candy Coster" and wearing the blonde wig that came with that second identity, plays Alice Brooks, a real estate worker whose vacation in Bahia Feliz with novelist husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) is beset by sexual nightmares about an imperious black woman called Tara, flanked by two naked human "pets." Alice receives a call from her boss, asking her to meet with a prospective buyer named Princess Obango, who happens to be in her vicinity. A pair of servants escort Alice to the Princess' desert home by camel, and (not surprisingly) the prospective buyer turns out to be the woman of her dreams -- Tara, Princess of Darkness, a 300 year-old voodoo priestess in search of a young acolyte to die into, sexually, thereby possessing her for the next three centuries of her reign.

Rosa Maria Almirall as "Lina Romay" as "Candy Coster," playing "Alice Brooks," caught in a web of supernatural sexual anguish.

In "Voodoo Jess," the excellent 22-minute interview featurette accompanying this picture, Jess Franco likens the American transsexual star Ajita Wilson to Christopher Lee, saying that she wasn't that much of an actor, but was rather a singularly fantastic presence -- tall and compelling. Smirk if you will, but Franco's insight is actually well supported by the film at hand, which uses Wilson much in the way the Hammer Dracula series used Christopher Lee: shown standing by regally in a long cape (and, in Wilson's case, little else), presiding over dark supernatural rituals with lordly hand gestures, and arranging to be resurrected in a new body (much as occurred in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, 1970). While it's true that the role of Tara gives Wilson few opportunities to act (Lee had the same complaint), "Candy Coster" throws herself into this febrile scenario with more passion and physicality than usual, her performance building to what may be the most affecting scream of Lina Romay's screen career. "Robert Foster" is also good as the husband who finds himself also drawn into Tara's web through the realm of his art (he experiences a SHINING moment of typing Tara's name till it covers a manuscript page from his novel), though it's not one of his best roles. Poppy and Tulip, the human beasts whom Tara leads about on leashes (recalling Barbara Steele's entrance in BLACK SUNDAY), are played by an actress credited as "Lorna Green" (the name of a recurring character name in Franco's filmography, beginning with Janine Reynaud's character in SUCCUBUS) and a man identified as José Ferro, who looks so much like Will Ferrell in one close-up that it all but defuses a scene's erotic tension. Franco himself, 51 at the time of filming, has the supporting role of Mémé, a moronic handyman who mirrors the simple-minded character Memmet, whom he portrayed in VAMPYROS LESBOS.

As the hotel's resident half-wit, Jess Franco warns Alice not to go to the castle in the desert.

Unlike the majority of goofy, half-condescending sex satires Franco was making during this period (TWO FEMALE SPIES WITH FLOWERED PANTIES, LAS CHICAS DE COPACABANA), MACUMBA SEXUAL is a serious production and a serious achievement. It benefits from a spaciousness of style that allows the actors to determine its dramatic content and enables the movie to breathe with sultriness and mystery. (1982's GEMIDOS DE PLACER would carry this method even further, consisting of only a dozen or so sustained takes.) Juan Soler's Eastmancolor/Techniscope photography is consistently lovely and evocative, sometimes employing star filters to lend hints of enchantment to the borders of a scene, with handsome location shots of beaches and junk-like ships setting sail. A preponderance of Senegalese art objects and fetish figures lend authenticity and flavor, and particularly memorable are shots of Alice struggling to cross dusky sand dunes that tease the eye with the possibility of morphing into the swells and hollows of Tara's own body.

Viewers should be cautioned that, unlike its Severin Films companion piece MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD, MACUMBA SEXUAL does cross the line into hardcore sexual content, to the same extent that 1973's FEMALE VAMPIRE did. However, the nature of the story is such that it could not have been so persuasively told, had it been coy about the role that our sexual organs and identities play in our lives. Of all Franco's erotic horror films, this one is perhaps closest to the feel of Joe Sarno's work, its overall tone recalling in particular the tribal, ritualistic, carnal call-and-answer of Sarno's vampire picture VEIL OF BLOOD (aka VAMPIRE ECSTASY, 1973). Indeed, it's our memory of Sarno's film, with its arousingly percussive score, that pointed out the inadequacy of MACUMBA SEXUAL's anemic and overly aerated synth score, which does nothing to communicate the power of Tara's effectively staged macumba rite or to resonate with any of the bizarre African nick-nacks adorning her desert lair.

Tara demonstrates to Alice's husband ("Robert Foster" aka Antonio Mayans) why he should not have come in answer to her siren's call.

Severin's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is exquisite, adding considerable lustre to a title heretofore known in this country only through dupey, unsubtitled, bootleg tapes. The aforementioned featurette "Voodoo Jess" interviews Franco and Lina Romay about the circumstances of production and their co-stars. While Franco expresses indifference about whether or not Wilson was transsexual, Romay (who got close enough to make a full study of her surgeon's handiwork) assures us that she was. Of the nearly 40 films Wilson made, MACUMBA SEXUAL is almost certainly the one that best understood her value as a screen presence and presented her as something more than a sex object -- a sex oracle, perhaps. This was her second (after 1980's SADOMANIA) and final collaboration with Franco; in a tragic coincidence, like VAMPYROS LESBOS star Soledad Miranda, Wilson died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident -- in 1987, in her mid-to-late 30s.

A quote on the box from Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's book IMMORAL TALES describes MACUMBA SEXUAL as "Franco's last extended trip into delirium... One of the last glorious death throes of European sexploitation." These accolades may seem overstated, but the record tends to support them. The sex scream that ends this picture may well embody the incendiary finale to Franco's heartfelt pursuit of adult erotic fantasy; hereafter, his work became increasingly satiric, post-modernist, and cerebral, if not intellectual. As was signalled by the title of his 1981 sci-fi film LA SEXO ESTA LOCO ("Sex Is Crazy"), Franco seemed to lose interest in probing sexual subjects seriously. The delirium found here is palpably erotic, and well conveyed by this memorable line of dialogue: "The Princess? She doesn't exist... but your husband must be with her."

Severin Films will release MACUMBA SEXUAL on October 31. You can pre-order your copy here.

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