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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mountain Of The Cannibal God (1979)

Mountain Of The Cannibal God (1979)
Starring: Ursula Andress, Stacy Keach Director: Sergio Martino
Malaysian Star : Anita Jaffar

“You don’t forget the taste of human flesh!”
Edward Foster (Stacy Keach), Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

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With her husband, Professor Henry Stevenson, missing in the wilds of New Guinea, Susan Stevenson (Ursula Andress), and her hot-headed brother Arthur (Antonio Marsina), set out to Port Moresby to confront local authorities over the potential of a search party being organised. However, their protests fall on deaf ears once they are informed that the Marabata jungle is virtually impenetrable, as well as neighbouring island Roka so steeped in mystery that it is considered cursed by locals. Deciding to launch their own private reconnaissance, they turn to Henry’s former colleague Edward Foster (Stacy Keach), and soon set out into the unexplored territory with Foster’s personal aide Lazaro (Dudley Wanaguru), a native, in tow.

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Managing to brave the wilderness, while losing a number of their local bearers through Arthur’s volatile temperament, the adventurers eventually set foot on Roka to much initial trepidation. Losing the remainder of their bearers, in grisly fashion, to the perils of Roka the rag-tag team are happened upon by missionary physician Manolo (Claudio Cassinelli), who in turn ushers them back to Father Moseas’ (Franco Fantasia) mission. Once again, Arthur becomes the catalyst for their forcible ejection from the outpost, whereupon they venture forth to the legendary mountain of Ra-Rami; the mountain of the cannibal god. It is also the home to once thought extinct cannibal tribe, the Puka, a people whom Foster has had first hand experience with. While he has no intentions of reliving the ordeal again the overriding mystery of the missing professor threatens to deliver them all into the waiting hands of almost unconscionable danger.

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Originally released to Australian cinemas and drive-ins in 1979 under the alternate title Slave of the Cannibal God (later to be released on video as Prisoner of the Cannibal God), as well as shorn of nearly four minutes of its more shocking imagery by the local censorship board, Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) differentiates itself from its peers amidst the (then) burgeoning cannibal cycle by positing itself as a grand adventure in the traditional mold and additionally beneficial of a high-profile international cast. Where his countrymen had utilised either stage actors (Massimo Foschi in Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World, 1977), local names (Ivan Rassimov in Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River, 1972), or the shared exotic charms of Burmese and Javanese-born beauties (Me Me Lai in both Lenzi and Deodato’s films; Laura Gemser in Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, 1977), Martino managed to secure the talents of former Bond-girl Ursula Andress (Dr. No, 1962), American actor Stacy Keach and revered domestic screen icon Claudio Cassinelli. It was a cast that actually attracted no small amount of international interest in the film, on original release, and even from a contemporary standpoint elevates the production’s pedigree apart from its more primordial peers.

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Director Martino made his first foray into the (then) lucrative exotic “dark continent” styled adventures with Mountain of the Cannibal God, going on to successive similar features with Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Great Alligator River (1979), both toplining Mountain’s lead Cassinelli, though dispensing with the altogether more exploitative cannibal motif. Having commenced his (by his own admission) commercially-skewed directorial career with the sensationalist documentary Mille Peccati…Nessuna Virtu (1969) (literally: A Thousand Vices…No Virtues, but released in overseas territories as Mondo Sex), Martino had made his mark in the industry with a string of well-received murder mysteries (or gialli) encompassing such titles as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972) and the internationally successful Torso (1973). Following a series of domestically produced sex comedies, as well as mere dabbling in other genres, his earthier and more commercially slick style was a natural for the steadily populist cannibal cycle of films inaugurated with Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River (1972). However, though Martino’s film benefits from a weightier cast, more modest budget and lush location shooting in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, it still falls victim of the pre-eminent trappings of the sub-genre and accordingly is hardly a film for more sensitive viewers as, more often than not, it falls back on the very same imagery and patently exploitative material that it politely decries.

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From a contemporary standing, films such as this are often approached with critical if not disdainful mindsets, yet in their era (the 1970’s) they were considered box-office dynamite and largely marketed towards the lowest common denominator that sparked both wonder and revulsion amongst the drive-in set. Cruel set-pieces incorporating real animal violence (unthinkable in today’s climate) juxtaposed against narratives that existed solely to highlight their exploitative (cannibalism) and prurient (gratuitous indigenous nudity) aspects were all too common; that these kinds of films ever came to exist is debatable in more enlightened times, but they simply cannot be engaged as such from a contemporary focus as they were incredibly indicative of their era. Whilst the animal cruelty is almost always the major contention for modern viewers retroactively encountering films from the cannibal cycle, little if anything at all is made of the oft-grossly offensive racism and bull-headed colonialism/imperialism inherent within the productions. In an age where developing countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, New Guinea and other South East Asian regions were virtually unknown to the majority of the Western world, grotesque fantasies such as this and others painted these regions as barely existent above the stone-age; where the fact of the matter was that most of them had been industrialised and developing at a rapid socio-economic rate since the early twentieth century.

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Though it succumbs to the more grossly offensive outrages of the sub-genre (inserted documentary footage and unpleasantly orchestrated scenes of animal killing and mutilation), Martino’s film does manage to circumvent some of the more garish and lurid aspects of the cycle by building its narrative around the core of a classically-styled adventure opus. Although it corroborates the Westernised fantasy of primitive cannibal tribes existing in regions where history books have confirmed the practice had died out centuries prior, it at least offers cursory messages of conservationism and protection of indigenous cultures; however minimalist they might be. Assuredly, had not the introduction of the “strange and unusual” customs and rituals of foreign lands to the Western world through cinematic vessels such as Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s hit documentary Mondo Cane (1962) occurred, of which international audiences flocked to in droves, there is perhaps the probability that opportunistic filmmakers would not have gone on to combine the formula within the framework of entirely fictional narratives. However, for its accountable flaws, inclusive of a major plot-thread lifted almost verbatim from the previous year’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), Martino’s cannibal piece at least offers a little more gloss than the sub-genre was renowned for as well as some strikingly gorgeous cinematography by Giancarlo Ferrando.

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Also boasting a memorable original score by brothers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God is arguably the most commercial and moderately palatable of all the cannibal films that originated out of Italy following the worldwide success of previous entries in the field, most notably the aforementioned Lenzi progenitor and Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (1977). Mind you, it’s hardly the kind of adventure story one might have read as a tyke in a dog-eared copy of a “Boy’s Own” annual from the local library, but it certainly harbours some of the colonialist instincts that were consistent with that tome. With a flood of grisly images, such as evisceration, decapitation, cannibalism and the aforementioned animal cruelty as well as blatant nudity and sexual content, neither is it the type of feature that will suit the tastes of all audiences; it has most definitely become a niche item for exactly the same demographic that it was tailored for back on its original release. Though by and large an entertaining jungle-adventure with some instantly recognisable icons of the screen, Mountain of the Cannibal God stills requires a steely resolve, and open mind, from any potential and/or adventurous viewer. As such, it’s not a title I’d openly recommend due to its varied content that will offend or distress some viewers, but it remains a fascinating nostalgia piece from when the world seemed “smaller” and foreign cultures seemed so impenetrable and distant from our own.

Consumer censorship advice: R (Restricted to Persons 18 Years & Over) (contains strong gory violence, nudity, adult themes and animal cruelty)

NB: This film was originally submitted to the Australia Office of Film & Literature Classification in 1979 at a duration of 99m. Only after two successive revised versions were made and submitted, losing almost four minutes of footage in the process, was the film passed with the R (18+) (Restricted to persons 18 years and over only) classification. It has not been made (legally) available in Australia since the revised 94m version was released on videocassette in the late eighties. The expanded “director’s version” available on DVD from Blue Underground in the US, running 103m and including restored previously unseen footage, would definitely not pass the OFLC in its present form.

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