Monday, October 15, 2018

THE MAFU CAGE (1978) movie review

The Mafu Cage (1978) d. Karen Arthur (USA) (102 min)

Raised in Africa on their father’s research outpost, adult siblings Ellen (Lee Grant) and Cissy (Carol Kane) have returned home following his death. They reside together in a gorgeous SoCal house bedecked with countless artifacts and native decorations, with Ellen pursuing her burgeoning career as an astronomer while her younger sister stays at home creating meticulous, detailed, and seemingly purposeless illustrations for her late father’s extensive scientific notes. Then there is the titular enclosure for Cissy’s series of pet orangutans, all named Mafu, none of which seem to survive for very long under the violent and unpredictable stewardship of their unstable owner.

Ellen, trapped in her thankless caretaker role and longing for alternative human companionship in the form of her co-worker David (James Olsen), grows weary of her sister’s tantrums and habitually burying small hairy bodies in the backyard. Will she break her promise to protect Cissy from the madhouse, a course of action strongly recommended by family friend (and orangutan provider) Zom (Will Geer), or will she live out her days in this urban jungle nightmare?

One of the great things about being an avid horror fan is constantly being surprised by what we don’t already know. With 3,000 horror titles under my belt (and scores more that I’ve heard about via reference books and online resources), it’s a rare day when someone unfurls a completely unknown entity in my direction. And yet, that’s exactly what happened at this year’s Music Box of Horrors when programmer William Morris trotted out this relative obscurity as the second feature of the afternoon. While it is a decidedly slow burn – and, in retrospect, goes exactly where you suspect it’s going – there are more than enough bizarre flourishes and details to keep the viewer’s attention.

The film was apparently well-received during its screening at Cannes, but stumbled into distribution woes due to its ungainly title and disquieting subject matter. (In addition to their decidedly unhealthy and co-dependent relationship, there are hints that Cissy and Ellen share an incestuous past if not present.) Even so, the production values are quite impressive, as is director Arthur’s restrained storytelling, hinting at much while explicitly showing very little.

Of the two lead performances, Kane’s is certainly the showier and she makes the most of it, prancing around in elaborate African garb and tribal makeup, shrieking and tossing her wild mane around with wide eyes ablaze one minute, cooing and infant-like the next. It’s a classic “tour-de-force” turn, but it wouldn’t work without the sad-eyed-and-dead-inside grounded quality that Grant brings to the proverbial table. The emotional journey is hers, and we ache for her to break free of the bonds that keep her from happiness and a fully realized life.

An unusual and troubling effort that challenges genre expectations, The Mafu Cage is not for all tastes. I can’t say that I loved it, but I also can’t stop thinking about it (which is more than I can say for, oh, Rampage). If you dig strange and slow-moving psychological horror (a la The Witch That Came from the Sea), I’d say give it a try.


No comments:

Post a Comment