During this year's Indiefest, Kier-la Janisse programmed two film under sidebar program call House of Psychotic Women. The program cross promoted Janisse's new book, House of Psychotic Women. On April 11, the Roxie screened two more films featured in Janisse's book. Janisse was not in attendance but recorded introduction for the two films (in a shaky cell phone cam which made my slightly nauseous).
I had a headache all day that day but I felt good enough to see the first film on program.
The Mafu Cage starring Lee Grant & Carol Kane; directed by Karen Arthur; (1978)
The second half of the double bill was The Witch Who Came From the Sea. Although it looked interesting and my headache had passed, I chose to go home early to get some extra sleep.
Not having seen the two films in the Indiefest program (Born Innocent and Toys Are Not For Children), I was unsure what to expect with The Mafu Cage. The 35 mm print which screened at the Roxie that evening was titled Deviation. I guess some studio execs thought "Mafu" was too confusing.
Ellen (Lee Grant) and Cissy (Carol Kane) are two sisters who live in a mansion inherited from their late father who was Great White Hunter or some sort. The women spent much of their youth in Africa. Ellen, the older sister, works as an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I recognized a few exterior shots as locations used in Rebel Without a Cause. Cissy doesn't seem to have any marketable skills. In fact, Cissy is downright certifiable.
Cissy has kept a series of primates caged up in the house for quite sometime. They all meet untimely deaths as Cissy becomes enraged with the animals for reasons I do not recall. She beats them to death on a routine basis. In a classic case of co-dependency, Ellen keeps enabling Cissy's behavior by procuring more primates for her. In the African language they grew up in ape or primates were called Mafu hence the title.
Instead of having her sister committed, Ellen keeps thinking she can handle the situation. Ellen had promised their father she would look after Cissy but this is taking a promise to a ridiculous extreme. One insight into Ellen's behavior is that the film strongly implies there was and is lesbian incest between the two sisters. You don't see same sex incest depicted in films very often. Her sisterly love partially explains why Ellen is resisting the advances of male co-worker. More likely, her bizarre home arrangement would be too problematic to explain to gentlemen callers. How to explain the primate caged up in the downstairs bedroom?
With the help of her father's friend (Will Geer), Ellen is able to get an orangutan (credited as Budar). Ellen promises this will be the last one and if Cissy harms it, she will commit her. Given Cissy's track record, this seems to border on animal cruelty. While Ellen slowly comes to admit that her sister is apeshit crazy, it awakens some sexual desires in her. She realizes how much she has given up to indulge her sister's abnormalities and that guy at the observatory is looking is pretty good.
Cissy inevitable beats the orangutan to death which is quite unlikely since orangutans are stronger than the strongest men much less skinny Carol Kane. Fortunately for Cissy, Ellen has begun asserting her independence and is away on a business trip when poor Mafu is killed. Unfortunately for Ellen, her male colleague stops by her house when she out and Cissy, realizing that Ellen is considering starting a life without her kills the man. Cissy is out of control now.
When Ellen returns, Cissy captures her using a net and locks her up in the mafu cage. Hysterical and babbling, Cissy seems to realize she gone too far now and Ellen realizes she has lost control of her sister. Cissy ends up poisoning her sister in the cage. After she dies, drags Ellen's body out of the cage and props her up in a chair and then locks herself in the cage. This makes it seems as though Ellen locked Cissy in the cage and committed suicide. The film ends at this point, so it is a matter of debate whether someone finds Cissy before she dies of thirst & starvation. I chose to think her death was likely which adds a layer of ex post facto premeditation to her actions. Even if she is found alive, the situation hints that Ellen was the crazy one and Cissy the victim. Cissy is crazy alright...crazy like a fox.
The Mafu Cage features a tour de force performance for Carol Kane whose voice can peel paint when she becomes agitated. No one can play crazy like Carol Kane. Lee Grant has the more subdued role but is able to hold her own against Kane. Between the two of them, they create a memorable film. Add in an African tribal music soundtrack and you have a unique film. I won't say The Mafu Cage is a great film but it is memorable. A little too artsy to be considered full-fledged horror, The Mafu Cage is kind of a hybrid exploitation/psychological thriller with art house sensibilities.
I'm glad I caught The Mafu Cage and wished I had felt good enough to see The Witch Who Came From the Sea. I hope the Roxie programs some more films from Janisse's book.
In her recorded introduction, Janisse closed with an anecdote from the set of The Mafu Cage. Director Karen Arthur tried to staff the crew with as many women as possible since she was one of the few female film directors at the time. Orangutans have a heightened sense of smell. When women on the set were have their menstruation, the orangutan would go into a frenzy and the animal wrangler had difficulty controlling Budar. Arthur had to assign someone on the crew to coordinate Budar's shooting schedule with the menstrual cycles of the female cast & crew members.
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