Shown as part of this year’s Cinema Rediscovered Festival at the Bristol Watershed, The Mafu Cage had me stumbling out of the cinema wondering WTF did I just watch… so I had to tell you about it.
The less you know about the plot of The Mafu Cage the better. Which is a little tricky as I doubt more than a couple of my regular readers have heard of the film. Until it appeared in the programme of Cinema RediscoveredI hadn’t heard of it (although it is reviewed in Kier-La Janisse’s fantastic book House of Psychotic Women). With that in mind, I will keep the following plot synopsis as tenebrous as possible.
Astronomer Ellen (Lee Grant) lives in a huge mansion with her younger sister Cissy (Carol Kane). Their late father was some sort of naturalist/zooligist/animal psychologist (this isn’t me trying to be vague. Like many elements of this film, backstory is pared to the bone). Cissy never leaves the house and has built a shrine to their father in a room that looks like the inside of The Rainforest Cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue. The father was conducting some kind of experiment, and the house also comes with a steel reinforced cage in which Cissy keeps her ‘pet’ Mafu, a primate.
The only person allowed access to the sister’s hermetic home is Zom (Will Greer). Zom is a family friend, possibly a relative, it isn’t really clear, but his main purpose is to source Cissy’s animals. Something that he gets to do rather more often than either he or Ellen would like due to Cissy’s unpredictable psychotic episodes. Well, I say ‘unpredictable’ the well-stocked Mafu cemetery in the garden suggests otherwise.
The uneasy equilibrium of the sisters’ existence begins to spin out of control with the entry of a fourth party, Ellen’s recent colleague David (James Olsen) who is very obviously romantically interested in her. Feelings that are reciprocated and will lead to violence.
There is not any graduation or escalation of hysteria in the characterization of Cissy, or in Carol Kane’s extraordinary performance. Like Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s version of The Shining, she is out of her gourd from the moment she is shown on screen. In fact, the more intriguing question is just how deranged is the apparently normal Ellen? The older sister seems to be a repressed female stifled by her out of control sibling, a trope common in melodrama. However, Ellen is actually the prime enabler of her sibling’s madness, feeding a cycle of violence and abuse that plays out from very early in the film.
There is a horrible inevitability to The Mafu Cage’s narrative. Imagine an out of control train, racing down carefully laid tracks towards a cliff edge. Nevertheless, if the plot cleaves to well worn dramatic conventions the vehicle running along those linear rails is an extraordinary contraption of unconventional design with a turbocharged engine.
I should interject with a trigger warning here. The latest Mafu in the film is an orangutang, played by Budar an actual ape, not a man in a suit. There are extraordinary scenes between Budar and Kane, occasional shots from behind appear to feature a stand-in for the actress, but many shots are clearly being performed by Cane herself. As elements of the synopsis suggest, there is animal cruelty in the film. This is clearly simulated. This isn’t Wake in Fright, but it is a story element that some will find upsetting.
When is a cult film not a cult film? The Mafu Cage is precisely the sort of movie that is meant to be a major cult movie. It is well directed. It features an outstanding central performance from Kane. It has on Oscar winner as co-lead (Grant won supporting actress for Shampoo only a few years before). It has a supporting actor best known for The Waltons (Greer), And despite being an example of a well-known horror sub-genre (in this case the ‘psychotic woman’ melodrama), it has a heavy dash of that special stuff that a true cult movie needs… genuine batshit intensity.
And yet it is incredibly obscure. Apart from its mention in Janisse’s book it has almost no critical footprint. There are only a few reviews. It is only available on DVD in a reportedly near unwatchable pan and scan transfer under the crappy alternate title Don’t Ring The Doorbell, with cover art that makes it look like a cross between Romero’s Monkey Shines and Richard Franklin’s Link.
Could it be because the film is directed by a woman and about a female point of view? Arthur only directed one other feature and was better known for television (she won an Emmy for an episode of Cagney and Lacey). Being a female feature director in the late seventies was even rarer than it still is now. And even more so in genre film. And television was then regarded as a much lower artform and given little respect (oh how the tables turn). The Mafu Cage’s pivotal relationship between sibling relationship begins with hints of being incredibly icky and fucked up, and ‘oh my days!’ Arthur’s film goes there and beyond in ways that make explicit things that are normally only subtext. The Mafu Cage is a unique movie. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane meets Dead Ringers by way of Dunston Checks In. It needs to be seen to be believed.
Presented by London based genre film collective The Final Girls(‘exploring the intersections of horror and feminism’) at this year’s Cinema Rediscovered Festival in Bristol following a screening at The Barbican. The Mafu Cage was shown in a 35mm print sourced from a private collection in the US. The print was… not the best frankly. Very pink and unstable around the reel changes, so bear that in mind when reading this review. Director Karen Arthur’s compositions were always intriguing, and the production design of the interior of the sister’s moldering (or was that the print?) mansion was striking. But I am giving the film the benefit of the doubt that the lighting and color palate matched the quality of other elements because it is very hard to judge.