After viewing Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) I am conflicted as to whether I should be proud as a Filipino that a spotlight has finally been shined on a little known nook of film history or ashamed that not only were my countrymen being exploited by their former liberators, The United States,who freed us first from the Spanish and then again from the Japanese, but then because of blind greed, turned around and gave foreign companies carte blanche to use the entire country as one big playground. Though in fairness a lot of great films were made…okay, a lot of interesting films were made that had great eye-popping advertising to entice horny teens to take their dates to.
Utilizing the oft-used tactic of peppering documentaries with talking head interviews from filmmakers and scholars alike, Mark Hartley, whose Not Quite Hollywood (2008) gave Australian exploitation films their day in the sun, divides his film up into sections, each section representing a specific Filipino filmmaker and the style and philosophy they brought to their pictures.
The family tree begins first with Gerardo de Leon, a man every bit as talented as any genre director currently in the business of show, who was ostensibly ground down to a fine powder by the commercial film industry. de Leon was forced to make “women in cages” (incidentally, the title of his 1971 Roger Corman-produced film) pictures by the end of his career because film distributors got tired of his “artsy” horror films. Moving into the late 60s, de Leon”s apprentice Eddie Romero, elected National Artist of the Philippines in 2003 and proclaimed the patron saint of grindhouse directors by Quentin Tarantino, started his career working on war films then shifted over to horror films before seamlessly making the transition to women in prison films. The chain that links all of these seemingly disparate moves being that, as Hartley”s documentary captures, for all the prestige Romero has received from cinephiles, back in the day he was hungry for two things: to be a filmmaker and to get the validation and respect from the biggest movie factory out there, Hollywood. He accomplished both, though I think he would have liked to have done it without relying on so many tits and asses.
Alongside the story of the rise of Eddie Romero, you have Roger Corman entering the picture. Neither an artist nor even an admirer of tropical settings, Corman served as the moneyman and international connection to get Romero”s celluloid fantasies off the ground. But, just as de Leon suffered from artistic pretensions, so did Romero and though try as he might to get some respect there was no way anyone was going to mistake gore, bare-breasted beauties, or kinky S&M scenes as high art.
Beyond the individual adventure stories in Hartley”s film, there is also a socio-political arc running throughout its 84 minute runtime. The irony that films espousing armed revolt and Constitutional freedoms were being made in a country run by a despot and his beauty queen wife was not lost to those interviewed in the film nor to the audience watching. Advertised as the Wild East, young American actors, directors, and film producers came to try their luck in the Philippines in search of fame and fortune like some bizarro American Dream story. However, with the exception of Pam Grier, no one managed to break on through to the other side.
What you do have is a plethora of shocking and hilarious backstage stories which Hartley doles out liberally throughout Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010). Stunt men were paid five pesos a day, the conversion rate currently being 50 Filipino pesos to 1 American dollar, to engage in casino online real brawls, jump through plate glass windows, and be literally set ablaze if it meant better audience attendance. And of course the bevy of raw flesh on parade in the films had their own fair share of horror stories, with bugs, fecal matter, and empty promises of fame just to get them to disrobe all figuring into most of those stories.
However, what really fascinated me about Machete Maidens Unleashed! were scenes in which filmmakers like Joe Dante or John Landis would dissect the little tricks that Corman and company would use to get butts into theater seats. Be it mundane things like printing out really scintillating film posters, retitling a foreign film for American audiences, or just taking a bunch of raw outtakes footage from several disparate film sources and crafting an entirely new film out of them. These Franken-films, no matter how shoddily made, seemed to never lose money. However, the funniest anecdote out of Hartley”s documentary was Joe Dante”s discovery that, if you take footage of a man firing a gun and cut to a random shot from another film of a helicopter exploding, the audience will believe that the former caused the latter, a perfect example of the Kuleshov effect in grindhouse action.
The 1980s spelled the end of the Filipino exploitation film industry. With the rise of event films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), the horny teen audience that film distributors had come to rely on made the switch from drive-in theaters to the climate controlled multiplex. Also, not really touched upon in Hartley”s film, Ferdinand Marcos lost political backing from the United States finally and was not-so politely asked to step down from power by the people. In the wake of his exile, the new government, although far more benevolent, was far too “Catholic” to allow such prurient trash to be made in their own backyard. It is a bit tragic that the primary claim to fame for the Filipino film industry are these schlock films not even popular with or seen by many in whose land they were natively shot. Inherently linked to American culture, like all former colonies, life in the Philippines back then was cheap, production costs were low, and a different breed of filmmaker roamed the jungle. What a glorious time it must have been…