Filipino genre films of the '70s and '80s had it all. Boasting cheap labour, exotic scenery and non-existent health and safety regulations, the Philippines was a dreamland for exploitation filmmakers whose renegade productions were soon engulfing drive-in screens around the globe like a tidal schlock-wave.
In Not Quite Hollywood (2008), Melbourne based filmmaker Mark Hartley delivered an hilarious and insightful history on genre filmmaking in Australia, circa 1970-1987. It was a terrific film, and arguably a major landmark in the sub-genre of movies about movies.
Hartley’s new documentary is, in its way, just as good. Delivered in the same clips/talking heads/high energy style as NQH, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is another fast paced and very funny look at the way a group of US-based filmmakers found the perfect backlot for their low-rent, bloody, and sleazy action/horror pics in the Philippines. What made the location so perfect for these exploitation moviemakers was, in the words of one veteran, 'Human life was cheap. Film was cheap. It was a great place to make a picture." The well-known troubles of Apocalypse Now (1979), some of whose survivors are interviewed here, may be the most famous of all US-Filipino runaway productions, but its saga of bad luck and weirdness is put into sharp relief in Hartley’s new film.
Maidens is also about the Filipino filmmaking pros who were willing cohorts in the mayhem. 'There are a lot of responsible filmmakers," intones a jocular John Landis (dir Blues Brothers), Z-grade genre movie fan and one of the best of Hartley’s huge cast of cast/crew interview subjects, 'but sometimes what’s fun are the irresponsible ones." Still, this isn’t quite all laughs 'n’ gasps. Not Quite Hollywood set a party mood. In Maidens, the tone is buoyant but somewhat darker, with the occasional sobering fact. After all, many of these movies were ground out while Ferdinand Marcos was dictator of the Philippines.
Hartley’s script explains that after World War II the Philippines had a strong, professional film industry that produced some 350 movies a year. No one saw them outside the Philippines. By the early '60s, local veterans like Gerry de Leon and Eddie Romero figured that they could exploit the potential in the US drive-in circuit, so they started making movies in the tradition of B movie king and schlockmeister Roger Corman and followed the rule of the three B’s: 'Blood, breasts and beasts."
These movies were hits, big ones. Made on budgets with $100,000 ceilings, they grossed millions. 'They look like they came from another planet," explains filmmaker Joe Dante, a genre movie veteran. By which Dante means women, naked, often in torture scenarios. And there’s bad dialogue, too: 'Do you know why I keep bringing you back?" Hero answers: 'To awaken the latent evil in the people I come into contact with."
The irony was that while Marcos was fighting rebels (and offering army equipment and men as extras in genre pics), Corman and co. were producing pics celebrating revolution, many of them starring Pam Grier – who is interviewed here to along with genre vet Jack Hill.
Corman, also interviewed, started making movies in the Philippines soon after he formed New World Pictures in 1970. He already had a strong fan-base for his stateside 'nudie’ pics, like Fly Me (1973). The Filipino flicks The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972) and The Hot Box 1972) combined the girls with gore, guns, whips and shower scenes.
A brilliant interviewer, Hartley has the enviable knack of producing jaw-dropping declarations and admissions from his subjects; like NQH, Maidens is chock full of howlers. I especially like one telling anecdote about the dangers of moviemaking under a military junta. Instead of film dogs, one production was using army attack hounds. When the DOP tried to get a light reading on one of these animals, it ate the light meter!
The movie finishes with a gloss on the career of Weng Weng, an 83cm tall action-hero who starred in a James Bond spoof that mocked the US Filipino grindhouse movies called For Y’ur Height Only (1981).
Hartley pulls off a neat trick; he honours the huge fan-base these films have accrued over the years by carefully detailing what makes them unique without romanticising them out of all proportion. He’s also got a sense of humour about the way history can have a way of (potentially) redeeming exploitation. So here’s Corman telling us he insisted on a certain amount of political content ('in the revolutionary spirit of the '60s") to offset the fact that his very pretty cast of women are frequently topless. Even some of the cast members interviewed declaim that going bare-breasted on screen for almost the entire film was liberating"¦To be sure, active femme heroes were a novelty in the early '70s but Hartley gives the last word on this issue to Landis: 'You hear people talking about the crassest, most exploitative, sexist, racist films as liberating"¦ What?"