Sunday, February 8, 2015

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

Directed by Joe D'Amato
Starring Laura Gemser and Gabriele Tinti
Synopsis: Intrepid reporter Emanuelle goes undercover in a mental asylum and discovers a young cannibal girl rescued from the Amazon. Emanuelle's curiosity gets the best of her and after enlisting the help of an anthropologist she sets off into Amazonia...where one-by-one the expedition finds themselves the blue plate special in a cannibalistic feast.

(A "highlight reel" appears after the review.)

Review: Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals holds a special place in my (ahem) heart as it was my introduction to the wild world of Black Emanuelle. After that initial exposure, via a heavily-edited print on Showtime, those familiar with the film will be able to imagine my absolute shock when I finally saw it uncut a couple of years later. The film is a grim, grimy and grisly experience with nearly equal parts sweaty sex and ghastly splatter.

Last Cannibals was Laura Gemser's fifth and Joe D'Amato's fourth excursion into the swingin' series, which by 1977 was on the wane and in search of a new direction. In many ways this is a transitional work for D'Amato. He began his directorial career with spaghetti westerns and sexy Decameron-style pictures before making a smooth segue into nudie travelogues and full-on sleaze epics. Post-Cannibals D'Amato would spend a few years balls-deep in gorefests such as Anthropophagus and Absurd. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals was the turning point - though it was more of a complete 180 turn than a seamless transition. In fact, the directorial turning point happens smack-dab in the middle of the film! Midway through Last Cannibals' 90-minute running time it abruptly stops being a sex film and switches to chunky blood-n-guts horror. Muff diving gives way to gut munching and Gabriele Tinti's hairy Italian buttocks are replaced with the entrails of the supporting cast.

How much snake can one woman take?
How does Last Cannibals fare in the horror stakes, you ask? For his first full-on excursion into horror, D'Amato's film is surprisingly effective. D'Amato shows a talent for build up using sound and hand-held camera work to layer on the suspense before finally unleashing a bloody cinematic massacre. The gore effects are shocking in their realism and supremely disturbing. I think the film is actually helped by the cheap film stock it was shot on. It takes on a snuff film quality as much of the horror is shown to us from the point of view of the characters, rather than a passive camera plunked into the action.

As the characters are dispatched one-by-one, the tension grows and the gore amps up exponentially. Some of the gore doesn't quite work, but it's so nasty in its execution it still manages to be stomach-turning. Sloppy effects are rare though, as much of what we see looks uncomfortably real. Without giving too much away, the "head on a stick" gave me nightmares the first time I saw it...and I'm not one who scares easily. You won't see it coming either. There are some genuine shocks to be had in this picture.

Call my agent!
As for the supporting cast of walking cannibal bait, the players are really quite good. Gore hounds will quickly recognize Doctor Butcher, M.D. himself, Donald O'Brien. While no one could give the script credit for giving the players anything to stretch with, O'Brien's rugged appearance and fine acting shines through the clunky dialogue and laughable dubbing. He plays a supremely unlikable and unscrupulous (not to mention impotent) jewel thief, but manages to actually be a somewhat sympathetic character.

Even more impressive is Susan Scott, star of many a giallo thriller, playing O'Brien's sensual and sex-starved wife. Scott's career path has always baffled me. She is not only a great beauty (who defies stereotypes about women "of a certain age") she is very fine actress. Oddly, she often took roles that were not only exploitative but bordered on demeaning. Fortunately she plays a strong woman not to be trifled with in Last Cannibals. Her performance is the best one in the film, eschewing the occasional thespian ennui of her cast mates with vibrancy and verisimilitude.

Rounding out of band of adventurers are Monica Zanchi, Annamaria Clementi (or Anne Marie Clementi, depending on the print) and American athlete Percy Hogan. Zanchi is given little to do other than to be blonde, beautiful and preyed upon. Clementi is given a generic role as an edible nun, however she has a few opportunities to display true horror and is very effective. Her final scene in the film is utterly horrific. Hogan has the least to do. He is basically around to play stud to the voracious Susan Scott and he certainly is a statuesque picture of masculinity. It's a shame he is given so little to do because he's got massive screen presence. He appeared in the Civil War sexploiter Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle (aka Passion Plantation) where he shows an ability to give an affecting performance despite turgid material. He is completely wasted in Last Cannibals, but he looks great sweaty and naked and I guess that's what is required for this sort of picture.

Speaking of looking great naked, Laura Gemser and real-life husband Gabriele Tinti are the stars of the piece and their onscreen chemistry is as good as ever. When they are the only two on screen there is an electricity that is a joy to watch. When the story shifts away from their lovemaking they both seem bored with the project. Who could blame them? Gemser has always admitted freely that she got into films simply to see the world rather than from a desire to perform and Gabriele Tinti was a serious actor who sojourned into exploitation fare mainly to be close to wife Gemser.

We've covered the horror aspect, but how does this fare as a sex film? The sex scenes between Gemser and Tinti have genuine heat and they are shot beautifully. Their scenes are highly erotic and very arousing. The sole sex scene between Susan Scott and Percy Hogan also generates heat, but in a more Earthy, animal way. Gemser and Tinti are making love, Scott and Hogan are fucking, if you see what I mean.

Swept off her feet.
The rest of the film's sex scenes are stilted and bizarre. A scene where Emanuelle and a boy toy have sex standing up under a bridge may well be the clumsiest coupling I've ever seen. It's all fumbling and Gemser pulling faces. But then, having sex standing up is kind of like having sex in the shower - it always sounds like a better idea than it actually is.

If that scene was clumsy, the rest are just plain icky. An early scene where Emanuelle tries to gain the trust of a demented mental patient by, basically, molesting her is more than a little uncomfortable, particularly as I doubt D'Amato would understand why the situation is so repugnant. There is also a gang rape scene towards the end of the film that is supposed to be horrific, but comes off as hilarious because it is so ineptly staged and shot.

Speaking of inept, for added fun watch the English dub of this film! The voice of Emanuelle's boss  changes actors mid-sentence. Strangely, the same scene appears in the trailer and this doesn't happen. A few minutes later Emanuelle stops mid-sentence, twice, to take a bite of her food. Unintentional comic relief, but you're going to need it when the action switches to the Amazon and the horror kicks in.

Don't let the tepid sex scenes and hilarious dubbing scare you off. D'Amato was clearly focusing his attentions on the horror aspect and he does this exceedingly well. I've seen a number of his horror films and this is one of the very few that had any sort of effect on me. This is a grimy little gore flick that shows where D'Amato's storytelling talents really were. The pacing is a little off, but if you remember that this is a first foray into the genre it is really quite impressive. And let's not forget the Marlboro-smoking ape! Highly recommended!

-Johnny Stanwyck

DVD Release: This film is readily available on DVD in several editions from different countries. The R1 release is long out-of-print, but newer international editions are of much better print quality and boast more extras. Worth seeking out. The release from Another World Entertainment looks especially nice.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, HOT LEGS! Now this is what the Golden Age of Adult Films is all about! Bob Chinn, by this point a veteran of adult cinema whose name just screams quality, directs a first-rate cast performing a first-rate script, shot by a first-rate crew of professionals. Not only does the film look terrific, full of clever camera work and sizzling sex scenes, it's just plain FUN!