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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Man From the Deep River (1972) review


Ivan Rassimov (John Bradley), Me Me Lay (Maraya), Pratitsak Singhara (Taima), Ong Ard (Lahuna)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

The Short Version: The infamous Culinary Captain of the Cannibals got the notorious sub-genre rolling with this enjoyable jungle romp filled with violence, gore, and.... romance? Yes, Ivan Rassimov, after being taken captive by a tribe of (somewhat) passive neoliths, falls in love with the chief's daughter and, after a trial period of enslavement, assimilates into their culture, putting civilization behind him. The numerous scenes of bizarre tribal rites, rampant nudity, severed tongues, dismembered limbs, animal slaughter, and single scene of bodily consumption are at odds with the serious drama, but Lenzi is a good enough cook to make it a tasty 93 minutes. A well made, excessively violent variant of Elliot Silverstein's A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), the hardcore cannibal crowd may still crave more than Lenzi's MAN offers.

John Bradley is on a photographic jaunt in Thailand. While enjoying his assignment he ends up in a scuffle with a local man in a bar and accidentally kills him. Bradley flees the scene and heads for the rain forest for more shots in the hopes of nobody finding him. Ignoring a warning of traveling too far down river, Bradley's guide is killed and he is captured by a native tribe that believes him to be some sort of fish-man. Witnessing acts of violence committed against cannibal captives of an enemy tribe, John soon forgets the brutality of his surroundings once his attention shifts to Maraya, the beautiful daughter of the chieftain. After observing and undergoing various rituals John Bradley becomes one of the tribe and marries Maraya... just as the opposing tribe of flesh-eating headhunters prepare to attack the village.

Film director Umberto Lenzi has many fans around the world. He also has many critics who have little to no appreciation for his varied resume. There's a raw, maybe even crude, unmistakable style that's a defining feature found in much of his work where many directors have no signature at all. Having dabbled in virtually every genre style, his most famous films on the international scene... at least those that have awarded him the most notoriety, have been the much-maligned cannibal films; the bastard offspring of the Mondo Movies that gained infamy via the worldwide release of MONDO CANE (1962).

The first instance of graphic celluloid cannibal cuisine was served up by director Lenzi in this 1972 jungle excursion. A strange blend of brutality and romance, it's not as extreme as later entries, but for historical value, it's required viewing. One of the film's strongest attributes is the capturing of the colorful local flavor and customs of the Thai people. You get a sense of both danger and exoticism in the surroundings and the culture--particularly the natives in their element. None of the other films--including Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST--managed to do this as successfully.

Deodato's movie certainly relies heavily on tribal culture, only its concentration on extreme cruelty and gore removes some of the authenticity that Lenzi is able to preserve. Both films are like night and day when compared side by side, although each are classics in their genre for different reasons. Deodato's movie edges Lenzi's out from a structural standpoint since its media manipulation in creating violence for a story is as potent now as ever before. It's also a much more powerful experience because of his numerous gut-punches, and presentation of inhumanities from savages and supposed civilized man. On the other hand, Lenzi's movie caters to a peculiarly crude romanticism; built specifically around a single character immersed in a strange new world. The film isn't driven by violence alone, although there's no denying the sensationalism was the major selling point.

From an expositional perspective, Lenzi's movie wins by a wide margin. MAN is the only film in this genre that makes any attempt at humanizing its savages. We live with them for 93 minutes unlike John Bradley who gradually changes from detesting his captors to becoming one of them. Like the Kuru, the cannibalistic enemies, this moderately passive tribe isn't without their share of barbarism. The difference is they have the capacity to love. In Deodato's movie (and especially in LAST CANNIBAL WORLD) the natives are seen as one-dimensional, cave dwelling primitives; or forced into violence by aggressors that include indigenous enemies as well as modernized ones. They are very much in the vein of the vicious Kuru of Lenzi's movie. And since we're discussing stone-age throwbacks with hygiene issues....

Those expecting something as relentless as HOLOCAUST or Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) will find themselves frustrated since the 'pieces de repugnance' doesn't occur till 70 minutes into the movie. Simplistic in execution but effective, this brief sequence of graphic flesh-eating would be the blueprint for the other films that followed. Anthropophagy isn't the narrative thrust, just a plot device that's used to show the Kuru are even more barbaric than the unnamed tribe Rassimov has spent the entire movie with. The same sequence was recycled later in Lenzi's cannibal compilation, EATEN ALIVE! (1980); but went missing in the Prism Entertainment release on VHS. Aside from the cannibalism, the film's major source of trashiness is an abundance of nudity, sex, and animal violence. Some viewers accustomed to rowdier grue will likely find the film slow-going, maybe even boring in between the nastiness.

Regarding the animal cruelty, there's a lot of it in MAN FROM DEEP RIVER. Many arguments have been made about these scenes in recent years; an article was written about them HERE. While it's obvious that in some of these movies the animals died for the sake of the exploitation value; in others it was either for food or the entertainment of the natives. Cock fights and battles between snakes and a mongoose have been a part of cultures the world over. If you've ever watched National Geographic, you'll see a lot of animal violence by cameramen filming animals and their place on the food chain. For some viewers these scenes will be far more disturbing than anything else onscreen. This type of greasy carnival food is a staple of these movies, and even more prevalent in the sub-genres antecedents, the Mondo movies.

Of these sequences the fight between the cobra and the mongoose is the most engaging, if no less grim. I've always been fascinated by this scenario. Apparently cobras fare less favorably in scuffles with mongooses than other snakes like vipers and constrictors who have more powerful venom and or attacks that can break through the protective "wall" of the mongoose. The scene doesn't propel the storyline, it only shows what the indigenous people do for entertainment. Despite its accurate placement, the sequence moonlights at increasing the exploitation value; and likely offending a few folks in the process. For the kookiest 'Cobra vs. Mongoose' battle see the Shaw Brothers exploitationer FANGS OF THE COBRA (1977), aka COBRA GIRL. It's like a live-action Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Some of the other animal scenes are more nauseating such as an alligator being nearly decapitated before its evisceration; and a monkey that loses the top half of its head for an afternoon snack. The monkey business looks as real as everything else. Considered a delicacy in Asian lands, Rassimov doesn't look at all enthused at partaking in this 'fresh off the cranium' finger food.

Playing the Man From the Deep River is Ivan Rassimov. He's good in the role if overly theatrical. You almost expect Rassimov to recite Shakespeare at some point. After being captured, humiliated, and enslaved by the tribe, he tries to escape a few times. On three occasions a helicopter passes overhead. Twice he tries to flag them down but is unsuccessful. On the third time Bradley, astonishingly, hides from the chopper overhead. After saving a young boy in the tribe, he is finally accepted as one of them. He is "set free" so to speak, assimilates to their ways, and uses some of his modern skills to improve the lives of his new family. It is here where MAN becomes a borderline X-rated chick flick.

This was Rassimov's first time working under Lenzi, yet he wasn't the first choice. Originally, Gianni Garko, the lead in several Italian westerns like IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (1968) and HIS NAME WAS HOLY GHOST (1972), had the role but declined; citing he didn't feel comfortable doing the picture half-naked. Rassimov's unique stone-like face blessed him with many villain roles, but he was just as compelling playing a hero even if he gets a bit melodramatic at times.

Interestingly, the 'Deep River' mentioned by the savages is symbolic of civilization. Lahuna initially warns his daughter about John Bradley, stating that he comes from the Deep River, a place of danger. In contrast, John himself is warned by a local boatman to not venture too far down the river because of the dangers found there. This parallel between two worlds isn't explored beyond the periphery but it's there; and a welcome addition to the world's only cannibal love story. 

Playing his love interest is Burma born Me Me Lay. This was her first of three films featuring stock animal sound effects and Stone Age people who eat everything with their hands. This role is the most substantial of the trilogy. Lenzi's movie gives her far more to chew on than Deodato did in LAST CANNIBAL WORLD; or even Lenzi again in EATEN ALIVE! (1980). Constantly naked with no dialog in the former title, Me Me Lay is little more than window dressing in the latter.

Lenzi's movies are frequently tasteless; but here at certain times, he displays restraint when necessary. These moments are mostly relegated to the love story angle between Bradley and Maraya. It's handled unusually well, too. Surprisingly, Lenzi dislikes the film's Italian title (translates to 'The Country of Wild Sex'); and his feelings are sound since the relationship between the two is given time to build and is actually touching at times. Still, there's a lot of sex onscreen--whether intentionally loving, or for some bizarre sexual ritual, or even rape... such is the case during the cannibalism scene where the young girl is violated multiple times before one of her arms, a leg and a breast end up in the cannibal's bellies.

The screenplay by Francesco Barilli and Massimo D'Avack is compelling even if it's heavily sourcing Elliot Silverstein's A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), an American production from two years earlier. However, elements of the story came from a Thai woman familiar with tribal customs named Emmanuelle Arsan (Marayat Rollet-Andriane), the author of the 1957 novel, 'The Joys of a Woman'. Some sources claim the actual author was Arsan's husband.

The script doesn't waste time getting John Bradley to Thailand since he arrives over the opening credits. It would seem some of this pre-DEEP RIVER action got left on the cutting room floor, though; early on we see Bradley at a kickboxing match with a blonde woman named Susan. The way they converse with one another it's like they've spent a lot of time together; yet we never learn who she is aside from a girl he's with at this arena... a girl who isn't enjoying herself at all. This is the first of a few stumbling blocks due either to editing choices or footage that simply never got shot. Elsewhere there's a vague subplot involving a witch doctor in the tribe. Just prior to Bradley and Maraya getting together, we see this scary looking character burning two voodoo dolls of Bradley and Maraya (see insert). She becomes gravely ill towards the end of the movie but this plot point never gains any traction. The witch doctor character does die horribly at the end but this angle is just sort of dangled in front of the audience and ultimately left to die.

Depending on who you believe, the film shoot lasted anywhere from six weeks to a four month period in Bangkok and in the jungles along the Burma border. Lenzi used actual tribesmen in his movie. Making things more difficult, none of these local actors spoke English or Italian. Casting a local girl for the film's major sanguinary set-piece proved difficult; the problem was solved when a prostitute was hired to be eaten onscreen.

The film was a success; and in 1974, Lenzi was approached to do a sequel again starring Rassimov and the lovely Me Me Lay. After requesting an increased payday, the producers passed on Umberto and went to Ruggero Deodato. The result of course was LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1977).

No stranger to the sweltering jungles, Lenzi had previously helmed several other similarly set adventures with far more family-friendly fare like SANDOKAN, THE GREAT (1963) and TEMPLE OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT (1964). By 1970, this type of pulp entertainment gained a harder edge with an increased accent towards nudity and bloodshed.

***MAN FROM DEEP RIVER has been released in the US a few times since the 1980s. A cut VHS from Prism Entertainment had the cannibalism removed. In a much better presentation, Media Blasters unveiled a widescreen version to DVD in 2004. Now, RaroVideo's US division has issued the film uncut on bluray. As of this writing, it's available exclusively from Raro till November 29th, 2016 when it's available elsewhere. This should not be confused with 88 Films bluray release in the UK. Missing three minutes of footage, it compensates with a cannibal feast of extras.***

Lenzi's movie straddles the line between a typically gloomy 70s style American adventure/western and what the Italians would be getting up to towards the end of the decade. It's both notable and ironic that the one that birthed all the fine young cannibals distinguishes itself by not being solely about cannibalism at all. Despite some flaws, MAN FROM DEEP RIVER is one of Lenzi's most intriguing affairs. A bit too heavy on the exploitation to garner interest from few outside the primary audience, it still holds up amazingly well today; and is among the upper tier of Europe's Cinema of the Grotesque.

This review is representative of the Raro bluray; Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 widescreen 16x9; Italian language with improved English subtitles/English dubbed version; documentary 'Cannibal World' (00:25:20); 12 page illustrated booklet; running time: 1:33:15

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