Friday, 7 November 2008

Il Cacciatore di uomini / Chasseur de l'enfer / Chasseurs d'hommes / Jungfrau unter Kannibalen / Mandingo Manhunter / The Devil Hunter

This 1980 Jess Franco cannibal film opens with some cross-cutting juxtapositions to establish many of the familiar themes and binary oppositions of form: jungle and urban jungle, primitive and civilised, black and white; if the appeal to structuralism seems misplaced, remember that the cannibal genre and its mondo predecessor have quasi-anthropological and ethnological origins, as Claude Levi-Strauss or Jean Rouch for the masses.

These two seemingly disparate worlds soon intersect as a criminal gang, headed by the ever-sleazy Werner Pochath, kidnaps visiting starlet, Laura Crawford, as deliciously incarnated by Playmate Ursula (Buch)Fellner in what we can reasonably assume was not too much of a challenge for one of her physical rather than thespian talents, and foolishly head for the cannibal infested wilderness...

Buchfellner spends as much time out of her clothes as in them

Fearing for the loss of his investment, the starlet's manager hires Al Cliver's Vietnam-veteran mercenary adventurer Peter Weston to go get the girl and out alive; fans of Euro horror will here note that the Weston name suspiciously echoes that of Cliver's co-star Ian McCulloch's character in one of the key films of the closely-related zombie sub-genre of the time, into which Franco and Eurocine would also inevitably venture with the likes of Oasis of the Zombies and Zombie Lake.

The Devil of the title

One other staple of the cannibal film, animal slaughter, is however conspicuous by its absence. Teasing out whom to attribute this merciful omission to, the producers emerge as the more likely candidate. Franco had not shied away from the odd spot of random animal cruelty in films like Bloody Moon or Exorcism, where a snake and a bird respectively made their ultimate sacrifices in the name of his art, whereas Cannibal Terror also distinguished itself in keeping things strictly within the bounds of essentially consensual human-on-human violence.

Everything else is present and correct, with copious nudity from both the tribespeople and Fellner; dancing, rites and other practices of intentionally dubious inauthenticity; a touch of flesh eating, and lots of more or less aimless trekking through the jungles.

Familiar names amongst the crew credits: Rosa M Almirall AKA Lina Romay and Nicole Guettard, AKA the first Mrs Franco

While running considerably longer than previously extant and accessible versions – according to the IMDB the previous runtime was 92 minutes – the new footage in this integral version leads to more of an extended remix that gives us a bit more of what was already there rather than a radically different film as can often be the case in Franco's notoriously tangled filmography.

The old put the camera on its side and climb along the ground trick

The remix idea refers in part to Franco's extensive use of the zoom and actual repeated use of certain shots, such as the natives corybantic ecstasies, but also applies to one of Devil Hunter's more outstanding features, which I didn't remember from a previous viewing. This is the score by Franco and his long-time musical associate Daniel White, a reverb heavy slice of music concrete style soundscape experimentation that at times recalls Bruno Nicolai's equally impressive work on Virgin Amongst the Living Dead.

Another point of note is the way Franco represents the natives' bug-eyed cannibal god / monster, the Devil of the title. Not only does he show the creature's point of view through a hazy subjective camera but also deploys the same technique when we are positioned with one of his victims. While the cynic might easily see this as yet another sign that Franco is an inept filmmaker whose enthusiasm far exceeds his abilities, as an expression of the figure's inhuman power it provides a justification / rationale to Franco's otherwise bizarre seeming assertion that his film influenced Predator.

In terms of the film's own inspirations, meanwhile, the most likely candidate emerges as Sergio Martino's Mountain of the Cannibal God, insofar as it is also a relatively light and straightforward adventure piece. The survivalist and atrocity exhibition themes of Ruggero Deodato's Last Cannibal World and Cannibal Holocaust are less evident, whilst the ever-present sense of irony precludes the more simplistic unpleasantness found in Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox and arguably the more dubious racism endemic within the cycle as a whole.

Irony seems to have been something somewhat lost on Fellner, however. A regular feature in a number of Franco's films and similar low-budget exploitation fare around this time, she later repudiated her involvement in them, explaining that she was young, foolish and misled by her managers.

Severin have clearly put a lot of work into this DVD. While the low-budget nature of the film is obviously something that cannot be overcome, it's a delight to see another Franco film in a presentation that actually allows you to appreciate what he was trying to do rather than putting aesthetic obstacles in the way. Perhaps this isn't sufficient to make Devil Hunter a recommendation to those with more mainstream tastes or a low tolerance for 'bad' cinema, but as a disc 'by fans for fans' it is exemplary.

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