Doc of the Day: Machete Maidens Unleashed! Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Posted in Days of Docs by - January 29, 2012

In the 60’s and 70’s, the Philippines became a premier destination for exploitation filmmakers, looking for the cheapest productions they could find. These are their stories.

Poster courtesy of Imp Awards.

Dir. Mark Hartley, 2010, 84 min

I loved Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood so much that I decided to check out his other historical doc of exploitation cinema. I didn’t love Machete Maidens Unleashed! quite as much as that other film, but it’s still an absolute blast, with the same sense of fiendish fun as filmmakers share their battle stories with the audience. Although I actually can’t imagine enjoying this film as much with an audience; it moves at such a rapid clip that the many hilarious moments could cause laughter to drown out the important information that comes after them. The movie is almost too breathless; it takes off with no buildup beyond an opening text scroll and finishes with nothing more than a brief montage. It’s the antithesis of education as slow or stodgy, and if you can keep up, you’ll learn and have fun.

Exploitation film was booming the world over in the 60’s and 70’s, not just in Australia. But in America, there were pesky things like guilds and regulations that got in the way of the independent filmmakers trying to turn the greatest possible profit through the lowest possible cost. Roger Corman and his New World Pictures stable of directors went looking for another country to shoot in, one where production could be done as cheaply as they could. Enter the Philippines, one of the few Third World nations that didn’t hold a grudge against the US. Great locations, locals willing to work for low wages; what more could they have asked for?

The Philippines were a dream come true for these guys. And things only got better after Ferdinand Marcos took over as dictator. He and his wife were avowed movie lovers, and they were only too willing to aid the film crews. The army was practically at the beck and call of directors, lending troops and hardware as needed. Helicopters would often go from cutting down rebels in the south to firing blanks on extras. But since they were foreign, the filmmakers could often get away with story content that citizens would have been shot for. With the help of these American companies, Filipinos had an outlet to vent their frustration with the regime through their art. Of course, the fact remains that they were propping up the dictatorship, even if it was only in a small way. What really differentiates this doc from Not Quite Hollywood is the challenging ethical tangles that these artists were working with. It’s a question that still sorta has relevance today, since most moviemaking in some way benefits a titanic, soulless corporate machine.

I already went over my admiration of the old-school schlock filmmakers for going shamelessly for the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of a buck. As a few of them put it here, it came down to the “three B’s”: Blood, Boobs, and Beasts. And yet these guys were oddly progressive with their “art.” These movies featured female and minority leads in scads, way before the mainstream caught up with society. Sure, the actresses were degraded through the pandering use of their bodies, but they were also empowered by being able to kick ass and take names just as well as a man. And while some may turn up their nose at these movies, the truth is that a good deal of what is popular now originated with them. There’s a reason Jaws and Star Wars killed off the B-movie: they made the conventions of genre storytelling mainstream. There was no longer a place in the world for the low-budget cheese after the blockbusters could show off the same cheese with much more flair.

Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a much shorter affair than Hartley’s previous effort. Whereas that first doc explored a subject very close to his heart and home, he ventured abroad for this one. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t wring as much material out of it, even with interviewees as colorful as Roger Corman, John Landis, and Joe Dante. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched it so soon after Not Quite Hollywood, since some of it feels redundant coming after that film. But don’t think I’m suggesting that it’s any kind of disappointment; this doc is still hilarious, insightful, and informative. All the love for exploitation film is still clear and upfront, and you’ll feel that love when watching this movie.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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