Wednesday, June 25, 2008
PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (1978) d. Joe D’Amato
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
How and when did “softcore” films really begin? That is probably an unanswerable question. Most likely, “softcore” grew out of the sex-ploitation films of the 1960s. However, there is just as much evidence that they emerged out of the porno-chic film trend of the mid-1970s. Whatever their origin, by the late 1970s the “softcore” film “revolution” was in high gear, bringing loads of bare skin and simulated sex first to theaters in an acceptable form, then flooding the nascent video market with easily obtainable sleaze. Today, it is hard to believe that there is still such a thing as “softcore” film, but it is still out there. However, today’s “softcore” is done on the cheap, with very little sense of style and with none of the flair of the past efforts. Originally titled CARIBBEAN PAPAYA or Papaya dei Caraibi, Severin Films’ release of PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS is an example of classic “softcore” film-making from a vanished era. While PAPAYA may not be able to make up its mind what story it wanted to tell or even how to tell it, it is “softcore” through and through and worth a look for those who want to see how it was done once upon a time.
PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS is the story of a reporter named Sara (Sirpa Lane), who meets up with a friend named Vincent (Maurice Polie) at a Caribbean resort. Vincent is a nuclear scientist building a reactor in an idyllic local town despite the protest of the villagers. Before long, Sarah and Vincent become involved with a hypnotic beauty named “Papaya” and her friends Luis and Ramon. Both Sara and Vincent find it impossible to resist the allure of “Papaya” and using her matchless and intoxicating charm, she embroils the two outsiders in the machinations of the villagers and their efforts to rid the island of the nuclear power plant.
When PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS begins with its liberal dose of pristine tropical beaches, nudity and violence, you think you are going to get a classic exploitation film. As the “story” continues to unfold, Sirpa Lane’s naked body is unsubtly splashed across the screen even a thinly spun “spy caper” yarn is mixed like margaritas. Dreamlike native rites and exotic locales awkwardly blended with very modern disco and funk musical scores are used to heighten the “drama” as Sara and Vincent follow leads and lures through West Indies streets and dwellings searching for answers. Passion and politics combine to create a deadly cocktail that neither can resist. Throughout this journey, the viewers’ eyes are bombarded with tropical colors and sensual music that would have fit right into any dance club of the era, as well as skin galore, all combined in such a way to distract you from the fact that the “story” still doesn’t know where it wants to go. Is it an anti-nuclear power drama? Maybe PAPAYA is a sexy musical/political caper? Possibly PAPAYA just wants to be a wacky sex-capade but can’t because of the serious undertones. In the end, PAPAYA is all of these things and in its last acts, it even tries to be moralizing so that rationale for Sara’s “defection” can be explained. If you try to make serious sense out this film, you are wasting your time, just as Joe D’Amato wasted his time building in suspenseful elements and a sober theme. That is not why people went to see this film or rented it on VHS 30 years ago or why people would buy the DVD now. This film is all about delighting the senses.
Whether it has been a good or a bad film, Severin Films has done an admirable job of resurrecting forgotten relics like PAPAYA and has made them look and sound great. From the opening scenes on a sun-drenched beach to the closing cliffs on a hot summer’s day, PAPAYA is colorful and sensuous. Filmed on location in the Dominican Republic and shot care so as to look authentic, lush and lascivious, PAPAYA is not about thinking, it is about feeling. Whether it is the sweat beading on the actress’s skin from the tropical heat or the salty spray entwined in their lovely locks, we are meant to be there with them, enjoying fresh sea breezes through the gauzy mosquito netting or inhaling the aroma of jungle orchids lain on sacrificial stones. Throughout this sultry adventure, there are two constants: the often nude figures of Sirpa Lane and “Melissa” aka Melissa Chimenti who plays “Papaya” and funky music that is even laid over the strains of local bands and parades. The music and the skin are what give this film its truly “softcore” essence. Since there are long stretches where the story tries to reassert itself and an escalation of “drama” occurs, a viewer may feel brief dislocation and forget that this is a sex film for a few minutes. Never fear, it won’t be long before one of the two beauties disrobes and the slow, sonorous strains of disco swell up and you’re back in the realm of “softcore” again. Great care was given to the look, sound and feel of PAPAYA, something that is often totally lacking from modern “softcore” films. It is for that reason and that reason only that PAPAYA is worth a look. There are much better films with more compelling stories and finer camera work. As a look back at “softcore” of yore, PAPAYA is VANESSA and other erotic cinema. It is a look at a time when film makers wanted their sex wrapped in an exotic packaging to make it more appealing and acceptable to the public. Nobody cares about the packaging today, it is simply “bring on the boobs”.
Watching PAPAYA is not a revelatory experience, it is more like drinking a daiquiri, once you’ve had one, you’ve got a good idea what they are all like. However, if the bartender puts a little more care into your daiquiri, it’s delivered by a fresh-faced beauty with a bright smile and a sparkle in her eye and you’re sitting in a tavern with some atmosphere, a pleasant experience can be had. Go into PAPAYA with the feeling that you’re going to get a nice mixed drink and nothing more, and a good time can be had.
To my great surprise, PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS has a bare bones extras menu. With the exception of the theatrical trailer, there is nothing else to be had. My other experiences with Severin Films discs has been either extras menus that surprisingly deep or at least rewarding, but here there is an empty cupboard. Possibly this is the result of many of the cast and crew of this film either disappearing into the mists of time, or in the case of Sirpa Lane and Joe D’Amato, passed on to another plane of existence. Since PAPAYA was a somewhat unknown sex film, it is likely that no “behind the scenes” footage or time capsule work was done. The onus was on shooting the scenes, editing the film, distributing it and then hopefully making some cash. For whatever the reason, it is a shame that nothing could be presented. Seeing inside the mind of the cast and crew on any exploitation film is always a treat and when that isn’t possible, it little more of first account history is lost and the past recedes further into myth and legend.
I feel a sense of sheer incredulity when people talk of the 1970s as being a long time ago, and here it is 30 years since the making of PAPAYA: LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (aka CARIBBEAN PAPAYA). Preserving this film as an example of “softcore” from another time is one reason I am glad that Severin Films made the effort. Getting a chance to gently glory in exotic sites and sounds is another. I really wasn’t swept away by the sexuality of PAPAYA, my tastes tend to run to the even more quaint “nudie cutie” films of the early 1960s, but there is no denying its pre-“nip/tuck” appeal. Don a garish polyester print shirt, knock back a “seabreeze” (a cape-codder with grapefruit juice for those who have forgotten) or two and then put on some boogie shoes because that is the destination where and when PAPAYA will take you.