Tuesday, October 28, 2008

DEVIL HUNTER (1980) d. Jesus Franco

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

In addition to the myriad of concerns like casting, locations and sets, scripts, direction and schedules that occur before and during the shooting and production of a film, properly marketing a motion picture requires an enormous amount of thought and careful consideration. Choose wisely and you’ve got a huge success on your hands like HALLOWEEN (1978). A poorly marketed film like MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) can slip into obscurity, leaving hardly a ripple, even though that film was atmospheric and well shot. Exploitation film makers have a somewhat easier time marketing their fare. If they are able to mine a trend or find a kink that has broad appeal, it is likely that their widely cast net will pull in a fair number of viewers who may not always get hooked by the usual kinds of tricks, but who stay for the duration because there was something to tickle their fancy. DEVIL HUNTER (aka SEXO CANIBAL) was made during the height of the “cannibal film craze” and it tried to ride the coat tails of that strange trend despite not being a true cannibal film and having a lot more in common with other forms of earlier and contemporary horror and exploitation cinema. It is precisely because it is related to a wider variety of theatrical genres that it is infinitesimally a cut above the average “cannibal” flick and will delight anyone who likes their movies lurid.

DEVIL HUNTER is the story of model/actress Laura Crawford who gets kidnapped by a gang of thugs while preparing for a new film to be in the tropics. The kidnappers take Laura into the jungle and demand a sizable ransom. Little do they know that they share their leafy and sylvan getaway with a tribe that lives in fear of a flesh-loving god-monster with bulging, bloodshot eyes to whom they must offer sacrifice in the form of nubile young women, naked and bound. It is while Laura is enduring a series of tortures and rape at the hands of her abductors and while the miscreants are bargaining with Peter Weston, a soldier of fortune sent to rescue Laura that she falls into the hands of the “cannibal deity”. Peter must race against time and battle greedy ruffians in an attempt to save Laura from being the prettiest morsel on a bloodthirsty demon’s menu.

One of the most intriguing qualities of DEVIL HUNTER is that for every strength it evidences, there is a corresponding weakness, and as a result it is not a bad film, it just isn’t as good as it could have been had it been made with a lot more money or with any real talent. Despite those apparent drawbacks, one of the first positives that an astute viewer notices is that this is not a typical “cannibal” film. The “native tribes” are not cannibals and live to serve the flesh-hungry creature they fear. The cannibal deity itself is just as much a monster like so many others that have haunted the pages of horror cinema screenplays, he just happens to be a naked black man living in a tropical region and devouring the tissues and organs of any beautiful girl offered to him. As the movie progressed and I realized that I wouldn’t be regularly bathed in “cannibal film” gross-outs, I started liking DEVIL HUNTER a little more. What this film does have in abundance is nudity, both female and male, but it is overwhelmingly just as much a skin-tastic exploitation film with overtones of soft-core as it is horror cinema/a cannibal flick. Right from the start and keeping it up all the way to the end, there are topless girls, bottomless girls, stark naked girls, nude girls being fondled, half-stripped girls being raped, bare-ass girls having sex and defrocked girls being menaced by all manner of baddies in scene after scene. Whether it’s bondage, bush shots, breast shots, butt shots, simulated sex and/or rape or just pretty girls posing for the camera, this is the most pulchritudinous movie I’ve seen in some time and it is DEVIL HUNTER’S exploitation roots that help it to be more than “just a cannibal” flick. In addition to this salacious strong point, DEVIL HUNTER is well cast for strictly appearance sakes. The natives look like African tribesman or at least some very primitive Mediterranean islanders gone feral. Too many of the cannibal films often looked like the producers had combed the malls in Rome or Madrid and found whatever primordial idiots were available for shooting. In addition, the kidnappers are a motley and bizarre looking and acting cast of creeps. All of the women are seductive, svelte, sexy and lovely of face and figure. Even the “he-man” of the film has a distinctly “American” look, even though he is actually an Italian actor. Added to the casting of people who at least “looked” authentic are some simple but genuine-looking sets and surprisingly authentic looking costumes. Jess Franco chose well when he shot most of the locations around Alicante, Spain for the mix of tropical vegetation, sunbathed beaches and dusty hillsides clad in low growing bushes resembling African plateaus helped to give this film an aura of verisimilitude. With a soundtrack that very gently aped some of the more contemporary Gothic Euro-horror of the 1970s, incidental music rife with the jungle beat of tribal drums and foley effects that added a subtle creepiness to several scenes, DEVIL HUNTER really did look and feel like a disastrous foray into the darkest heart of the cannibal god’s domain. Why is it that it is only a marginal thumbs’ up? It all comes down to the missing elements of money and talent.

Despite the cast “looking and dressing” the part, DEVIL HUNTER suffered from a surfeit of poor acting and just as bad dubbing. Even though I was listening to terrible English dubbed lines (which briefly cut out at the 1:13:00 mark when characters could be heard in all their Spanish glory for a few minutes), I could easily tell that Jess Franco had played by his usual rules of getting “actors” whom he could easily “direct” and who had little or no experience and/or talent, and it showed. The actors weren’t the only ones short on skill. The camera work of DEVIL HUNTER was plebeian at best. There were painfully tight close-ups when there didn’t need to be and even more plentiful inexplicable wide shots pulled so far back from the characters and/or action that little could be really seen. Usually I complain about foolishly overdone tight shots so poorly composed that I can see the grains in the nose hairs of the cast, but in this case so many shots were done from such a great distance that I often forgot I was watching Al Clive and thought it was Franco Nero and wondered what the hell he was doing in a Jess Franco film. In addition to the inconsistent camera work, the direction was not some of Franco’s best either. Whether it was done to pad out the running time or a failed attempt in building atmosphere, there were MANY scenes and shots that were held just a little too long. Since the holds were not egregiously lengthy, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Franco was trying to fabricate sexual tension by holding tight shots on actresses’ downy triangles of love or he was trying to create a sense of menace by holding on the bulging eyes of the monster. In the end, these efforts did not succeed for this film’s sense of atmosphere comes and goes just like another characteristic that was lacking in aptitude, story writing. The plot general premise is a good one, blending gangsters, girls and god-monsters in the sunny tropics, but the story pace and intensity often lagged. To DEVIL HUNTER’S credit, there were some occasionally erotic scenes, some reasonably grisly blood & guts and a few suspenseful segments, but too often, the narrative rambled like a cannibal whose bloodlust has been sated by such a big meal that he weaves like an overloaded tractor trailer. In the end, it was the typical bane of true exploitation that the nuts and bolts did not live up to the creative scheme, which was often the case when you look back at American shlock-meisters like Dave Friedman, Harry Novak and Al Adamson. Exploitation kings often had good ideas, but in their frenzy to make a buck by clenching the purse strings with a fist tighter than King Kong, something is going to end up shoddy, and it was usually the acting, writing and/or intangibles.

As with their other recent release BLOODY MOON, Severin Films created a somewhat thin but highly informative and entertaining bonus features menu composed of the theatrical trailer and a 16 ½ minute interview with Jess Franco called “Sexo Canibal”. Mr. Franco reminisces about the production of the film and the weaknesses of some of the crew members. Far more interesting are his recollections of the cast members and their impact on the motion picture and the industry itself. One of the things that makes Jess Franco’s remembrances so much more enjoyable than the average Euro-sleaze icon is his penchant for naughty language that he somehow is able to keep from sounding foul and instead comes across as an irascible old man just being frank and a little playful. Credit must be given to Severin Films for their willingness to always include a little trinket on their discs that often turns out to be more like a small treasure.

DEVIL HUNTER is not the sleaziest film ever made, neither is it the most violent nor the most absurd, but it is entertaining on a level that one usually doesn’t want to admit. It has a tendency to pander to the brutish side of the male consciousness and as a result allows us to channel our inner caveman. For some reason, we like to see primitive behavior blazoned across our home theater screens and we enjoy watching barbarity juxtaposed with helpless civilized personages. I must admit that I will take this low brow form of fun over the sophomoric bodily humor comedies and/or mean-spirited torture porn of today. There is something tongue-in-cheek about Jess Franco’s DEVIL HUNTER that puts it light years ahead of putrescence like SAW and its ilk. I like my meat cooked rare as well. Maybe there is something of a cannibal in me too.


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