Color, 1978, 101 mins. / 95 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by Karen Arthur
Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane, Will Geer, James Olson, William Sherwood
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Avenue (UK R2 PAL)
By the late 1970s, the feminist movement had thoroughly stormed the horror genre and upended the ideas of women as victims or fearful monsters. Films like The Stepford Wives and Daughters of Darkness used chills to make a larger point about issues of female power, sometimes with a dash of a lesbian subtext thrown in for both commercial appeal and a nod to the growing gay rights movement. Meanwhile in 1975, a documentary called Grey Gardens was wowing discerning cinephiles with its true-life gothic portrait of two female members of the Kennedy clan devolving into antisocial eccentricity right before the filmmakers' eyes. Not surprisingly a movie decided to mash the two strands together, and the result was The Mafu Cage, a thoroughly bizarre but unforgettable slice of psychological terror with a shockingly high-caliber cast.
In a remote, decrepit mansion decorated like an African jungle, astronomer Ellen (Grant) tends to her younger sister, Cissy (Kane), who has been allowed to grow up without any kind of societal restrictions and spends much of her time with their pet orangutans, who are all named Mafu (thus the title) until Cissy eventually loses her temper and keeps killing them. During her calmer moments, Cissy gives her sister warm oil massages, sleeps in the same bed with her, and draws elaborate illustrations for the diaries of their late father, an anthropologist studying African tribal behavior. Enter David (Olson), a co-worker of Ellen's who pursues a romantic relationship... much to Cissy's violent displeasure.
Future TV director Karen Arthur based this project on a French play by Éric Wesphal, Toi et tes nuages (You and Your Clouds), and enlisted ex-boyfriend Don Chastain to write the screenplay and acting workshop friend Lee Grant to take one of the leads. However, the real star here is Carol Kane, a terrific actress best known at the time for striking supporting roles in The Last Detail, Dog Day Afternoon, and Hester Street. She seizes the lead role here with her teeth and runs completely wild, delivering a powerful performance unlike anything else ever put on film. Scary, pathetic, and oddly touching, she really carries the entire feature on her shoulders and manages to overcome the potentially silly, sordid elements of lesbian incest that nevertheless became a focal point of the film's frequent reissues under titles like My Sister, My Love and Deviation.
Though the film was shown at Cannes to a warm reception, it had a very rocky independent release history afterwards and was even trotted out by the fearless Jerry Gross Organization (who also brought you Zombie and I Drink Your Blood) before shuffling off to VHS from Wizard Video and numerous other companies in one of the darkest, murkiest transfers ever committed to videotape. Its running time also proved confusing, as the premiere print clocked in at 101 minutes (as did the first Wizard tape) while every other version came in at 96 minutes.
Scorpion's 2010 DVD release was the first official one (still coming in at 96 mins.), easily knocking out a few gray market editions floating around as well as the baffling UK DVD bearing the title Don't Ring the Doorbell. The transfer is much more colorful and detailed than any other one out there, and while the print (bearing the Deviation title) is still a long way from perfect (especially the opening titles, which have turned a little too red for comfort), it was really the first version ever on video that could be called a coherent viewing experience. In particular you can finally make out what's happening in the last 10 minutes, which was nearly impossible in every other release before this. Incredibly, the disc also features major bonus material with all of the main players, including a great video interview with Kane called "Cissy and Her Clouds" (20m6s). She's candid about the entire experience, discussing everything from contractual haggling to prevent the exposure of pubic hair to the harrowing day she shot the chain beating of Mafu which resulted in one very surprised simian and a nasty bite on Kane's leg. Grant appears in a separate video interview, "Solar Flare" (16m49s) in which she discusses some of her and Kane's public comments about their initial difficulties with Arthur (who was too cheerful all the time for the subject matter) and the incredibly close, sisterly bond she formed with her co-star. "Visions of Clouds" (44m32s) puts Arthur herself in the spotlight, in which she covers everything from her reasons for doing a horror film as her second feature, the lessons she learned from the initial skirmishes with her stars, her status as the second female DGA member, and the Cannes screening that put her in between Godard and Truffaut. In "Shot and Slice" (26m58s), cinematographer John Bailey (who went on to American Gigolo and In the Line of Fire) and editor/frequent collaborator Carol Littleton (who did Body Heat and probably went mad trying to make sense of Dreamcatcher) cover their own experience on the film, their second effort with Arthur before embarking on Hollywood careers. Arthur also contributes the first audio commentary, with Bailey and Littleton doing the second; there's some content overlap here and there, but they do a thorough job of covering the entire production from its initial adaptation stage to the creation of the elaborate cage sets. Last up are a substantial gallery of stills and promotional art as well as the original main title sequence and that elusive segment of cut footage (both sourced from VHS); the latter was cut without consulting the filmmakers, but it's not a critical loss as it mainly draws a parallel between Cissy's relationship with Mafu and Ellen's budding romance at work.
It took a while due to those aforementioned element issues, but The Mafu Cage finally made its way to Blu-ray in a limited slipcase edition from Scorpion in 2019 with a fresh 2K scan of the interpositive, previously thought lost, supervised and approved by Bailey. This time the film is the complete 101-minute version, a nice surprise, and it looks vastly improved in every way. Colors look more natural and defined, detail is vastly superior, and the element is much cleaner without the debris and splices that plagued the earlier transfer. The DTS-HD MA English mono track is also sharper and in fine shape. The commentaries, gallery, and featurettes from the DVD have been ported over here, and there's also a new interview with composer Roger Kellaway (5m54s) about his collaborations with Arthur and the unorthodox instrumentations and creative approach he had to take to creating the jungle-style soundscape of the film.
Updated review on June 25, 2019