Color, 1978, 95m.
Directed by Karen Arthur
Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane, Will Geer, James Olson, William Sherwood
Scorpion (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Avenue (UK R2 PAL)
By the late '70s, the feminist movement had thoroughly infiltrated the horror genre and twisted around 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, often 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. Future TV director Karen Arthur based the 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 screeplay 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 premeire print clocked in at 102 minutes (as did the first Wizard tape) while every other version came in at 96 minutes, apparently the only edition that remains on celluloid today. Scorpion's DVD release is the first official one, 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's really the first version ever on video that's actualy 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." 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," 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" 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," 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 insane 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 7-minute 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.