Saturday, 26 January 2013

Deep River Savages

1972, Italy/Thailand, Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Hardgore; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono

It seems that almost everybody has heard of Cannibal Holocaust, partly thanks to similarities portrayed in the more approachable Blair Witch Project, partly due simply to its brutal notoriety as one of the nastiest films of all time. The film was the most prominent component of a wider sequence that flourished to an extent throughout the seventies before quickly dying a death in the early eighties, probably as a result of lack of diversity - you can only do so much with this sort of material before people go off looking for other things to satisfy their primordial bloodlust, such as political dramas and romantic comedies... The 'third world cannibal movie' cycle often followed a predetermined narrative; ignorant westerners stumbling into jungles inhabited by evolutionary throwbacks in the shape of carnivorous natives with a taste for human limbs and organs. Along the way the westerners (and therefore, we the viewers) would witness horrific acts of barbarity that would push the boundaries of cinema to extremes, along with testing the limits of our constitution. Unfortunately these acts often utilised the ‘services’ of real animals and new depths in the exploration of entertainment and enterprise were reached. This latter point of course illustrates an indefensible staple of cannibal movies, at least from my point of view, but the continuation of productions throughout a decade or so must surely outline questions regarding the public search for entertainment. And indeed this links into the main moral focus that is dubiously raised time and again throughout the sub-genre, that there is at core little difference between us and the so-called savages portrayed as opposition to the westerners - we are endogenously barbaric ourselves. This is the real and oft forgotten reason that Cannibal Holocaust is the best of the bunch: it actually outlines that argument better than any of the others and almost seems to have some social relevance amidst its rape and mutilation, though its means is still to some degree unjustifiable.

So where does Deep River Savages fit into all of this? Well, this film could be considered the starting point for the whole thing. The tone slightly differs to what would commonly follow but many of the trappings are established here. After being deserted by his girlfriend in Thailand, a London photographer gets into a brawl in a bar that results in a Thai man’s death. Despite a potential argument for self defence he escapes into the night to disappear, not realising that that’s precisely what he will soon be doing… Heading off towards the wilderness until the whole thing has chance to blow over, he arranges a long and quiet guide-driven sail down the river, eventually into uncharted territory. After several uneventful days of photography and sleeping his guide is found murdered by the side of the boat and John is promptly captured by the local natives that killed the man. What follows is several weeks of punishment, humiliation, attempted escapes, and slavery as John becomes gradually accustomed to what appears to be his new life in the tribe’s village. Until Marayå, a woman he has caught the eye of, experiences increasing attraction to the western man culminating in John being accepted as part of the tribe and marrying Marayå. But the imminent danger of neighbouring tribes is never far from John's new reality…
What is essentially the birth of the cannibal movie surprisingly transpires to be a grisly-exploitation-movie-cum-love-story. Much attention is placed on the progressing relationship between John (Ivan Rassimov, as seen elsewhere in many an Italian exploitation flick) and sexy native girl Marayå (actually Me Me Lai attempting to further her career after a stint in Sale of the Century). John’s former girlfriend is mysteriously banished from memory as he embarks upon a mission that will change his perspective on life forever. Believe it or not there are a couple of things to enjoy in Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (or Man From Deep River). Firstly the locations are attractive and make for striking travelogue-style imagery. Next is John’s voyage down the river, which actually musters a little bit of tension as the titular savages remain persistently unseen until he’s accosted. Finally there’s the omnipresent but underlying feeling of hopelessness as John’s repeated attempts to emancipate himself are thwarted before he’s dragged back to the village for more problems. This film initiated a trend for animal suffering that was to continue in the genre without any real justification, and this is where for once the BBFC’s intervention is merciful - they’ve removed almost all of it from this Hardgore disc. Lenzi was to make a name for himself in the cannibal cycle and went on to direct Eaten Alive (Mangiati Vivi!), a reasonable concoction of adventure and cannibalistic violence, and Cannibal Ferox, the man’s similarly horrific answer to …Holocaust. He was never going to be an Oscar winner of course but did manage to produce a couple of genuinely entertaining non-cannibal movies along the way, Nightmare City being my personal favourite.

Deep River Savages is almost palatable in its UK-approved censored version, exhibiting little animal violence (though there is one throat cutting of a goat that caught me off guard near the conclusion, so beware) and only snippets of fairly heavy gore here and there. It’s nowhere near as nihilistic as what would come later on and its delineation of taboo love adds something of value to the material. The influence apparently derived from the earlier western A Man Called Horse, to which Lenzi’s film bears more than a passing thematic resemblance, is also of historical interest to buffs. It’s never going to make any top ten lists but neither is it competing for any worst movie prizes either. The Hardgore DVD looks moderately appealing in its fully scoped glory but is missing around 4 minutes (perhaps more) of visceral imagery that most people would really rather not see anyway. Back in the seventies this film was rejected outright in Britain by the BBFC, it was then technically banned on video and briefly placed on the DPP list during the eighties. There was then the strange appearance of a reportedly uncut though terribly cropped disc (DVD Classics) years ago - I could only assume this to be a disc production error because there’s no way the board would allow this through uncut as long as they were awake when viewing. Media Blasters in the US have put out the best release hitherto, being a fully uncut DVD containing an Italian soundtrack alongside the English with optional subtitles. There’s also a ten minute interview on the SS disc. Despite that, more casual viewers who’d prefer not to see cruelty to innocent creatures could safely get by with the Hardgore DVD reviewed here.

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