More of a psychological thriller than a straight horror picture, THE MAFU CAGE is an intriguing and well crafted film filled with enough offbeat elements to appeal to both the arthouse and grindhouse crowds. Unique African set design frame scenes of primates being bludgeoned to death all while an underplayed but clearly evident incestuous love story weaves itself in the background, adding up to a weird yet fascinating tale held tightly in place by an incredibly effective central performance from actress Carol Kane.
Based on the French play “Toi et Tes Nuages", which translates to “You and Your Clouds”, THE MAFU CAGE is at its heart a story about two sisters, Ellen, played by Lee Grant (THE INTERNECINE PROJECT), and Cissy, portrayed to perfection by Carol Kane (SCROOGED, ANNIE HALL). After the death of their beloved father, an explorer who studied primates in Africa, Ellen is left as the sole caretaker of her slightly psychotic sister, Cissy. Physically, Cissy is in her late twenties, early thirties; mentally she’s a little girl that has been coddled all her life. Staying home day after day, never treading farther than the garden that surrounds their property, Cissy attempts to hold on to her past by surrounding herself with remnants and memories of her time in Africa. Her desire to reconnect to her old life and to her father are taken to an eccentric extreme, as Cissy spends most of her time taking care of a primate called Mafu which she keeps in a cage in her living room. Steadfast on finishing her father's work, Cissy illustrates and catalogs her primitive companions though she has a hard time keeping it together long enough to finish a sketch as she has a bad habit of beating her pets to death. After killing her latest Mafu, Cissy demands that her sister find her a replacement. Ellen, who would like nothing more than to break away from her home life if only for a day, refuses, but when Cissy threatens to commit suicide, she quickly relents. With a new Mafu in place things get back to normal, or at least what constitutes as normal, long enough for Ellen to open up to David (James Olson, AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION), a co-worker at the observatory where she works. When word gets back to Cissy however that her sister would rather spend her days and nights with someone other than her, she lashes out with a primal rage and cunning manner that will have repercussions for all involved.
There’s something about an attractive crazy chick that just draws me in. While Lee Grant does a superb job portraying the reserved and frustrated Ellen, it is Carol Kane who makes MAFU a must see. Be it ad-libbing with Budar the orangutan or just staring down her next victim with those big crazy eyes, Carol’s performance is mesmerizing. Eliciting sympathy and fear equally, all while dressed like a young Stevie Nicks touring South Africa, Carol makes being a psychopath kind of sexy. There’s a surprising lack of blood present given how brutal the film often feels, credit for which must again go to Kane but also to editor Carol Littleton who cuts the action in such a way that violence is implied rather than seen. Add in stock footage of solar flares, life-sized African scarecrow costumes, monkey bondage and insinuated incest and you’ve got yourself one bizarre but compelling feature film.
THE MAFU CAGE was released on VHS through a couple of distributors in the U.S. including Wizard Video and Magnum Entertainment, before hitting budget DVD bins in 2005 via Pro-Active Entertainment. The film was also released on DVD in the U.K. a few years back under the alternate title, DON’T RING THE DOORBELL. For its latest incarnation Scorpion Releasing has gone straight to the original negatives to provide a brand new widescreen (1.78:1) transfer, mastered in high definition. The print in question bears the title DEVEATION, which in a commentary track found on this release is described as “disgusting” by Karen Arthur, the film’s director. Colors are rather drab, black levels are murky and the image can get a bit jittery at times. Dirt and debris are persistent, as is grain, but is thankfully not overpowering. All in all picture quality is serviceable but far from stellar. The mono English speaking audio fares better with only a few pops here and there to distract from the rhythmic African score.
Extras include two commentary tracks, one featuring director Karen Arthur and the other featuring director of photography John Bailey (GROUNDHOG DAY) and editor Carol Littleton (E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL). Karen has no problem talking openly about the film, or anything for that matter, often interrupting herself to throw out odd but interesting bits of info about the production, such as pointing out screenwriter Don Chastain's cameo as the sisters' father and recalling the production having to keep a log of the female cast and crews menstruation cycle as orangutans get all hot and bothered when its their costar's time of the month. The commentary between John and Carol is much more technical than Karen’s and suffers from repeated lulls in conversation.
Bonus features continue with a quartet of interviews. “Vision of Clouds” is a 44-minute sit down with director Karen Arthur. Karen speaks quite proud of MAFU, as she should, recalling how the film lead her to France as the opening picture for the director's fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. “Shot & Slice” is a 27-minute interview with married couple John Bailey and Carol Littleton, both of whom had previously worked together on Karen’s first film LEGACY. “Cissy and Her Clouds” is a 20-minute interview with lead Carol Kane. Carol appears in great spirits when discussing the film and makes no bones about her reasoning behind taking the role, the script was good and she got to work with an orangutan. Rounding out this release's litany of interviews is “Solar Flare” a 17-minute sit-down with Lee Grant. A single deleted scene is present that according to its proceeding title card was originally intended to be part of the finished film but was excised without the director knowledge. The clip in question shows Ellen succumbing to David’s advances on the stairs of the observatory. Two alternate titles cards are present; culled from video sources, the clips bare the alternate titles THE CAGE and MY SISTER, MY LOVE. Extras are rounded out by an eight-minute montage of black and white stills and behind-the-scenes photos as well as several color costume sketches. (Jason McElreath)
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