I guarantee there is no way you are prepared for...The Mafu Cage. (**Warning: Big-Time Spoilers Ahead**)
On Saturday, I attended the annual ExFest movie marathon put on by the fine (if sick) folks at Exhumed Films, an outfit that has been been screening horror, sci-fi, and other disreputable genre flicks since the late 1990s. In particular, the ExFest is a 12-hour collection of films that are not announced beforehand; you don't know what you're seeing until the lights go down. It's always a lot of fun, and occasionally the Exhumed guys will show me something that I am completely unfamiliar with. Which brings us to The Mafu Cage.
Released in 1978, The Mafu Cage stars Lee Grant and Carol Kane as sisters who, from the get-go, clearly have a very, very odd relationship. Grant plays Ellen, an astronomer working at the Griffith Observatory, alongside a guy named David (James Olson) who is very interested in being more than co-workers with Ellen.
Ellen lives in a secluded house, covered in tress and plants, with her sister Cissy (Kane) who seems to exist in a fantasy world that doesn't go outside the confines of their Grey Gardens-esque estate. Inside, the walls are covered with African art and other bric-a-brac, and a shrine to their dead father, who raised them as children in Africa.
One of the odder features of this house is a full-on cage that both Ellen and Cissy seem to regard the way you or I would the kitchen or dining room:
The new mafu--in this case a orangutan--comes via an old family friend named Zom (Will Geer), who dresses like Frank Buck and seems to deal in wild animals via some sort of Black Market. Ellen and Cissy take in the orangutan, which they chain to the wall and keep in the cage. It's not clear what they're going to do with this new Mafu now that they have it, for Cissy seems to spend most of her time sitting by the cage sketching it.
Eventually this new orangutan upsets Cissy, and she beats it to death with a chain. Ellen, who to this point has been telling herself that the previous mafu deaths have been "accidents", finally realizes this has all gone too far and tells Cissy that this is the end. Cissy threatens to "assassinate" herself, and Ellen once again starts to soften. We see that this has been their relationship ever since their father died, and that Ellen in her own way is just as sick as her sister (this is only underscored when it becomes abundantly clear that they engage in a sexual relationship as well).
Ellen's co-worker David tries harder to get her interested in a relationship and she, perhaps finally tiring of the life she's been living, starts to reciprocate. It seems that maybe there's a way out of this sick relationship until Ellen is forced to go away for a work trip for a few days, leaving Cissy home alone. She assures her sister she won't answer the door or phone, but trouble walks in the door when David shows up and meets Cissy for the firs time.
To this point, I found The Mafu Cage to be a unique (to say the least) drama/thriller, if a little frustrating because it so stubbornly refused to answer any of the many questions it was bringing up. But it did have some sort of internal logic, as off-kilter as it was. But when David shows up, he for some ungodly reason doesn't turn on his heels and run the other direction, as would most people if they were greeted with this:
Instead, he goes inside with Cissy, has a glass of wine with her, and ignores all the warning signs that she is bat-sh*t nuts. He then wanders into the cage, allows himself to be chained to the wall, and watches in bemusement as Cissy slams the cell door and locks it.
It's here, at least, that David wakes the hell up, realizing the trouble he's in. He tries to scream for help when he hears a visitor (another visit from Zom), to no avail. He refuses to eat, and tries to grab Cissy when she gets close. As he starts to slowly die from malnutrition, Cissy paints herself in African make-up and performs bizarre rituals that mean something only to her:
All hell breaks loose--sort of, since this movie (directed relative newcomer Karen Arthur) continues to resist much in the way of action or thrills. Cissy chains Ellen up, which finally gets Ellen to realize where all this is headed. She, too, refuses to eat, and eventually starves to death. After dragging the body off, Cissy chains herself in the Mafu Cage, sentencing herself to a similar, slow, agonizing death:
*Whew!* As I said, the guys at Exhumed Films almost always manage to surprise me when I go see one of their shows, but this one really came out left field. While I can't come close to having the depth of movie knowledge they do, I'm surprised when they're able to find a movie put out by a major studio, featuring name actors--that I've never even heard of. After an afternoon made up of smaller movies featuring (mostly) no-name casts, seeing Lee Grant, Carol Kane, and Will Geer's names come up made think oh, we're going to see something a little more mainstream here. Wrong!
I can confidently say that The Mafu Cage is the strangest, most bugf*ck movie I have ever seen put out by a major studio with the aforementioned name stars. In the beginning we're following Ellen, and while her life is of course very, very odd, there's some sense of a character we can relate to. But about halfway through it becomes Kane's show, and we become completely unmoored, just as she is. As I watched Kane screech, call people dipshits (the only curse word she knows), beat a orangutan today, and take baths in weird fluids, I couldn't help but think what a career-killer this movie could have been. Not that it's a bad performance, exactly, it's just that, as directed by Arthur, she's so clearly completely crazy almost from the first scene that I found her almost unbearable to watch--which is tough since, as I said, the movie is pretty much all her through the final half. If The Mafu Cage had been a bigger hit, I could see how it might have really done Kane in as an actress. But of course, there was no chance it was going to be a hit, because it's such a damn odd movie. So Kane got the chance to do Taxi, and the rest was history. Luckily for her.
Upon reflection, I appreciate the fact that all the cliched genre trappings of a thriller weren't grafted onto The Mafu Cage, because it clearly has more on its mind than that. That said, I kept waiting for something to kinda happen, as the relationship between the two sisters got worse: but instead director Arthur just lets the air slowly leak out of the balloon, and opposed to popping it. After such a build-up, watching our two main characters die of malnutrition seems just too quiet, almost peaceful.
Karen Arthur directed one film before this, 1975's Legacy, which IMDB describes thusly: "A rich woman deteriorates mentally." So she clearly had themes she wanted to explore in her work. She must have gone to see Grey Gardens a lot in the build-up to making The Mafu Cage.