Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Black Mamba (1974)

1974 - Black Mamba (Filmmakers Organization)

Director George Rowe Writer Carl Kuntze Producer Alexander O. David Cinematography Justo Paulino Music Lamberto H. Avellana Jr Musical Director Lutgardo Labad Editor Rudy O. Montecajon Sound Engineers Willie de Santos, Gaudencio Barredo Sound Effects Antonio Gozalves Special Effects Ben Otico Opticals Boy Quilatan Production Manager Gerry Gerena Unit Manager Joel Rebonquin Assistant Director Rudy O. Montecajon Continuity David Delina, Edith Masangkay Negative Editor Elsa Avellana Stills Nor Torres Artwork/Titles Lito de la Cruz Makeup Artist Tony Artieda Choreography Amelia Apolinario Assistant Editors Greg Torres, Ben Samson, Greg Gonzales

Cast John Ashley (Dr Paul Morgan), Marlene Clark (Witch), Pilar Pilapil (Elena), Eddie Garcia (Fred), Rosemarie Gil (Barbara), Stevie Maniquez (Michael), Laurice Guillen (Nurse), Andres Centenera (Exorcist), Alfonso Carvajal (Storekeeper), “Antonio Carrion”/Tony Carreon (Parish Priest), Willie Nepomuceno (Ghoul), “Angel”/Angelo Ventura (Police Officer), Subas Herrero (Pathologist), Dick “Adaire”/Adair (Resident Doctor), Mary Walter (Old Woman), “Jimmy”/Jaime Fabregas (Librarian), [uncredited] Vivian Velez

Fred Adelman’s review from the Critical Condition website:

This weird, little-seen Philippines-lensed horror film opens in a fog-shrouded graveyard, where we see a hunchback ghoul break into a crypt and cart off a body after stealing an unusual gold ring off the corpse's finger. As he is dragging the body through the graveyard, he is startled by the sudden appearance of a witch (Marlene Clark) dressed in black and he runs away. The ring ends up in a jewelry store and we see the witch purchase it. While in church, Elena (Pilar Pilapil) notices the ring on the witch's finger and has words with her outside. The ring belonged to Elena's dead husband and he was buried with it, so she wants to know why the witch is wearing it now. The witch turns and walks away and, in flashbacks, we learn that the witch was having an affair with Elena's husband a short time before he died. Elena and her young son Michael (Steve Maniquiz) now live with her sister Barbara (Rosemary Gil) and her husband Fred (Filipino stalwart Eddie Garcia). Fred wants a child of his own, but Barbara is incapable of having any (He tells Elena, "She's as barren as the Sahara!"), so he looks at Michael as his own son. The strain it is having on Fred and Barbara's marriage is highly evident. When the hunchback is found dead in the graveyard (the witch frightens him to death by putting a vision in his head that the body he is stealing has come back to life), the police ask kindly town doctor Paul Morgan (John Ashley) to perform an autopsy to find the cause of death. Paul is also treating the jewelry store shopkeeper (Alfonso Cavajal), who is having visions of the Grim Reaper (complete with scythe), since the witch put a spell on him for buying the ring from the hunchback. The witch makes a wax effigy of the shopkeeper and gives him a heart attack, killing him. Paul and Elena are having a picnic on the beach and a black bird steals Elena's handkerchief. The witch uses the hankerchief in one of her rituals (also including a wax doll) to give Elena severe headaches, forcing Elena to pass out at a bus stop. The witch weasels herself into Paul's life, but when the shopkeeper is finally found dead in his home nine days late, a thief is killed after jumping through the jewelry store window and Elena is seriously hurt and ends up in the hospital, Paul has to put aside his "logical explanations" and learn to fight the unknown with magic. When little Michael gets caught in the middle of this mess, good will have to fight evil (including using a medicine man , who tries to whip the evil out of Elena) in the ultimate battle of power.

Since this film never got a legitimate release in the United States until recently, it's not as well known as some other Filipino horror films made around the same time, like NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN (1972, also starring Marlene Clark in a role similar to the one she plays here) or the many horror and action films the late John Ashley made there, including the BLOOD ISLAND trilogy and SAVAGE SISTERS (1974). Director George Rowe (FINAL MISSION - 1989) keeps the bloodshed and carnage to a minimum, relying on the supernatural elements, like voodoo ceremonies, visions and graveyard fog to convey a mood of dread. There is one gruesome scene where a coroner performs an autopsy on the shopkeeper's body, where he removes and cuts into the heart and extracts the brain using a bonesaw (after peeling back the scalp), but this sequence seems to have been inserted strictly for shock value (some say it's real autopsy footage) as it's out-of-place with the rest of the film. The screenplay (by Carl Kuntze) tries to find a parallel between modern medicine and ancient beliefs in witchcraft and how they both can be accepted as legitimate science. While there is no nudity in this film, a snake does crawl between Elena's legs and enters her snatch and, if I'm not mistaken, Old Scratch makes an appearance during a ritual involving dancing girls dressed in red (It is his favorite color after all!). There is also an exorcism (THE EXORCIST was new and novel at the time) and, if you ever wanted to see John Ashley deliver a baby, pick it up with one hand and slap it on the ass, then this is the film for you. Some may find this too dull and soap opera-like to sustain interest. It's rarity makes it worth at least one look in my book. Also starring Willie Nepomuceno (as the hunchback), Laurice Guillen, Antonio Carrion and Andres Centenera. Is it just me or does John Ashley seem to sleepwalk through his role here? The print I viewed looks like a dub taken from a worn, soft-looking 16mm print with some noisy and scratchy sound problems. It's watchable, though. Now available on DVD as part of the BLOOD-O-RAMA 4 movie compilation from Image Entertainment. The print on the DVD is not much better than the print I viewed and it has new, video-generated titles. Not Rated.

UPDATE: Screenwriter Carl Kuntze emailed CritCon with this juicy bit of behind-the-scenes information: "The making of BLACK MAMBA was more interesting than how the movie turned out. The autopsy was supposed to be conducted by a certified pathologist, who hadn't shown up as promised. A Filipino morgue attendant volunteered. "I will be the one. I know how." He didn't even have proper instruments. When the doctor showed up five hours after the filming was over, he was shocked at the condition of the body. It was completely mangled. It had to be buried in a sealed coffin. The relatives of the corpse, who was convicted of capital crimes, had consented to the autopsy for the money to bury him. Had they seen the body, they might have committed some mangling themselves. John Ashley and most of the production crew were puking their guts out. I reshot the autopsy using a pig's brain and entrails. The skull was reconstructed from ceramics by an artist. A reviewer complimented the protocol. The producer himself used a surgical saw. I intended to rewrite it according to the original premise: Santeria (Palo Mayombe). I didn't have a devil worship scene, and my doctor was not in The Peace Corps. He was an incompetent hiding his failings in a small town. John Ashley did his best acting in this movie. He should have taken it more seriously."

Michael Weldon's review in Psychotronic Magazine #32 (2000) p.72

Marlene Clark (the black American beauty also in Night Of The Cobra Woman) is a witch who uses voodoo to curse the widow Elana (Pilar Pilapil). Elana and her cute little boy are staying with her sister (Rosemarie Gil) and her wealthy husband. A cat that becomes a death figure with a scythe, a snake that becomes an evil nurse and a crippled, scarred hunchbacked grave robber help the witch. Ashley plays the selfless nice guy doctor who makes house calls and eventually confronts the witch. An old priest brutally whips Elana as part of an exorcism ritual. In my favorite scene, the witch travels to a huge cave where she and many females, all in short red dresses, dance by a fire in front of the devil himself (!). Eddie Garcia is a police officer. With flashbacks and nightmares. Ashley said it was shot at the same time as Savage Sisters, but was never released in America. He also said that a real corpse was used in an autopsy scene, which may have been true for close-ups, but before the cutting starts, the man can be seen moving.

Review from the DVD Drive-In website:

BLACK MAMBO (directed by George Rowe), a Philippines-made horror effort starring the late, great John Ashley in one of the many exploitation films he starred in over there, and probably the rarest. A young widow named Elena (Pilar Pilapil) is shocked to discover the ring of her recently deceased husband on the finger of African American woman (Marlene Clark, who had also had the lead in another Philippines thriller, THE NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN) who happens to be devil-worshipping, voodoo practicing witch. Elena makes the mistake of confronting the witch outside a church, and she in turn puts all sorts of spells and curses on the single mother, who lives with her caring sister (Rosemarie Gil, DEVIL WOMAN) and her brother-in-law (Eddie Garcia, star of countless Philippines movies, including a memorable turn as “Dr. Lorca” in BEAST OF BLOOD). The concerned Dr. Paul Morgan (Ashley) steps up to help, but it takes a lot before he believes in all the mumbo jumbo behind Elena’s dilemma. BLACK MAMBA is never as delirious, imaginative or exploitive as other Philippines horrors of the period and the story tends to be confusing. There are some nice moments tossed into the mix (a storekeeper who keeps hallucinating a Grim Reaper, Clark making love to a very ethnic-looking horned Lucifer, a snake crawling up a woman’s leg, etc.), but most red-blooded male viewers will naturally wish that the very lovely actresses (Pilapil, Gil, Clark) had shed some skin, especially since this is 1974 we're talking about. Still, this is a must-see for Philippines horror/exploitation completists. The full screen transfer is very below par, looking extremely dupey and soft, with pale bleeding colors, but almost watchable knowing the rareness of the title. The mono audio is not bad but tends to screech during some of the louder moments.

Review from the 1000 Misspent Hours website:

With a title like Black Mamba, you might have figured this was a movie about— oh, I don’t know— maybe a killer snake? Yeah, well you might have figured Snake People was about snake people, too. Actually, Black Mamba is a lot like Snake People, for not only do both movies promise us snakes which they have little intention of delivering, they both give us instead some pretty crazy tropical black magic. The key difference (apart, I mean, from this movie hailing from the Philippines, while the other is of Mexican origin) is that Black Mamba is really a pretty decent little voodoo flick.

It’s hard to go wrong by starting with a grave robbery. Black Mamba’s opening-scene tomb-breaker is a bestial hunchback (Willie Nepomuceno) who seeks not the bodies of the dead, but the valuables that were buried with them. In particular, we see him make off with a golden ring worked into the likeness of a hooded face. The bauble in question turns up the next day in the local general store, where the shopkeeper (Alfonso Carvajal, from The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Black Mama, White Mama) sells it to a woman (Marlene Clark, of The Beast Must Die and Beware! The Blob) dressed in what looks to be mourning attire. That ring gets the woman into trouble an unspecified amount of time later, for it happens to catch the eye of Elena (Pilar Pilapil), its original owner and the widow of the man from whose grave it was pilfered, while she and the ring-wearer are attending services in the same church. Elena has angry words with the other woman after the mass concludes, and though we don’t get to hear the argument (in a surprising touch of artiness, the confrontation scene plays silent apart from the insistent pealing of the church bells), one gets the distinct impression that they have met somewhere before. And indeed they have; shortly thereafter, the woman who bought the ring has a flashback revealing that she had been the dead man’s girlfriend before Elena came along, putting a very different spin on everything that has happened since she saw the ring in the store’s front window. And as if the flashback itself hadn’t served as sufficient cause for reappraisal, the furnishings of the room in which it transpires demonstrate pretty conclusively that Elena’s rival is a witch.

As for Elena, her husband’s death left her with apparently few resources for supporting her son, Michael (Steve Maniquez), and she is relying, at least for the time being, on the charity of her sister, Barbara Gomez (Rosemarie Gil, of Naked Vengeance and Devil Woman). Barbara’s husband, Fred (Eddie Garcia, from Blood of the Vampires and Beast of Blood), is evidently an extremely successful businessman of some kind, although we’ll never learn precisely what he does for a living. The important thing is that the Gomezes live in easily the biggest and poshest house in their little town, and Fred’s income is such that he professes no hardship in supporting Elena and her son indefinitely. Elena’s present living arrangements entail a certain amount of friction, however, for Fred is disconcertingly open about believing that he picked the wrong sister. This is because all evidence indicates that Barbara is infertile, and there’s nothing Fred wants more than to be a father. He may be able to scratch his parental itch to some extent by playing surrogate dad to Michael, but that outlet will exist only so long as Elena remains in the house. Needless to say, Fred is in no hurry to see his sister-in-law make good her intention of moving to Manila.

On the night following the altercation in church, the witch, evidently hell-bent on preventing the hunchback from corroborating any story that Elena might tell the authorities regarding the stolen ring, uses her magic to eliminate him. Old Quasimodo is back in the cemetery, and as soon as he cracks open a coffin, the witch reanimates the body inside, literally scaring the grave-robber to death. This proves not to be a very smart move in the long run, though, as the dead body beside the open tomb inevitably draws attention from the local chief of police (Angelo Ventura, from Beyond Atlantis and The Twilight People), who quickly calls in Dr. Paul Morgan (John Ashley, of Frankenstein’s Daughter and Beast of the Yellow Night) to help him figure out what killed the hunchback. What makes this a potentially serious development for the witch is that Morgan has ties to practically everybody on whom she will be setting her sights in the coming days, meaning that he’ll be in as good a position as anyone to spot the pattern of mysterious misadventures as it forms. It is to Morgan that the shopkeeper turns when the witch places a curse on him, haunting him with visions of death and eventually striking him down by breaking the humanoid candle she was using as his effigy. Paul and his old mentor (Subas Herrero, from Savage Sisters and Bamboo Gods and Iron Men) wind up performing the autopsy on the shopkeeper, too, when a spectacularly failed burglary at the general store (the would-be thief is killed by one of the witch’s familiars, a Siamese cat with the power to assume the form of the Grim Reaper) leads to the discovery of the old man’s body. More importantly, Paul is also beginning (much to Fred’s consternation) a tentative romance with Elena. Morgan is therefore on the scene when the witch, in the form of a little blackbird, steals Elena’s handkerchief in order to make a voodoo doll of her. He is there to lead her treatment when the ensuing campaign of paranormal persecution begins to take its toll on Elena’s nerves. He is able to help Fred intervene when Barbara hires an exorcist (Andres Centenara, from The Big Bird Cage and Brides of Blood) to drive out the witch’s influence via a dangerous course of sympathetic magic. (The exorcist flogs Elena with a whip made from a stingray’s tail; the idea is that each blow will be felt by the witch as well.) Eventually, Morgan sees enough really weird shit that he begins to take seriously the possibility that Elena has been cursed by a witch— at least to the extent of accepting that Elena and her unknown enemy’s mutual belief in black magic is enough to make the curse as good as real for both parties. With a little help from the local librarian (Jaime Fabregas), Paul sets out to find the supposed magician, and combat her on her own terms. Of course, the witch has allies, too, having placed her second familiar (a speckled, gray snake that is the closest we’ll ever get to the titular black mamba) within the Gomez household in the guise of a nurse (Laurice Guillen).

Although it is compromised by paltry production values and a lethargic pace (to say nothing of the conspicuous absence of any black mambas), Black Mamba impressed me a good deal more than I was expecting it to. Working in the Philippines seems to have done wonders for John Ashley’s acting. Maybe he just grew up, or maybe his increasingly obvious has-been-hood gave him the perspective necessary to jettison the leftover performing tics from his previous career as a failed teen heartthrob, but by the mid-1970’s, he had most definitely mastered the trick of working within his limitations instead of ramming headlong into them the way he had in earlier years. He’s still as far from greatness as he ever was, but like Lon Chaney Jr. in his prime, the John Ashley of Black Mamba and its contemporaries has found something he can do, and has made the most of it. And if we’re comparing Ashley to the younger Chaney, then we might liken writer Carl Kuntze and director George Rowe to frequent Chaney collaborators Curt and Robert Siodmak, respectively. Both men bring an unaffected, workmanlike solidity to Black Mamba, marshalling their not-always-adequate resources (both material and creative) to occasionally striking effect. Kuntze in particular wins my respect for bringing Paul Morgan into the witch-hunting business on terms that square completely with the determinedly rationalist worldview that he displays throughout the first two thirds of the film. We may know the witch’s powers are real, but Morgan has no reason to; by making him approach witchcraft as (in the words of the librarian) “one of the oldest forms of psychological warfare,” Kuntze gives the doctor plausible license to fight fire with fire, without ever having to set up the usual “Whoa… There really is such a thing as magic!” scene. As for Rowe, his most admirable contributions are probably his success in wringing a bit of honest creepiness out of that two-bit Grim Reaper and the surprisingly un-crass way in which he deploys Black Mamba’s most notorious exploitation gambit, the use of stock autopsy footage in the scene where Morgan and the other doctor give the shopkeeper his post-mortem examination. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “tasteful” (I’m not convinced there is a tasteful way to recycle clips of real-life medical examiners chopping real-life holes in a real-life dead guy’s thoracic cavity), but Rowe does at least manage to make it seem not flagrantly disrespectful. But Black Mamba’s best feature is probably the easiest to overlook— the absolutely first-rate soundtrack by Lamberto H. Avellana Jr. Avellana seems never to have scored another movie, either before or since, and that’s a damn shame. His prickly, almost atonal music is eerie in the extreme, and gives a sizeable assist even to such overwhelmingly stupid scenes as the one that has the witch and a chorus line of crimson-clad women we’ve never seen before performing a sort of interpretive dance for the amusement of Satan and his goat-headed minions. Anybody who can so much as lead you to imagine the possibility of selling something like that deserves a great deal of respect. (**½)

Review from the Black Horror Movies website:

Compared to Night of the Cobra Woman, Black Mamba suffers the double whammy of being less serpent-centric and less booby-centric, making for the dullest movie I've seen featuring zombies, voodoo dolls, a hunchback, Satan, "Manimal"-like transmutations, bestiality, an exorcism, and Death itself. The film opens with a hunchback doing what hunchbacks do best: robbing graves. He messes with the wrong tomb, though, when he takes a ring from the corpse of Dante, a man who happens to have once romanced a witch (Clark). Quasimod'oh! Through hazy "Love American Style"-flashbacks, we learn that the witch still has fond memories of Dante, and that Dante resembles Julio Caesar Chavez in a leisure suit. Fashion taste aside, she still loves the guy and takes offense to Hunchy stealing a ring off his cold, dead fingers and selling it to a local pawn shop. She takes such offense that she punishes not only Hunchy but the pawn shop owner and a random burglar who just happens to beak into the store as well, literally scaring them to death with visions of zombies and the Grim Reaper. (Enter an opportunity for the filmmakers to splice in tasteless clips of a real autopsy.) Turns out, though, that Witchy isn't Dante's widow; some gal named Elena (Pilar Pilapil) is, and she's none too pleased to see Witchy strolling around town wearing her dead husband's ring (which she got from the pawn shop). Elena confronts her outside a church, and Witchy gives her a look like, "Beyaaatch!" It's so on! ...Or not. Instead, we segue into the treacly B story about Elena's sister Barbara (Rosemarie Gil from Night of the Cobra Woman) worrying that her husband Fred doesn't love her any more because she's barren. Save it for Oprah, lady; maybe you should focus on why your sister keeps getting voodoo headaches. Meanwhile, Paul (John Ashley, a Philippine horror movie veteran who for my money did his best work as the narrator in "The A-Team") is a Marlboro Mannish crime-solving doctor who's called in to solve the case. And what a tough case it is! I mean, perhaps you should question the six foot-tall black lady walking around the Philippines in a hooded robe, carrying an effigy...? "You mean the lady with the corpse ring who has a pentagram on her floor? But she's so kind to animals!" Indeed, Witchy is a regular Aquawoman, using beasts to do her bidding: a black bird, a black dog, a black mamba...Do we see a trend? Granted, a black mamba isn't technically black (and is native to Africa, not the Philippines), but who am I to dictate racial identity? Eventually, Elena goes nutty after dreaming about Satan and waking to find a snake between her legs -- and not in a good, mainstream pornographic way -- but only after Barbara gets an exorcist/wizard to beat the ills out of Elena with a whip (which doesn't work). As you can see, there's an exhausting amount of story in Black Mamba. In many ways it's actually a high-minded film dealing with superstition in modern society and giving insight into the different types of witchcraft. Unfortunately, this is a movie, not Wikipedia, so it ends up dreadfully dull and suffers from low production values, poor film quality, and let's face it, being made in the '70s. As with Night of the Cobra Woman, it's hard to buy the classy, even-tempered Clark as evil. Her worst sin might be her performance, which, judging from the seemingly dubbed-over dialogue, might not even be her fault.

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