I've been wanting to see the Mafu Cage since I first laid eyes on it's provocative poster art. I found it in the cult section at Amoeba and it's been beckoning me every time I've skimmed by in the past year. I ended up with some store credit so I decided to make the leap for a few curiosities, Mafu Cage was at the top of the list. It's a challenge to attempt compartmentalizing this bizarre film into any given category. It's often mis-classified as horror and although it definitely contains some terrifying themes, the film itself is about as erratic and unpredictable as the character it surrounds.
Carol Kane plays "Cissy", a delusional young woman who was never able to move on from her childhood in Africa and the death of her Anthropologist father. Her sister Ellen, played by Lee Grant, promised their late father to always take care of Cissy no matter how extreme her peculiar behavior may be. It was his belief that as long as Cissy could be kept busy in her natural environment that she'd be just fine. To accommodate her eccentricities they turned the living room into a jungle. Plants, tribal music, African decor and a giant cage for Cissy's "Mafu". Although it's never quite explained what a "Mafu" is, she uses it in reference to her pet monkeys. Perhaps it's a term she picked up from an African tribe. Her sister allows her to keep an ape around to illustrate as she did for her father's research. It's obvious that Ellen allows this, not for research, but to keep Cissy content.
The problem (or one of the many problems) with Cissy is that she's given to hysterical outbursts that end with a violent attack on her pet monkey. In a fit of childish rage, she suddenly becomes angry when it doesn't obey her. She throws a temper tantrum and inevitably ends up killing the poor creature when she can't have her way. Ellen doesn't know what to do, she tries cutting her off but Cissy's dramatic suicide attempts and meltdowns make Ellen give in every time. It's not until she actually witnesses the slaying of an orangutan that she finally refuses Cissy's request for yet another replacement Mafu. Unfortunately, Cissy's homicidal tendencies are taken beyond animals when a man Ellen is romantically interested in comes into the picture. This aspect of the film leads us into all kinds of demented incestuous lesbian overtones between Ellen and Cissy. Ellen seems to wants a chance at a normal life but based on her intimate relationship with her sister (perhaps being isolated in Africa during adolescence?) she knows she can never really have one. During one especially verbally graphic scene Cissy reminds Ellen that it's been a long time since shes made her "gush". Wow, gross. Cissy even insinuates in one scene that she's partaken in sexual activities with her Mafus. It's fairly obvious at any given moment in the film that there will be no happy ending for these two.
Although certain elements were a little hard to watch (animal killing is always a tough pill to swallow), I found the Mafu Cage to be a fascinating character study. I've always had a great affection for Carol Kane. Ever since I was 5 or so and saw her in Scrooged as "the Ghost of Christmas Present" where she channels some sort of nutzoid Glinda the Good Witch. She's cute, awkward and severely under used as a serious actress. She always struck me as this pixie-esque incarnation of Bette Davis. Sadly her unconventional looks and funny voice have had her typecast in mostly comedy, bit parts and character roles. After seeing the Mafu Cage I'm more convinced than ever that she's one of my favorite actresses. Lee Grant, although a fantastic actress, didn't interest me much in this film. The Mafu Cage is all about Carol Kane being exhaustingly fervorous, seductive and primal. The other characters are just there to set up Cissy's next catastrophe.
It's hard to judge whether or not anyone else would like this film. I can't see it appealing to many people. The elements I found compelling seem to walk a tight rope between whimsical and adverse. It's exotic and visually striking. Cissy's clothes and artistic style are so alluring and primitive. She's a sexy and appealing character who you desperately want to see cozily adapted to her element. Much like Lota in Island of Lost Souls, she's wild thing you want to study. I found it conflicting for such a stimulating character to participate in such reprehensible actions. Certain aspects of the film felt distinctly feminine, perhaps the pleasantries of having a female director? On the other hand, the confinement and pulsating atmosphere is so stifling that the feral nature of the main character takes center stage.
It's not difficult to see why this film has not quite found an audience. It's easy to classify the unclassifiable as "cult" when a film contains such convoluted algorithms. But what is it a cult film without a cult following? With such a unique vision and subversive material it's certainly deserving of a devoted flock of admirers. I'd love to hear some others' thoughts on the film. This one seems to have completely mis-fired to the point of abysmal obscurity. I can't promise you'll like it, but for fellow explorers who share my self-destructive curiosity, you may find yourself hypnotized by this feverish example of unrestrained captivity within the tightly wound barriers of psychopathia sexualis.