Devil Hunter / Man Hunter / Mandingo Manhunter / Sexo Cannibal (1980) -***½
While reviewing Zombie Lake, I joked about Jesus Franco turning down the job of directing it on the grounds that he had standards to uphold. The thing is, Franco really did have standards— at least a few of them— and those standards can be glimpsed in his attitude toward the cannibal movies of the 70’s and early 80’s. He thought they were idiotic and grotesque, and that even the best of them were a waste of the talent and effort that had gone into them. Now, that didn’t stop him from making a couple of them himself, of course, but for one thing, two movies out of a 200-some-title filmography isn’t all that many, and for another, Franco’s cannibal films were a bit different from the standard model. The first, and the more conventional of the two— White Cannibal Queen— had at least as much in common with Liane the Jungle Goddess as it did with any Umberto Lenzi or Ruggero Deodato production. The second, meanwhile, was really weird. The only other film I know of even vaguely similar to Devil Hunter is Joe D’Amato’s infamous sex-horror opus, Porno Holocaust, but instead of a horny zombie running around killing women with his gigantic dong, we have here some kind of woman-eating monster-man (also with a gigantic dong) being worshipped as a god by a stone-age tribe who offer him kidnapped girls as human sacrifices.
The monster’s name, so far as I can tell from his worshippers’ unintelligible dialogue, is Mochica, and there’s a bit of a mystery surrounding him— or, more to the point, surrounding the man who plays him. Both the Internet Movie Database and Jay Slater’s Eaten Alive credit Burt Altman for the part, but the IMDb also says that Altman was in Cannibal Terror and Zombie Lake. Now I’ve always been pretty bad with names and faces, but any slightly observant person can see that neither of those movies features any towering Afro-Portuguese ex-athletes with deltoid muscles as big as my head. So either there were two guys making shitty exploitation movies in Europe under the name Burt Altman circa 1980; or the IMDb is wrong, and Altman had nothing to do with Cannibal Terror or Zombie Lake; or the IMDb and Slater are both mistaken, and Mochica is somebody else. Personally, I favor possibility #3, and I’ll tell you why. There’s a little-seen character in Devil Hunter named Goldstein, and the actor who portrays him looks a lot like Antonio the safe-house proprietor in Cannibal Terror; he also looks a lot like one of the more frequently seen villagers in Zombie Lake. My hypothesis is that this pudgy old white guy is Burt Altman, and that we should look for Mochica further down in the reported Devil Hunter cast listing— perhaps Tibi Costa or Óscar Cortina.
Regardless of who plays him, though, Mochica is the driving force behind the first thing we see. Somewhere in the African wilderness (and I must say that Franco’s location scouts did a remarkable job of finding a spot in the Portuguese woodlands that could halfway pass for someplace like Ghana or the Ivory Coast), four men from a perplexingly multiracial tribe (at least three African ethnic groups are represented, along with a couple of beaky-nosed Spaniards and a Latin American or two) are chasing a naked girl through the woods. When they finally catch her, the men tie her to an improvised cross-frame near the foot of a tall hill, and then immediately take cover in the densest underbrush they can find. Meanwhile, in what I take to be Lisbon, actress Laura Crawford (Ursula Buchfellner, from Hot Potatoes and Sadomania) arrives to begin pre-production on her latest film, in company with her agent, Jane (Gisela Hahn, of Julia and War in Space). What Crawford doesn’t realize is that Jane has set her up. On her first night in town, a couple of rough customers named Tomas (Antonio De Cabo, from Virgin Report and A Virgin Among the Living Dead) and Chris (Werner Pochanth, from The Cat o’ Nine Tails and The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire)— the former of them Jane’s boyfriend— abduct her from her hotel suite in order to ransom her for $6 million from (I’m assuming) the studio that holds her current contract. The two plot-threads are intertwined in such a way that the kidnappers spring their trap just as Mochica comes to collect his sacrifice. It’s the first of several small, unexpected reminders we’ll get from this movie of the fitfully imaginative, technically competent filmmaker that Franco was early in his career, before he evolved into the distractible, sex-fixated blunderer we know and love.
This is where that Goldstein guy I mentioned before comes into the picture. He, or so I surmise, is Laura’s producer, and while he’s prepared to put up the six million, he would greatly prefer not to have to part with it permanently. Thus he has hired Vietnam-vet mercenary Peter Weston (Al Cliver, of Hearts and Armor and Black Velvet) to be his agent in the field. Weston will get $200,000 to recover Crawford either way, but if he can do it without having to hand over the ransom money, he’ll get to keep 10% of that as well. Peter in turn contacts his old platoon-mate, Jack (Antonio Mayans, from City of the Walking Dead and Hunchback of the Rue Morgue), and the two of them fly out to Africa (where Tomas, Jane, and their men are holding Laura) in a short-range utility helicopter. Peter’s plan is to exchange Laura for a satchel of money in which all but the first few bills in each bundle are fake. The gangsters’ plan is apparently to kill Peter and Jack, pocket the ransom, and hang onto Laura for… well, I’m sure they’ll think of some use for a beautiful Teutonic blonde in her early 20’s, with big boobs, shapely hips, and no apparent sense of modesty whatsoever. In other words, both sides are going into this intending to play hardball, greatly increasing the chances for things to go spiraling out of control. And since Tomas and company have chosen as the venue for the battle the very stretch of untamed coastline haunted by Mochica and his worshippers, the consequences of any such spiraling will be even more serious than necessary. First contact between Peter and Tomas ends with the helicopter blown up, several of the kidnappers dead or wounded, and Laura running loose in the jungle all alone. Thenceforth, it’ll be Tomas, Peter, and the natives each hunting Laura for their own reasons, Peter and Tomas hunting each other, and Mochica hunting everybody.
One of the really puzzling things about Devil Hunter is that it devotes not a single second to explaining just what in the hell Mochica is. The makeup design— he looks like a dime-budget, horror-porn interpretation of Carrefoure from I Walked with a Zombie— leads many commentators to describe him as a zombie, but he shows no sign of being undead beyond the appearance of his eyes, he’s plainly capable of independent thought, and surely the natives would not be worshipping a product of their own magic. Then again, one has a hard time taking seriously a god who can be killed by throwing him off a cliff, and Mochica’s behavior in general makes it plain that he is at least in some sense human, the bulging, bloodshot, ping-pong-ball eyes notwithstanding. Frankly, I can’t decide whether that reticence as to the nature of its monster is a point for or against Devil Hunter. It would probably be the former, if I had any confidence that it was a product of deliberate decision on anyone’s part, and not just an artifact of cascading carelessness.
In most other respects, there’s simply no question— Devil Hunter is an extraordinarily stupid and sleazy film, in the inimitable latter-day Franco style. It’s a lot more coherent than most of Franco’s 70’s and 80’s output, with clearer senses of motive and plot organization, but that doesn’t stop it from forgetting itself completely and lapsing into a trance whenever a nude woman appears in the shot. If you’ve seen more than a couple of Franco’s movies, you’ll know the kind of trance I mean. The woman in question (in this case, it’s usually the native shamaness played by Aline Mess, of Chronical Sex and The Diamonds of Kilimanjaro) peels off the next-to-nothing she’d been wearing in the first place, and begins doing something rhythmic and repetitive— scrubbing herself down in a bathtub, say, or performing some salacious, hip-swiveling dance. It doesn’t matter how important the events of the preceding scene might have been— it doesn’t even matter if the heroine just got sent out for sacrifice to the pagan god of dicks and deltoids— and if there’s more than one girl in the frame, that’ll only lengthen and intensify the effect. Whatever it was, the action will dally to a stop like a column of rush-hour commuters passing a roadside drug-trafficking bust as the zoom lens goes absolutely bugshit, torn between the impulse to zero in on the nearest bare vagina and the contrary imperative to draw back and take in the full effect of the wriggling and writhing. And because Devil Hunter rarely lets slip an opportunity to get a pretty girl naked, such episodes occur in it with no little frequency. Franco might have consoled himself by saying that he was really making a monster movie rather than a cannibal film, but ultimately he was making a Jesus Franco movie, something that transcends any and all genres.