Jungle Virgin Force/Perawan Rimba (1988) -***
The heyday of the Italian cannibal movie was short, spanning only the five years or so between Jungle Holocaust and Make Them Die Slowly, and despite those films’ relative success and great notoriety, they proved surprisingly non-influential abroad. Even the Spaniards, who could usually be counted upon to leap aboard any bandwagon with an Italian junk auteur at the wheel, exhibited little enthusiasm for the cannibal gut-munchers. Jesus Franco made a couple, of course, but his Devil Hunter and White Cannibal Queen are both noteworthy for how far they diverge from the form as codified by Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato. Frenchman Alain Deruelle stuck closer to the model with Cannibal Terror, but so far as I know, his contribution to the genre was an experiment that no one else in his country felt like replicating. The only other Italian-style cannibals films I’m aware of to be made outside of Italy hail from, of all places, Indonesia. I wish I could offer you even a guess as to why that might be, but I’m completely at a loss to explain it. All I know is that Indonesian filmmakers ventured at least twice into Lenzi-Deodato territory. The earlier and apparently more straightforward of those ventures was Savage Terror, which I regrettably have yet to run to ground. (I’m closing in, though, having recently turned up a lead much more promising than the cold trail of a pre-Video Recordings Act British VHS release that I’d been trying to follow hitherto. Stay tuned.) The other, Jungle Virgin Force, resembles the aforementioned Franco movies in partaking of a wide range of extraneous influences that collectively transform it into something much stranger than a mere spaghetti-splatter wannabe. Although Jungle Virgin Force remains broadly a cannibal movie on the Italian pattern, it’s also a caveman picture, a riff on the old “white goddess” jungle girl motif with the racial overtones awkwardly sanded off, and even a martial arts fantasy of the kung fu-vs.-magic school.
We begin with a bunch of pretty girls doffing their “primitive tribeswoman” costumes to bathe at the base of a jungle waterfall. (This being a movie from the height of the Suharto era, all the nudity is optically fogged on top of the visual distortion created by the water itself.) A voiceover that sounds tantalizingly like John Ashley explains that the dense rainforests of the Indonesian archipelago harbor tribes that have never made contact with the outside world— which in this case means even the other stone-agers in the next valley over, let alone representatives of modern civilization. Ashley (or whoever) goes on to say that among those hyper-isolated peoples, rumors have begun circulating of a mysterious and powerful young woman whom some believe to be a goddess, or at the very least an emissary of same. How Mr. Voiceover would know what un-contacted savages are gossiping about is beyond me, and apparently beyond the screenwriters, too. In any case, the annoyingly blurred skinny-dippers quickly find themselves menaced by a deadly stock-footage crocodile! Luckily for them, their plight is observed by a vine-swinging, Tarzan-hollering girl (Lydia Kandou, from Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Five Deadly Angels) kitted out in a slightly different interpretation of Stone-Age Chic. Presumably this is that messenger of the gods we were told about. Jelita (for that is our pseudo-Sheena’s name) dives right into the pool to grapple with the croc (now represented by several different stock-footage animals, plus a model reptile that even Sompote Sands might think twice about using), and her victory so impresses the bathers that they resolve at once to bring her home with them to meet the whole tribe.
That’s actually a pretty lousy idea, at least at this exact moment. The tribe Jelita is about to be introduced to is currently riven with intergender strife, focused on a rivalry between high priestess (no idea) and high priest (H. I. M. Damsyik, of The Warrior and Satan’s Slave). When the former hears her followers’ story about Jelita’s clash with the crocodile, and sees the fancy jeweled necklace that the strange girl wears, she concludes that the newcomer’s arrival marks the fulfillment of some prophecy or other, and declares Jelita queen. That’s the last straw for the male witch doctor, who unleashes his elite guard of cannibal warriors to halt the coronation. The ensuing battle splits the tribe, and the natives’ share of Jungle Virgin Force essentially turns into a gender-flipped version of Prehistoric Women, only with gut-munching and 60’s Hong Kong-style spazz fu.
Meanwhile, in what I take to be the suburbs of Jakarta, some would-be adventurers are planning a foray into the same stretch of jungle where all the foregoing took place. The leader of the pack is an aspiring anthropologist called Haidar (Harry Capri, of Blind Warrior and Virgins from Hell), whose mentor (maybe Malino Djunaedy, from Deadly Angels Strike Back and Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters, Part 2?) is the only outsider ever to go among the region’s primitive hunter-gatherers. Yes, I know. That does seem rather at odds with the whole “never made contact with any other humans” business, but whatever. Haidar envisions making the trek with two sidekicks, John (Torro Margens) and Mat Solar (something tells me this is Mat Solar), plus his journalist girlfriend, Maya (Nena Rosier, of Faerie Queen Calon Asang and I Want to Get Even), but the professor would like to dissuade him from going at all. The natives are wary of strangers, their shaman’s magic is dangerously real, and the professor doesn’t like the way John keeps talking about the treasure they’re rumored to guard, which was presumably handed down from more socially and technologically advanced ancestors. Eventually, though, he grudgingly agrees to put Haidar and his friends in contact with an old colleague named Banyang (Lady Dragon’s Pitrajaya Burnama), who knows the area better than anyone, thanks to the ten years he’s spent there searching for his missing daughter. But under no circumstances will he allow the explorers to use his map, which would only encourage them to go treasure-hunting.
The professor is exactly right about John’s intentions, as it happens, but Haidar’s covetous friend is actually the least of anybody’s worries. John’s girlfriend is tight with another woman named Doris (probably The Snake Queen’s Enny Beatrice), and Doris is the brains behind a gang of thieves nominally led by a Westerner called Piet (your guess is as good as mine). When John tells his girlfriend about the loot he hopes to bring back from the jungle, she passes word along to Doris, and the next thing you know, Piet and his gang are over at the professor’s place, threatening him and his assistant, Larasati (Rita Zahara, from The Devil’s Sword and The Warrior with the Cane Sword), with all manner of violence if they don’t hand over that map. Fortunately, Haidar and the others are on the way to the professor’s flat, too, setting the stage for Jungle Virgin Force’s biggest and most ambitious action set-piece. It’s a shootout and a car chase and a coed kung fu brawl, and by the time it’s over, the cleanup bill is going to be astronomical. The professor and several of the bandits are killed in the fighting (or in the attendant Mad Max-style car crashes), but Larasati manages to hang onto the map when she and the intended members of Haidar’s expedition board their chartered airplane just moments ahead of the pursuing gangsters. You will note that this puts the map within easy reach of everyone heading into the jungle, which is exactly what the professor was trying to prevent. Also, “everyone” is going to include Doris, Piet, and their surviving underlings, because the mobsters bribe the pilot to repeat the trip as soon as he returns to the airport. For the moment, though, the relatively legitimate explorers have a decent head start on the criminals.
Now let’s return to this Banyang guy who’s supposed to be meeting Haidar’s party to act as their guide. You’ll recall that he owes his familiarity with the jungle to a decade-long search for a missing child. Evidently, Banyang and his family suffered a plane crash; his wife was killed, and there was no sign of his daughter when Banyang himself came to in the aftermath of the accident. We all know what that means, of course. Obviously, Banyang’s child grew up to be Jelita, and that necklace she wears is proof of the jungle girl’s origins among civilized people. So at least somebody will get some good out of it when explorers and bandits alike find themselves in the middle of the stone-age battle of the sexes now raging across the rainforest. What happens from here out is so busy and complicated that any attempt at further synopsis would just confuse the hell out of you.
I don’t know. I’m not convinced that I’ve adequately conveyed just how loopy Jungle Virgin Force is, and frankly, I question whether it’s even possible to do so. As one often sees in the most comprehensively weird films, it’s less a matter of the broad-stroke story than of the cumulative weight of peculiar detail. For example, you remember how I said the male witch doctor commands an elite guard of cannibal warriors? Well, what I didn’t mention was that each of those supposedly fearsome men (“supposedly” because they routinely get their asses kicked in hand-to-hand combat by girls two thirds their size) bears something their master calls “the Mark of Heroism”— which is to say a pair of horns rather like those of a water buffalo, their growth induced by the shaman’s magic. It makes the cannibals look like something out of an extremely cheap adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Or consider the bizarre soap opera that Doris engineers among the explorers after most of Piet’s gang gets wiped out by the cannibals. On a certain level, what she does makes a lot of sense. Doris still wants the treasure, but without the bandits, she’s going to need a new way of getting it; what better than to attach herself to the good guys, then sow jealousy and dissention in the hope of corrupting one or two of them? But sensibly motivated or not, it still means that Haidar and the rest pause in the middle of whatever they thought they were doing (and seriously— what was Haidar hoping to accomplish out in the jungle, anyway?!) to get all angstful with each other over who’s fucking (or thinking about fucking) whom. Even more perplexingly out of place is the romantic subplot involving the one male primitive to throw his lot in with the women after the fighting breaks out, which begins in familiar One Million B.C. territory, but then threatens to turn into a couples’ version of Samantha’s story in The Mighty Peking Man— and which is treated mostly as comic relief throughout, at that.
One really shouldn’t discount the disorienting effect of the main storyline, however. Jungle Virgin Force displays a truly remarkable willingness to pile on anything and everything that can be made to fit, irrespective of whether any two elements really belong together. It’s one thing for a single movie to touch every last one of the jungle adventure bases, from King Solomon’s Mines to Jungle Holocaust, with detours through Liane, Jungle Goddess and Quest for Fire along the way. It’s something else again, though, to throw in a heist mob, a sex-war of stone-age magic, and martial arts too! Perhaps inevitably, all those clashing ingredients leave Jungle Virgin Force almost totally devoid of conventional story structure, which in turn makes it a bit tiring to follow. On the upside, they also make it nearly impossible to predict. I’m reminded a bit in that sense of some Turkish genre films from the 70’s, like Tarkan vs. the Vikings and The Deathless Devil. Jungle Virgin Force is maybe not quite as scatterbrained as those, but it will surely keep you both awed and guessing.