Macumba Sexual (1981) -**½
Pornography is a genre of fantasy. I know that sounds weird, but really think about it for a minute. How much resemblance does any porn film, hardcore or soft, bear to the lived experience of ordinary people? The stuff that goes on in porn might not be technically impossible, like a story about elves, dragons, and magic swords, but neither can it be called realistic in any credible sense of the word. The logic of pornography is completely its own, having as little to do with the logic of daily life as that of a fairy tale, with the result that most porno movies situate themselves, whether advertently or not, as surrogates for daydreams— or indeed, for actual dreams. Jesus Franco’s smut tends toward the latter position, especially his output from the 70’s and early 80’s. Sometimes, however, Franco takes it a step further, and gives us a movie that plays not like a sex dream on film, but like a sex nightmare. Macumba Sexual might be the most striking example of this tendency, for it is literally about a woman haunted by erotic nightmares, and ultimately driven to madness by them.
That woman is Alice Brooks (Lina Romay, from Rites of Frankenstein and Revenge in the House of Usher, appearing here as her blonde “Candy Coster” alter ego), an international real estate agent. She and her husband (Antonio Mayans, of Cannibal Terror and Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle) are on vacation in the Canary Islands, although it’s a working holiday for him, as he’s just begun writing his latest novel. As for Alice’s dreams, they concern a remote beach where she encounters a beautiful yet sinister black woman (Ajita Wilson, from Truck Stop and Hotel Paradise) leading a bestial couple (Jose Ferro, from Intimate Confessions of an Exhibitionist and The Night of Sincere Sex, and Lorna Green, of Pick-Up Girls and Country Nurse) on a pair of leashes. The woman turns her companions loose to rape Alice, but then the scene changes suddenly. Now Alice is deep in an expanse of sand dunes, with the black woman lying dead at her feet. But what disturbs Alice most is the creature perched on the dead woman’s crotch, which seems somehow to be simultaneously a fish, a baby dragon, and a plucked chicken. Alice has this nightmare nearly every time she goes to sleep, and since she came to the Canaries, it has begun to invade her waking life as well. Sometimes those intrusions are as pleasurable as they are frightening, like when she has sex with her husband, and begins hallucinating her dream-woman writhing beneath her instead. But mostly they’re just terrifying, especially when she seems to glimpse the grotesque little chimera from the dunes skulking about her hotel room.
Then one morning, Alice gets a phone call from her boss. Yes, yes, he knows— she’s on vacation. But on the smallest and least frequented of the Canary Islands, there lives an African princess named Tara Obongo, and her representatives have just contacted the agency about buying one of its American properties. Now the boss could have somebody else fly out to meet with Princess Obongo, but Alice is already right there, and she wouldn’t believe the commission she stands to make on this deal. Alice agrees to take on the assignment, and her boss books her a room at the only hotel on Princess Obongo’s island.
That hotel is run by a guy named Meme, who is… Well, he’s played by Jesus Franco, and you know what that usually means. Meme isn’t a mute at least, but that’s about all you can say in his favor as compared to other Franco-enacted bit characters. He refuses to believe Alice at first when she explains about the reservations she supposedly has, and he makes no effort whatsoever to disguise how he ogles her every time they come into contact throughout the course of her stay. Also, Meme contends that Princess Obongo died untold years ago, and that Alice’s mission for the real estate firm is therefore impossible even if she does have a booking at his hotel. Nevertheless, a camel caravan comes to collect her the following morning, and to convey her to the princess’s villa.
Inevitably, Tara Obongo is the woman Alice keeps dreaming about, and the grounds of her estate are familiar as the setting for the recurring nightmares. The bestial couple are there, too, introduced by Tara as her slaves, Tulipan and Amapola. (A most incongruous pair of names for such creatures, incidentally; they translate to “Tulip” and “Poppy.”) And the princess quickly disavows any interest in American real estate, although she will buy the place her agent was asking about if it comes to that. It isn’t a house Tara wants, but Alice, and the call to her boss was just a pretext upon which to arrange their meeting— one which the princess claims is a matter of destiny. An enormous amount of sex ensues, involving not just Alice and the princess, but the two brutish slaves as well. The idyll comes to exactly the end foretold in Alice’s dreams, however, with Tara inexplicably dead and the dragon-fish-chicken thing standing watch over her corpse. Only the timely arrival of Meme saves Alice from descending on the spot into lunacy.
Upon returning to the resort, Alice finds that her strange adventure with the princess has cured her of her nightmares, but now her husband is fixated upon Tara Obongo. Early one morning, while his wife is still asleep, he sneaks out of their room, catches the boat to the other island, and hops the next camel caravan to the princess’s villa. There he finds Tara alive, well, and hornier than ever, but that’s where the similarities between his experience and Alice’s end. When Princess Obongo has had all the fun she wants from the man, she imprisons him in a driftwood cage overlooking her beach. Alice learns of her husband’s captivity in a dream, and hurries to the villa in the hope of getting him released. What she gets from Tara is not clemency, however, but an explanation of the mysterious bond between them. True to Meme’s word, Tara is long dead, and she is ready at last to depart permanently for the spirit world. But before she can do that, she must arrange for someone to take over for her as the goddess of sin and perversity. Alice is to become the new Princess Obongo, the handover sealed with a sex-magic rite powered by her husband’s life force. That’s when Alice wakes up, safe and sound in her hotel room with her husband in bed beside her. It’s the day after the phone call from the agency, and her meeting with the princess is still many hours in the future. What a relief, right? Except that somehow, Alice has become convinced that this new and more detailed dream is really a prophecy of what awaits her on the other island. And even worse, that dragon-fish-chicken thing is back, and has apparently come to stay.
In case you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure the critter that keeps popping up to torment Alice is a Jenny Hanniver made out of a skate. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, either, if it turned out that finding the thing in a Barcelona junk shop was what inspired Franco to make this movie in the first place. It’s certainly easy enough to see why it would appeal to him as a thematically central prop at this phase of his career. I mean, what better to represent the spirit of monstrous sex than a tiny dragon with a giant phallus, sculpted out of a dead fish? Well, I suppose something that wasn’t totally inanimate and even goofier than it was icky might have been better, but that would also have cost money. Macumba Sexual isn’t as ludicrously cheap as Franco’s movies would become later (he was able to fly and/or sail the whole cast and crew out to the Canaries, after all), but a proper monster puppet inspired by the skate-dragon would still clearly have been out of the question.
The previous Franco production that Macumba Sexual reminds me of most is A Virgin Among the Living Dead (although I’ve read that it also bears a close resemblance to Vampyros Lesbos, which I have yet to see). Both stories concern young women who fall into sexually perverse supernatural netherworlds when they obey what sounds like a harmless— indeed, perhaps even advantageous— summons to a secluded castle. Both protagonists are warned ahead of time that the place where they’re going does not exist, and that the people they’re supposed to meet have been dead since who knows when. Both films torment their heroines with sinister objects that keep popping up inexplicably (the ebony phallus in A Virgin Among the Living Dead and the Jenny Hanniver in Macumba Sexual). Both pictures are just barely held together by the most tenuous imaginable dream logic. And in neither case is it possible to be entirely sure whether you’re watching a porno movie or a horror film, although each leans a little further in one direction than the other. Macumba Sexual is markedly less effective than its younger sibling, however, simply because it keeps sabotaging itself. To begin with, it’s shockingly un-sexy despite being as obsessively focused on sexuality as any Franco movie I’ve seen. Lina Romay’s blonde wig looks terrible on her, and the clothes she wears for approximately 25% of her screen time emphasize all the wrong things about her body, making her appear dumpy and dowdy. (Also, the Ultimate Wedgie look is nobody’s friend.) Franco’s addiction to zooms and drastic close-ups reveals all the surgical modifications necessary to transform Ajita Wilson into a woman, which is just about the last place I want my mind to be going during a sex scene— although I confess that Dr. Science appreciated the opportunity to study the state of the art in gender-reassignment surgery circa whenever Wilson had her work done. And I’d like to think that if I were an undead absolute monarch, I could secure a better class of sex slave than Tulipan and Amapola. Lorna Green isn’t so bad, really, but Jose Ferro would have been high on the list of men I never want to see naked had Franco not preempted his inclusion by introducing him with his junk already flapping in the breeze.
One might argue, however, that part and parcel of an erotic nightmare is that it would make sex seem un-sexy. Unfortunately, Macumba Sexual is never properly scary, either, nor does it ever achieve the elegiac melancholy that so often lifted Franco’s horror-porn hybrids up above their shortcomings. It took me quite by surprise, too, when I figured out what was really spoiling the mood. It’s the goddamned music. The “voodoo drums and wailing” cue that serves as Princess Obongo’s personal theme (which may actually be just a remix of something from the Devil Hunter score) is only mildly annoying, which is as good as it ever gets with this soundtrack. Most of the score consists of directionless synthesizer noodling, as if composer Pablo Villa had simply recorded his cat walking back and forth across the keyboard. It’s irritating as fuck, and it sucks absolutely all the energy out of the film. My God, it even manages to make Lina Romay screwing three people at the same time seem boring. I never thought I’d long so for the maudlin Eurosmut stylings of Daniel White! By the time Villa is through, about the one bit of undiluted enjoyment left to be extracted from Macumba Sexual for any but the most ardent Franco-phile comes when you realize that it isn’t just A Virgin Among the Living Dead or (reportedly) Vampyros Lesbos that this movie strongly resembles. Look at it very closely, and you’ll see that it’s Franco’s presumably unwitting remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate, too.