Wonder Women (1973) Wonder Women / The Deadly and the Beautiful (1973) -**˝

     We were just talking, weren’t we, about American exploitationeers pumping money into the Philippines in order to make cheap crap to show at the drive-in? Well, here’s an illustration of how little a fish you could be and still have a chance to swim in that pond. I feel confident in predicting that most of you have never heard of American National Enterprises or the General Film Corporation, because I’d never heard of them, either, until their names popped up in Wonder Women’s opening credits. Truth be told, the former company had a pretty extensive catalogue, albeit more as a distributor than as a production firm. The latter, however, made just four films, and half of them were feature-length expansions of years-old Latin American horror shorts. Wonder Women was easily General Film’s most ambitious undertaking— and it was ambitious in its way. Although it was shot on short ends (unexposed film scraps trimmed from the ends of used reels, and resold to meet the needs of people who couldn’t afford fresh reels of their own) and cast almost entirely with people who were cooling their heels in Manila in between projects for New World or American International Pictures, it packed in loads of action, plenty of well-chosen shooting locations, a fair amount of sheer strangeness, and a much bigger story than might seem possible given the paucity of resources that went into it.

     Roving packs of gorgeous but deadly women are kidnapping young, handsome, and physically exceptional men all over the place. The victims are waylaid on the streets, ambushed in the workplace, and sometimes even abducted right from their own homes. They’re shot with tranq darts and spirited away in the most convoluted manner, often involving whole fleets of decoy getaway cars. But wherever and however the men are captured, they all end up in the same place: the fortified, hidden lair of the mad medical genius Dr. Tsu (Night Creature’s Nancy Kwan). Once there, the abductees’ superior bodies are disassembled and the parts sold off to wealthy wastrels who don’t care to pay the normal physical cost of a debauched lifestyle.

     Meanwhile, ex-cop turned private eye Mike Harber (Ross Hagen, from Dinosaur Island and Star Slammer) receives a visit from a Lloyd’s of London agent named Lorenzo (Tony Lorea, of The Glove and The Hellcats). Evidently the world’s greatest jai alai player (Kiss the Vampire’s Ross Rival) has gone missing, and Lloyd’s would really like to avoid paying out on his $500,000 life insurance policy. Lorenzo wants Harber to find the jai alai champ, and prove that he isn’t dead. Harber drives a hard bargain, but he does accept the commission in the end.

     And in fact the missing athlete is still alive— for the moment, anyway. Inevitably, he’s fallen afoul of Dr. Tsu, and the evil surgeon has something special in mind for him. Dr. Tsu’s business manager, Gregorius (Sid Haig, from Blood Bath and The Big Doll House), has brought her a most demanding new client. Paulson is his name (also Tony Lorea, well if unconvincingly disguised by his own weight in rubbery old-age makeup), and he’s such a decrepit mess that you wouldn’t think there was much Tsu could do for him, no matter how sophisticated her transplantation techniques are. Well, unless she knows how to transplant brains, I suppose. And indeed that’s just what Dr. Tsu proposes to do with Paulson, transferring his brain to the intact body of one of her captured he-men. Her expertise doesn’t come cheap, mind you, and neither, for that matter, do the bodies of world-class athletes. If Paulson wants his brain installed in a new, high-performance chassis, it’ll cost him 50% of everything he owns. The old man figures that sounds fair enough, and turns himself over to the doctor’s care.

     Shortly after arriving in Manila (the last place where the man he’s supposed to find was seen), Harber makes a friend who will stand him in good stead throughout his increasingly hazardous investigation. His name is Lapu-Lapu (Vic Diaz, from Daughters of Satan and Savage Sisters), he drives one of those festive jeep-bus-taxi things you always see in Filipino movies of this vintage, and he sees everything. Lapu-Lapu puts Harber in touch with a drug pusher who poses as a blind beggar (Phred Kaufman), who tells him in turn that the person he really needs to see is a Chinese gang lord called Won Ton Charlie (Joonee Gamboa, of TNT Jackson and Enter the Ninja). Charlie, alas, is less than helpful on the face of things, but the mere presence of the goons he sets on Harber’s heels immediately after their meeting is as good as an admission that the detective is on the right track.

     Won Ton Charlie places a call to Dr. Tsu as soon as he’s able, both to warn the doctor that she has trouble headed her way and to apologize for being unable to forestall that trouble himself. He assures her he’ll keep trying, though. For instance, when Lapu-Lapu turns up another lead— this one an elderly fisherman (Bruno Punzalan, from Blood Thirst and Black Mama, White Mama) who recently hauled in an extraordinary catch of human remains— one of Charlie’s agents assassinates the would-be informant lickity split. The assassin doesn’t get the old man quite fast enough, though, to stop him from telling Harber where he fished up those bones. Of course, we already know that Dr. Tsu has agents of her own, and one of them (Maria De Aragon, of Blood Mania and The Cremators) is waiting for Mike in the bar at his hotel when he returns from the day’s labors. Linda (to give the red-haired hitwoman her proper name) is playing the seduce-and-destroy game, and Harber falls for it like a hormone-addled teenager. Luckily for him, his superior strength, willingness to fight dirty, and sheer capacity to take a kicking narrowly outweigh her marital arts mastery. Linda withdraws to set up a rematch on more advantageous ground.

     That ground turns out to be the wooded shores of the island where Dr. Tsu makes her home, to which the fisherman’s tip leads Harber in short order. Linda isn’t alone this time, either. Outnumbered, outgunned, and totally surrounded, Mike sees little choice but to submit to capture. And this, my friends, is when Wonder Women loses its damn mind. Dr. Tsu gets her Bond villain on when Linda hands Harber over to her, giving him the grand tour of her entire operation. Truly it’s one of the era’s maddest mad labs. Tsu’s surgical theater itself is worthy of the infamous third-season “Star Trek” episode, “Spock’s Brain,” although I unironically love the clear vinyl scrubs everybody wears over their color-coded minidress uniforms in there. The latest product of the doctor’s research is an electro-telepathic Brain Sex machine straight out of Barbarella, which she uses to incapacitate Harber with full-body orgasms when she leaves him to attend to other business. Then in the lowest sub-basement of her headquarters, Tsu has a dungeon wherein the products of her earliest transplant experiments languish in cruel confinement; it’s like a gothic enlargement of Dr. Cortner’s laboratory closet in The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. And of course the whole place is patrolled by an army of submachine gun-toting, spazz-fu-fighting Filipinas, presided over by the multi-ethnic hit squad of special operations agents we saw in the opening abduction montage. Harber is plainly way out of his league here, and he’d be totally fucked were it not for one thing. Dr. Tsu, you see, is extremely unforgiving of setbacks and complications. When she told Linda to go get Mike, she didn’t mean to get him on the damn island! When the boss-lady orders Linda to report to the lab to have her limbs and organs harvested for the benefit of people who are actually good at their jobs, there’s just no way that command is getting obeyed. Linda figures she might as well throw in with Harber at that point, and a second special ops gal named Vera (Claire Hagen, from Angels’ Wild Women and Bikini Drive-In) joins the rebellion for no reason that I can see, except that the actress playing her was married to Ross Hagen in real life.

     Wonder Women was not at all the movie I was expecting. The trailer that inspired me to watch it gives every indication that the Wonder Women themselves are the protagonists, if perhaps not strictly the heroines. It also suggests that Roberta Collins (Women in Cages, The Witch Who Came from the Sea) and Shirley Washington (Dead End Dolls, Darktown Strutters) have considerably larger roles than is actually the case. And whoever cut that trailer did a masterful job of disguising how abjectly Wonder Women fails as an action picture. All in all, I was disappointed to find myself watching not a gonzo grindhouse “Charlie’s Angels,” but rather a gender-flipped and even cheaper version of a Harry Alan Towers Fu Manchu film. And yet that very disappointment brought with it an unexpected source of appeal, because Wonder Women isn’t the only iteration of “Fu Manchu, but with girls and no money” out there. The other movie that this one resembles most closely is, of all things, Jesus Franco’s The Girl from Rio. It’s a similar crazy quilt of scavenged ideas that add up simultaneously to both more and less than the sum of their parts. Dreamy, disjointed, and oddly melancholy at the last, Wonder Women recalls further the tentative experiments in psychedelic strangeness that Franco was beginning to make in the last few years of the 60’s, although it’s conspicuously less extreme in all respects than his work from circa 1973. Franco’s take on the premise was sexier, too, although Wonder Women is plenty libidinous by Filipino-American standards. Most of all, Wonder Women conveys a strong sense that director Robert Vincent O’Neill’s sympathies lie more with its Dionysian female villains than with the not-very-interesting men who are nominally the good guys. Very rarely does one get to exclaim, “My God… This is practically a Jesus Franco movie!” and for me, that novelty was enough to counterbalance the nonexistent fight choreography, the endless and lethargic chase sequences, and the frustrating paucity of screentime for several of my favorite early-70’s exploitation performers.

 

 

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