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Horror Becomes Her - The Mafu Cage (1978)

Horror and films directed by women are both big blind spots for me, so I am taking this deep dive into some of the more outre films I have come across in my movie watching.


Even though The Mafu Cage was based on a play, it feels like an intensely personal work. Director Karen Arthur impressively scraped together one million to film what is essentially one (albeit fascinating) location, an old mansion below the Griffith Observatory, which we see in the background of one shot. Lee Grant and Carol Kane play sisters Ellen and Cissy. Ellen has been tasked by her deceased father to look after Cissy, who has some sort of mental condition. Cissy confines herself to the mansion, which clearly no one has inhabited except them, and her main source of entertainment is taking care of her “mafus” or apes, which are also victims of her unpredictable violent outbursts.

If that plot sounds strange, it does little to describe just how disorienting this whole movie is. Arthur presents this film almost as if it were filmed by Chantal Akerman, even if it doesn’t necessarily use her static shooting style. Dialogue is presented as almost incidental and that we are to focus more on just these two women interacting with each other. We are immediately immersed in a world that is so foreign, even though it is literally just two eccentric women and one woman’s very strange avocation, that we almost don’t realize that this is not normal or acceptable behavior. Not even the occasional outsiders that sometimes drop into the household such as their uncle Zom (Will Geer) and Ellen’s lover David (James Olson) do little to alleviate the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia and hothouse passion that permeates this entire picture. It is heavily hinted at that the two sisters indulge in an incestuous relationship, which is just a sign that the natural order of things has been turned on its head. The film reminds me of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in that the whole mood of the film is dictated by its location and the kind of uncomfortable, intimate relationship that growing up as family always brings with it.

The horror elements are reserved for the end of the film when Cissie entraps David guessed it… the mafu cage. One can read a lot of insight into a woman imprisoning a man and how she treats him just like an animal, another one of her long line of mafus. I think this is actually when the movie is weakest and risks getting heavy-handed. There is also an unfortunate incident of blackface and fake tribalism that really wouldn’t sit well with a modern audience. Yet the spell of this movie is entrancing, and it is singular that I can see why this has become a cult classic, even if I can’t personally call it a masterpiece.

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