Playing as part of a Coolidge After Midnight program celebrating “Women in Horror Month”, director Karen Arthur’s The Mafu Cage (1978) features a young Carol Kane as a wild child who goes far beyond the typically-accepted bounds of adolescent rebellion, and Lee Grant as her more stifled older sister. Though getting more attention since its long-awaited home video release in 2010, the film remains a relatively unknown cinematic gem, and is still much too rarely seen—the Coolidge will exhibit the movie on 35mm, otherwise it’s only available through that now-out-of-print DVD, or via streaming rental on Youtube. Arthur’s film depicts the sisters living together in their childhood home, a sprawling estate in Southern California with plenty of outdoor space. Years after their father has passed away, the burden of caring for herself and for Cissy is getting to Ellen. It is not merely that Cissy does not work outside the house, nor that Ellen is the only one doing the cooking, but rather it’s mostly that Cissy’s violent tantrums and contrived behavior has lead to yet another pet’s death. This was not the first time, as a brief look towards the makeshift cemetery in their backyard proves, but Ellen wants to be sure it’s the last.
Ellen is an astronomer minding cutting-edge technology (she photographs solar flares), while Cissy can barely even take care of herself (she tends to her pets, with the aforementioned results). Her emotional development is comparably stunted—Cissy throws tantrums and manipulates Ellen into getting whatever she wants, at any cost. The locations and production design surrounding each sister accentuate these contrasts. Ellen is surrounded by concrete walls and steel appliances while conducting her research; her blunt bangs and tailored clothes also suggest a stiff persona. Meanwhile Cissy wears loose, flowing clothes (when she wears clothes at all), and is often surrounded by lush greens in the garden or in her solarium. And to complement this vaguely feral performance, Kane’s hair has been fashioned into a uninhibited mane.
The Mafu Cage premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 and was distributed across much of Europe in the ensuing years. However the film didn’t gain such traction in the U.S., where it was briefly, and unsuccessfully, rebranded as an exploitation film under the new title Don’t Ring the Doorbell (this is not a film many will remember from video stores, nor from late night creature features). So much of what is now considered to be “cult horror” came from the video era of the 1980s and 1990s, so it’s surprising that The Mafu Cage missed all of that attention then, to instead reemerge for “rediscovery” decades later. Speaking of which, The Mafu Cage more than justifies its place in the Coolidge’s “Women in Horror” program: the film is directed by a woman, features a strong (though highly unusual) female relationship at its core, and perhaps most superlatively, a female villain. Sure, it can be argued that the civilization (and lack thereof) is the real “monster” of this film, but that would be denying the nuggets of dysfunction within Cissy that bring about the film’s very worst depictions of destruction.
This is not to suggest that horror films have never depicted female villains before this. Though examples are sparse throughout history, horror film, being the stage where social norms are so often questioned, was long before established as being a good space to explore womanhood in a time of rampant sexism. The genre takes on social constructs (race, gender, class, and nationality) and uses them to expose our cultural fears. At its core, part of the pleasure of watching horror is being exposed to the taboos in society (and then to kill them, sometimes literally). For instance The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) had women as the “bad guys”—but these examples are taken from a period where the terror in horror film often emanated from the concept of scientific experiments, or from the red scare and the Cold War. Still at this point there seemed to be hesitation towards revealing a woman to be the truly evil force within a film. Reagan in The Exorcist (1973) could be inhabited by a demon—but she and her mother remain pure and good. As we entered the 1970s and 1980s, and the height of slasher cinema, women were once again whisked back into the corral of victim, and into the ostensibly virtuous role which film theorist Carol J. Clover once termed “the final girl.”
This rise of this “final girl” in horror films, and particular in slasher films, was very much a product of its own time as well. These figures were a new breed of “survivors” not waiting for men to come and save them from their demons. These women stood strong and fought back—but were are also subjected to deeply gendered violence by an almost exclusively male catalog of villains. Women took an active role in these films, but had yet to be established as true equals; that is to say, they had yet to reach the point where they’re just as capable of evil and mayhem as men.
But in the same year that saw Laurie Strode fighting Michael Meyers throughout Halloween (1978) (which arguably officially solidified the slasher film as a subgenre of horror), we also received The Mafu Cage. In Arthur’s film the lines between victim and villain are blurred: The Bride of Frankenstein had no choice in her resurrection, but each of the sisters here play an active part in the creation of Cissy as a violent and uncivilized woman, in the creation of their own cinematic terror. This cinematic grey area is unsettling to some, as it’s not so easy to root for punishment against the deserving target when the boundaries determining that target are not so clear. This emotional ambiguity makes for a captivating but challenging experience in the theater. No matter who wins, there is no due celebration, and no “final” triumph. It is definitely horrifying. It is decidedly female. But, unlike so many of its contemporaries, it leaves unclear who or what is wholly to blame for its terror. But regardless of which side one falls on, The Mafu Cage is a violent wonder to behold.
THE MAFU CAGE. FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15. 11:59PM. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, 290 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. 35MM. RATED R. $13.25.