AMAZONIA: THE CATHERINE MILES STORY [1985]

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Directed by:
Written by:
Starring: , , ,

AKA SCHIAVE BIANCHI – VIOLENZA IN AMAZZONIA, WHITE SLAVE- VIOLENCE IN THE AMAZON, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST 2

Italy

RUNNING TIME: 90 mins

AVAILABLE OB BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from 88 FILMS

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

In South America, Catherine Miles is on trail for the savage murder of Jose and Mary de Vega. The prosecution claims that the act was premeditated, but the defence is trying to prove that she was overcome by temporary insanity. She tells the court of how, on her 18th birthday, her parents were killed by tribespeople during a boat trip on the Amazon and how she was taken prisoner by the Guamira tribe who took her back to their village. Escape attempts were fruitless and top headhunter and warrior Umakai wanted her – but she saw him cut off the heads of her parents so hated his guts….

Well you have to admire the cheek of the filmmakers. The first text we see is:”The producers wish to thank the Criminal Court of Ciudad Rodaz for allowing them to consult the records of the trial depicted here”, after which a narrator informs us over shots of a woman in dark glasses with her back to the camera that “Catherine Miles revealed her jealously guarded secret to a British journalist and allowed him to write this motion picture”. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were taken in at the time and I’m going to admit that I was fooled when I rented this film out on video back in the ’80s, my belief that the double murder in the film actually happened and that the rest of the movie was a recreation of true events – or at least events as Catherine Miles related them – making things rather more compelling to me than they would otherwise have been. However, I doubt that many viewers today would believe what the film tries to tell us. In any case, while I never got it on DVD, several months ago when I was giving myself some retail therapy money in HMV, I recalled this title quite fondly as I noticed it on the shelf, so didn’t miss an opportunity to pick it up at a silly price. But does it still hold up even when being downright fraudulent?

I guess the answer is yes and no. Another film which I have little information about to impart to you because not much seems to be around, it came at a time when the Italian cannibal sub genre was beginning to wind down from its shocking peaks and attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox may have made money and partly because of their notoriety, but getting banned in some countries can’t have helped commercially in the long run, and the extensive cuts required for these and even the earlier films to be shown in some places can’t have been beneficial either. However, this wider audience that the producers of these films were seeking didn’t end up really existing in the end, and these tamer later films remain far less viewed than the earlier ones. This one suffers from not really knowing what it wants to be. At times it tries to be a genuinely anthropological exercise not far removed from a documentary, but every now and again there’s some exploitative gore or sleaze. This I guess places it closer to the Mondo Cane ‘shockumentary’ school where primitive rites were supposedly depicted but were usually actually staged by the filmmakers, so the viewer could feel both appalled at the savagery of these primitives and feel superior while also enjoying the sights that were being shown. But then Amazonia flits back and forth from depicting its tribespeople as noble savages who are closer to nature and who therefore represent a more pure life than the ones we lead, and nasty torturers and killers who have an assortment of things that they’ll do to people who break their rules.

So our heroine grew up on a plantation by the Amazon but went to the US and UK to study before returning for her 18th birthday to – well – it’s not clear where we’re supposed to be. Going by one shot of a very familiar waterfall you’d think that we were in Brazil, but this isn’t stated, and one actually wonders where on earth Ciudad Rodaz could be going by its bizarre name. Anyway, the boat trip starts along with some incredibly blatant foreshadowing. “Never give up on life, whatever the price. Live, Cathy. That’s the only thing that counts” says father to daughter and you just know that Catherine is going to hear these words inside her head later on during a moment of adversity. Mum and dad [who aren’t named] then discuss her aunt and her husband. “He could do without us easily”. “If we pulled out they’d take over”. Talk about giving the bloody game away! I would imagine that only the most inattentive viewer wouldn’t pick up on this, and yet I have the oddest feeling that screenwriter Franco Prosperi [not the Mondo Cane scripter of the same name] intended a flashback near the end to be a major revelation. Anyway, blow darts hit the parents, mother gorily getting one in the eye and one in the ear, but the one that hits Catherine just paralyses her, meaning that she’s unaware that Umukai sucks the poison out. She is aware though that he chopped her parents’ heads off, and has to continually look at them as she taken on a lengthy trek through the forest to the village of the Guamira. Interruption is provided by the Tamuri tribe who attack, leading to a very skimpy skirmish. The Tamuri are described as cannibals, but we don’t see actually any cannibalism at all in the film, even though it was one of two movies re-titled Cannibal Holocaust 2 in some countries.

At the village Catherine isn’t always treated badly, and Umukai really falls for her, but of course these feelings are not returned. But despite their differences, Catherine remains with the tribe so that she can survive, and becomes friends with Umukai’s sister who knows a bit of English. She feels really guilty when a guard who doesnt’ try to prevent her from trying to escape is strung up in a net and beaten with sticks. But then this tribe can often be cruel. A cheating wife is put into a boat without a paddle while the man is hung upside down and stung to death by “insects” [what, you want the film to be precise?], something economically shown by cuts to various stages of the deterioration of the face with some very effective makeup here. When girls reach the age of four [yes, four], they’re “artificially” deflowered, something we thankfully don’t see, though Catherine, a virgin, gets what’s probably the same treatment with a red dildo being inserted into her. She narrates: “Later, I understood that what these savages did to me was not considered to be an act of defilement and torture but rather a religious ceremony and a cause for celebration.” Right, okay then. But then women aren’t treated well here, being banished to live in trees during their menstrual cycle. Still, Catherine predictably begins to rather like her life in the jungle. And then she finds out a Big Secret – well, it’s a Big Secret to her. The confrontation between Catherine and the two murderers is quite a powerful scene, though the majority of the axe violence is just shown by spattering blood. There’s still much brutality in this film, with bullet hits, stabbings and a crocodile attack providing some bloody fun, but the shots tend to be quick [it only lost around half a minute’s worth of cuts on video here in the UK and most of those involved the decapitation of Catherine’s mother], and the film seems increasingly interested in the romantic element, finally concluding in a bittersweet, reflective fashion akin to Walkabout, though without that film’s incredible poignancy.

Of course we get lots of wildlife footage which doesn’t match the main action and which is awkwardly cut in, including a jaguar helping itself to a faun and a monkey, but thankfully no animal violence carried out or “encouraged” by the filmmakers – though a rubber snake hardly convinces. Nor does the rather daft court room stuff, with the arguments between defence and prosecution laughable and Catherine being asked strange questions like “Did you perform your sexual duties with Umukia”? The trial is sometimes heard over Catherine’s adventures while Catherine is constantly relating what’s happening on screen which hampers total involvement and is made more annoying by the emotionless voice acting of the person dubbing Elvire Audray into English. The Italian language track also available on the Blu-ray from 88 Films is a far better listen in general, even though I have no idea if we’re hearing Audray’s voice or not. The lovely French actress, who spends much of the film topless, later committed suicide aged 40, though the method seems to be a secret. Here, she gives a pretty decent performance all in all, reacting reasonably convincingly to her ordeals, though I’m sure that those watching the movie in English just won’t be able to get past that dreadful voice dubber! Unfortunately Will Gonzales as Umukai just doesn’t possess the screen presence required from quite a silent role. Mario Gariazzo, a director with a seemingly undistinguished filmography comprised mainly of lower level spaghetti westerns and sex comedies, does handle a major action scene where tribespeople are fleeing from a helicopter pretty well, which makes it a shame that there aren’t any other scenes like this in the film. The music score from Franco Campanino is just adequate. The oft-repeated main theme is clearly modeled on the one from Cannibal Holocaust and the incidental scoring is okay, but you probably won’t remember any of the music.

In the end Amazonia, obviously hampered by an even lower than usual budget, and the fact that it doesn’t really seem like it’s set in much  of a jungle as the Venezuela location looks pretty limited and it all seems rather too neat and tidy in the distance, is a curious hodgepodge that doesn’t really come off in all sorts of ways and seems conflicted about what it’s trying to say, except perhaps the familiar suggestion that these primitive natives might be bad but white folks are probably even worse. But I still kind of like it all in all – the plot could have been truly compelling with some rewriting, it deserves at least some credit for trying a few different things alongside the expected stuff, and there’s usually something interesting going on.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2748 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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