Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-03-23 02:38

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977)
Studio: 88 Films
Release date: January 11th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Of all the film series (and characters), the Emmanuelle saga is certainly among the most incredible. To grasp just how incredible it is, consider Black Emanuelle, the unofficial Italian “spin-off” that was inexplicably allowed to thrive simply because the producers literally spelled the name differently, thus somehow skirting any legal ramifications. (If you’re at all familiar with the Italian film industry during this time, you might be surprised that they even put forth the miniscule effort to remove an “m” from the spelling.) And, so, under the guidance of Bitto Albertini, Joe D’Amato, and Bruno Mattei, Laura Gemser’s Emanuelle became something of an icon, sort of a female James Bond in that she functioned less as a character and more of a plug-and-play device.

Like her 007 counterpart, Emanuelle—under the pretense of being a world-famous journalist—could be thrust into any given trend. If you needed her to go to Africa and investigate the white slave trade, she could do that. If you wanted to see how she’d fare in a women-in-prison flick, she could do that. And, when then the cannibal genre exploded in the mid-70s, it’s no wonder that Emanuelle headed straight to an Amazon jungle to encounter the Last Cannibals. (And have sex. Lots and lots of sex—again, not unlike James Bond.)

In the spirit of Bond, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals opens in media res, with the titular heroine in the midst of a mission. On assignment in the concrete jungle of New York, Emanuelle investigates a mental asylum’s treatment of its patients and stumbles upon the curious case of an institutionalized woman with cannibalistic tendencies (read: she bites the breast right off of one of the nurses three minutes into the movie). After practically sexually assaulting the woman while she’s sedated and confined, Emanuelle learns she was recently rescued from the Amazon, where she acquired her appetite for flesh (naturally, an odd marking just above the pubic region provides a clue). Intrigued, Emanuelle lobbies her editor to ship her off to the Amazon with an anthropology professor (Gabriele Tinti) whose experience and contacts in the region will help her to investigate a supposedly extinct tribe of ghoulish flesh-eaters.

Anyone familiar with most ordinary cannibal movies already figures most of these accomplices—which include a local nun, a missionary’s daughter, and a husband/wife big-game hunter duo—are nothing more than grist for the cannibal mill. In this case, however, they also function to bare more flesh for the erotica quota, which is filled swiftly and thoroughly. Obviously, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals functions as softcore titillation first and foremost, full of inelegantly staged trysts that occasionally amuse thanks to one eccentric decision or the other (like Emanuelle’s quickie goodbye fuck with a colleague in broad daylight on the shores of the Hudson, or a bemused, cigarette-smoking monkey looking on as our heroine explores some latent lesbian vibes with the missionary’s daughter). Last Cannibals is steamy, lurid trash looking for any excuse to have characters either bang or masturbate—even when they’re well aware of the bloodthirsty cannibal tribe lurking nearby.

Unsurprisingly, logic is in short supply, not that it should be any other way with a movie that transplants a softcore porn icon to a cannibal jungle. You watch the first hour (give or take a few minutes) of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals the same way you watch any of these things: with a tacit understanding that it mostly exists to arouse and amuse by any means necessary. Acknowledging its shortcomings—its jumpy editing, ragged camerawork, thin narrative, and half-convincing performances—almost feels perfunctory. Of course these flaws are sometimes very evident, but they result in that singular, insouciant vibe typical of such productions. Like a student frantically rushing through a last-minute paper, hitting the high points it knows the teacher wants to hear, D’Amato highlights everything required of a softcore-cum-cannibal movie.

This is especially true of the last half of the equation, as sleaze merchant D’Amato seems to be particularly invested in evoking the genre’s patented rugged, guerilla aesthetic. In this context, the slipshod filmmaking becomes a boon that captures the trace amounts of cinema verite needed for an effective cannibal movie. It’s an almost ironic twist: for an hour, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is so removed from reality that it might as well be Emanuelle in Space, yet it eventually collides into some horrifically grim territory, complete with grisly gore and a positively ghastly treatment of women, most of whom are bound, gagged, and/or raped by the end of the film (naturally, the very white, virginal blonde’s ordeal is treated as the most ghastly). There’s a notable whiplash to these proceedings, but it’s appropriately disorienting. One minute, you’re chuckling at a character triumphantly overcoming his impotence; the next, you’re watching a horde of cannibals pull a character’s guts through her ruptured vagina.

The sharp contrast effectively deepens the gruesome depths of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, a film that graduates from titillation to provocation, with a healthy dose of gross-out gags for good measure. Its first half almost feels like a disarming tactic that sets its audience up before shoving them into a pit full of authentic wildlife (let’s just say Emanuelle handles trouser snakes better than actual snakes) and broadly-depicted, “savage” native boogeymen. While it doesn’t disturb to the core like Cannibal Holocaust, it briefly anticipates Deodato’s deranged fits of madness, which is truly a feat considering just how ridiculous most of the film is.

Ultimately, the sharp tonal contrast feels like D’Amato’s most prominent middle finger: this is pure, unabashed exploitation that actively courts your outrage and disgust. It’s a movie that can only be described as wonderfully problematic—what was scandalous back then is fucking mortifying forty years later. Your conscience implores you to recoil from it, but the lizard part of your brain can’t help but admire—or at least begrudgingly respect—just how unhinged this movie is. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is pure, no-fucks-given filmmaking that would rather coax a pile of vomit before a thumbs-up verdict.

Searching for some actual meaning amongst the carnage may feel ludicrous, but you can’t ignore the alluring presence of Emanuelle herself, nor can you help but be fascinated by the film’s treatment of her. Presented as a 70s pop-feminist figure, she actively seeks out dangerous situations and willfully engages in numerous sexual relationships without condemnation, truly molding her as a female Bond analogue. The only disappointment here is that she tends to passively recede into the background once the horror elements take over, much as she does in Women’s Prison Massacre.

However, unlike that film, Last Cannibals rebounds nicely with an interesting climax that literally has Emanuelle allowing her companions to use her body as a means of escape. “Take advantage of my resemblance to them,” she says before emerging from a river taking the guise of a goddess. No other moment in the film so succinctly captures the unexpectedly transcendent power of this particular brand of smut: here, you have Gemser (in all her nude glory) willfully giving her body over for the benefit of others, allowing them to exploit it for this particular purpose--just as she would for audiences for years to come.

The disc:

For the past few years, both Scream Factory and Arrow Video have (rightfully) been hailed for their commitment to cult cinema; in fact, at this point, their releases are so prolific that I feel like they’re basically co-sponsoring this site. However, fans would be wise not to overlook the contributions of 88 Films, a UK outfit who has quietly upgraded some wonderful trash to Blu-ray via their Italian Collection. Number 13 in an already deep roster that includes the likes of Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is a welcome release for anyone who (like me) missed out on Shriek Show’s now out-of-print DVD release. Even though the film’s transfer isn’t the sharpest or vibrant I’ve ever witnessed, it’s a perfectly serviceable presentation that allows viewers to choose between both English and Italian soundtracks.

Of course, the caveat is that watching it requires region-free capabilities, as 88’s offerings are locked in this respect. Having recently taken this plunge, I can vouch that it’s incredibly freeing: while you may find yourself paying a bit of a premium price for some imports, there’s a priceless sense of relief in knowing that some titles are more readily available than they would be otherwise. Having been a collector for over fifteen years now, I can’t believe it took me so long to see the light—though I can’t help but feel some satisfaction that Emanuelle helped to escort me over this particular threshold. You always remember your first time, after all.
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