Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed (TIFF)

PLOT: A fast-moving documentary exploring the world of Filipino exploitation cinema, which spawned such “classics” as THE BIG BIRD HOUSE, WHITE MAMA BLACK MAMA, T N’T JACKSON, SAVAGE, and FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY.

REVIEW: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED is director Mark Hartley’s follow-up to his brilliant look at Aussie-exploitation cinema NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. Anyone who’s seen that amazingly fun doc will know what to expect with MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED and for me- this thing was catnip.

First a little background. In the seventies, under the rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and his Hollywood obsessed First Lady, Imelda, low-budget producers like Roger Corman were encouraged to shoot their low-budget films in the exotic landscape. Not only would they have access to the military, and unlimited personnel, the films could also be given an epic look for next to nothing in cost.

Truly, if ever exploitation was appropriate for a type of film, the Filipino films were exploitation in their truest form. There are loads of stories in here about the producers being too cheap to protect the various stuntmen (who weren’t trained). If one was supposed to catch fire- they’d actually set him on fire! His only instructions: jump into the river if you get too hot. While this probably makes a lot of the people involved with the making of these films despicable, holy shit is it fun to hear about.

Hartley’s actually pulled together a really interesting group of experts here, with folks involved in the making of these films like Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, and others. However, all the best stuff comes from John Landis, who never took part in the filming of any of these films, but is only speaking as a film fan. Basically, he does for MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED what Quentin Tarantino did for NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD.

Highlights from the film include a lengthy, knowing examination of the “women in prison” genre, with lots of input from its biggest stars, like Pam Grier and Gloria Hendry. We also get a hilarious look at the biggest (pun) star to ever emerge from the Philippines. This mega-star was the pint-sized Weng Weng, a Filipino little person, who starred in a series of spy pics where he played a tiny secret agent dubbed Agent 003 ½ . His gems include FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY, and THE CUTE, THE SEXY & THE TINY. Oy.

We also get a brief look at the biggest film ever to emerge from this landscape, which was Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW. After hearing how Corman and the gang were able to shoot so cheaply, he decided to makes his NAM epic in the Phillipines, which turned out to be a fatal mistake, as Marcos’ cronies extorted every penny they could get out of the production. Sadly, Coppola is not on hand here, and we have to settle for R. Lee Emery and production designer Dean Tavoularis, although the story has been covered elsewhere.

So if you enjoyed NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (I can’t imagine anyone not), you should keep an eye out for MACHETE MAIDENS unleashed, which is a fun filled romp. Frankly, I hope Hartley keeps right on making these exploitation docs. I’d love to see him take on the Bruce Lee-alikes from Hong Kong, the Shaw Bros, or (fingers crossed) Cannon Pictures. One can only hope.

Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed (TIFF)




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.