When you’re devoted to an art form as old and expansive as cinema, it’s always exciting to discover you still have much to learn; and there are few things true cinephiles love more than movies about movies, especially ones they haven’t seen. In particular, Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood was a real eye-opener for most genre fans - a rousing celebration of Australian exploitation cinema that introduced dozens of obscure films, filmmakers and even genres.
But as engaging as it frequently is, Hartley’s follow-up, Machete Maidens Unleashed, doesn’t quite live up to the accomplishment its predecessor: a portrait of the Filipino film industry and the filmmakers who lived and died by it, the native Australian’s latest offers only a tourist’s-eye view of its subject matter, crafting a unique, interesting documentary that fails to feel truly immersive.
Hartley thankfully has no shortage of resources, so the film is as stuffed with high-profile, hard-to-get interviewees as Not Quite Hollywood: Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Pam Grier, and John Landis are just a few of the folks who discuss their experiences shooting films in the Philippines. But while there are discussions of and including several prominent Filipino filmmakers, the vast majority of the anecdotes and insights come from Americans or westerners, who freely talk about the opportunities they were given by Marcos’ government to do whatever they wanted before taking their films home for domestic distribution. And while business models like Corman’s indefatigable sausage-factory filmmaking are fascinating enough to warrant their own documentaries, the discussion of the films themselves generally amounts to tongue-in-cheek celebration, albeit perhaps due fairly to a genuine dearth of real classics.
Quite frankly, I feel like my own mild disappointment comes from the fact that I knew a lot more of the films than I expected to; I’m certainly no expert when it comes to many of the genres documented in the film, but with a few exceptions, the titles chosen or covered were either generally available or completely familiar. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing, and that’s not to say that casual viewers won’t be introduced to the majority of the dirt-cheap, exploitation productions on display, but I didn’t quite feel the same sense of discovery – of true shock – that I experienced while watching Not Quite Hollywood. It’s simply that my Netflix queue hasn’t significantly grown, certainly not by many heretofore-unknown titles, after watching this film, whereas it is still overstuffed with unseen, oddball delicacies I first encountered via its predecessor.
That said, begrudging the understated accomplishment of this film feels like I’m faulting it for not changing my life, cinematically speaking; and it is in fact a terrifically-produced, consistently-engaging, informative an entertaining crowd-pleaser. But the unfortunate byproduct of setting such a high standard with one of their movies is that audiences expect a filmmaker to maintain it on all of the rest, and this time Hartley falls ever so slightly short. Meanwhile, most of the films made in the Philippines never seemed to escape the grindhouse ghetto where they were born, which lends them their own sort of dubious glory - at best.
In which case, maybe the film is exactly as in-depth or insightful as it needs to be to properly chronicle a movement that was primarily defined either by American filmmakers exploiting the country’s natural resources for commercial gain, or by Filipino filmmakers exploiting American movies in order to create their own cottage industry. Thankfully, Hartley makes the experience enjoyable and entertaining, whether you have much to learn, or already know all you need to; but with a title like Machete Maidens Unleashed, I personally wish that I’d been a little bit less prepared for that onslaught.