The sound of the wah-wah guitar on the soundtrack to 1973's "Wonder Women" can signify only one thing: This movie means funky business.
Nancy Kwan stars (happily slumming it more than a decade after she first gained notice in "The World of Suzie Wong" and "Flower Drum Song") as the evil mastermind with an army comprising the "most dangerous women on earth," to quote the film's shamelessly entertaining trailer. "Beautiful, luscious, mysterious dolls, trained by the sinister dragon lady to do as they were told. They were killers. A sisterhood of death. But they were also women."
In hot pants and go-go boots. Because, yeah, what else does one wear while kicking tail in a cheapo, filmed-in-the-Philippines grindhouse flick from the early '70s? The kidnapping of unsuspecting men — future victims of lunatic medical experiments! — has never looked so groovy.
The swaggering rogue in the pale blue safari suit? The one who looks like he could work as a Lee Majors stand-in if he weren't so busy chasing women through half of Manila? That's insurance investigator Mike Harber (character actor Ross Hagen, who died last year) there to track down a star jai alai player gone missing. But it won't be easy. Mike is "marked for death in everyone's book — some because he asked too many questions; others because he knows too many answers." Tough situation, Mike! But can we back up a sec? The guy's an insurance investigator? I ask you, how many action heroes can claim such a profession?
For the better part of the late '60s and '70s, exploitation films were churned out like doughnuts — fast and cheap and intended for audiences eager to have their chains yanked. As cinematic artifacts, they are time capsules not just of low-budget filmmaking but of a specific slice of pop culture as well. They have a feminist bent! But not really! They are impossible to take seriously, and yet just as impossible to dismiss.
For years, copies of these films languished and became increasingly hard to find. Not long ago, a rare surviving 35 mm print of "Wonder Women" was unearthed by Lew Ojeda, who will discuss the film and its origins before it screens Saturday as part of Facets' TRASH-O-RAMA series of midnight screenings this summer.
According to Ojeda (co-founder of The Underground Multiplex blog and host of the cult movie podcast "Cinematrocities"), the Philippines became a popular shooting location in the '70s for obvious reasons: low costs, zero union oversight and bikini-friendly tropical scenery.
But it wouldn't last long as a low-rent movie hub. "It might be in part because of the Marcos regime," said Ojeda. "Filmmakers were given pretty free rein, but they still had to be careful because there was a certain amount of censorship and you could get in trouble." Plus: "There were guns everywhere. And there's the story of an actress who was there on a different film who said she had to change her clothes in a cave that was also used as the men's latrine. That gives you an idea of how rough the conditions were." (If your interest is piqued, the 2010 documentary "Machete Maidens Unleashed!" delves headlong into the down-and-dirty world of Filipino genre films of that era, and it is available on Netflix.)
But there is something about "Wonder Women" that makes it stand apart — a "real mess of a movie," per the blog Cinema Knife Fight, "that nonetheless is never, not even for one second, boring. This mishmash of genres is proof-positive that anyone could make any old movie they wanted in the early 1970s and somehow get the son-of-a-gun distributed." And at a time when rights holders were clearly less litigious. Can you imagine DC Comics andWarner Bros., keepers of the Wonder Woman flame, being OK with a film called "Wonder Women" today?
Writer-director Robert Vincent O'Neill apparently had other titles in mind, anyway, including "The Terrible Transplants of Dr Tsu," "The Deadly and The Beautiful" and "Women of Transplant Island."
You could argue that exploitation films still exist in slightly altered forms today — primarily in the guise of big budget action films — although my own theory is that the cheesy, blatantly fake grindhouse aesthetic has morphed into what we now see on reality TV. Forty years from now, who's to say that miracle of trash TV known as "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" won't be viewed with the same bemused nostalgia that we've bestowed upon exploitation films of the '70s?
"Wonder Women" screens midnight Saturday at Facets Multimedia, preceded by a live podcast hosted by Lew Ojeda. Go to facets.org and click on "view screenings."
Payne in Chicago
Alexander Payne, director and Oscar-winning screenwriter for "The Descendants,"comes to town Saturday as part of an afternoon gala fundraiser for the Greek Film Fest Chicago (coming in October). Tickets are $75 (or $125 per couple). Go to greekfilmfestchicago.org. Payne will also appear Saturday night at a benefit at the Siskel Film Center, where he will interview his "Election" star Reese Witherspoon. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/benefit2012.
'August' inches closer
Smokehouse Productions, aka the production company of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, has signed on to produce the long-awaited screen adaptation of Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play "August: Osage County," starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Director John Wells will begin shooting in the fall.
Chicago filmmaker Todd Looby's semi-autobiographical feature "Be Good" centers on a young couple juggling the demands of parenthood. She works out of the house; he's an aspiring screenwriter and stay-at-home dad. With a cameo from Joe Swanberg. Shot primarily in and around Ravenswood Manor, the film debuts this week at the Siskel. Looby will take part in post-show talkbacks after each of the screenings except Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
A divided life
In the documentary "Torn," a Catholic priest living in Poland finds out at 35 that he was born to Jewish parents who saved his life during the Holocaust by leaving him on the doorstep of Christian neighbors. At the age of 67, he decides to move to Israel to live as both a Catholic and a Jew — a decision that confounds those around him, who want him to choose one or the other. The film screens 2 p.m. Sunday at Spertus, followed by a post-screening discussion with Rabbi David Sandmel and the Rev. John Pawlikowski. Go to spertus.edu.