Monday, July 17, 2017
Oddball Film Report: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK (1984-color)
THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK (1984 - color)
The Short Story: The daughter of a butterfly collector stumbles onto a lost, though highly advanced, civilization of warrior women in R-rated take off of the revived cliffhanger adventure genre.
The cliffhanger serials of the 30's, 40's, and 50's were a thing of the past when George Lucas and Steven Speilberg united to pay the genre tribute with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In this landmark adventure film, archeologist Indiana Jones set off to prevent the Nazis from reclaiming the lost Ark of the Covenant, facing every step of the way breathless peril and action. A smash hit, knock-offs and copies were quick to follow.
A sequel film would prove just as popular, in the shape of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Of course, Indy continued to thrill audiences in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE before a watered down version of the character was spun off into a television series about Jones as a teenager. An older Harrison Ford again took up his bullwhip for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Though a fun film, it was generally felt that Indy's moment had passed with the original trilogy. A fair assessment or no, it remains true that Indy's greatest influence was during the decade of the 80's.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and then INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, created another template that could be refined to it's base elements and then duplicated endlessly. Basically, any episodic jungle adventure with a manly hero would do the trick, although making your adventure movie a period piece was always a nice touch. (It also aided in giving the films a bit of conflict, since these stories required a competing factor also racing to acquire whatever ancient relic or fabulous treasure the hero was after. The consequences of the treasure falling into the wrong hands was always dire, so it helped if those hands belonged to Hitler. A gangster would do in a pinch, of course.)
Richard Chamberlain played an Indiana Jones-like version of Allan Quatermain in two films for Cannon, beginning with the fabulous KING SOLOMON'S MINES. This lavish, if breezy, affair was super fun, and would go on to become a UHF television staple (it's possible more TV viewers saw the adventures of Allan Quatermain than those of Dr. Jones). Departing a bit from the source novel, Quatermain was now racing to find Solomon's treasure and keep it from falling into the hands of WWI Germans. Cannon produced back-to-back this film and it's sequel, the weaker (though straighter) ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. These, along with the romantic comedy ROMANCING THE STONE and it's sequel THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, were probably the most popular take-offs of the Indy adventures.
Dozens of Italian imports sent manly heroes into action in desert and jungle surroundings, searching out lost treasures and long-forgotten temples while dodging assassination attempts from various crime kingpins and evil rivals. Keeping visible in this sea of imitations required some doing. One solution was to show off with a larger budget. Another was to play up the humor and make your film more comical. Sometimes, it was a simple matter of switching the gender of your main character to female. JANE AND THE LOST CITY, for example, used both of the latter approaches.
The weirdest film of this genre may've been THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK, which started from a comic booky base and added ever-increasing levels of perversion and lunacy.
The bulk of the film appears to be camp, much in the tradition of several 60's Italian espionage/superhero films, with a decidedly 80's touch. But the film is French, and thus even more surreal than it might otherwise've been. Still, for a French production, it's somewhat more main stream than the confusing art films we typically associate with that country's cinematic output. This seems a legitimate attempt to make an American (or at least "Western") style adventure movie. And one with a sense of humor at that. The director definitely has a better handle on directing comedy scenes than he does action scenes, which tend to be competent but uninvolving.
We open on the docks of Shanghai, sometime in the 1930's, where a trio of thieves are looting the contents of crates recently unloaded from docked cargo ships. In one box, the men discover Gwendoline, pretty daughter of a missing butterfly collector. Gwendoline has come to Shanghai in an effort to uncover her father's whereabouts, and is accompanied by Beth, who may be the family maid or similar domestic in addition to being Gwen's friend. We don't get much backstory beyond that. I don't recall ever hearing just why Gwendoline was nailed into a shipping crate (though if I remember correctly, the girls lack passports and are out of money. Still, that doesn't explain why Beth is running around free, searching the docks for Gwendoline's crate).
At any rate, the crooks think they can sell Gwen as a slave girl and take her to the local kingpin. In his office, Gwen is menaced by a Chinese gangster until the hunky seaman Willard shows up demanding some money the gangster owes him. This allows for a brief, though underwhelming, kung fu battle with a henchman made to look as much like Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON as possible. Willard wins the fight, accidentally kills* the gangster, and unties Gwen before making his leave. Willard is selfish, irreverent, and quite the jerk, though he is handsome and charming. Gwen thinks Willard is the best chance she has of finding her missing father.
(Most of your jungle heroes had a preferred weapon in reference to Indiana Jones' bullwhip. For example, Cannon's Allan Quatermain carried a sawed-off, double-barrel shotgun -and then switched to a revolver in the sequel. One Italian movie of this sort -sorry, I can't remember the title- saw the hero carrying around a meathook! Willard's all-purpose weapon/tool is a retractable grappling hook, complete with a built-in switchblade! The claws of this device prove to be quite deadly to anyone who happens to be in it's path. The gag is that Willard frequently ends up killing people unintentionally by hooking them in the neck.)
Meanwhile, Beth has been abducted by the trio from the beginning of the film and brought to the gangster's office. Seeing Gwendoline holding a pair of nunchucks, the thieves assume she is responsible for the carnage from Willard's fight. The trio runs away, leaving Beth behind. The girls make their way into the casino below the office, where they try to convince Willard to help them. Willard is gambling with his friend, the chief of police. In the first of several utterly charming scenes that make your skin crawl, we watch as the chief pulls Beth close and begins to grope her. In fact, he shoves his hand up her dress and continues to fondle her as she spends the next minute or so trying to break away.
If for no other reason than to get Gwendoline to leave him alone, Willard agrees to take the girls to the only man in town who might know what's going on. This turns out to be a British guy who carries on his conversation with the group while he's being serviced by what I assume is a prostitute (or it could be his slave girl). Presumably, this is meant to be funny, but it's just weird. Nevertheless, the guy tells Gwendoline that her father was last seen in the Yik Yak, a treacherous desert region where the natives sacrifice men to appease storms of toxic gas which rise from the ground.
Though her father is considered a lost cause, Gwendoline becomes excited, as this information coincides with a dream she had before leaving home.
To escape the casino, Willard had to punch out the chief of police. Due to this, Willard and the girls are tossed into jail before they can leave town. In jail, Willard wants to get the guard, and his keys, over to the cell. To do this, he tries to create a diversion by pretending to rape Gwen. His efforts to make her scream are somewhat undercut when Gwen responds by softly begging for more of the treatment she's getting.
You see, Gwen, although clearly in her mid/late 20's, is apparently supposed to be a teenager -thus explaining her girl Friday and protector, Beth. In her case, her virginity equates to being sex-starved and this theme will run through the film. The French. What can you say?
Willard eventually gets Gwen to scream by goosing her, and the guard comes running over to the cage. Willard grabs the guard and, seriously, leaves the guy's ears on the apparently razor-sharp bars as his head is pulled into the cage!
Willard and the girls escape, and Willard is sure he's seen the last of the ladies. However, Gwen and Beth continue to stick close to Willard, and camp out on his boat. Willard tosses the girls overboard a couple of times, but they ultimately get the upper hand by hiding an important shipment he has been hired to haul. (This is apparently narcotics of some sort, though the little packages could be counterfeit bills.) Willard agrees to take them to Yik Yak on condition they turn over his expensive shipment once they've finished.
Along the way, the boat is attacked by pirates, but they eventually make it to a Macao port where Gwen learns her father is dead. Determined to honor her father by going after and collecting the butterfly that cost him his life, Gwen hires Willard to guide them into the Yik Yak. Willard is against the idea, but payment convinces him. Unfortunately for Willard, Gwen raised her capital by selling his boat! So, our merry trio is soon trudging through the jungle, getting on each other's nerves.
When a rain storm breaks out, Willard instructs the girls to remove their shirts in order to collect rain water to refill the canteens. Willard is the only one who really knows how to do this, but it gives him a moment to notice how pretty Gwen is as she stands shivering in the rain. He touches her face, leading to another soft moan and potential surrender from Gwendoline. Fortunately, Willard is still a jerk and spurns her. The rain passes.
At a beautiful spring, the trio is captured by natives and tossed into another cage. This time, their hands and feet are bound and they're left rolling around on the floor. Willard and Gwen take this moment to speak softly amongst themselves. Gwen apologizes for the way she reacted in the jail cell, noting that was the first time a man had ever kissed her. Willard, possibly to take Gwen's mind off of the execution the natives have planned for her, tells her he can't let her die without "making love." This leads to a sequence in which Willard and Gwen have a verbal sexual encounter, with Gwen really getting into it. It's as cartoony as you might imagine, and in fact feels like something you'd see in an anime. The scene concludes when Willard looks over to find Beth is also turned on. The three laugh about this.
In the morning, the native guard comes in to take the girls to execution, but the group has been making plans. With an improvised blow gun and what looks like the thorn from a blackberry vine, Willard somehow manages to kill the guard and the trio escapes. The natives give chase, but turn away as the trio enters the Yik Yak. A storm comes up and the group digs in and breaths through cloth until it passes. During this, Gwen looks up to see what appears to be people carrying a body past them.
The storm over, the gang spots a big hole in the ground which matches the one from Gwen's dream. Sure enough, there's an oasis at it's base, and so is the butterfly they're after. Also in evidence are clearly carved walls of what looks like a long-lost, though pristine, city. Beth climbs down and catches the butterfly, but is grabbed and dragged away by unseen captors. Willard and Gwen give chase, but lose Beth. In the process of sneaking into the huge underground city where Beth has been taken, Willard accidentally kills a guard and we get our first good look at the inhabitants of the lost city.
The natives here are all white women living in a white-stone and polished-metal semi-futuristic underground city. A number of them walk around topless, dressed only in black leather thong bikini bottoms. More imposing uniforms include matching leather vests and armor for the arms and shoulders, the guards and soldiers wear helmets. They look like a burlesque road show of MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME... Some of them speak with electronic distortion layered over their dialog, which is occasionally in English but mostly in a sci-fi jibber-jargon.
Gwen and Willard dress as guards to sneak into the city, despite Willard looking decidedly un-female (and sadly, the camera will give him as much exposure as it will Gwen -indeed, for a film seemingly focused on female nudity, it doesn't seem too interesting in lingering on such). They get caught when Willard excitedly comments on the diamonds worker drones are carrying by right in front of them! Things get even worse when the women discover Willard is a male and surround him in a passionate frenzy. Gwen manages to fight them off, but soon enough all three of our heroes are captured and confronted by the Queen of these futuristic amazons.
The Queen prefers flowing robes to leather, and has in her company a stranded British scientist she bullies into doing her dirty work -such as killing Gwen's father. He's been getting tired of the way things are, however, and will eventually revolt and help our heroine in the final reel.
First, though, Willard is sentenced to sire a son by one of the warrior women -his mate to be selected by combat to the death with three other women! Gwen tries to escape Willard to safety and we're introduced to the film's most troubled moment yet...
To get around in a hurry, the women have chariots. Being underground, they don't have horses. So, the chariots are pulled by teams of women. The result is a sequence in which a chariot race is run entirely by young women dressed in black leather bondage outfits. I dare say this is one of the most wacky, depraved things I've ever seen in a comparatively mainstream picture. Post-modern feminists like to toss around the word "misogynistic" with reckless abandon, but here's one time when the word might actually be the most appropriate one to use.
At any rate, Willard remains a captive when the chariots crash. Gwen has a fight with a soldierette, and wins. Beth convinces Gwen to don the warrior's helmet to hide her identity and pass off the dead soldier as herself. The Queen delights in seeing 'Gwen' defeated, but Willard is broken and admits that he loves the departed Gwendoline. Gwen then enters the combat arena to compete for Willard, he the prize for that night's reproduction ritual -after which he will be executed!
Gwen's loins burn for Willard more strongly than the training undertaken by the city's soldiers prepares them for battle, and our heroine actually wins the mortal combat against three others. That night, or whenever, Willard is tied down and the victor comes to claim her prize. Willard discovers it's Gwen, despite her still wearing a helmet -because the Queen is observing all this from her throne! At any rate, we now watch as Gwen straddles the bound Willard and he deflowers her. This would be more offensive were it not so epically stupid.
At any rate, the Queen's whipping boy has triggered the volcano which shakes the city to pieces. The Queen is buried alive as our heroes escape. Willard hangs back to collect the butterfly Gwen came for in the first place, but gets separated from the girls. The girls make it out at the last second. Gwen mourns Willard, but then his fancy grappling hook appears* and so does he. And he's even made good on getting Gwendoline's butterfly.
(*He apparently tosses the hook at Gwendoline, and the thing lands inches from her face. This despite his well-documented tendency to unintentionally kill anyone unfortunate enough to be in front of him when he lets the thing fly.)
So, with Willard apparently reformed and ready to go back with Gwendoline, our trio heads for home and the movie is over.
THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK, as you can tell from the plot rundown, is one weird movie. The plot could've been lifted from a 60's British adventure picture, what with the futuristic civilization of warrior women living under the desert near hostile natives. Even the trapped scientist who decides to turn the tables seems right out of a Hammer film. In turn, these elements are pulp enough to be found in a men's adventure rag from even earlier decades.
The movie effectively has two halves. The first half is a campy adventure film, the second more a science fiction adventure. It almost wants to be a porno, but never quite goes there. Though crammed with nudity, the film never seems to be overly interested in playing to it, either. The sets are impressive, if limited in their scope. The acting is alright, but the direction is uneven. The editing doesn't call too much attention to itself, aside from a few cuts which have obviously spliced together two separate takes in a few scenes. I guess you could say it's never boring, but it isn't quite as entertaining as it should be, either. It may be one of those where you have to meet it with the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it. It does stand out from the pack in being rated R where most such films strove for the much larger general audiences.
The film was based on a comic strip that began running in 1946 in the American magazine Bizarre. Bizarre was one of the first magazines geared toward fetish and sexual weirdness. Reportedly, it was from this magazine that the look for TV horror hostess Vampira was realized. How closely the movie mirrors the strip, I couldn't say, but one assumes the strip was more geared toward eye candy than the film ultimately is.
On the subject of eye candy, the film certainly is cast well. As Gwendoline, Tawny Kitaen in her first major movie role is suitably adorable. Though less classically-featured, "Zabou" is perkily cute as Beth -given a Louise Brooks bob cut. Brent Huff is a handsome leading man in the form of Willard, looking a bit like Sam Jones -who was also up for the part. The three of them have a certain chemistry which helps them get through moments where they aren't exactly likeable (to the extent that's a problem, it lies entirely within the script).
So far as production values go, the film is lavish without going overboard. The Shanghai docks are filmed on sets, and as such reflect the look of a 30's film admirably. The jungle scenes carry with them an authenticity absent from footage shot in more open spaces. The underground city has it's impressive moments, but looks too sparse in others. Aside from human flesh, almost the entire color scheme in these sequences is white, black, metal, and clear crystal. These sequences have times of looking like a 60's Hercules movie filtered through a punk wave New York sex club.
The music is rather somber for this sort of thing, which usually tried to copy the epic-upon-epic sound of the Indiana Jones franchise (indeed, Jerry Goldsmith's themes for the Cannon Quatermain films seems to be inviting lawsuit from John Williams). The film seems to be fronting as a more legitimate artistic experience, and in Europe was titled simply GWENDOLINE -giving it the sound of a coming of age drama.
Presumably, the laughably long title of the American release was meant to more imply the sort of Jones-like thrills and humor to be found in the more standard entry. One imagines it was a popular video rental for that reason, then became even more popular when young men discovered it had plenty of exposed flesh and catfights in skimpy leather wear -regardless of how uninspired this footage was shot. (This is actually pretty weird, since the director was noted for a number of dirty movies.)
In the end, not a film I would recommend to very many videonauts. Those interested in something more mainstream will be disappointed, and I think those looking for something "less mainstream" will be disappointed, too. If you're right in the middle there, it could be just what you're looking for!
Thanks to Mr. Morgan McDannell for making this review possible.