Scholar and noted Jess Franco-phile Tim Lucas has written numerous times (coining the phrase first in his essay “How to Read a Franco Film”): “You can’t see one Franco film until you’ve seen them all.” Given that the director has made close to (or over) 200 films and that I have only seen a small fraction of these: I’m going to have to settle for approaching Devil Hunter from a non-Lucasian reading.
1980’s Devil Hunter is a hard film to defend, especially under its alternate title Sexo Cannibal (or the even classier Mandingo Manhunter) but its audacity makes it easy to recommend to fans of Euro-Horror. One of the earliest of Franco’s cannibal films, the movie exhibits the kind of misogyny and latently racist (or at the very least, xenophobic) overtones implicit to the subgenre. Franco himself contests the film’s classification as a “cannibal movie.” In the interview included on the disc, Franco shows a general distaste for the cannibal subgenre and explains that he got around having “people eating people” by having his antagonist be a “monster who sometimes eats flesh.”
There is no hero in Devil Hunter. Although we are given Al Cliver (a pseudonym for the remarkably Anglo-looking Italian actor Pierluigi Contini) as Peter, a blonde-mustachioed square-jawed adventure hero, there is nothing heroic about him. He’s set on a mission to rescue famed actress Laura Crawford (Playboy Playmate Ursula Fellner) when she is kidnapped and sequestered in the jungle by armed thugs. Peter’s motives are entirely mercenary: he has no intention of handing over the real ransom money to the kidnappers and his only incentive for rescuing Laura is a larger paycheck.
Not only are Peter’s motives suspect, but so are his methods. A large portion of the movie has the viewer following three entirely separate sets of characters. We see Laura as she is intimidated, threatened, and raped by her captives and finally kidnapped again by natives. The natives worship the titular “Devil” a Portuguese dancer working under the name Burt Altman as a large, muscular cannibal with a taste for female flesh and bulbous, bugged-out eyes (surely the creepiest prosthetic use of ping pong balls in cinema). At the same time Peter and Jack (Robert Foster as Peter’s Vietnam vet sidekick) can either be found strolling through the jungle, receiving unhelpful exposition from naked women on boats (Victoria Adams), drinking beer or rock climbing. Peter’s “hero work” is approached with very little due diligence. He’s in no rush to find the girl because he’s already got the cash.
This lack of a heroic protagonist significantly ups the “sleaze factor” of the film. The viewer feels frustrated and abandoned, just like Laura. By the time Peter is sailing off into the sunset with a topless, smiling Laura we begin to question whether or not his rampant machismo makes him much better than the monster. He pats the money and delivers the final line of the film: “Couldn’t feel better with the company here.”
Instead of having the more “civilized” characters prove the most ruthless and therefore more “savage” (a popular angle to take in this subgenre) Franco’s film shows humanity in an equally grim light. That’s not to say the film’s depiction of anyone with dark skin is not offensive, it is, but at least the Caucasians are equally disgusting. White women in the film may be the only truly innocent parties, but that does not do much to compensate for the fact that they completely lack autonomy. Basically to the point where they become little more than props to be fought over by the men. The native women fair a bit better. They wash Fellner’s character in a waterfall and then prepare her for presentation to the monster, menial tasks but at least they are allowed to act. Later, during the film’s climax, the native women dance and writhe, not strictly for the camera or the native men, but because they are possessed by the thrill of the ritual. Although they are never seen in sexual intimacy with men, one native girl’s orgasmic gyration as the beast carries off Laura signals the only time in the film where female sexual pleasure is not met with violence.
The monster and his eating habits are of significant interest if we are to uncover meaning in a project that even Franco himself seemed to have minimal enthusiasm for. The aforementioned “naked woman on boat” explains the jungle’s native inhabitants and their sacrificial ritual to our protagonists. In the English language track she says: “Light skin is more highly thought of by the god of this wild tribe.” She is suggesting that the blonde, fair-skinned Laura is tonight’s blue-plate-special. Puzzlingly, race is avoided in the French audio. The subtitle changes the line to: “a god who prefers beautiful young girls for sacrifice.”
This fetishization of white skin and Laura’s previously detailed lack of agency transforms the girl into a commodity. Peter looks at her and sees a bonus to his paycheck and the monster views her as a preferable variation on his usual diet (in the beginning we see him feed on a native girl).
Who the monster eats is not nearly as shocking as what the monster eats. Franco, baffled with why the cannibals in other movies always eat the intestines and other “nasty” parts, insists on having his monster eat only the women’s’ “nice parts.” The result is a scene of genital trauma that, while not overly explicit, is much more nauseating than the typical cannibal gut-munching. It’s probably nobody’s definition of an “overlooked classic” but Devil Hunter is a little seen curio that presents the viewer with some choice moments. Franco completists will enjoy the parallels that can be made to the rest of his oeuvre (for example, I found the monster’s eye makeup reminiscent of Morpho in The Awful Dr. Orlof) while others will appreciate the filmmaker’s attempt to make the cannibal subgenre his own.
Adam Blomquist is a student/ writer and once in a while he updates his blog: www.brain-tremors.com.