I freely admit to jumping on the Frank Agrama bandwagon, spurred on by posts from such reliable sources as the Mondo Macabro blog and loveable madman Jack J's En Lejemorder Ser Tilbage -- as well as the astonishingly well researched comments of one Doctor Kiss over at the Classic Horror Film Board. Hey, as far as being the subject of cult appreciation, Agrama is, from what I've seen, far more deserving than -- oh, I don't know -- Sompote Sands, say. And I'm certainly not above trying to squeeze my way in on the ground floor. All the better to hypocritically scoff at perceived Agrama newbies a few months down the line.
To the extent that he is known in the West, Agrama is probably most recognized for his role as CEO of Harmony Gold, the company that brought Robotech to American television and with it, the seeds of every anime body pillow subsequently sold to white wannabe otaku. (Though he might also ring a bell as being a co-defendant, alongside Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in the massive Mediaset tax fraud case brought by Italian officials a couple years back.) Fans of Z grade horror films might also know him as director of 1981's woeful Dawn of the Mummy.
But before distinguishing himself in those ways, the Egyptian born Agrama, under his given name of Farouk Agrama, directed a series of lively pop films in his native Middle East. These were typically International co-productions that combined stars from all of the participating regions, which were then released in alternate edits that highlighted whichever actors were the biggest draw in the targeted country. The result is the sort of "when worlds collide" casting that, in 1968's Essabet El Nissae, sees Turkish action god Cuneyt Arkin trading dialogue with beloved Egyptian comic Ismail Yasin and Lebanese singer and actress Sabah. Even Egyptian action film legend Farid Chawki shows up for a brief, fourth wall busting cameo (literally: "Hey, it's Farid Chawki!") in order that publicists for the Arab language version might tout his presence.
Agrama's approach to Essabet El Nissae exhibits a good-natured, horny aimlessness that rivals that of the Mexican popular cinema of its day. He combines in the film tropes from both Eurospy movies and haunted house comedies, but still finds plenty of time for musical numbers and abundant cheesecake. In this busy context, Cuneyt Arkin gets to do a lot less of the trademark acrobatic brawling than you'd typically see in one of his purely Turkish productions, and instead spends a lot of his time simply fulfilling his role as just one of many pieces of eye candy, either by simply sitting and looking suave and unflappable or by laying back against a scenic background as Sabah serenades him with one of her many songs.
Essabet El Nissae centers around that most beloved of 60s spy spoof totems, the highly trained army of amazonian hit women (Las Sicodelicas, Deadler Than the Male), who, of course, also double as nightclub entertainers (Black Tight Killers). Arkin plays a reporter, saddled with both a cowardly, bespectacled photographer for a comic relief sidekick and a harried boss in the form Ismail Yassin -- here in one of his last screen appearances -- who stumbles onto the trail of the female gang while on assignment in Beirut. The ladies then employ their feminine wiles to throw him off the scent, as it were, which leads to a long series of burlesque interludes. Somewhere in all of this he meets and begins to woo Sabah, who appears to be a member of the gang.
Eventually Cuneyt follows a lead to an abandoned old house that we have seen, by way of a flashback, was the site of a brutal murder. This opens the way for some goofy, spook show slapstick reminiscent of Ismail Yasin's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remake, Haram Alek, albeit without the participation of Yasin. This house will prove to have relevance to the overall plot later on, as perhaps will the ghost of the murdered woman, although on that last point I can't be entirely sure. Seriously, once all plot development has halted for the third time for someone to launch into an extra-narrative belly dancing routine, you will realize that none of these details matter very much. There is even an extended comic sequence in which Arkin and his sidekick don drag to sneak their way into a lady's spa. Oh, and I should also mention that the cut of the Arabic version I watched had edited into it a sequence from a different, French subtitled version that featured a woman lip synching an English language beat pop song to an audience of fright-masked dancers as Arkin engaged in a comedic brawl. So there's that.
Both the Arabic and Turkish versions of Essabet El Nissae are available in full on YouTube. (And, true to our expectations, the Turkish version is exponentially more distressed and crappy looking than the other.) While I wouldn't call it a must see, I will say that, if you can approach it with the kind of patience and goodwill that its lazily amiable approach to entertainment requires, you might, as I did, get a kick out of it. Arkin, so often comically intense, makes for an especially charming and affable presence, and as such nicely embodies the spirit of the endeavor as a whole. This is a film that seems to say that, if you don't have time to watch a few fights, chuckle at some dumb gags, listen to some songs, and look at some cool and attractive people and locations being cool and attractive, that's fine; but if you do, why not? Consider yourself Agrama'd.