Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Sisterhood (Philippines, 1988)

The appeal that post-apocalyptic movies held for low budget filmmakers of the 1980s is obvious. After all, you can never spend too little on nothing. Once you had a suitably barren landscape to work with, all you needed was some fucked up old muscle cars, a minimal amount of real or imitation leather from which to fashion the skimpy, S&M inspired outfits, and a pacey enough script to insure that no one paused long enough to contemplate just how shitty any of this looked.

It's reasonable to assume that no one understood this better than Filipino exploitation movie hyphenate Cirio Santiago, who produced and/or directed many such films throughout the neon decade. Fortunately for us, by the time of making 1988's The Sisterhood, Santiago had not become so bogged down in formula that he couldn't mix things up a bit.  As a result we have a classic "have your cake and eat it too" exploiter that combines it's many asplosions with well-meaning feminism, magic-based exceptionalism worthy of a contemporary young adult novel, and, of course, tits. Glorious, glorious tits.

The Sisterhood takes place in a world in which a global nuclear conflagration has somehow upset the ideal balance that we currently maintain between the sexes. As a result, women, if you can imagine, are reduced to mere chattel, at once bartered for, demonized as witches, and fought over by the lords of the numerous all-male tribes that now rule. And perhaps most oppressed of all is Marya, a stable girl in servitude to one such lord -- and this despite the fact that she is able to communicate telekinetically with a pet falcon by the name of Lady Shree.

Marya is played by Holly-Lynn Johnson, a former professional skater whose cinematic peak came with, in For Your Eyes Only, being the only Bond Girl to ever make 007 feel like a pedophile (and this was with Roger Moore, so there had to be an age difference of, like, 90 years for that to happen). Here Johnson has graduated from being mere eye candy to being, well, still eye candy, but also a major player in the action, more or less enthusiastically participating in the many sword, bow-and-arrow and big stick fights that pass for warfare in this newly preindustrial society.  Her chance at freedom comes when her master's camp is raided by one of those gangs of scruffy, nomadic bandits driving muck encrusted muscle cars that are pretty much the oxygen that these kind of movies breathe. Unfortunately, her little brother is killed in the ensuing battle at the hands of the gang's leader, Mikal, played by American soap actor (and titular star of the short-lived Automan) Chuck Wagner.

Escaping during the melee, Marya makes her way across what is presumably the most appropriately arid and rock strewn post-apocalyptic landscape that the Philippines had to offer. (Jack over at En Lejemorder ser Tilbage reports that this movie, despite its surplus of D-list American stars, was a 100% Filipino production, and I choose to believe him over the IMDB, because why wouldn't I?). Along the way, she must also tangle with various, smelly groups of marauding men whose R rated action movie idea of rape stops at ripping women's shirts off and then touching their boobs, or in, some cases, just kind of looking at them. She is rescued from all of this by the arrival on the scene of Alee (Rebecca Holden) and Vera (Barbara Patrick), two emissaries of an apparently not-so-fabled tribe who are up to that point only referred to in hushed tones as The Sisterhood.

The Sisterhood, we learn, are a utopian clan of woman warriors who live free of the dictates of men. We also learn that each of them, like Marya, has a magical power, be it the power to heal, transport objects, or to simply shoot random cartoon rays out of their eyes or hands (which, of course, is the best power of all). I got from this not that the Sisterhood sends the non-magical members of their gender packing, but that, in this world, all women are imbued with latent magical powers, whether they are aware of it or not. Men, meanwhile, are denied such gifts, and so must limit themselves to endlessly clubbing one another, roaring around the desert in souped-up beaters, and boob touching.

The rest of the film follows Marya, Alee and Vera's pilgrimage back to the Sisterhood's base in the city of Kalkara, pursued all the while by both Mikal and the armies of the Caligula-like Lord Barak. The women eventually find an advantage when they stumble upon an abandoned subterranean military complex, and within it an armored assault vehicle and a shitload of automatic weapons. Ultimately, they realize that they are playing the man's game by using such weapons, and resort instead to defeating their enemies through the use of magic. But this change of heart does not come before delivering to us the exact kind of third act maelstrom we expect from this kind of movie, complete with lots of explosions, people running around on fire, and scantily clad women affecting wide-legged stances while indiscriminately strafing the horizon with machine-gun fire.

Fast paced, competently staged, and with acting that spans the entire spectrum of mediocrity, The Sisterhood is a film that can most straight facedly be praised for being enjoyably dumb. Yet it also provides some interest for the apparent sincerity of its sparkle pony version of Girl Power, which, coupled with the workmanlike obligation it brings to the task  of delivering the requisite amount of grindhouse sleaze, makes it a film that is somewhat pleasantly at war with itself. I also liked how, unlike other exploitation fantasies dealing with communities of women -- which typically depict those women as having an obsession with dominating men concealing behind it a desperate longing for male companionship -- the Sisterhood really do come across as just wanting to be left the fuck alone. And given that they all appear to be pert twenty-somethings, they still have a while yet to work around the biological dead-end that would seemingly point to. We men really are pretty gross, after all.


Jack J said...

Thanks for the mentioning. I asked Henry Strzalkowski about the film and he told me it's shot 100% in the Philippines. You see Henry in your scan #6 from the top.

Jason C said...

Nice write-up. You mention "tits, glorious, glorious tits". I picked up the UK DVD. It only has a split second flash of Barbara Patrick's tits as she gets out of the hot tub. Did you notice more on the version you watched?

Even without the expected amount of nudity, I enjoyed THE SISTERHOOD. The ladies were very aggressive in the sword battles and adding assault rifles to the mix in the final 20 minutes kept things interesting. Rebecca Holden and Barbara Patrick seemed very confident firing M-16's Rambo style. The film lives up to its entertaining trailer.

Todd said...

Thanks, Jason. Let me be plain in stating that all of the women in The Sisterhood clearly had tits. Though, for those keeping score at home, I do recall there being more instances of them being bared than what you mentioned. I mainly meant that reference ironically, given this film's somewhat conflicted approach to feminist themes.

Jason C said...

Todd, did you watch the US VHS or UK DVD? I got my fingers crossed that Rebecca Holden's bare breasts can be seen on film someone in this universe.

Jason C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason C said...

I found out the US VHS has more nudity than the UK DVD. However the UK DVD is longer had has one scene of nudity not in the US VHS. I detailed the differences, with screenshots, in a post at AVManiacs,

Carol said...

I hope that someday, The Sisterhood uses this as a blurb,"a film that is somewhat pleasantly at war with itself."

I also really like, "the neon decade."

Have you considered where Darna fits into all this?

Todd said...

Yes, Carol, that's a far better tag line than "Barbara Patrick's breasts are exposed when her top is ripped open and then again from a different angle as she is groped".

As for Darna, her movies are comparatively very wholesome, with no nudity and very little in the way of overt titilation (at least back in the Vilma Santos days). But I think a more salient contrast is the fact that Darna doesn't seem to gain her abilities from some kind of latent girl power, but gets them instead by eating a space rock. Make of that what you will.

Carol said...

I wonder if Marya's secret identity is, "Yarma." And if she gets her power from her ice-skating ready coiffure.

Todd said...

Good question. It should also be noted that her falconing skills are superior to Darna's.

Anonymous said...

Just came across this - I was in this film, as an extra. I got killed in a fight scene - sliced through the stomach with a sword (unless they cut it). My girlfriend was one of the chained up witches, we were traveling through the Philippines and there was lots of film extra work there.


Todd said...

Thanks, Gary. That sound like an amazing experience. Any other films that you appeared in?