Saturday, 6 April 2013

Don't Ring the Doorbell

Director: Karen Arthur
Writer: Don Chastain
Producer: Diana Young
Cast: Lee Grant, Carol Kane, Will Geer
Country: USA
Year of release: 1977
Reviewed from: UK DVD

The first thing one notices about Don’t Ring the Doorbell is that it’s not called Don’t Ring the Doorbell. It’s called The Mafu Cage. I can see why this was changed - distributors don’t like meaningless words in titles and much prefer crappy generic phrases that have very little to do with the film. But normally when a title is changed, the old title isn’t shown. If, as here, the title and accompanying opening credits are overlaid on moving footage - in this case, a lengthy Steadicam pan around the main set - the standard procedure is to replace the few seconds when the title is on screen with a still shot, so as not to interrupt the music. But for this film, ‘Don’t Ring the Doorbell’ has simply been stuck underneath ‘The Mafu Cage’ in a different colour and font, like some sort of lonely subtitle for the hard of understanding.


Adapted from a French stage play, this is primarily a two-hander between sisters Ellen (Lee Grant) and Cissy (Carol Kane). They were raised in Africa, Ellen taking care of her younger sister after their mother died. Now they live outside LA, in a rambling old house which they shared, until recently, with their late father, to whom Cissy has built a small shrine.

Ellen is a respected solar astronomer, which has virtually no bearing on the plot although it does give us some nice shots of the Mount Palermo Observatory and a couple of trying-to-be-arty shots of solar flares which stick out like two sore thumbs. Ellen takes after their mother: she is sensible and serious.

Cissy on the other hand is strange, dressing in African garb or occasionally in childishly eccentric clothes like dungarees or frilly dresses. It doesn’t take us too long to realise that Cissy goes beyond being kooky and is actually mentally disturbed. While Ellen goes out to work, Cissy stays home and draws pictures of ‘Mafu’, ostensibly for a book. Ellen explains to their godfather, an ageing animal dealer named Zom (played by Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer) that she promised their father that she would always take care of her sister and never put her in any sort of institution. Zom has an avuncular affection for both girls, humouring Cissy but, when he is alone with Ellen, showing real concern for her and the way that looking after her batty sister is ruining her own life.

But what is Mafu? When Ellen comes home she finds that Mafu has died and he/it is then buried in the garden. Like much of the film, these shots are so dark as to be impenetrable. We might reasonably assume that Mafu was a monkey or ape of some sort, simply because of the screaming primate head on the DVD cover and in fact that turns out to be the case. Cissy implores Ellen to get her “another Mafu”, ideally a colobus, but Zom comes up trumps with something even better - an orang utan (the ape even gets an 'and introducing Budar' credit!).

Ellen keeps Mafu in a specially built cage in a room packed with African artefacts plus a hammock where she sleeps. The cage is bare except for a white chair and a pair of manacles.

The only other character, apart from a bloke with two lines, is David (James Olson), a colleague of Ellen’s who professes his love for her. She has some feelings for him but knows she could never settle down with a man as long as her sister needs her. And her sister does need her, not just because she is obviously mentally unstable but because she has some sort of weird incestuous lesbian crush. (The picture is also known as My Sister, My Love and The Cage and allegedly is aka Deviation too although that could just be IMDB speculation.)

Running about 98 minutes, the film builds for the first hour or so until Ellen goes away for a few days. Before then we see Ellen wrestling with her conscience and her family loyalty, we see Cissy screaming that she hates her sister then trying to make up by giving her a full body massage (no nudity) and we see Cissy playing with Mafu. Unfortunately, something goes wrong and Cissy snaps, locking herself in the ape’s cage and thrashing it to death with a chain. This is very disturbing, although the production was monitored by the American Humane Association and most of the horror here comes from clever editing. Ellen, who has only ever before seen the aftermath of Cissy’s anger - evidently they have been through several Mafus - is shocked to finally witness her sister’s cruel rage and vows not to replace the ape, instructing Zom to claim that he is having difficulty finding a new one.

When Ellen leaves for Arizona on business, Cissy announces that she won’t answer the doorbell or phone, but is startled when David turns up and, receiving no answer at the front door, wanders round into the garden where she is resting. The big narrative problem here is that David is fully aware that Ellen is in Arizona so he has no reason to visit the house, especially as he has never been there before (or met Cissy). Recognising him as the man whom Ellen has talked about, she gets him drunk, seduces him and - in a not very surprising turn of events - tricks him into being manacled in the Mafu cage.

The film, which claims to be a “psychological thriller” steps up a level now as David realises what is happening and what sort of psycho he is dealing with. No-one can hear his cries for help, not even Zom who calls by to check on Cissy. There’s an odd sexual moment when Cissy, who cannot bear to be touched by anyone except her sister or Zom, says that the problem with all the previous Mafus was that their penises would sometimes get hard. When she finds out that the same thing has happened to David, he is doomed. She dollies herself up in full tribal gear, paints her face and hair red and goes loco to the throbbing beat of the African music and jungle sounds which she listens to constantly, only louder now.

The undoubted highlight is a scene of Cissy, still painted red, relaxing in a full bath of red water, only her hands and face above the surface. When the phone rings, her reaction is to have a one-way conversation as if she is answering her sister’s call, the phone constantly ringing in another room.

Ellen returns home late at night after a successful trip but the next morning is puzzled to see David’s car outside. When she finds a bloodstained dressing in among the washing, she realises what has happened. To be honest, after this everything gets a bit murky - literally - as some crucial scenes between the sisters are played out in almost complete darkness. I don’t think it’s just the video transfer, I think this genuinely is a drastically (and mistakenly) underlit film. Most of the last ten minutes is actually quite chilling as Cissy remains the only active character, carrying out her rituals to complete silence. It’s not often you get to type a phrase like “necrophiliac lesbian incest” but there is a definite hint of that here...

Don’t Ring the Doorbell just about qualifies as a horror film but it’s slow moving and looks very dated. Grant plays Ellen with overly serious sullenness in direct contrast to Kane who plays Cissy in full-on Ophelia mode, alternately screaming in childish fury and simpering with unsubtly coquette-ish babiness. David comes across as a drip and frankly any man who wouldn’t run a mile from a panda-eyed loon like Cissy deserves what he gets. Only Zom comes across as at all sympathetic.

Lee Grant, who was 49 when she made this, started acting in the early 1950s, appearing on numerous TV shows including Ironside, The Fugitive and Mission: Impossible. Her career leaned more towards the big screen from the mid-1960s on, including roles in Valley of the Dolls, Damien: Omen II (as Damien’s mother), Airport ‘77 and The Swarm. In recent years she has turned up in Mulholland Drive and Dr T and the Women.

Carol Kane, by contrast, was only 25 in 1977. Among her many credits over the years were Annie Hall, The Muppet Movie, Transylvania 6-5000, The Princess Bride, Ishtar, Theodore Rex and episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Tales from the Dark Side. Whatever you may have seen her in, she’s recognisable with her frizzy hair, squeaky voice and tendency to play women who think they’re cute but are actually slightly psycho, though not usually as extreme as Cissy. She was Grandma in Addams Family Values although I recognised her primarily as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged.

Will Geer had an extraordinary career that lasted from the early 1930s until his death in 1978. He mostly worked in TV - The Fugitive, Hawaii Five-O, I Spy, Kung Fu, Night Gallery, Gunsmoke etc - but also made lots of lesser-known films. He was also a respected botanist, a folk singer who toured with Woody Guthrie, a political radical and an obsessive Shakespeare lover. James Olson’s CV includes Crescendo and Moon Zero Two for Hammer, The Andromeda Strain and Amityville II: The Possession, as well as memorable episodes of Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica.

The Mafu Cage was an early credit for director Karen Arthur who seems to have specialised in these rather intense, quasi-feminist stories although she also directed episodes of Cagney and Lacy and Remington Steele. The script, adapted from an English translation of Eric Wesphal’s play Toi et Tes Nuages, is a sole writing credit for TV actor Don Chastain; the French title translates as ‘You and Your Clouds’, which Ellen says to Cissy at one point for no apparent reason. The much-too-dark cinematography was early work for John Bailey who was much more successful in lighting the remake of Cat People, Silverado, Groundhog Day, the musical version of The Producers and many other big movies. Composer Roger Kellaway had been nominated for an Oscar the previous year for A Star is Born; his other credits include the end title song to All in the Family and the beautiful animated feature of The Mouse and His Child plus Evilspeak, Silent Scream, The Dark and something extraordinary-looking called Jaws of Satan.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Don’t Ring the Doorbell/The Mafu Cage. It’s not that bad but it’s not that good either. What it mostly is, is dated. Falling somewhere between a psycho horror movie and an intense character study of a sisterly relationship under stress, the movie ends up being neither one thing nor the other. A curio, really.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 20th March 2006

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