Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals
If I had to take the Pepsi-Coke test with the films of Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco, I’d probably come out with a failing grade. During my tenure here as a reviewer, I’ve certainly seen my fair share of their flicks, but with an aggregate output of nearly 400 films, I haven’t even got past the foam. When you make films at a clip like that, it becomes virtually impossible to insert anything but a marksman like competency to the proceedings. Yet for both filmmakers I’ve seen a few shining examples of artistic personality amidst the checklist denominational coupling and the calculated depravity. Franco’s Venus in Furs remains a haunting and seductive noir memory, as loose in plot as the jazz music featured throughout. For D’Amato I was going to default to the “and a horse named Pedro!” shenanigans of the genre smorgasbord Emanuelle in America, but there’s a new broad in town…Papaya.
Meet Papaya (Melissa). She doesn’t say much, but that’s not to say her mouth is inactive. When we first stumble upon her amidst the hazy Dominican shores, she’s face first in a mound of male pubic hair. An ethnic beauty, she’s giving the Caucasian tourist a real taste of paradise. As the Love Goddess of the Cannibals suffix suggests, she’s in it for more than the love, though. Moments after driving the man to titillating pleasure, she bites down on his power and takes his penis clean off. Two mysterious black men nod from the distance. All in a day’s work, Papaya!
This isn’t Papaya’s first victim, and it won’t be her last. Her indigenous tribe remains continually threatened by bullying capitalist imperialism, with wealthy men continuously trying to drive the cannibals off the island so they can reap the wealth of the land. As the unspoken leader and seductress, Papaya’s got her work cut out for her. She bites off more than she can, err, chew, when she meets Vincent (Maurice Poli) and Sara (Sirpa Lane, if you don’t remember her, ask The Beast) one day on the side of the road. Vincent’s looking to build a nuclear plant on Papaya’s land, so for all intents and purposes the alarms should be sounding for our love goddess. Yet instead she experiences love and longing from afar. For a woman so free to give her body up for love, it’s ironic then that only a single glance can send her crazy with desire. Vincent eyes her down, but it’s Sara’s innocent gaze that’s at the fruit of Papaya’s lust.
The natives want to nix the nuclear power plant and before they go to Papaya they try to scare them off the old fashioned way – a naked dance orgy around a couple slaughtered pigs. No dice though, as Vincent and Sara instead get naked and get on with their inner séance. It’s then Papaya for round two, but again her stares at sweet Sara render all hostility obsolete. She engages in a ménage a trois with the couple, realizing that despite a difference of color, they share a sameness of passion. Sex or sentiment, nothing is too gooey for Papaya, and she’s determined to sleep her way into Sara’s heart!
Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals is no masterpiece of plotting, but under D’Amato’s perturbed and perceptive perspective he achieves something special. His signature clashing of sex and gore reaps new dramatic rewards under the reductive simplicity of Papaya’s story. No longer is erotic horror a gimmick here, instead it synthesizes into the ultimate in erotica. In showing both seductive fellatio and cringing castration in the opening sequence, D’Amato illustrates with unorthodox the links between death and beauty.
As a capitalist society we value the principles of fragility and scarcity to determine worth. Whether it’s fine China or Criterion’s original Salo pressing, we value things easily lost or perishable. In that sense that’s beauty. D’Amato builds on this in Papaya, showing sex as seductive splendor first by illustrating just how fragile and perishable the human body truly is. With a single bite a man turns from lover to deader, pleasure so easily turned to pain. It’s with otherwise crass gore that D’Amato reminds us why we value the body so much over a more omnipresent notion of the mind. In death your spirit may live on, but never again your flesh, and it’s that rarity that drives our notions of beauty, sex and erotica. D’Amato gives us pleasure with his beautiful models and his tantalizing exotic locals, but it’s ironically through the symbiosis of sex and gore that he shows us just why we feel the way we do.
In Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and his otherworldly Emanuelles this dialogue with sex and violence seemed more an experiment in taste than anything else, but in making it the forefront of Papaya he finally finds reason for his fetish. D’Amato’s inquiry into the essence of beauty transpires further in his casting, transposing the curly, dark, exotic beauty of Melissa with the straight, Aryan domesticity of Sirpa Lane. Both are presented equally as sex conquests, but what’s more interesting is why they find themselves attracted to each other. Since it’s clear both can be with pretty well whomever they choose, there’s something greater than physical attraction that drives their lust. Again, it seems to be this notion of scarcity. Each one represents this peculiar “Other”, a foreign entity rare to an otherwise uniform surrounding. They are attracted to a notion of difference, that what they are seeing is something they’ve never seen before. Something rare, something scarce.
So if D’Amato uses sex and violence to illustrate how fragility drives our notions of lust, he uses ethnic difference to show too that scarcity is also at the heart of desire. The fact that this tale takes place during the birth of capitalism thrust upon Papaya and her culture by the entrepreneurial Vincent brings D’Amato’s beauty myth full circle. If fragility and scarcity are our barometers of beauty, it’s no doubt shaped by our dependence on the same values under the heart of capitalism. Our economy, as invisible as that hand is, is actually the true architect of desire. There is no “innate” notion of beauty. It’s manufactured, and it’s driven by the almighty dollar. Want proof? You bought the DVD, didn’t you?
With a body of work that exceeded six films a year, it’s clear that D’Amato worked mostly for the money rather than for artistic expression. Constructing beauty and packaging it was his profession, and one he did with panache. Yet it is with these introspective looks at the currency of beauty like Papaya or Emanuelle in America that he achieved, through his job, some crazy, profound statement of the arts. When I first watched Erotic Nights of the Living Dead I never thought horror and porn could work. I was wrong. In Papaya it not only works…it’s beautiful.
Papaya comes in a tasty 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors are deep and lush, and the detail is very fine, as we’ve come to expect from the Ryko house. Now, the transfer is interlaced (why anyone bothers doing this anymore is a mystery to me) but since most of the shots are static wide shots of little or slow movements, the loss of edge sharpness or motion artifacts are an almost non-issue. There are a couple instances of print decay at the end of a few cuts, but for the most part the print is impeccably clean, and again wonderfully saturated. Dirt and blemishes are kept to a minimum. It’s a lush film, and it now has a transfer to compliment it.
All we get is an oddly dubbed English track, with each character having a refined accent that none of the actors themselves would have ever had. Still, it all syncs and considering the dialogue is sparse, it more than gets by.
Sadly, all that’s included is a trailer. The trailer itself is actually excitingly edited and a fine example of that European panache for montage. For the $29.95 mint Severin's been charging for their discs though, there should be a lot more here.
Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals is Joe D’Amato at his apex, focusing his sex and gore fetish into a telling critique of what beauty is to us in an age of advanced capitalism. It is only through violently revealing the fragility of the human body that he shows us beauty’s true nature of being. As far as erotica goes, this is one of the sexiest. Severin’s transfer brings out the beautiful exotica of the Dominican location, and the rest of the disc acquits itself just fine (even if the disc is comparatively expensive). Fans of erotica, cannibals, or, what the hell, Karl Marx, I D’Emand you bite into Papaya.
Thanks for this review Rhett, I was interested to hear about this movie, I hadn't heard of it before it was released, but hey Joe D'Amato can be good (sometimes).
Um, unless there's a second woman in the opening scene that you described Rhett, I think we need to explain to you the difference between cunnilingus and fellatio (and people thought that the scene in Black Christmas was dumb, but here's another Canadian who doesn't know...)
(see paragraph 5...you mention going from seductive cunnilingus to castration, and unless there's three people involved or a hermaphrodite, it ain't happenin)
Haha. I know the difference, but in the pursuit of alliteration I opted for the female variant as I've heard it used in a broader context for gender neutral "oral sex".
I'll concede and change it though, in the hope of less confusion.
"It's the new exchange!"
Hey, there's a way you could have kept the alliteration and still been correct in the terminology. A bit vulgar, but still alliterative...
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