Ah, the annual Cheri Caffaro movie. Thus far, we've gone through half the lady's oeuvre, reveling in the seamy, bondage-obsessed world of the Ginger Trilogy (Ginger, The Abductors and Girls Are For Loving). This leaves three more films: A Place Called Today - and my limited exposure to that promises more pain than I am prepared to deal with at this time; the Philippine WIP picture Savage Sisters - of which I still have not tracked down a copy; and this week's picture, her last as an actress: Too Hot to Handle.
Okay, there is H.O.T.S., which she wrote. So we still have three more years in which to ride this train, she still has three more years to make another movie. Or I have to track down that episode of Extreme Ghostbusters in which she supposedly provided voice talent. (I say supposedly because sometimes, sadly, the info given the IMDb is faulty... I have been surprised to learn that Forever Evil star Red Mitchell appeared in The Subterraneans two years before he was born, and one of the serving ladies in the cafeteria line of that same movie was actually a white Canadian actress. And, by the way, did you enjoy me in White Men Can't Jump?)
Our story opens in scenic Manila, where Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro) is lounging about the tennis courts at an exclusive country club. She is immediately hit upon (via telephone) by a chap named MacKenzie Portman (John van Dreelen), who invites her to come over to his place to examine his collection of "medieval sporting devices". This, I admit, is at least an original pickup line. When she accepts, Portman also requests that she "wear black".
And wear black she does, a stunning full-length leather evening gown; this is probably as appropriate a place as any to mention that Ms. Caffaro designed her own clothes for this movie. By and large, her designs are striking and quite good, though occasionally a particularly dreadful example of mid-70s couture will singe our eyeballs. But enough of that, you are all probably quite curious about these "medieval sporting devices". Those of you who combined that phrase with the leather dominatrix outfit and came up with "torture devices" may now advance to Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change.
Yep, Portman's boudoir is a red velvet vision of racks and chains, with a four-poster bed the centerpiece. Those of us who have been watching Caffaro movies for a while quite expect our heroine to purr sexily and ask for a demonstration. And thus does Portman wind up, nude and spread-eagled face down, while the half-naked blonde slaps his flesh coquetteishly with a whip. The preliminaries out of the way, Fox climbs astraddle the bound man, ties a plastic bag over his head, and retires to smoke a cigarette while he suffocates.
Samantha is, you see, an international hit woman (and jet setter. Cheri is always a "_________" and jet setter). The local cops, de la Torres (Aharon Ipalé) and Sanchez (Vic Diaz) are puzzled, of course - either a "kook" is responsible for Portman's death, or it is the work of "a professional". "And whoever it is," deduces Torres, "I'll bet a month's salary she's an absolute knockout."
Which is as good a cue as any for Samantha to show up at Portman's funeral wearing a low-cut mourning ensemble, where Torres recognizes her from a photo in that day's paper. It must have been a slow news day in Manila, if they're running stock photos of Caffaro with a vaguely-seen caption like "International Ne'er-Do-Well Parks Yacht in Local Harbor". Sensing a connection, Torres immediately loses her, so she can meet with Miss Chow (Grace Lee), who gives her the contract on three new targets, and What Luck! They're all in Manila!
Samantha begins her hardcore research on Victim Number One, Justin Stockwell (Jordan Rosengarten), by pretending to be a reporter for Manila Arts magazine, come to do a story on Stockwell's art collection. Later, on her yacht, Samantha is examining the slides she took at his estate, formulating her plan of action (hm, Filipino maid... sunken bathtub... Filipino maid...) when an interloper boards her yacht - and this guy is no ninja, as she could have been playing Spinal Tap cranked all the way to 11 and still have heard this guy.
So it's time for a slow-motion Caffaro fight scene, as she and the wet suited weasel have at it (everybody say "Ee-yah!" as flatly as possible!). Since it's the Philippines, each picks up a conveniently located stick and we have a bit of elementary escrima to liven up the proceedings, although it's still very bad form to glance obviously where you know the other guy is going to kick before you even aim your stick . Anyway, her opponent winds up tossed off the boat and I pause to scribble the note: Who the hell was that?
Fox then drops in on an ancient Asian gentleman, Lu Chang (Paquito Salcedo - now there's a Chinese name for you), who, in accordance to Bad Movie Law, speaks in nothing but obscure Oriental aphorisms in lieu of actual dialogue. From Lu she purchases a small vial of blue liquid which he refers to as "the song of the nightingale", if that gives you any inkling of how this scene goes. He also mentions that he has many sons, but never had a need for a daughter until he met Fox - a hint of backstory which is more infuriating than it is intriguing, couched as it is in fortune cookie syntax, and never alluded to again.
So Stockwell finishes up another day of being a rich white bastard by retiring to his bathroom to brutalize the new maid (the one in the slides is out sick) before commanding her to prepare his bath ("First the salts, then the oils!" - though he didn't instruct her to pour that small vial of blue liquid in there, hmmmm....). No sooner does Stockwell settle in his sunken Jacuzzi than the maid doffs her black wig and pulls off her fake nose to reveal that she is none other than... Samantha Fox! Gasp!
Okay, I do need to say this: it's sort of a Wild Wild West moment: there's never much of a doubt that it's Caffaro as the maid, but the makeup is decent enough - and above all, her body language is different enough - that I have to admit that the disguise would have worked. Especially in the case of a swine like Stockwell, who never regards his servants as people, let alone individuals.
Anyway, Fox tells the staring Stockwell that she put a "powerful paralytic" into the bath, which will be undetectable once her work is done; then she stuffs a towel into the tub's drain and watches the paralyzed man vanish beneath the water's surface. We'll also note that when she peeled off her nose, she used the same towel to rub off the excess makeup. Some professional...
The next day, the comedy team of Torres and Sanchez are at the Stockwell mansion, wondering if it is an accident or another hit by a professional - gosh, what bearing on that do you suppose the makeup on the towel will have? I'll spare you the suspense and tell you none, as the makeup is found to be common, over the counter stuff. So chalk up another lesson learned on the Bad Movie Slate: liquid latex and spirit gum is found next to the lipstick and eye shadow in the Philippines. No wonder so many movies were made there in the 60s and 70s.
Torres then runs across Fox at some society soiree where she is the center of attention of a small group of wealthy businessmen. Torres whisks her away under the guise of "questioning about a jewel heist", but later admits to her that was the only way he could think of to get her all to himself. Fox doesn't mind, and we quickly find ourselves in the limbo of what passes as sexy light banter in Caffaro movies, culminating in Torres' invitation to a walk by the country club's lake, and the single most odious line in the movie, Fox's "As long as you promise if you rape me, you'll work the case."
Apassing sketch artist is commissioned to draw a portrait of Fox, but the wily Torres announces that she is too full of her own beauty as it is, and commands the puzzled artist to put her hair in a bun and draw horn-rimmed eyeglasses on her... in short, until it is a portrait of Fox as that reporter for Manila Arts magazine. "One point for you," admits Fox, and tells Torres that the "private dick you sent to my boat" was left on a dinghy a day's swim from shore. (fresh note on my pad: Ah, so that's who that was.) Now that the Policeman and the Hit Lady have all their cards on the table, there is only one thing left to do: go to bed for some hot, dangerous lovin'.
Which means it is time for... nooooooooooooo! A MUSIC VIDEO! Yes, Samantha and Torres must tussle in the sheets to the tune of "Lady Samantha". Love scenes that double as music videos: a blight on the American cinemascape.
Then it's time for Victim #2, as Samantha watches videotapes of a "Madame Ruanda" (Corrine Calvet) as she performs some sort of bizarre beauty treatment on a woman on national - or at least Filipino - TV. This ends up with an ad for Ruanda's spa, so guess who winds up in a Yoga class at the spa? And who catches the eye of Madame Ruanda, herself a notorious lesbian?
Why, it must be Samantha. of course, who sneaks around the compound under cover of darkness, though I find myself wondering if an all-white ensemble, even with an attached hood, is really ideal for nighttime stealth. Samantha peers into one of the bungalows, and witnesses some sort of rape scene in progress. Then she returns to her own room in time for one of Ruanda's lackies to invite her to the Madame's chambers for a personal audience. (At this point on the notepad: What was that scene about?)
After drinking Ruanda under the table (and using the Bad Movie Heroine's Best Friend, that form of chloroform that takes effect in under three seconds), Fox ties Ruanda to a chair and pops the beauty tape into the nearby TV (I note that the tape in inserted into the top of the TV like bread into a toaster - I seem to vaguely remember TVs like that). In the video, Ruanda is explaining that her new process requires the woman being treated to be tied to her chair, because light electrical charges are used. Then, copying what Ruanda is doing on the screen, Samantha layers mud onto her face and finally plugs her in.
Sigh. So the filmmakers saw Theater of Blood.
Look! It's our pals Torres and Sanchez again! Turns out that Ruanda was the most notorious white slaver in the region! (Ah, so that's what that scene was about...). Obviously, Torres tells the district attorney, the rumors about a new Asian-American crime syndicate moving in is true, and these murders are eliminating the various local crime lords, leaving only the two competing drug czars, Rossimo and Calderone. Torres not only posts men to guard each dealer, but also warns each man in person that someone is gunning for them.
Far be it to tell them that it's Samantha, however, as he finally gets her on the phone and demands to know where she's been the last few days. But never mind that, since he has no hard evidence, the best thing to do is to take her to the cockfights. Yes, the cockfights. In slow motion. Intercut with a nude, gyrating Samantha. Must be art.
Then it's time for the festive night life of Manila, though Torres balks at the lateness of the hour. "Come on," she tells the cop, "Pop a few vitamins or whatever you do when you're 33!" At the next club, they run into Rossimo (the musically-named Butz Aquino), who asks her to dance (Caffaro must always dance in her movies. Just accept it). "Watch out," warns Torres, "she's a killer on the dance floor." The groaners usually assigned to James Bond are starting to sound like farging Oscar Wilde compared to some of this witty repartee.
In bed, later, it is time for dramatic origin stories. Samantha became a professional assassin because her father was killed by rank amateurs who also accidentally killed her mother, leaving her an orphan (the Lu Chang connection is never explained). She also reveals that she's been checking up on Torres, and the only reason he's a cop is to repay what his family felt was their good fortune after relocating to the Philippines. (Uh.... yeah. Okay.) Even better, Torres wants her to give up her life as an assassin because that is not behavior he wishes to witness.... in his wife. Yep, my marriage proposal was kinda oblique and ham-fisted, but I just handed my pinball crown to him.
It all ends pretty badly anyway, or at least with both parties naked and huffy. Torres swings back into his job, while Samantha calls up both Rossimo and Calderone, and using an astounding array of vocal disguises - oh, alright, a French accent and her own voice - tells each criminal that if he wants to know who's gunning for him, to come to a certain stadium that night. The two drug lords and their men ditch their police tails easily enough, but the persistent Sanchez is following Samantha, and in the process of losing him, she accidentally causes him to drive off a cliff (well, it's no less far-fetched than anything else in the movie). Extra points awarded for the car crash scene, which is fiery and quite impressive.
At the stadium that night, Rossimo, Calderone and their men stand in the field, looking suspiciously at each other, neither realizing that Samantha is in the stands with a sniper rifle (if I'm not mistaken, that's an AK-47 with a scope, a fine assault rifle, but not particularly known for it's long-range precision). They are probably unaware of her presence due to that stunning dark red outfit she's wearing. Oh, and forget what I said earlier about the rifle's precision - all she wanted to do was fire a shot at Calderon's feet, which is enough to cause a lethal shootout between the two edgy factions.
Torres confronts her the next day on her yacht, demanding to know how Sanchez died, an event about which Samantha seems genuinely sorry. She's preparing to leave, and Torres not only refuses to leave his job, but also swears to follow her (which sounds contradictory, but that's The Man for you). Samantha offers him a final toast; he refuses until she takes a drink. Then he keels over while she spits her drink back into her glass. Stop me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't something powerful enough to put Torres under that quickly still have hit her, even if she hadn't swallowed it? Aren't tinctures held under the tongue until they're absorbed?
My head hurts.
So Torres wakes up, three of his four limbs tied to various pieces of furniture. A note from Samantha is taped to the wall; she's leavin'... on a jet plane... (cue song which will be stuck in your head for several hours now) and has left a time bomb in the hold of the yacht. If Torres patiently and diligently unties the knots ("They're Chinese."), he will still have a few seconds left to get off the boat before it blows. The rest of the scene intercuts between Samantha passing through customs and boarding the plane, while Torres works at the knots, finally freeing himself and running for the door. The boat explodes, as Samantha sadly watches through the jet's window. The final fate of Torres is uncertain. The end.
You always want your idols to go out with a bang. Too Hot To Handle is an okay movie, it just never engages you in the ways that a good action flick or sleaze epic should. All the ingredients are there, from the complicated murder plots to the dangerous, self-destructive love affair between the two people firmly on opposite sides of the law. There should be more fireworks here, but none ever develop. I am forced to say that, though he still has a fruitful career as a producer, it is likely a good thing that Don Schain no longer directs.
Caffaro herself had matured into a competent performer by this point. She'd likely never turn up on any of the Academy's nominated rosters, but any awkwardness suffered earlier in her career is gone, and she even pulls off the tearful origin story well. Her opposite number, Aharon Ipalé, however, is another story. Moroccan-born, Ipalé has also had a long career, generally playing dark, handsome men with one accent or another. Here, though the hope was likely that he would pull off a sort of Alejandro Rey in The Flying Nun turn, he just seems like a man who is having trouble reading his lines in an unfamiliar language. And even the normally reliable Vic Diaz has trouble doing anything with his role.
In the earlier Caffaro movies, the "Ginger Trilogy", I made mention of the fact that the manner in which Ginger MacAllister used her sexuality was almost predacious; here, Schain and crew have taken the "almost" out of that sentence. The video box's tagline reads "Her mission--seduce and destroy! Her deadliest weapon--her body!" Two of her victims literally fall victim to her seductive wiles, and she flirts knowingly with two others. The result, in each case, is death; even arguably in the case of her paramour, the lover who, in return, also seeks to destroy her and possess her at the same time. These two really are made for each other.
If the earlier Trilogy took place, as I theorized, on Planet Ginger, a sort of parallel world where the fight for evil inevitably led to bondage and bondage inevitably led to sex.... this is the Dark Side of Planet Ginger, where bondage inevitably leads to the person in the submissive role begging for their life, to no avail. The naughty, comparatively innocent charge of those early movies were lost in the gritty wash of mid-70s entertainment. After the 60s had been horribly bludgeoned to death and the grindingly slow parade of outrage that was Watergate, we all wanted to hurt someone, and our movies showed it.
It is not only the abandonment of that innocent/naughty blend - which made the Ginger movies so popular - that led to the downfall of the Caffaro machine. It was more likely a sense of betrayal on the part of her fans as she attempted to grow beyond the Ginger persona into something harder, to match the heroes of the times - the Charles Bronsons, the Clint Eastwoods. You'd think that bondage or S&M fans would be accustomed to a certain amount of betrayal - can you think of any movie that dealt with either of these scenes that didn't end up badly for at least one of the participants? * But there are still a number of fan sites that examine the Ginger movies, and Monterey Video put them out in a box set a few years ago.... while Too Hot To Handle silently slipped into the limbo of Out Of Print movies - sadly, a fate it probably deserves.
Really --- Too Dull to Handle.
- February 23, 2001