Most bad movie fans of a certain age have at least heard of Mandingo. In its day it was so notorious that the Kentucky Fried Movie's "Catholic High School Girls In Trouble" fake trailer declared it was "more offensive than Mandingo!" Elements of the film were clearly an inspiration to Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained. And now, for those of us with more curiosity than sense comes a DVD release for Mandingo.
Based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, the movie opens on the Falconhurst plantation, somewhere in the deep South, some time before the Civil War. Falconhurst is owned by the Maxwell father and son. Dad Warren (a slumming James Mason, his accent all over the place) spends his time nagging his son to get married and have a legitimate heir, and complaining about his rheumatism. He soon finds a way to alleviate the rheumatism when his doctor prescribes using slave children as footstools so the rheumatism can "drain out" of Dad and into the children. Yes, five minutes past the credits and you're already appalled.
Son Maxwell (Perry King), meanwhile, isn't too keen on getting married as he's too busy having sex with every female slave he's attracted to. After all, he says, it's "master's duty to pleasure the wenches first time." Isn't that thoughtful? Besides, his top priority in life is to get a "Mandingo" slave to compete in bare-knuckle, to-the-death fighting competitions.
Luckily for Maxwell, in one trip to New Orleans he ends up with: a wife, when his cousin Blanche (Susan George) agrees to marry him; a new bedmate slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes); and a Mandingo fighter named Mede (Ken Norton and his one facial expression). Maxwell is smitten with Ellen and thrilled at having Mede to train. As for Blanche? Well, the wedding night's a bust when it's apparent she's not a virgin.
Once everyone's back at Falconhurst, Maxwell divides his time between his tender-on-the-surface-creepy-in-the-subtext relationship with Ellen and his efforts to make Mede a top fighter. Blanche, meanwhile, ignored and increasingly neurotic and frustrated, drowns her sorrows in sherry and seethes with resentment against Ellen. It's a recipe for disaster that's fully realized when Blanche blackmails Mede into an affair, and nine months later there's that awkward moment when the baby's not white.
Mandingo isn't nearly as shocking as it was back in the day, but it's just as distasteful. Though not graphic by today's standards, it shows a world in which every person is vile or foolish, with casual acceptance of rape, incest, sadism, infanticide, torture, and murder. The subject matter of slavery and its caustic effect on the society that supports it has potential, but Mandingo squanders the opportunity. It's too grim and nasty to be campy, and too inept to take seriously. The subject matter is exploitative, but the film doesn't ask you to leer at the cheap thrills; instead, the camera just sort of sits there and records the happenings in that depressing, dingy way peculiar to 1970s movies.
The only times Mandingo is effective at all is when it strays into horror film territory. The decaying, decrepit mansion of Falconhurst (notice there are no decorations on the walls and furniture is a bare minimum - it's as if everything has been sold off) is, thanks to the occasional effective bit of camerawork and Maurice Jarre's odd but appropriate score, is the ancestor of every creepy Southern house seen in horror movies. And in their own ways, Blanche, Ellen, and Mede are as trapped by the vile family as any bunch of unlucky kids who strayed into the wrong cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, the three are too cartoonishly neurotic (in Blanche's case) or naive to the point of stupidity (Ellen and Mede) to engender much sympathy.
It's a curiosity piece for aficionados of bad cinema, but you'll probably want to shower after the movie.
The DVD is a bare-bones release with no extras.