"Think of this as AGFA's living room, where we're just going to have a bunch of fun together," Joe Ziemba said when introducing the audience to the inaugural AGFA Secret Society screening. The American Genre Film Archive Director and Terror Tuesday programmer was giddy when handing out buttons, signifying "charter members" of this new "club", which is to meet the first Friday of every month, in order to highlight a deep cut selection that either his horror-centric showcase or Laird Jimenez's Weird Wednesday block "just can't get to." After all, if you have one of the largest film print collections in the world at your disposal, there's going to be a tendency to want to thread up every single reel at least once (but the numbers, unfortunately, simply aren't in your favor).
On top of being held in an intimate venue (Alamo South Lamar's smallest theater - forty-six seats), Ziemba's plan for the AGFA Secret Society is to allow members of the Austin film community (which he's stated his immense pride to be apart of on numerous occasions) to program titles each month, highlighting an eclectic range of filmic viewpoints. It's a wonderful act of inclusion on the programmer's part, that only strengthens the bonds that Austin's rather wonderful collection of cinephiles share. Suddenly, the auditorium is more of a shared space, where the lucky few who snag tickets get to indulge in each other's totally wacky tastes.
The first guest to program a selection was kick-ass AGFA volunteer Alicia Coombs, who chose Robert Vincent O'Neill's Filipino action romp from '73, Wonder Women...
Robert Vincent O'Neill had quite the strange career in exploitation filmmaking. Most notable for kicking off the vengeful hooker Angel films (of which he helmed the first two of three installments) and writing the original draft of Vice Squad ('82) for Gary Sherman, O'Neill also directed The Pyscho Lover ('70), one of the stranger riffs on Hitchcock's slasher grandaddy (which Andrew is quite the fan of). Before that, there was the shoestring softcore picture Like Mother, Like Daughter ('69); a considerably unsexy affair featuring a ton of lumpy nudity and (in the movie's more bizarre scenes) a drag queen lip-syncing to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and a lush who literally bathes in a tub full of booze. He was a schlock journeyman, whose twenty-year run abruptly ended after helming an episode of the short-lived Chicago policewoman series, Lady Blue ('85).
During the early '70s, O'Neill became just one of many American filmmakers who made their way to the Philippines*, in order to churn out cheap thrills by exploiting that country's cheaper labor and even chintzier (read: there pretty much were none) safety laws. The end result was Wonder Women ('73) - an anti-Bond international adventure where our central man of "bravery" (Five the Hard Way's ['69] Ross Hagen - a lo-fi genetic cross between Steve McQueen and Christopher George) is a former CIA man turned insurance investigator, who is called in to track down a missing jai-alai star, who's been policied by Lloyds of London for millions. Little does the bumbling lothario know, this absent athlete is just one in a string of similar disappearances, who all end up at the Island of Dr. Tzu (Nancy Kwan), a mad scientist perfecting body-swap technology for the rich.
Playing like the Filipino B-Side to Invasion of the Bee Girls (which, coincidentally, also came out in '73), Wonder Women is a PG-rated slice of sleaze that's plotted fast and loose, never letting us forget that the primary investigator is actually the least interesting character involved. Once Dr. Tzu gets word that he's been hired to try and infiltrate her secret, heavily guarded oasis of bad science, she sends one of her hyper-feminine assassins (Maria De Aragon - a/k/a Greedo from Star Wars ['77] without the make-up) after him. O'Neill's rather shamelessly crafting his own approximation of a Eurospy Bond knock-off, transplanting the subgenre's hallmarks onto another continent: evil Asian villain with an island full of deadly, scantily-clad fembots, weird science, cool chases in exotic, low-budget locations, a chaotic finale and, most importantly, a supremely obnoxious hero.
However, what sets Wonder Women apart (as Alicia pointed out in her brief intro) is how reckless some of the action is, due to the conditions under which it was filmed. Making movies in Manila circa '73 was easy, and the industry was so booming that filmmakers could stage these wild chases through the streets without their bevy of "extras" (read: people who were just out running their daily errands) really paying the ruckus any mind. That said, there's some truly crazy stunt-work on display, as performers throw themselves off rooftops, and cars careen through open air markets, before jumping directly into pools of still drainage ditch water. There's a genuine sense of danger ever-present, accented by the fact that O'Neill and his crew just captured and edited a real life cockfight into a slow-mo dance of animal cruelty in the previous scene. Just like the Italians would during the "Cannibal Craze" of the '70s, there's a true element of icky exploitation that heightens (or lowers, depending on your POV) this otherwise silly piece of cinema.
Still - much of Wonder Women's charm comes from its idiosyncrasies, as it seems every scene has something somewhat odd happening inside of it. Much of the cast - such as Vic Diaz (Blood Thirst ['71]) and Sid Haig (The Big Bird Cage ['72]) - were either local performers or in-country Americans making similar brands of low-budget exploitation. Dr. Tzu's introduction of "brain sex" beat Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock's dirty mind's eye rendezvous in Demolition Man ('93) to the screen by twenty years (to be clear: "brain sex" is exactly what you think it is). A late in the game unleashing of Tzu's Moreau-esque "mistakes" takes the movie over the top, as the shambling deformed creatures are yet another chaste-yet-charming element tossed into this pulp hodgepodge. The fact that O'Neill ends the movie on cinema's weirdest match of erotic chess only tells us one thing: Wonder Women was built for fun, nothing more, and what a joy it is to behold in a room full of like-minded goofballs.
*For a rather rudimentary crash course on this industry, we recommend Mark Hartley's doc Machete Maidens Unleashed! ('10).