THE ALTAR OF LUST
Color, 1971, 81m.
Directed by Roberta Findlay
Starring Erotica Lantern, Harry Reems, Fred J. Lincoln, Suzy Mann, C. Davis Smith
ANGEL ON FIRE
Color, 1974, 75m.
Directed by Roberta Findlay
Starring Darby Lloyd Raines, Alan Marlow, Jennifer Jordan, Jamie Gillis, Marc Stevens, Eric Edwards, Judy Craven
Vinegar Syndrome (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Something Weird (US R0 NTSC)
A genuine jack of all trades in the exploitation industry, Roberta Findlay found herself at an unusual crossroads in the early '70s. She had been toiling in roughies for several years, starring in and writing the scripts for a string of films directed by her husband, Michael Findlay (Snuff), even co-directing a couple of them under the radar. However, with the demand for hardcore overtaking the market, she began dipping her toes in the deepest waters of sexploitation, with two very different examples collected in this DVD double feature from Vinegar Syndrome.
First up is Roberta's inaugural solo feature, The Altar of Lust, which plays like a Technicolor revamp of her softcore roughie days until it suddenly goes unsimulated for a few jolting shots near the end. As with several of Findlay's subsequent films, the story is told through the eyes of a woman dealing with her own sexual identity, in this case the blank-faced Viveca (the uniquely named "Erotica Lantern"), dubbed by Roberta herself. Trying to adjust to life in the Big Apple, Viveca's still trying to get over her past in Europe, including a particularly unpleasant sexual assault by her stepfather one sunny afternoon in a grassy field. (Though obviously very simulated, it's still a very vicious scene.) Now she's working through her issues with her shrink, Dr. Rogers, played by none other than the late Fred J. Lincoln, star of Last House on the Left and director of countless smut films. Looking way more clean cut than usual, Lincoln talks her through her complicated relationship issues involving her boyfriend, Don (Reems, one year before Deep Throat and his famous mustache). They can't seem to keep their hands off of each other, be it in the shower or in public, but since they started swinging with other men and women, Viveca's getting an itch to expand her horizons to other girls, too. Can she get herself sorted out with the doc's help, in or out of her clothes?
You won't find a more fascinating example of the transition from soft to hardcore than this one, a film that seems to keep pushing the boundaries of what can be shown further and further with each sex scene. Many prints (including the one circulated on VHS and DVD-R from Something Weird) omitted some graphic oral footage involving Reems and one female costar, but even in softened form this was definitely at the extreme end of the spectrum for its time. Lantern is a long, long way from the most magnetic actresses of her ilk, but Findlay's film wisely doesn't require her to do much more than lie on a couch, strip, and lie on the ground. On the other hand, Reems is his usual hammy self, swiping every scene he's in and offering a glimpse of a genial adult star in the making. As for the disc itself, Vinegar Syndrome's transfer from the original negative is light years beyond the faded, scratchy versions seen in the past, and it's completely uncut, too. Colors look almost ridiculously vivid at times, and the nonstop parade of flesh tones seems to be accurately rendered.
Next we skip forward three years to Angel on Fire, a full-on XXX fantasy obviously inspired by the 1964 Vincente Minnelli film Goodbye Charlie (which was also the basis for Blake Edward's Switch many years later). Originally released as Angel Number 9, the film features almost every New York industry regular from the time, presumably attracted by the opportunity to actually act in between sex scenes. After an afternoon roll in the sack with his girlfriend, self-absorbed jackass Steven (Marlow) verbally berates her and leaves her high and dry after finding out she's pregnant. While walking down the street, justice is served immediately when he's mowed down by a truck driven by George (Stevens), who's distracted by a woman servicing him in the driver's seat. And voila, Steven's off to heaven for an appointment with Angel #9 (Jordan in one of her first roles), whom he beds before returning to Earth as a woman named Stephanie, now played by the great Darby Lloyd Rains. Stephen/Stephanie has to experience the other side of the coin as a woman at the mercy of heartless men like himself, but first she gets to let her libido run wild by, naturally, seducing the guy who ran her over in the first place. Some self-exploration in the shower and lesbian dabbling soon follow, but turnabout eventually comes when Stephanie hooks up with a dirt bag named Jeff (Gillis) who's about to teach her an inevitable lesson.
A fascinating film in many respects, Angel on Fire ranks as one of Findlay's strongest efforts both in and out of the porn field. In fact, you could argue that adult filmmaking seemed to bring out her best instincts as a filmmaker based on the results of this and other titles like the disturbing A Woman's Torment and Anyone But My Husband. (You could also call this a real work of auteur erotica since she also wrote, produced, shot, and edited it, and probably provided craft services, too). Of course, within a decade she'd be switching gears again for horror films like Lurkers and Prime Evil, but here she really seemed to be breaking new ground in an arena where the rules hadn't even solidified yet. The ads trumpeted this as "the first explicit erotic film directed by a woman," and while that may not be technically true, it sure does feel it.
Angel on Fire also made the rounds on VHS and DVD-R under that title, which was slapped on for its successful theatrical reissue from Essex. Labels like Something Weird, Alpha Blue Archives and Excalibur Films all took a crack at it from less than prime film materials, looking heavily faded and riddled with splices. Relatively speaking, the Vinegar Syndrome transfer is the best of the bunch; it's anamorphic and features much better color, though it's still from a 35mm print with a fair amount of debris and damage scattered across the screen throughout. That said, the battered aesthetic might be just as well for this one.
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Reviewed on March 12, 2014.