DARK SIDE OF GENIUS
Color, 1994, 96m.
Directed by Phedon Papamichael
Starring Finola Hughes, Brent David Fraser, Glenn Shadix, Moon Unit Zappa, Patrick Bauchau, Seymour Cassel
Scorpion (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1994, 92m.
Directed by Jag Mundhra
Starring Steven Bauer, Tahnee Welch, John Laughlin, Nia Peeples, Adrian Zmed, Lee Anne Beaman, Kathy Shower
Color, 1996, 111m.
Directed by Jag Mundhra
Starring Doug Jeffrey, Kathy Shower, Lee Anne Beaman, Brandy Ledford
Though we had erotic thrillers around to a minor extent in the 1980s, it wasn't until the runaway success of 1992's Basic Instinct that the big and small screens were flooded with countless titles featuring double crosses galore, steamy sex scenes, and sweltering sax music. The ground that had been laid (ahem) with films like Fatal Attraction and 9 1/2 Weeks was suddenly yielding rich crops for hungry producers who could stack video shelves with anything starring Shannon Tweed, Tanya Roberts, and often baffled actors like Jan-Michael Vincent and Andrew Stevens.
Scorpion Releasing revisits those golden days of illicit box art and steamy cable programming with a trio of separate DVD releases from the era's golden age, ranging from 1994 to 1996. First up we have the only one granted a full-on special edition and easily the least traditionally "erotic" of the lot, Dark Side of Genius, which was given a VHS release by Paramount with the tagline, "Creating an erotic masterpiece can be murder." (Weirdly, the same year saw another painting-themed erotic thriller called Fleshtone, which confused more than a couple of video store customers.) What we actually have here is a very dark film -- literally, as it's shot in vast pools of inky blackness that look like a cracked homage to Derek Jarman, Rinse Dream, and Roberta Findlay. Brent David Fraser, a character actor from films like Wild at Heart and the fake sequel Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue, wrote a couple of songs for the soundtrack and stars as Julian Jons, an eccentric painter who's been locked away for a few years after supposedly bumping off one of his models. Now he's back on the street and ready to pick up his paintbrush again, which his reps smell as a financial sure thing. Arts reporter Jennifer Cole (Hughes) senses a good story here and decides to investigate (while talking it over with her roomie, played by Moon Unit Zappa!), which of course leads to romantic entanglements, nightmares, cross dressing, and murder.
Elevated considerably by its visual style and surprising cast, Dark Side of Genius was directed by busy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, Identity, The Monuments Men), whose few other directorial efforts range from the not-bad cable TV movie Sketch Artist to the pretty-darn-good horror film From Within. His father served as a production designer and art director on several John Cassavetes films, which probably explains why Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel pops up here in a small role as one of the unbalanced artist's patrons. Perhaps the juiciest part actually goes to the late Glenn Shadix as a flamboyant art dealer; best known as the roles in Tim Burton films (including the arrogant interior designer in Beetlejuice), he's a pretty vivid presence here and injects some energy when the film threatens to flag (which happens frequently in the midsection). It's also fun seeing a leading role for the gorgeous Hughes, a regular on General Hospital who catapulted into camp film immortality opposite John Travolta in the ill-fated Staying Alive. There's also a small part for Patrick Bauchau (from The Rapture and Phenomena), but he barely has a chance to make an impression.
Probably due to its pedigree more than its modest thrills, Dark Side of Genius has been packaged as a "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" title with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters offering artist-themed wraparounds in which she talks about the major players and the legacy of the erotic thriller genre. The transfer itself is a new one, surprisingly (since most of these films were targeted for the home video market with their film elements tough to find now); the anamorphic transfer looks fine given the stylized and sometimes muddy appearance of the source, but at least now you can tell what the heck is going on most of the time. You also get a new video interview with Hughes, who still looks amazing and offers some pretty charming memories of working on the film (and her sometimes intimidating co-stars), which runs for 16 minutes; far more sprawling is a second hour-long featurette with Fraser, who covers pretty much every single aspect of his career you can imagine including competing with other actors for parts, writing the tunes for the soundtrack, and sizing up his achievements and shortcomings in this role. Also included are additional trailers like Lurkers, Tower of Evil, and the next two films under discussion here.
Both of the other Scorpion erotic thrillers were directed by Jag Mundhra, a now-deceased Indian filmmaker who jetted over to Hollywood in 1987 with the amusingly dippy slasher film Open House. He quickly found his calling with the VHS hit Night Eyes and stuck in the genre for other sweaty offerings like Last Call, Wild Cactus, and Tropical Heat; pretty much all of his films involve married couples torn apart by deceit, infidelity, and murder, and you'll get plenty more of that here. On top of that, both films work as showcases for a trio of the genre's regular players: blonde Playboy centerfold and onetime TV actress Kathy Shower, auburn-haired Wendy MacDonald (who started off in films like Blood Frenzy before making a string of these puppies for almost a decade), and short-lived star Lee Anne Beaman, who broke out in Mirror Images and became a leading lady right off the bat. In sort, if any director epitomized the look and feel of the 1990s VHS heyday, Mundhra is it.
Using the template of a legal thriller to mount a series of betrayals and sex scenes, Improper Conduct charts the pandemonium wrought by a sleazy ad chairman, Michael Miller (Crimes of Passion's Laughlin), who got his job through nepotism and uses it to act like a pig with every woman around him. One employee, graphic designer Ashley (Cocoon's Welch), doesn't take kindly to his tactics and files a lawsuit, setting off a deadly chain of events. Her ticked-off sister Kay (Beaman) decides to swoop in along with Ashley's lawyer, Sam (Bauer), to deliver some payback.
The plot isn't really anything new here, of course, but it's odd to see such a contrasting batch of actors bumping up against each other in one film. You have Adrien Zmed (Grease 2 and T.J. Hooker) popping by for an extended cameo in some eye-punishing outfits, perky Nia Peeples (from TV's Fame) as a shapely paralegal named Bernie(!), and even crusty Stuart Whitman (Shock Treatment) as the company owner in a role he probably shot in about an hour while stopping by the set. Top-billed Bauer (who already headlined one of the best proto-erotic thrillers, Thief of Hearts, and had recently appeared in Raising Cain) actually doesn't get all that much screen time either; he actually had a lot more to do in two other similar 1994 titles, Stranger by Night and Woman of Desire. Not exactly the most charismatic actor, Laughlin really gets way more screen time and does what he can with his sleazy part, groping and sweating his way through the convoluted plotline. However, this being a Mundhra film, you get plenty of the holy trinity of Shower, MacDonald, and Beaman, who writhe around a lot in lingerie while that nonstop saxophone blares on the soundtrack. It's nothing close to great art, but it is pretty amusing and exactly what you'd expect given the cast and storyline. Plus you get a sex scene in a bunch of stacks of banker boxes, which has to be a first. Yeah, it's all basically a rip-off of the same year's Disclosure with the whole gender-switching angle siphoned out, but there's still plenty of low grade amusement to be had if you're in the mood.
Also on DVD is our second Mundhra film, Irresistible Impulse, which came out two years later and drops the whole stunt casting angle entirely. Instead we get a lot more sex and nudity, a far more convoluted plot, and, yes, more sax music (including a loud theme song that sounds like a demo for The Lost Boys).
Doug Jeffrey, another genre regular from roles in stuff like Secret Places and Animal Instincts II, headlines as "real estate hustler" Richard Lovejoy, who has a sexy estranged wife named Tina (Shower, of course) and can't keep his eye from wandering. He also has a tendency to forge checks, even his wife's, which lands him in hot water over and over. He ends up spending the afternoon with a sexy client named Carolyn Wetherby (MacDonald) who ends up dead before he can vamoose. He decides to put his forging skills to good use and, faster than you can saw Chinatown, ends up entangled with another woman who claims to be the real Carolyn (Beaman). Of course, it all turns out to be part of a much bigger plot that's bound to end in murder and a big, illogical, hilarious car explosion.
Both films are presented in their unrated versions (as much shorter R-rated editions were prepped for places like Blockbuster), with Irresistible Impulse clocking in at an eye-popping 111 minutes. The transfers look like the video masters created back in the '90s, which means they're full frame. That means open matte, but don't bother trying to reframe on a widescreen TV or you'll lose 90% of the reason for watching these in the first place. Detail is about on par with a cable broadcast from the era, but at least now you won't have to put up with tracking noise or tape dropouts from other folks making overactive use of the pause button. The respective theatrical trailers are the sole extras.
Reviewed on August 20, 2013.