Color, 1969, 74m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring Walter Camp, Jeanette Mills, Sharon Matt, Vincene Wallace, Bonnie Clark

Color, 1969, 92m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring Sharon Matt, Kip Marsh, Roxanne Jones, Tom Thorn

Color, 1971, 74m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Narrated by Joseph L. Turner
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)

HG LewisBefore he became infamous as the Godfather of Gore in the 1960s with films like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, director Herschell Gordon Lewis enjoyed a successful career in a different area of exploitation filmmaker with frequent producer David F. Friedman: the nudie cutie. Though they featured no actual sex, these (now charming and relatively quaint) drive-in perennials like Daughter of the Sun, Boin-n-g, and Bell, Bare and Beautiful used devices like nudist camps and photograHG Lewisphy models to deliver pretty women in various states of undress, usually smiling and posing for the camera. Occasionally things got a bit grittier (like the outrageous Scum of the Earth), and even during his horror heyday, he still occasionally dipped his toes back into nudie films with efforts like The Alley Tramp and How to Make a Doll.

By 1969, the theatrical market was changing rapidly as the collapse of the MPAA and an overall relaxation in censorship allowed far more freedom in depicting human sexuality onscreen, which of course would eventually lead to the wave of porno chic in the '70s. From that year until his (now temporary) retirement from filmmaking in 1972, Lewis ventured into far more extreme territory in both his gore and nudie films, with three of the latter vanishing from circulation after the early '70s and considered lost for many decades. However, the original negatives were recovered and given meticulous, digitally cleaned HD transfers, much to the shock and surprise of Lewis fans everywhere who had read about this elusive trio for years with little hope of actually seeing them in action. So, do they live up to expectations? Let's find out...

First up both chronologically and on the release (which presents both Blu-Ray and DVD discs) is Ecstasies of Women, a very saucy, Euro-style title for what really amounts to Lewis' first genuine sex film. It's still strictly softcore, though here the actors bare it all and writhe around in plenty of simulated sex scenes, some more comfortably performed than others. All of them in one way or another involve Harry (Camp), a lingerie salesman who lives on a boat called High Time in Marina Del Rey (where a sign marked "Brothel" appears next to his bed, weirdly enough). We first see Harry partying with some buddies at a strip club, celebrating a last hurrah before Harry's impending marriage. Harry occasionally indulges in a daydream (or actually nods off by the looks of it, which probably didn't sit too well with the topless dancers), remembering some of his past dalliances. The first and longest involves a seaside bar pickup with a woman named Annette (Mills), whom he charms by claiming to be from Intercouse, Pennsylvania. They gab and gab for a long time before making out in his car and then going back to his boat for a marathon lovemaking session. Then he reflects on two other women from his past including beach girl Sandy (Wallace) who wins him over but has to leave after their one night together. Eventually he, his buddies, and all the strippers decide to go back to his boat, where they indulge in a sort-of orgy that causes Harry to change the course of his life for good.

The club scenes here are prime Lewis material, with the opening credits over a pair of topless go-go dancers feeling like a trial run for The Gore Gore Girls. His sense of composition and control of his actors is also far more loose here, sometimes leaving the camera rolling while the actors contort humorously to read their cue cards (something Camp really doesn't even bother trying to cover up during his long dialogue scenes). The actual sex scenes are long and filled with bare flesh but not terribly steamy; Lewis seems more comfortable when the performers start playing for comedy, with some bantering continuing well into the bedroom (or the boat room as the case may be). All in all, it's an amusing diversion for LewHG Lewisis fans, not all that different from the softcore films Ed Wood was churning out around the same time but containing enough of the director's flourishes to keep things interesting.

Made the same year, Linda & Abilene is perhaps the most familiar of these three films thanks to the frequent reprints of its poster art and the tantalizHG Lewising concept of Lewis helming a western sex film. Other producers were already busy churning out softcore and biker films using western-style locations outside of Los Angeles at the time, so it made sense for Lewis to jump in as well. The result is almost an art film by Lewis standards, a melancholy and (comparatively) polished look at the ill-fated relationship between siblings Tod (Marsh) and Abilene (Matt, also seen in a minor role in Ecstasies). Left alone at home after the deaths of their parents, they find their hormones kicking into overdrive as Tod spies on his skinny dipping and both of them take to self-gratification to try to suppress their urges. Eventually they give in to their desires (during which Tod displays the magic ability to perform without even unzipping his jeans), which leads to naked lake frolicking and lots of guilt. Tod tries to find comfort with saloon girl Linda (Jones), but while they're fooling around in town, Abilene is assaulted by nasty cowpoke Rawhide (Thorn). Both brother and sister take drastic action in the aftermath, which leads to a sapphic and violent finale.

A film a bit out of step with its time, Linda & Abilene was made at a time when most western films were filled with whipping, branding, and rough sex to try to keep up with the times; instead, this film is more of a character study with Matt and Marsh actually doing a better job than expected in their lead roles. The relatively mammoth running time of 92 minutes also allows a little more variety in terms of locations and character interactions, though oddly enough, this is actually far less padded than the prior Lewis film on the disc. It's also shot more skillfully than your average Lewis film, and while it still feels more like '60s actors playing dress up than genuine westBlack Loveern town inhabitants, it's a respectable shot that takes a few unexpected directions outside of your usual skin flick formula.

Two years later, Lewis directed a film whose place in his filmography has long been cause for speculation: Black Love. The few occasions Lewis even owned up to helming the feature left many scratching their heads trying to figure out exactly what it could be outside of the obvious trappings of a sexploitation film focusing on black couples in a variety of carnal scenarios. As itBlack Love turns out, this is really a porn-era variation on those educational sex films with narrators droning on about the merits of various coital activities while performers demonstrate techniques and positions for the camera. This time, a "writer and narrator" named "Joseph L. Turner" jabbers nonstop about the importance of showing the beauty and normalcy of, well, black love as couples (most of them married, at least according to Turner) copulate in front of some of the most horrifying interior design ever captured on film.

The enterprise starts out fairly mildly as a teen learns about the birds and the bees by watching a couple go at it in broad daylight in a parked car, complete with a couple of jarring hardcore shots. Then the basic idea gets repeated as other people learn about beautiful boom boom through observation, until we get to a suburban bar dance party that turns into some kind of naked love-in with all the attendees bumping bare butts. From that point on it's pretty much a straight-up porn film as two different couples get into various graphic positions for your personal education, including perhaps the most painful demonstration of "oral copulation" you'll ever see.

There's really no way on earth you'd ever peg Black Love as a Lewis film (apart from the funky title card which looks related to the wild graphic design for Gore Gore), but it's great to finally have this perplexing chapter in the Lewis filmography finally available for all to see. If you've seen any other educational sex films, the tone here is pretty similar as it usually feels like a classroom scare film crossed with Deep Throat. None of the performers look familiar, but they actually seem a lot more relaxed, cheerful, and uninhibited than your usual early '70s stag film actors; while Lewis has vocally disavowed any desire to work in hardcore on numerous occasions, it's obvious he could've handled it well enough hadBlack Love he chosen to go down that avenue any further.

All three titles were transferred in 2K from the original negatives and look absolutely terrific, especially considering their rarity. (The DVD is conspicuously murkier and softer but fine for standard def, about on par with your average Something Weird release.) Damage is extremely minimal and fleeting (mainly during some of the text and credit cards in Black Love, which is no big deal), and the colors are vibrant but accurate throughout with those all-important flesh tones looking healthy in each one. The fine film grain looks natural as well, delivering sharp detail withHG Lewisout what looks like any digital futzing to try to make the image look more slick or modern. Really nice all around. All three are presented in their open aperture 1.37:1 aspect ratios, which once again raises the question of how Lewis intended to frame his films in the first place. His compositions have often tended to the wonky side, and while films like Blood Feast were quite obviously kept safe for theatrical exhibition in the vicinity of 1.85:1, some of his other titles like Something Weird manage to look odd no matter how you frame them. Ecstasies of Women is another of those oddball titles, with opening credits featuring massive open areas at the top and bottom indicating this was intended to be matted for theatrical exhibition. (And if you zoom it to 1.78:1 on a widescreen TV, it's obvious the, ahem, focus of the framing is supposed to shift pretty dramatically.) On the other hand, many other scenes wouldn't work matted at all, so it's really anyone's guess. In any case, the decision to just present all of the available visual information is probably the safest, and it also reveals some probably unintentional flashes of unusually graphic exposure of both Camp and Mills in Ecstasies. Linda & Abilene plays just fine masked off to 1.78:1 if you feel so inclined, while Black Love is definitely best left alone as is. All of them are most impressive on the Blu-Ray, which is progressive and encoded with a healthy bit rate. Each film also contains its original theatrical trailer, and all of them are pretty great. The Ecstasies of Women one is textless and features Camp introducing himself and selling the film to the audience while riding one of his female stars, while the very long (over five minutes!) one for Linda & Abilene tries to make the film sound a lot more lurid than it really is and keeps coming up with ways to work "69" into the pitch. The one for Black Love is, well, pretty representative of the final film, complete with the same great title card. Also included is a thorough, well-written set of liner notes by Casey Scott, who rifles through the sometimes baffling available facts about the films, comes up with a plausible explanation for Matt's participation in the first two titles, and notes some of the more outrageous tidbits about the productions, such as Black Love's connection to a local Baskin-Robbins store owner! A real dream come true for vintage exploitation fans, this is quite an auspicious debut for Vinegar Syndrome and easily one of the most persuasive arguments for any cult film fans to switch over to Blu-Ray if they haven't made the leap already.

Buy from Diabolik DVD.

Reviewed on January 3, 2013.