Color, 1977, 108 / 91m.
Directed by Peter Savage
Starring Joanna Bell, Helen Madigan, Peter Savage, Marc Stevens, Sonny Landham, Pamela Serpe
Vinegar Syndrome (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), After Hours (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9),
New York adult filmmaking took some pretty wild detours in the 1970s, and one of the craziest was Sylvia, revisited by Vinegar Syndrome under its elusive super-long cut under the title A Saint... a Woman... a Devil. This one now exists on home video in no less than four different versions, but we'll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, what we have here is a sleazy take on Three Faces of Eve crossed with the hot made-for-TV hit Sybil as the enigmatic Joanna Bell stars as Sylvia, a devout housewife housing a Pandora's Box of hidden deviant personalities inside her prim exterior.
Whether it's a vacuum cleaner salesman (industry vet Marc Stevens) or her sister's visiting lesbian pal (Helen Madigan), Sylvia can't seem to control her body or her mind from wandering out of control. She goes to see a shrink played by the film's director, Peter Savage a.k.a. Peter Petrella a.k.a. Armand Peters (a cohort of Jake LaMotta and actor in films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), but that just allows him a front row seat to her wild personality swings which range from religious lunacy to orgiastic debauchery with junkies (including Predator's Sonny Landham during his porn star phase). Can Sylvia pull herself together before her life completely falls apart?
Released in theaters by Rochelle Films, the same outfit behind Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and Driller Killer, this film was circulated on VHS and in its first DVD incarnation from VCX, whose print was heavily trimmed and not worth watching at all. A 2008 "Director's Series" edition from After Hours marked the longest edition to that point, clocking in at 91 minutes (including the restoration of Bell's surprising salad tossing routine) and sporting a scratchy but improved anamorphic transfer. However, the best thing about the disc (and the reason to still hang on to it) was a spectacular audio commentary with the film's assistant director and production manager (and nephew of Jake LaMotta), William Lustig, who famously went on to found Blue Underground and direct numerous cult favorites like Maniac and Maniac Cop. (He also made two sojourns into directing adult films with The Violation of Claudia and Hot Honey, both overdue for special editions of their own.) Moderated by Michael Bowen, it's outrageously candid throughout including some wild tales about Bell, who had some serious issues and quite a violent streak. He also shares a tragic but amazing story about the real identity of "Junkie #2," which could have only happened in the '70s.
Now we jump forward to 2014 with the DVD release from Vinegar Syndrome under that longer original title, and incredibly, this disc contains two cuts of the film: an R-rated version clocking in at 90 minutes and what has got to be the longest possible version of the X-rated cut, a whopping 108 minutes. There actually isn't much difference in the sexual content here, rather a lot more plot and dialogue. The biggest addition is a lengthy, eerie childhood flashback, likely deleted because it features a child actress (though there's nothing remotely sexual about her scenes). It was common practice to remove any footage involving minors regardless of the context in films like this, a fate that also befell titles like Both Ways and turned the ensuing DVDs into heavily edited gibberish. Anyway, this version is 100% complete from the looks of it and has been kept it much better shape than the After Hours print; in fact, it's darn near spotless. Interestingly, the framing is also radically different with the Vinegar Syndrome featuring far more headroom compared to the After Hours version, which is heavily cropped on top but features more at the bottom. (Click on the label names for the same shot from each release.) As for that R-rated version (which also features the Saint title), it's also really well done and comparable to the usual alternate soft cuts of the time with some alternate angles, takes, and edits substituting for the raunchier original footage.
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Reviewed on March 10, 2014.