OCTOBER 8, 2007

You know what I'm contemplating right now? Uschi Digard. No matter how innocuous or even flat-out worthless a skin flick might be, she just sparks life right into the screen whenever she appears. Case in point: The Madam, part of After Hours' triple-feature Skin in the Sixties release (a single-discer this time). There's little plot as Uschi plays a buxom young thing who talks a chopper-riding stud into giving her a lift to her mom's place, which turns out to be a very busy cathouse. John samples the wars, helps out with clients trying to pick a lady for the evening, and finally winds up in bed with Uschi herself. The sex is pretty gynecological for a softcore film, but as usual it's Uschi who really makes this worth watching with a final ten-minute sequence guaranteed to steam up a few pairs of glasses. Next up is another unearthed film from the idiosyncratic Nick Phillips, L'Amour de Femme, which not surprisingly smacks viewers across the face with lesbianism left and right in a threadbare story about... well, girls messing around girls, repressed girls learning to mess around with other girls, and guys turning gay because they're not girls messing around with girls. It's all very colorful and very, very '60s and would make great video wallpaper at a retro party. Finally, the third "feature," Take Them As They Are, is understandably treated as a supplement on the disc itself. Basically it's a really ragged-looking collection of sex scenes edited together in a blender, with lots of really ugly people spreading their legs for the camera. Don't watch it before a big meal. Picture quality varies, with the Phillips feature looking quite pristine, the Uschi one looking okay if a bit worn at times, and the last one... well, just don't say you weren't warned. 42nd Street Pete pops up for a quick video intro about peep loops (I have no idea why) and then contributes a more relevant set of liner notes about the films, with supplemental comments from a "Dr. Eroticus" covering some of the actors involved.

From there we hop over to full-on nasty bidniss with early '70s porn queen Suzanne Fields, best known for her listless lead role in Flesh Gordon (which lost all of her nastiest scenes due to legal hassles). Ms. Fields finally gets her day in the digital sun with After Hours' Gunilla, a two-disc celebration highlighted by the title film. Yep, it's another Nick Phillips special, and this time he puts Suzanne through the sapphic paces as a lesbian stuck alone at a ski lodge who gets it on with anything she can find, starting with a pair of black leather boots and then moving on to sex toys and passing ski bunnies. It's all rather goofy and innocent early '70s smut, and Fields surprisingly looks really good here and shows a bit more expression than usual. It also helps that there's no direct sound whatsoever (another Phillips trademark), just lots of hilarious florid voiceovers and grinding instrumental music. The print used is mint quality and one of the best-looking hardcore presentations around (if you can ignore that irritating After Hours watermark that pops up for a few seconds here and there). Fields pops up again on the first disc for a silent loop called "The Filthy Photographer," a crummy-looking quickie with John Holmes seducing Fields during a photo shoot. Disc two gets a bit weirder with two additional Fields features; the one-hour Kinky Casting Couch is just a series of XXX sex scenes but with some incredibly strange POV shots, including one inside... well, just see for yourself. If this had been in 3-D, psychological damage could have ensued. Fields is definitely the most attractive person in the cast, which looks like a bunch of vagrants snagged off of Hollywood Boulevard. Finally, the slightly shorter The Mind Blowers is a goofy anti-drug porno about lesbians who decide to forgo the straight life and wind up nailing anything in pants. Once again Fields gets a graphic girl-on-girl scene all to herself, which should make her fans plenty happy. Neither of these bonus features is in terribly good condition (and the faux-widescreen framing is dubious at best), but collectors will want 'em all the same.

So, you might ask, if Suzanne Fields wound up doing lots of lesbian porn films, what happened to her co-star-- Flesh Gordon himself, Jason Williams? Well, he went somewhat more legit by teaming up with that film's producer, Bill Osco, for a series of drive-in films, occasionally even co-writing or producing them as well. (Check out the misleadingly-titled Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend for a prime example.) Or you could take a gander at Media Blasters' Copkillers, which pairs up Williams and Osco as scruffy-looking criminals riding through the desert in a junky van who run afoul of and shoot holes in a few cops, swipe an ice cream truck, pick up a female hostage, and bicker and whine at each other before running smack into destiny for a violent finale. Shot dirt cheap in the wilds of Arizona, the film ladles on enough violence and social misbehavior for the grindhouse crowd, though despite the folks behind and in front of the camera, sexual activity is kept to a PG-rated minimum. Williams clearly seems to savor his villainous role and once again is better than the material, while Osco handles his more ambiguous role well enough. The transfer looks fine given the threadbare nature of the production (light levels never quite seem to be where they should), and Williams pops up for a great interview featurette in which he discusses his overall exploitation career and the film's "make it up as you go along" shooting. Then Williams contributes an equally valuable commentary track (moderated by Adam Trash) going into more detail about this film as well as the shooting and legal woes of his most famous leading role. He's definitely an interesting figure in '70s exploitation, and finally getting his thoughts down for posterity makes this a must-buy for any self-respecting trash movie fan. For maximum enjoyment, pair it up with Howard Ziehm's indispensable Flesh Gordon commentary for a great two-sided view of the Osco era.

Jumping back on the exploitation timeline a bit, female drive-in pioneer Doris Wishman started off her bizarre, truly unique career with an appropriate project, Hideout in the Sun. This mild-mannered nudist camp frolic comes packed with the all the staples you'd expect (volleyball players with one team wearing pants to obstruct frontal nudity, bare-butt archery, gals lounging in swimming pools on inflatable rafts with their legs oh-so-strategically placed, etc.). Lensed in very bright color, it's an utterly ridiculous robbery caper shoehorned into a nudie-cutie template as robbers Steve Martin (Doris must've just been watching the original Godzilla) and Duke wind up hiding at a Miami naturist resort on their way to Cuba, with a buxom hostage, Dorothy Courtney (yes, really), in tow. Duke hides out in their bungalow while Steve and Dorothy go au naturel to blend in with the locals, and soon their escape plans take a not-too-surprising turn. It's all rather sweet and innocent, with the heavy amount of bare bosoms and derrieres blending in with the scenery after a few minutes, and Doris' fractured framing is kept to a minimum here. The cast is mostly a bunch of no-names, but Dorothy is played by nudist movie regular Dolores Carlos, who also popped up in favorites like Diary of a Nudist, Pagan Island, H.G. Lewis' A Taste of Blood, and the immortal The Beast That Killed Women. After Hours' DVD of this long-lost treasure (thought extinct after the producer died in prison after stashing away all the elements) looks excellent in its digital incarnation; for some reason this open matte (1.33:1) film is presented in both full frame and 16x9 enhanced versions on separate discs. The compositions on the latter look better with all the extraneous headroom lopped away, but it's really a toss-up either way depending on your TV setting. Doris Wishman expert Michael J. Bowen (now the official owner of the film) contributes a full audio commentary in which he talks in detail about Doris' career and the bizarre history of this film, and he also provides liner notes and a text interview with Doris going more into detail about her nudist camp cinematic cycle, which reached its apex with the utterly mad Nude on the Moon. The first disc also contains a Wishman interview (excerpted from Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies), a 1960 "The Year That Was" newsreel, and a batch of Retro-Seduction trailers, while the second disc adds on a bonus nudie featurette ("Postcards from a Nudist Camp," basically a vintage European travelogue short) and additional vintage trailers for stuff like Joe Sarno's upcoming Daddy Darling (can't wait!).

And now we move from the sunny palms of Miami to the mean streets of New York, where filmmakers were busy cranking out much stranger black and white projects which eventually evolved into full-fledge roughies. An interesting, once-obscure transition film from this period is 1965's The Sexploiters, As the original poster pitched it, "This picture could not have been made by professionals! Many scenes were originally shot in 8mm home movie film... Now we can show them on a large screen thru a special process developed in Paris!" Yup, and there's this big bridge over there near Brooklyn that's up for sale, too. The main claim to fame for this one is the fact that it's the sole directorial effort for Al C. Ruban, who produced most of John Cassavetes' groundbreaking early films and got his start under Barry Mahon working on films like The Beautiful, the Bloody and the Bare. An interesting precursor to Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (no, really!), it's the story of married housewife Lynn (Terri Steele), who hooks up with a modeling agency that hires her out as a hooker with a specialty in kinky clients, who enjoy playing with whips and playing dead in coffins. Meanwhile her working colleague Suzy (Olga regular Jackie Miller) goes from doing cheesecake boob shots to hooking on the side, and it's not long before reality comes colliding with everyone involved. Featuring gritty monochrome photography (some of it by Doris Wishman's regular cinematographer, C. Davis Smith) and an eye-popping supporting cast (including softie vets like Gigi Darlene and June Roberts, whose footage may have been inserted later), this is great vintage scuzz and a welcome rescue from the depths of cinematic obscurity. Once again Michael Bowen provides some insightful liner notes, while Smith pops up for a rare and interesting commentary track in which he only sparingly talks about this film but gives a fascinating overview of his career at the time toiling in the New York softcore industry. The full frame transfer looks fine given the highly variable nature of the film itself -- and no, none of it actually looks like it was shot on 8mm.

Of course, exploitation filmmaking wasn't so innocent for long, and a decade later things had gotten downright scuzzy. For a look at how filthy the East Coast could get in such a short period of time, look no further than the Sex on 42nd Street Collection, a two-disc entry in After Hours' Storefront Feature series. Yep, it's lots of dubious-looking Manhattan residents getting down and dirty in each other's efficiency apartments, with a few familiar faces who would quickly turn up in films by the likes of Henry Paris. The most interesting of the three films is definitely the first, 1973's Pen Pals, an early effort from future Avon Films shockmeister Shaun Costello (see Forced Entry below). The story follows a naive Utah couple who arrive in New York to meet their married pen pals, only to discover the joys of partner swapping in their apartment. Other characters come and go, including bookending cameos by Costello that really must be seen to be believed. The cast features future Naked Came the Stranger stars Levi Richards and Mary Stuart, as well as an early appearance by future porn vet Ashley Moore. However, the vintage footage of early '70s Broadway is the real star here and makes it a valuable period snapshot as well. (Incidentally, the soundtrack on this DVD features a weird burst of newly-recorded lounge music to cover up an unauthorized use of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life!") The following year saw the next entry, Certified Mail, a very typical quickie with New York smut regular Ultramax and Marc Stevens sleepwalking through an episodic tale about a postwoman's route and all the deviants she encounters during the day. It's all very unattractively shot and not all that coherent, and the ridiculously pirated pop-song soundtrack (which used to include Elvis and the Beatles!) has been understandably replaced here with generic boppy instrumentals. The liner notes speculate C. Davis Smith (see above) might have been the lighting guy on this one, which could be true. Finally we hit the third film, Love-In Maid, which didn't appear to have any lighting people at all. Unsettling but perennially busy lead actor Bobby Astyr carries this one as one-half of a pair of would-be studs who advertise for a maid and get Cindy West, who turns out to be a sex machine. Mary Stuart pops up again (with a really horrific hairdo) as a randy census taker, and everyone has sex in those ugly, grimy-looking close-ups that make you feel like you're watching the Surgery Channel. An amazing collection for legit home video, this scuzzy threesome comes off like a slightly legitimized version of Alpha Blue's under-the-radar gray market box sets and makes a fine initiation to the "screw art, just film it" aesthetic of that time and period. Extras include a handy set of extensive liner notes and the usual barrage of newly-created After Hours trailers.

One big name in Italian sleaze during the '80s is Joe D'Amato, and he's also well served by the same company's equally esoteric nunsploitation offering, Convent of Sinners. This one doesn't even try to be as trashy as D'Amato's earlier Images in a Convent, but it still delivers the sinful goods with a tawdry tale about young Susanna (Eva Grimaldi), who's forcibly shipped off to a habit-house by her mother because her stepfather can't stop molesting her at night. (Great solution, eh?) Since the convent's populated by D'Amato softcore regulars like Jessica Moore and Karin Well, it's not long before there's a steamy lesbian love triangle erupting with everyone jockeying for power both in and out of the bedroom. Susanna wants out, but the nasty Moore and the corrupt cardinal (a quick stint by none other than Gabriele Tinti) soon have her accused of demonic possession. Nicely shot (by D'Amato, doubling as his cinematographer as usual) and more than competent on a softcore level, this film won't win any awards but should please Eurocult fans who think the erotic well has run dry. Grimaldi manages to carry her role well enough, though as usual Moore is the real showstopper (check out 11 Days, 11 Nights for her finest showcase). Exploitation Digital's worthy anamorphic transfer does what it can with the soft-filtered photography, and D'Amato fans will rejoice at the fun featurette, "Sex, Death and Video Tape," a look at the maestro's career during its final period as a glossy purveyor of straight-to-video Italian hardcore. Also included is a king-sized trailer reel of other D'Amato titles, all worth picking up.

nakedamazonSpeaking of disreputable Italians, Bloody Earth has a decidedly unwholesome offering out there called the White Slave Collection, a trio of lower-tier jungle outings in the same vein as Man from Deep River and its successors. Actually the first film, Naked Amazon, was made in 1954 and precedes all of those films, with its combination of jackass white filmmakers and on-camera animal violence anticipating the likes of the mondo cycle and specifically Cannibal Holocaust. The unpleasant "story" concerns four incredibly callous explorers who head into the emerald inferno to find a remote tribe with strange, unexplored customs. Along the way they witness various animal atrocities and even participate in a few. Shot with zero artistry or social consciousness, it's a pretty tough wallow for casual moviegoers but does hold some fascination as a blueprint for the cinematic apocalypse soon to be unleashed in the following decade and a half. The full frame transfer looks like it's framing correctly and features a decent, clear picture despite some obvious film damage and blown-out brightness levels. Up next is by far the most familiar title in this set, White Slave, whose VHS box cluttered up every mom 'n' pop video store from coast to coast. (Of course, the transfer here looks like it was taken directly from one of those tapes, which is at least good for some nostalgic value.) Undistinguished director Mario Gariazzo (best known for the trashy Exorcist rip-off, The Eerie Midnight Horror Show) isn't afraid to wallow in the muck here with a seedy story penned by mondo founder Franco Prosperi about Catherine Miles (Ironmaster's Elvire Audray), a blonde vixen who winds up living with a tribe of natives responsible for lopping off her parents' heads. Soon she's bedding the most sensitive tribe member and enlisting his aid in getting back at the ones responsible for destroying her family. Lots of bloodshed and gratuitous nudity ensues. This one features a smattering of the usual animal violence but is considerably sillier than most, which is a welcome relief. The transfer's not so hot (a better anamorphic option is available from Shriek Show under the title Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story , though some of the jungle stock footage still looks like it was shot on Super 8), but considering the bargain deal of this set, it's an okay option for newbies. Last up and certainly least is a much newer amateur oddity from 1995 entitled Sacrifice of the White Goddess, shot for about five bucks on someone's camcorder and, as the opening titles proudly proclaim, inspired by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Lots of voiceover, video dropouts, cheap tiki-style props, and bad costumes populate this endless trudge through the, ahem, "jungle" as a bespectacled college student named Holly goes to Mexico (represented by some shacks and a rail yard) to hang with the chain-smoking locals, endures some muddy-sounding local music, and finds a machete-wielding guide to take her wading (and wading and wading and wading) through waterfalls and undergrowth with another frequently topless female companion. They finally reach a tribe whose altar consists of some cardboard-looking steps, a fog machine and a big, tacky red chair swiped from a Chinese restaurant. At least there's a truly hilarious fantasy scene with a drugged Holly in a sparkly gold dress being served by a bunch of Chippendales dancers, so at least it's not a completely lost cause. There's a gory heart-ripping at the end, too, for anyone who's managed to stay awake that long. The disc also comes with a written appraisal of Naked Amazon by Justin Wingenfeld, who traces its roots all the way to our modern mondo-choked pop culture.

On a more accomplished note (and certainly on a more intentionally humorous one), Unearthed Films offers a fun 2001 under-the-radar action frenzy called Lethal Force. Made long before Hot Fuzz, it's an affectionate take on low-budget action films with Frank Prather starring as Jack, a mobster whose family comes under fire from a bunch of thugs who force him to turn on his best friend, Savitch (played by "Cash Flagg, Jr." (nice!), an accomplished hit man. Director Alvin Ecarma keeps things moving fast and tight for the extremely compact running time (just under 70 minutes), with enough blood, bullets and quips flying around to keep you distracted from trying to follow the plot. (Be warned, though, that slow motion gets done to death very quickly.) Nods to blaxploitation, John Woo, Bollywood, and pretty much every '70s and '80s American action film are cleverly wedged into the script without turning it into a rib-nudging parody. The 16mm film elements are really touch and go throughout, but it's certainly watchable and hopefully portends slicker things to come from everyone involved. Extras include an Ecarma commentary, some of his short films (with titles like "My Dog Has a Cyst" and "Me!"), a nice production gallery, a look at some (presumably fake but cool) action figures, a promotional art gallery, and additional Unearthed trailers like Frankenhooker and Nails. Some copies floating around also have a "bootleg" bonus disc included with audition footage and additional short films, so keep your eyes peeled.

One of the most amusing aspects of exploitation filmmaking all the way from the beginning is the old bait and switch, with posters promising lurid sex and violence but delivering something entirely different. (For a recent example, look no further than the already notorious Primeval.) That spirit lives on with the DVD double-feature release of two oddball '70s Al Adamson films, Five Bloody Graves and Nurse Sherri, courtesy of Retro Shock-O-Rama. Of course, any cult film fan worth his salt knows that the cover art depicting grinning, misshapen ghouls with bloody knives threatening busty women is just a fake come-on for what's really inside, namely a more-violent-than-average western and a mild blaxploitation-friendly imitation of The Exorcist. For the first film, western actor and occasional Adamson star Richard Dix stars and even chipped in on the screenplay for the story of a loner gunman pitted against a mad scalping Apache named Satago (played by future Mutant director John "Bud" Cardos, who also appears in the film as his own do-good brother!). John Carradine and a slew of '50s B-movie actors also turn up to provide local color and enough body count potential, in keeping with the Adamson tradition. Though this is one of the director's more widely-circulated non-horror outings, it has never fared too well on video and doesn't get much better here. The bolted-down framing chops away over half of the original scope framing (so much for appreciating some early work by Vilmos Zsigmond) and makes it a real chore to sit through, but at least it looks a few generations above the PD versions that have blighted shelves for years. C'mon, Sam Sherman - grab that negative out of the vaults! Up next is Nurse Sherri, presented on disc one with its video-altered title of The Possession of Nurse Sherri. It's an amusing but disposable cash-in of every possession and demonic-related title you can name from the '70s (along with obvious nods to Roger Corman's successful series of nurse drive-in films), as the titular nurse (Jill Jacobson) gets possessed by a big green blob of protoplasm and stars unleashing some telekinetic whoop-ass all over the hospital. Disc two contains the alternate sexy cut of Nurse Sherri, which prunes away a lot of PG-rated exposition in favor of cheesecake topless shots and lots of softcore heavy petting. (This version was also available on the previous standalone release and, in my opinion, plays a lot better.) Extras include the usual informative Sam Sherman commentaries (with some additional Dix commentaries thrown in for the first film), a previously unreleased alternate prologue(?) to Five Bloody Graves with Dix engaging in a flashback love scene, a video interview with Marilyn Joi, and a drive-in experience option that throws in lots of vintage interstitials and Adamson-related trailers. Finally, the set comes packaged with an amusing liner notes discussion between Chris Poggiali and Adamson biographer David Konow, who point out such tidbits as Five Bloody Graves' narrative debt to The Seventh Seal!

Imagine a Harry Novak '70s sex comedy mashed up with a '50s monster film, and the result you'd get is Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, a super-low-budget mixture of cornball humor and rampaging mutant fish monsters. (For some reason the original shooting title was Seepage!) The film was directed by Richard Griffin, a guy who's obviously filled with ambition when you consider this along with other films like an updated version of Titus Andronicus(!) and an upcoming version of The Dunwich Horror. Here he hurls pretty much every redneck stereotype at the audience, from Deliverance-inspired sodomy gags to Bubba jokes that even Larry the Cable Guy wouldn't touch. The story is the usual nonsense about a bunch of inquisitive big-city college students coming to the boonies to investigate reports of contaminated water, with lots of people getting grabbed while floating in their beloved lagoon. Yes, it's all utterly stupid and socially pointless, but this does make a great drinking movie; furthermore, the lensing and acting are definitely a cut above the average direct-to-video programmer. Plus, it still treats the monster genre with some affectionate respect and comes off better than smug hipster fare like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The film also makes amusing use of comic book-style graphics and transitions at key junctures as well (but a hint for the filmmakers: don't ever, ever show lime green text on a gray background; it doesn't read at all). Extras include a lively Griffin commentary track, a clutch of non-anamorphic deleted scenes (basically excised footage of our host Bubba talking to the camera), and additional Shock-o-Rama trailers for titles like the interesting-looking Dark Chamber. The box advertises a behind-the-scenes exta, but I couldn't find it. Maybe all the animated fish in the menu screens ate it.

Though it wasn't officially part of the '80s DIY shot-on-video horror cycle, Todd Sheets' "epic" Zombie Bloodbath series (made between 1993 and 2000) has the same look, feel and charm of those down-home gems all the same. Lots of mullets and bad facial hair star in these films, with the first installment using that old standby, an ancient Indian burial ground which becomes desecrated by the construction of a nuclear power plant. Not surprisingly, the dead start popping up all over the place and adding to their legions, with lots of intestines and fake blood sloshing across the screen. Zesty, technically inept, poorly acted and very, very red, it's... well, you know, one of those movies you can't possibly defend, but it still satisfies much in the same way as a late night Big Mac. Then it's more of the same with Zombie Bloodbath 2: Rage of the Undead, with a remote farmhouse containing a grisly secret-- namely a cursed scarecrow capable of reviving the dead. Naturally, it does after some criminals off the farmhouse's owner. Lots of people in the vicinity get mauled, and it's up to some local college kids to save the day. Finally, the most brain-dead installment, Zombie Bloodbath 3: Zombie Armageddon, pits a bunch of high school kids against an army of undead flesh eaters being created in the basement(?) as part of a secret government plan. Oh yeah, and everyone's named after a horror director (thanks so much, Joe Dante!). Super cheap, these films betray their public access-level origins at every turn in their digital incarnations courtesy of the fine folks at Camp Motion Pictures; don't expect much more than VHS quality here, but that's okay. The films and extras are spread out over two discs, with Sheets and his son adding commentaries for the first two films and some rambling making-of featurettes for each, an utterly perplexing Sheets bonus short called "Dead Things," and additional Camp trailers. You could probably make these exact same films with a bunch of butcher's scraps, Kayro syrup and a few good buddies, but thanks to this set, now you don't have to.

And to wind things up on a classier note, there's an unusual if not entirely successful little S&M feature out there from Blue Underground entitled Going Under that's worth more than a passing glance. Sort of a updated arty spin on Maitresse, it uses the discipline lifestyle as a backdrop for a fairly conventional relationship drama about married therapist Peter (Roger Rees, from Cheers!) and Mistress Diana (Geno Lechner), whose professional domination sessions go a step further when she reveals her real name (Suzanne) and, despite her ongoing affair with another woman, the two tentatively embark on a love affair that might crash against the rocks. Well-acted and nicely mounted, the film doesn't really have much of a narrative motor after the initial set up and can make for tough going at times. However, the treatment of its subject matter (which is frank but not salacious and frankly a lot more mild than the real thing, as found in the infamous ongoing story of Larry/Lana Wachowski) manages to carry the story over some of its speed bumps. The unrated DVD edition comes in a solid anamorphic transfer that adequately captures the delicate and shadowy lighting scenes, while extras include an informative if occasional space-riddled commentary with Rees and director Eric Werthman. Other extras include "Pushing the Boundaries" (an interview featurette with Rees and Lechner), a fetish featurette entitled "NYC Black & Blue Ball" (ouch), two trailers, and a DVD-Rom text supplement (basically liner notes), "Reflections on Going Under."


September 29, 2007

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