B&W, 1968, 87m.
Directed by Joseph W. Sarno
Starring Dan Machuen, Peggy Steffans, Sue Akers, Maria Lease
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Secret Key (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
No other exploitation filmmaker has as many "lost classics" as Joe Sarno, the incredibly prolific softcore pioneer who worked in both the U.S. and Europe and whose past titles have been thoroughly covered here. For many years, one of the most tantalizing of his early obscurities has been the evocatively-titled All the Sins of Sodom, which was prominently featured in the breakthrough Re: Search book, Incredibly Strange Films. After decades of only seeing tantalizing still photographs, weird cinema fans finally got the chance to lay eyes on the real item on home video, first thanks to Secret Key's 2009 DVD release, taken from the resuscitated original negative, and then a special 2016 Black Friday Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome.
Shot in black and white and considerably moodier than Sarno's earlier films, this 1968 sexy melodrama marks something of a turning point to the more psychologically and sexually intense work which lay ahead. The story is mainly a three-person study (none of the actors are credited, but one of them is Peggy Steffans, Sarno's right hand on many of his films as well as his future wife). The center of the triangle here is Henning (Machuen), a (very hairy) fashion photographer with a penchant for draping fabric over his naked models and, in the opening sequence, posing them among lots of string. His agent encourages him to go upscale by using his muse, Leslie (Lease), to craft a coffee table book of erotic photography, but things swerve into dark Fassbinder territory when their love nest is upset by the arrival of Joyce (Akers), a baby-faced, dark-haired troublemaker who seduces Henning and starts to flush all his ambitions down the toilet. The two women are soon spitting nails at each other (the dialogue here is some of Sarno's nastiest), and of course it's all bound to end in tears.
Not surprisingly, most of the outrageous sins you can think of aren't here -- though you do get lots of extramarital sex and some light lesbianism. However, Sarno uses the limited setting (it was shot in a real photography studio in New York for chump change) and occasional wintery exteriors to craft an visually striking, shadow-filled atmosphere of debauchery and doom that rivets the eye from the opening frames. He actually avoids overt nudity for much of the running time, delivering mainly with an early love scene and then letting it all out in the final reel, and the performers are well cast with those great Sarno-ish limpid eyes and ability to deliver heavy dialogue without sounding completely absurd.
The Secret Key DVD features as spotless a transfer as SD could allow, and Peggy turns in a solo commentary track this time and recalls this period in her husband's career, when he had returned from Sweden and was given money by a New York distributor to churn out films like this and its closest contemporary, Vibrations. The late Joe Sarno himself can be seen in a video interview where he talks briefly about making the film and his early relationship with his wife, though no one really sheds light on the cast members' real identities or how they were cast. Also included is raw video footage from the film's revival screening in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse, the usual horde of Sarno trailers, and a handy booklet featuring the usual well-researched liner notes by Sarno biographer Michael J. Bowen, who rattles some nifty facts illustrated with the film's rare poster under its alternate titles, All the Sins of Satan (which would have made for quite a different film).
The dual format Blu-ray and DVD edition from Vinegar Syndrome is no frills, but after laying eyes on the transfer, you won't care at all. It's absolutely stunning and makes one wish the company would tackle more monochrome sexploitation films if this is what they can pull off. It also reveals that a handful of shots were clearly shot a bit out of focus, so don't worry, that's a flaw inherent in the original film, not the transfer. All of the textures from bare skin to shaggy furniture are incredibly clear and tactile, resulting in a more immediate and gripping film experience. The DTS-HD MA English mono track (with optional English subtitles) sounds exceptional as well. Note: this title is currently subject to ownership dispute, with FilmMedia and Film Movement slating it for a future Sarno double feature on Blu-ray.
Updated review on November 25, 2016.