Saturday, June 10, 2006

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 reviewed

Intimacy under a microscope in the Swedish instructional film Kärlekens språk (1969).


DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000
("Swedish Sin 1969-2000")
1999, Max's Films/Xploited Cinema, DD-2.0/ST/+, 189m 58s, PAL DVD-0

This is something I never expected to see: a three-hour-plus retrospective of Swedish erotic cinema and its evolution (or devolution, depending on your point-of-view) from 35mm film to DTV. It covers exclusively hardcore (XXX) and apparently only work that is owned by the Max's Films label, so that it ends up being a highly indulgent sampler of the firm's product rather than a full-fledged documentary.

Given these unspoken ground rules, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN necessarily omits a lot of important erotic filmmaking that was done in Sweden. For example, there is no mention of Ingmar Bergman's contribution with films like SUMMER WITH MONIKA, Vilgot Sjöman's 491 or I AM CURIOUS films, Essy Persson, Marie Liljedahl, Christina Lindberg, or the many films that Joe Sarno has made there under his own name (INGA, DADDY DARLING, YOUNG PLAYTHINGS, BUTTERFLIES, etc.) -- all of which would have helped contribute to a fascinating and authentic documentary. That said, what is provided here is organized at least partly as an educational overview and I did learn a good deal from it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN covers a total of 18 different films, giving us the main titles and a lengthy representative excerpt (10 graphic minutes, on average) from each, with informative background narration over the titles. The first two films discussed, Kärlekens språk ("The Language of Love," 1969) and its sequel Mera ur kärlekens språk ("More About the Language of Love," 1970), both directed by Torgny Wickman, are incorrectly described as the first films to graphically depict acts of masturbation and intercourse. (In fact, Matt Cimber's MAN AND WIFE [1969] beat Kärlekens språk into theaters by a few months.) No mention is made of Kärlekens språk being the movie that Robert de Niro drags Cybill Shepherd to see in TAXI DRIVER, but what goes around comes around: the choice of entertainment so offensive to Ms. Shepherd's character was recently the subject of a screening at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. It's interesting to learn how these two films got around the Swedish censor by presenting themselves as documentaries based on the research of sex columnists Inge and Sten Hegeler. The filmmakers may have been disingenuous in their approach, but that didn't prevent them from using the opportunity to make their films a valid educational tool as well as exploitatative. In hindsight, one can also see from these excerpts that their clinical approach influenced the Schulmädchen-Report ("Schoolgirl Report") films, a series of anthropological sex comedies that came out of West Germany the following year.

The film proceeds to cover a series of accomplished comedies -- clearly influenced by the Schülmädchen Report films -- made by the pseudonymous "Bent Torn," in fact Mac Ahlberg, who has since directed films under his own name and and today works steadily as a high-profile director of photography (John Landis's INNOCENT BLOOD, Joe Dante's THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, and several films for Stuart Gordon, including FROM BEYOND). Based on their excerpts, these movies -- including Porr i skandalskolan (1974), Justine och Juliette (1975) and Bel Ami (1976) -- had outstanding production values and better-than-capable comic performances, much better than were found in American or even West German sex films of the period. It's obvious that they were made for literate adult audiences who demanded to be entertained as well as aroused. The latter two films also featured the important adult film actress Marie Forså (whose surname, the film teaches us, is pronounced "For-show-a"), a wholesome-looking young woman who made only a dozen films in her career, could really act, and was notable for refusing to participate in hardcore photography though she was often filmed actually having sex with her co-stars.

"Marie Lynn" (Marie Forså) in Mac Ahlberg's JUSTINE AND JULIETTE (1975).

Included in this section is the interesting Den ''K- Släkten (1976), an erotic anthology film by Heinz Ahland which Ms. Forså only narrated. Also, an historic step is documented by the inclusion of Veckända i Stockholm ("Vacation in Stockholm," 1976), the only Swedish hardcore film ever directed by a woman -- Ann-Mari Berglund -- but she doesn't appear to have done much with the opportunity except to also star in it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN arrives at its most compelling stretch with a discussion of two pseudonymous Joe Sarno pictures, Fäbodjäntan (1978, credited to "Lawrence Henning") and Kärleksön (1977, credited to "Hammond Thomas"), which are covered in reverse chronologic order for some reason. The narrator (female, incidentally) surprised me by describing Fäbodjäntan as "the most successful Swedish porn feature of all time," because it's considered an obscure title even among Sarno devotées. It's actually an outstanding example of his hardcore work, with elements of fantasy, and the sex is sometimes tantric in its intensity and spiritual dimension. Sarno had a knack for finding performers who were really into their work and it's clear they are not only enjoying themselves but exploring themselves onscreen. I found this source for a Swedish import DVD double feature of these two Sarno films, also on the Max's label; unfortunately this double-feature doesn't appear to offer English subtitle options, though the excepts from both features included here are subtitled.

A date is set between members of the young cast of Joe Sarno's Fäbodjäntan (1978).

After this, we're a little more than halfway through the program but it's sort of all downhill from there. What distinguishes the sex on view in the first half of the program is that it's all very egalitarian, healthy and unselfish. The women have desire equal to that of the men and pursue it with equal vigor. Just as importantly, it's all skillfully filmed and has a dramatic or historic context that involves you in what's going on. After the Sarno films, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN embarks on what's hard not to see as a downward spiral, with video taking over from film circa 1986 and the innovations becoming more superficial. When Swedish erotica made the transition to video, it seems to have turned from warm and positive to cold and fetishistic. After a numbing series of mechanical trysts (that frankly had me leaning on my fast-forward key), the program ends with a prolonged, MTV-style encounter between a strutting blonde and a welding-masked stud in a auto repair garage, with sparks flying everywhere -- except between the viewer and the material.

The stage is set for a meaningful relationship in Mike Beck's ?? (that's the title).

Viewing this DVD the day after I watched THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, I found the index provided by this chronological overview of Swedish erotica as a confirmation of J. G. Ballard's view that our world has become psychotic. DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN begins with material that is healthy and intellectual, instructional and humanistic, but it goes somewhere increasingly abstract, synthetic, and also mildly hostile. There's no trend toward silicone here (which is a plus over the current American porn stars), but pubic hair seems to become a thing of the past as the women become more purely imagistic and increasingly robotic in the second half; the men become less real too, masked phantoms with big muscles. The high-gloss scenarios on view are increasingly sealed off from reality, twisting its viewers' imaginations rather than liberating or indulging them. A near-exception is a "Reality TV"-like segment by Christer Frankell in which an on-the-street interview with a very cute girl becomes an "opportunity" for her to perform in an erotic "screen test." Here the prospect of an initially erotic encounter is soured by the extent to which Frankell and his cameraman exploit this young woman and put her personal safety at risk (they refuse to wear condoms, only promising "you won't get pregnant"). The male arrogance and female subjugation found here, which would have been unthinkable to the people who made Kärlekens språk, is a turn-off... though, with appropriate cynicism, we never doubt for a moment that the entire encounter is staged.

As the grabs included here will attest, the image quality is variable depending on the source. On the whole, the mostly standard ratio presentation looks good for such a densely-packed disc. Some of the clips are letterboxed, if only modestly. The Swedish dialogue has an English subtitling option, the only way a good deal of this material is at all available in English. (The subtitles sometimes lag a bit behind the dialogue they should accompany.) There is also a wealth of trailers for other Max's Film Swedish hardcore releases, one of which features a blurb (in Swedish) attributed to Woody Allen!


In short, not all of DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 is necessarily of value, but it's a must for Joe Sarno collectors and a good place to learn more about a genre of serious filmmaking (initially serious, anyway) generally not accessible to English-speaking audiences. It does make one wish that a more genuine, non-partisan documentary existed on the subject, featuring interviews with the participants. Until that unikely chimera descends to earth, you can find DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN here.

POSTSCRIPT 6/15/06: Since this blog was posted, a couple of readers have independently informed me that the apparent "blurb" by Woody Allen is in fact a quotation from ANNIE HALL (1977), translated into Swedish: "Don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love."

Friday, June 09, 2006

For West Coast Readers

Taylor White of Percepto Records has written to inform us that Percepto and LaLaLand Records are sponsoring a composer signing at Dark Delicacies at 4213 W. Burbank Blvd in Burbank on Saturday, June 10th from 2pm-4pm.

"We've got a terrific line-up," he writes, "including David Newman, Lee Holdridge, John Ottman, Chris Young, John Frizzell, John Massari, Bear McCreary and Stu Phillips, plus we have a great selection of CDs on hand to sign, including a few extra goodies to be offered exclusively at the event. For more details, visit www.darkdel.com. We're hoping this signing will be successful enough to make it a regular quarterly event, so please stop by, say hello and show your support!"

Miskalaneous

Oh, well.

I am informed by One In The Know that THE GOLDEN ARROW and CAPTAIN SINDBAD are currently owned by Warner Bros., and that the rights to THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN are now likely controlled by Studio Canal. I don't understand how MGM could still own THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, which was made the same year as THE GOLDEN ARROW and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (and by many of the same people), but there you have it.

On another note, reader Michael Swart has written to inform us that Palm Pictures' DVD of Asia Argento's THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS (2004) appears to be a defective pressing. "About 80 minutes in," Michael writes, "the disc jumps to the beginning of the next chapter. It does this on both my players, and I know a scene is missing because I saw the film last year - and it's not just any scene, it's a key scene. I made a point of buying the DVD of this film on its release date because I think it's a very good movie that's been unfairly neglected by most critics. The majority of this film's audience will probably see it on home video, so it's unfortunate that this error will spoil their experience of it. Hopefully, these discs will be recalled and a corrected version issued (although a similar problem with Monte Hellman's IGUANA back in the early days of DVD was never corrected)."

I spent most of yesterday working on my next "No Zone" column for SIGHT AND SOUND, devoted to Jonathan Weiss's THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, an astonishing adaptation of J. G. Ballard's 1970 novel now available as a Dutch import DVD. Not to pre-empt my column, but as an longtime admirer of Ballard and this novel in particular, I was floored by the successful filming of this "unfilmable" work. It's just like the book -- clinical yet savage, non-narrative, non-linear, and full of arresting bits of beauty and ugliness. Strong stuff, but recommended to those who can take it. The disc also includes two audio commentaries, one by Ballard himself, which is the proverbial detail that had me at "hello." You can find it here, or at www.reel23.com.

Finally, I've been asked to remind you all that the World HD Premiere of the "director's cut" of Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND will be taking place on Monsters HD on Saturday night, June 10, at 8:00 pm eastern. On Monday, June 12th, Monsters HD is presenting an entire day of AIP programming in honor of the company's late founding father Samuel Z. Arkoff, who would have celebrated his 88th birthday on that date.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Walking the Plank with Sony's "Midnite Movies"

Later this month, on June 27, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will be bringing back MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature discs from the brink of oblivion. You may recall that the disc series was doing well for awhile, then became a Best Buy exclusive (in theory; not all of the MM titles could be found in all Best Buy stores), and the popular horror and science fiction titles that launched the banner were gradually phased out in favor of ho-hum biker and racing dramas. The beloved budget series is now making its comeback with a couple of pirate-themed flipper discs -- most of which, unfortunately, not even I have any interest in seeing, much less owning.

These are FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD/CAPTAIN PIRATE and THE BOY AND THE PIRATES/CRYSTALSTONE ("featuring performances by legendary actors Louis Heyward, Patricia Medina and Charles Herbert," says the press release), each of which will retail for $19.94 -- bumped up from the series' original $14.98 pricing. Perhaps it's someone's idea that these sets are just what mainstream American mateys need to help them count down the hours till the July 7th opening of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, but they could just as easily kill America's Opening Day appetite for skulls and crossbones. Of the four titles included in these sets, only Bert I. Gordon's THE BOY AND THE PIRATES holds any true cult appeal... but then I'm a sucker for a sullen Susan Gordon asking the question "Am I not a cool kid?" Having Timothy Carey aboard as one of the salty cutthroats doesn't hurt either, nor does the enviable fact that I own the Dell tie-in comic book.


But, as "Midnite Movies" go, even the pirattiest among you must admit, these are some pretty dull double-oons. With so much of infinitely greater interest retained in the MGM vaults, it's my guess that whomever is presently in charge of selecting the "Midnite Movies" titles is out of their depth, possibly someone's relative, or an employee who's being punished with the assignment. So I thought I'd offer this poor individual a helpful hand by recommending a couple of other first-rate family-adventure titles in the MGM archives that would make one splendido double-feature package. And before he/she asks, YES! They're both swashbucklers!

I'm speaking of Arthur Lubin's remake of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1961), starring Steve Reeves, and Antonio Margheriti's THE GOLDEN ARROW (also '61), starring Tab Hunter and Rosanna Podestà. Filmed respectively in Tunisia and Egypt, these Italian-American co-productions were both lensed in scope and would look absolutely breathtaking on DVD.


THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD has been out on video before, but only as a pan&scanned VHS from Embassy Home Video released before some of you were born. Steve Reeves was fabulous in the first two Hercules films, of course, but whenever I find myself discussing Reeves with people, it's surprising how often I hear confessions of a special liking for THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD; I wholly agree that it's something special, with one of Reeves' most endearing performances, but I have this old and intractable idea in my head that it's an obscure movie no one's ever heard of -- probably because I didn't get around to seeing it till it was released on home video in the 1980s. But when this movie played in US theaters, it was given the full Joseph E. Levine ballyhoo treatment -- constant television advertising, a Dell tie-in comic book, even a paperback novelization.

Reeves plays Karim, a charming thief (of the Robin Hood variety, stealing from those who can afford to lose and giving to those who cannot afford even simple pleasures), who falls in love at first sight of Amina (CONTEMPT's Georgia Moll), daughter of the Sultan of Baghdad, while robbing the palace. He vies for her hand in marriage against the evil, Conrad Veidtian Prince Osman (BLACK SUNDAY's Arturo Dominici), with whom he sets out to claim his bride by being the first to locate the seven doors that will lead the victor to the fabled Blue Rose. The film's direction is credited to Arthur Lubin, best known for the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the Francis the Talking Mule movies, and Italian sources also credit Bruno Vailati. The special effects are credited solely to Tom Howard (GORGO), but while researching my Mario Bava book, I was told by more than one interviewee that Bava was the film's true special effects supervisor; it really shows, especially in the scene where Karim and his men are besieged by living trees while camping in the desert, which is redolent with Bavian color lighting. (One highlight promised on all the US advertising -- a "gigantic killer crab" -- never materializes onscreen, not even in European prints.) Also praiseworthy is its extraordinarily lyrical score by Carlo Rustichelli, one of his loveliest and most beckoning creations.

To see this film in its correct aspect ratio someday has been a long-cherished dream of mine. The closest I've come to realizing it is a French VHS tape -- even older than the American release! -- called LE VOLEUR DE BAGDAD, which was letterboxed at roughly 1.85 and so still subtantially cropped. This version also included a number of short scenes and snippets cut from the US version, which I hope can be incorporated in the event of a DVD release. It's a wonderful movie.

I recently had the opportunity to see a DVD-R of THE GOLDEN ARROW, one of the very few films which director Antonio Margheriti signed with his own name. (His earlier work had been credited to either Anthony Daisies or Antony Dawson.) His pride was understandable; I've seen a lot of his work and have affection for a good deal of it, but this is one of the best made and entertaining of his pictures. It was made the same year as THIEF OF BAGHDAD, and written by three of the same screenwriters: Augusto Frasinettii, Filippo Sanjust (who seems to have written these and other exotic scripts as a pretext to designing their fabulous costumes) and Bruno Vailati. It's virtually the same story reenacted on some of the same interior Cinecittà sets.

Tab Hunter takes a magic carpet ride in THE GOLDEN ARROW.

Tab Hunter (dubbed by, I think, Jim Dolen) plays Hassan, an orphan adopted and raised by a band of thieves, who is in fact the rightful heir to the throne of Damascus. He falls in love with the Princess Jamila (Rossana Podestà, the heroine of HELEN OF TROY and Margheriti's scary THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG) after kidnapping her. Hassan loves Jamila enough to release her, a deed which helps him to win her heart, but he releases her back into her father's plot to marry her off. Three royal contenders win the right to woo her, but are told that, in order to win her hand, they must participate in a contest to bring her the most precious gift of all. Separately, they find a crystal ball, a magic flying carpet, and a liquid that restores life to the dead, but Hassan finally trumps them all with the help of not one, not two, but three genies determined to help him regain his rightful throne -- but only after he learns some important life lessons. (It's clear from the behavior of these genies that there were hopes of hiring The Three Stooges.)

Taken together, these two movies summon a vivid chapter in early movie-going for Baby Boomers, when the combined success of the Hercules films and the Ray Harryhausen mythologies prompted a window of revival for Arabian Nights fantasy. MGM had a big hand in these; come to think of it, I could extend my "Midnite Movies" recommendation to include two other features of the same period and ilk: THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (1961, starring Donald O'Connor) and CAPTAIN SINDBAD (1963, starring Guy Williams and Heidi Bruhl). No offense to Gordon Douglas, Ralph Murphy and Antonio Paláez (the directors of FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, CAPTAIN PIRATE and CRYSTALSTONE, respectively), but CAPTAIN SINDBAD was directed by a heavy-hitter, Byron Haskin (the original THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN was co-directed by two, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH's Henry Levin and the Italian Maestro of the Macabre, Mario Bava.

I know that Gordon Douglas was a very able filmmaker; he directed DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL and THEM!, but I was never motivated by their quality to explore the length and breadth of his nearly 100 other films. And I have no idea what CRYSTALSTONE is doing on a DVD with THE BOY AND THE PIRATES; it was made in 1988 -- an entirely different era, with no relevance to nostalgia or double-billing! THE BOY AND THE PIRATES at least has auteur value; in fact, that's just about its only value. I say this with the love.

Unlike these June 27th titles, the movies I've suggested star cult figures whose names people still recognize, they were directed by filmmakers of consequence, and they are fondly remembered by the generation for which they were made. FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD and CAPTAIN PIRATE were made in 1950 and 1951, so the audience for which they were made is 10 years older and therefore, regrettably, smaller. Horror and sci-fi sells regardless of decade because these genres appeal to fans and collectors (not to mention fanatical collectors); but when it comes to iffier terrain like B-movie swashbucklers, sticking with Sixties fare is just good business sense.

If Sony/MGM begins to release double features like THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD/THE GOLDEN ARROW and THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN/CAPTAIN SINDBAD, not only are they going to sell, they'll get enthusiastic press, and send out a signal that the people in charge of "Midnite Movies" actually know what they are doing. We want this imprint to succeed... because there's a lot more MGM cult movies where these came from, and if the current titles flop, we may never get our hands on them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

BLACK MOON on Flix

Cathryn Harrison and Joe Dallesandro.
Glumly channel surfing after WHAT'S MY LINE? last night, my eyes suddenly thrust forward as I sat bolt upright: Louis Malle's rarely seen BLACK MOON (1975) was running on Flix! This is a film I've wanted to see ever since I first read about it in CINEFANTASTIQUE thirty or more years ago, but I've never had the chance till now. Unfortunately I'd missed the first half hour, but unable to find another showtime scheduled on my Dish Network channel grid, I bit the bullet and decided to settle in and watch the remaining hour and some. This is hard for me to do, because I've adopted a Woody Allen-like rule against seriously watching any movie that has already started, and half-an-hour is quite a bit started. I was only able to break my rule because I feared this might be my only chance to see any part of this elusive gem. (Is it really possible that I once collected 16mm odd reels?)

I don't understand why the film is so disliked. True, it's not a mainstream feature, but it's a wonderful, creative use of the medium and made with undeniable and often inspired artistry. From what I could gather, BLACK MOON is a kind of ALICE IN WONDERLAND story starring Cathryn Harrison (the stunning 16 year-old daughter of Noel Harrison, looking like the feral kid sister of Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac) as a young woman who emerges from a car accident into a feature-length dream experience. It takes her to a secluded cottage where she finds naked children chasing an enormous pig, twin siblings (Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart) intent on killing each other and various animals, and a bedridden old woman who has the ability to communicate with animals (like Cathryn's grandfather Rex!) and makes a smecking sound that periodically alerts the two women in the picture that it's time to bare their breasts and feed her.

Viewers desperately clinging to terra firma will likely have problems navigating this misty mountain fantasmagoria, but the quality of the cinematography alone (by Sven Nykvist) should be enough to keep most film buffs watching, narrative be damned. I was fascinated from the get-go, but as the crazy scenes and incidents accumulated, I began to love the film for its sheer anarchistic invention and humor. I laughed a lot, but most of the time my eyes sparkled in admiration. Some incredible images on view: the absurdly huge rat (almost a baby kangaroo) on the old lady's ham radio... the eagle that comes flying in through the open window, fulfilling the promise of a faded painting on the wall ... the obese unicorn... the scene of Cathryn lifting the old lady out of bed and carrying her around like a rag doll with wasted limbs, while singing to her... Oh, to have witnessed the effect this movie must have had on the stoned-out midnight movie audiences of its day!

Possibly it's not great Malle, but it's great something. For some reason, as I was watching it, I had the idea stuck in my mind that it was a Polanski film rather than a Malle one. I can only tell you that -- what with the black humor, the milk imagery, the dead sheep in the larder, and of course, the splendidly coltish jailbait heroine -- it works as a Polanski film extremely well, perhaps better than it works as a film by Louis Malle. Younger viewers than myself will likely think first of David Lynch as a frame of reference, and it's not unlike the kind of film Lynch would make if he was more of a country boy and less attracted to dark and infernal forces. Despite its tenebrous title, BLACK MOON has surprisingly bright bearing for a weird-out.

BLACK MOON will be showing a few more times on Flix this month (on June 25 at 3:45 am eastern, and on June 25 at 11:35 pm eastern), and on Showtime Beyond next month, so mark your desktop calendars as I have done. Internet searches reveal that it is also being released on DVD in Australia in July, but the Flix master is lovely and windowboxed at 1.66:1 -- very likely a more generous framing than will appear on the official release.

Monday, June 05, 2006

VW 126 At The Printer

The next issue of VW is now finished and at the printer. Even though printed copies don't exist yet, you can preview the contents of VW 126 by going to the VW website (use the convenient link above, to the right) and clicking on "Coming Soon." Then you can click on the cover to access opening spread previews of the issue's main features: John Bender's feeling tribute to the late Italian film composer Francesco de Masi and my own lengthy article about Edgar Wallace and his role in the creation of KING KONG.

Also in this issue: David Kalat's reviews of several recent J-horror titles, Kim Newman on CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and DRACULA II LEGACY (Kim outdid himself in reviewing this one, I thought), Bill Cooke on Jeff Lieberman's JUST BEFORE DAWN, Charlie Largent on the Miss Marple box set, John Charles on FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY and CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, me on the Peter Jackson KING KONG and the second season of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, and additional reviews and departments by Anthony Ambrogio, Ramsey Campbell, Shane M. Dallmann, Joe Dante, Richard Harland Smith, Brett Taylor and Douglas E. Winter. In case you've been wondering what Ramsey Campbell decided to write about in the second installment of "Ramsey's Rambles," he selected Nicholas Ray's BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956) -- an inspired choice -- which is available as a French import with optional English audio.

And how's that for a front cover? Charlie Largent took a striking photo from the Peter Jackson KING KONG remake and added a Manhattan skyline and (my favorite touch) some biplanes careening high into our logo. If you go to our site and click on the cover, you'll also get an exclusive preview of the issue's back cover, which pictures the original King Kong holding his favorite magazine!

ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN reviewed

Sonny Landham and Rebecca Brooke.

ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN
1975, Retro-Seduction Cinema, DD-2.0/MA/HD/LB/16:9/+, $19.99, 99m 59s, DVD-0

Active in the "Adults Only" industry since the early 1960s, writer-director Joseph W. Sarno became a unique presence in the business by virtue of his interest in exploring the psychology of sex. Simply put, he wasn't as interested in titillating audiences of men in raincoats with peek-a-boo nudity and juvenile humor as he was interested in using the theaters where such films were shown to tell serious stories of sexual truth and its consequences to audiences of mature men and women.
Many of Sarno's films -- including several made before Pasolini's TEOREMA (1968) -- involve a compelling, possibly supernatural, outsider whose arrival provokes an epidemic of sexual change within set relationships or communities. Others involve magical talismans and secret societies. Any fantasist worthy of the name knows that a degree of realism is necessary to heighten screen fantasy, and beginning with the Swedish-made INGA (1967), Sarno encouraged those of his actresses who were willing to experience genuine orgasm on camera, though he had no interest in showing what was actively taking place below the waist -- even when the advent of hardcore later made this possible.
Like James Joyce with his stream-of-consciousness representation of Molly Bloom pleasuring herself in the climactic chapter of ULYSSES, Sarno's principal fascination was with the interior workings of the female mind in pursuit of sexual ecstasy and, most of all, while in its throes. (Appropriately then, YES! is the American title of Sarno's Swedish film KVINNOLEK, from 1968.) The women Sarno filmed might be attractive or plain, but they all became beautiful in these scenes of exaltation, which can be surprisingly moving to witness. Sarno's films may have been perceived in their day as "dirty" and were not generally attended by mass audiences (INGA was a popular exception), but they were actually similar in many ways to the more sexually descriptive novels that John Updike was writing at the same time (RABBIT REDUX, COUPLES), which habitually made the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list.
If one charts the development of Sarno's themes through the 1960s, they can be viewed as an ongoing narrative illustration of how the sudden free availability of the Pill and sexual tools like the vibrator helped to sexually empower women. But as the inheritance of power usually precedes the wisdom of how to use it, as Sarno's films enter the 1970s, they chart a sometimes bizarre learning curve as his characters set about learning the hard way which sexual barricades need obliterating and which have been instilled in us for valid reasons. Consequently, in the films of this period, we find more sexual experimentation, more Dionysian abandon, ménages à trois et quatre, sex toys and phallic vegetables, mind control and peer pressure, and more questioning of traditional taboos like incest. For all this questing for sexual satori, Sarno's films have a conservative streak. His roads of excess sometimes destroy lives, but (as in this film, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN) they can also lead to palaces of wisdom that are loving and implicitly monogamous.

Filmed in his hometown of Amityville (Long Island), New York in 1973, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (the surname is spelled LESLEY onscreen) is one of several "soft-X" melodramas that Sarno made with the same principal cast members in the early 1970s, and one of the best in this group. It stars Mary Mendum, the fetching and fearless actress who also starred in Radley Metzger's handsomely produced S&M drama, THE IMAGE, though she is credited here (as in most of her adult film work) as "Rebecca Brooke." Mendum also starred in Sarno's CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1976, perhaps the best-realized and most sizzling of all his works I've seen), MISTY (also '76, which I haven't seen), and the first of the bunch to be released, the Swedish-made LAURA'S TOYS (1975). In each of these, and ABIGAIL LESLIE too, Mendum stars opposite "Eric Edwards" (real name, Rob Everett) and both seize the opportunity to act as well as perform. Mendum plays Priscilla, a cuckolded married woman fearful of embarking on affairs of her own, and Everett is Chet, a single man trying to free himself from an incestuous intanglement with his sister Alice Anne (Chris Jordan). In their hometown of Baypoint, Chet and Priscilla meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons on the beach, almost half-accidentally, for innocent chat -- their respective sexual baggage preventing them from taking their interest in one another to the next step.

Sarah Nicholson and Chris Jordan.

Enter Abigail Leslie or Lesley (Sarah Nicholson, who later worked in adult films as "Jennifer Jordan"), a sexual provocateuse from Priscilla's high school days who returns to Baypoint many years after being caught en flagrante with Priscilla's husband Gordon (Jamie Gillis). Abigail stands out in the dramatis personae like a compass point; she is discussed with such dread and awe in the early scenes that it's disarming when Nicholson first slides into frame, all but unnoticed. Reminiscing over an old yearbook (appropriated titled "The Triangle") with old classmate Lila (Julia Sorel), Abigail reminisces about everyone's grammar/high school dalliances, gay and straight, and determines to have everyone re-explore them for her own amusement. Beginning with Lila, Abigail tempts various neighbors into her bed in twos and threes, including Gordon, Alice Anne, Priscilla's liberated Aunt Drucilla (Jennifer Welles, giving a sassy and humorous performance) and her Elvis-lookalike lover Bo (Sonny Landham), and eventually, Priscilla herself. Though we see Priscilla engaged in contented sex with her husband early on, it is her startled, laughing orgasm with Abigail -- a woman she dreaded ever seeing again -- that lingers in the memory; it's one of the most surprising such scenes in the Sarno canon.

In the key moment of human confrontation that all Sarno films strive for, Abigail ensures that shy almost-lovers Priscilla and Chet eventually find themselves standing before one another, naked and exposed. Their first kiss occurs in the midst of a multi-partnered entanglement, a satisfying if literal visual metaphor for the necessity of seeing through the distractions of sex to find true love. It's by surviving the gauntlet of Abigail's orgiastic puppet-mastery that Chet and Priscilla, unhappy and repressed, find the ultimate courage to simply hold hands. And it's up to us, as viewers, to decide whether Abigail was finally a cruel or loving participant in their lives.

Thanks to Something Weird Video and Retro-Seduction Cinema, a good deal of Joe Sarno's work has become available on DVD over the years, and Retro-Seduction Cinema's HD telecine transfer of ABIGAIL LESLIE sets a new standard for the quality presentation of his work. According to the liner notes of Michael Bowen -- a splendid job of analytic and historic writing that bodes well for his Sarno biography-in-progress -- this film was barely given a theatrical release and has been unavailable for viewing since. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, made from a one-of-a-kind 35mm archive print preserved by Sarno's son Matthew, is nearly flawless.

A five-minute interview with Sarno and wife/assistant Peggy Steffans is included, too short to be really useful. A feature-length commentary by Sarno, Bowen, disc producer Michael Raso and others, is poorly recorded but worth the effort of listening to. Now 85, Sarno is sometimes less aware of the relevant names, dates and facts than Bowen and Raso, but he discusses his intentions with the film, his rapport with the actors, his casting procedures, and his memories of Amityville, which extend to being a guest in the house later made infamous by THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (the DeFeo killings were committed in that house around the same time ABIGAIL LESLIE was in production). Also included is an aptly-named "Trailer Vault" consisting of no less than eleven different Sarno trailers, including one for the elusive MISTY, which Retro-Seduction Cinema will be releasing later in the year.