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black_love

Listeners to Third Eye should be well aware of my longstanding frustration at the apparent loss of three (and only three) films in the classic exploitation canon.  While similar annoyance surrounds the loss of at least half the Andy Milligan catalogue, certain Doris Wishman films and a few titles here and there from the likes of Joe Sarno, the Findlays, and other purveyors of grindhouse and drive in cinema of the period, it’s been well established that these three films did in fact still exist…but that the lab was effectively holding the sole surviving prints hostage over outstanding lab and storage fees.

I spoke to Mike Vraney (who has been the sole source to date for the Lewis catalog), and he said they’d likely never see the light of day.

I spoke to Herschell himself, who corroborated that assertion.

At that point, and with the rapid decline in DVD “boutique” labels over the past few years and industry-led push towards inferior DVD-R (as an interim measure) and an eventual non-private ownership streaming milieu (as an aim and end to be strived towards), I’d pretty much given up hope on ever seeing these three films, whose tantalizing stills and posters peppered books on Lewis for years – particularly the amusingly titled, totally out of character erotic blaxploitation film Black Love.

Thus it was with more than a modicum of surprise and delight that I was pointed towards the existence of internet startup company Vinegar Syndrome (who takes the time to credit each and every one of their Kickstarter campaign ‘investors’ in the liner notes).  As an opening salvo in their upcoming line of drive in and grindhouse unearthings, they have delivered what is certain to be the Blu-ray of 2013 in the appropriately titled Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

lost_hgl

The films come packaged in one of those Blu-ray DVD combos Synapse loves to put out, and which I’ve never really understood – I don’t see how a hardened DVD aficionado without a Blu player (and who has been hardcore enough to fail to look into one by now, with quality cult Blus regularly running in the $10 range) would suddenly be convinced by finding one of these as a bonus with his DVD purchase; and I could hardly see a hi-def obsessive videophile eager to backpedal into the more standard def realm of DVD, so I find the whole dual-packaging somewhat incongruous if not wasteful (don’t even get me started on those weird “ultraviolet” “digital copy included” packages).

That said, the package is reasonably lush, coming with both replicas of the timing cards for each of the three films and a ten page booklet of reasonably informative liner notes and film stills.  I also got some excellent buttons of the posters for both Black Love and Linda and Abilene (plus one for the set itself), but I’m not sure if this comes as part of the standard Blu-ray package – nonetheless, these were much appreciated.

Ecstasies of Women (and to a lesser extent, Black Love) has a trailer that has to be seen to be believed.  With leading man Harry (Walter Camp) speaking directly to the camera about his love of young ladies (keep an ear out for a hilarious string of double entendre delivered by Camp that would probably get everyone involved arrested with today’s prudishly backwards mores towards sexuality) while banging one luscious lass after another and failing to even keep their names straight.  Lewis himself takes a vocal turn in the second half of the trailer, straining traditional baseball “scoring” dual meanings to their absolute limit.

Black Love’s trailer attempts to present the film’s contents as somehow educational and instructive (linking it by association to a hoary tradition of white coaters stretching back to the early 30s and the surreptitious sideshow tent screenings of Kroger Babb), but the onscreen goings on belie the spoken dialogue to a humorously incongruous degree.  Is it even half as funny as the Ecstasies trailer?  Not a chance.  But for those of limited exposure to the Something Weird paradigm, it’s a real corker.

linda_abilene

Thus it was that I chose to tackle the only film whose trailer made no real impression first.

Linda and Abilene is something of a joker in the deck, belonging to the brief and generally undistinguished “erotic western” subgenre (which includes such camp highlights as the two Morganna films, Riverboat Mama and Indian Raid, Indian Maid, the bizarre psychotronic film Godmonster of Indian Flats and abject trash like Fandango or Lady Godiva Rides).  Like the filmic tropes it aspires to, Linda and Abilene is characterized by a nonexistent budget, a cast of nonactors you can count off on one hand and an utter lack of comprehension as to what a western truly is or is intended to signify, evoke or speak to.

What it does have going for it is twofold: first, unlike just about any other film in the subgenre (or even among Lewis’ films alone, whose sheer volume during his essential 10 year career bookended by Lucky Pierre and Gore Gore Girls marks them as something of a genre in and of themselves), Linda and Abilene is characterized by a drowsy, almost oneiric state of stasis and inaction.  Literally nothing happens during the course of its 92 minutes, narratively speaking or in terms of character development (or what does is so minimal and insubstantial as to appear utterly motionless).  Like black metal, whose incessant tremolo picked ferocity masks a dearth of harmonic movement or progress, the film buries itself in naked bodies writhing and just a hint of erotic perversity while little in terms of plot, dialogue, or action occurs throughout its thereby exceedingly long running time.

Now you may be wondering, did I make a mistake?  Shouldn’t that paragraph have been lumped in with the negatives, rather than speaking to what makes the film worth seeing?  Ah, but there’s the rub.

Because in its very inattention to nearly anything else, Lewis achieves the sort of dreamlike, hallucinatory feel of a Jean Rollin, the sleepy somnambulance of the Spanish horror film of the 70′s, the oneiric sense of dissasociation of the most mystical of films (Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, the Bruce Lee scripted Circle of Iron, even the likes of Alan Gadney’s Moonchild).  While this is quite likely unintentional, having spoken to Lewis himself and found him nothing if not pragmatic to the core, the effect on the properly conditioned viewer falls somewhere short of soporific, but somewhat north of boredom and distaste.  Think of it as a beta wave agonist.

The other thing the film has as a definite positive is Sharon Matt as Abilene, a fulsome strawberry blonde reminiscent of a less perky Nancy Lee Noble.  While her acting skills (or those of anyone else in the cast, for that matter) are never actually in question, falling somewhat short of even the usual Lewis film caliber, it’s her full and rounded young body that gives her performance value…and we get to see a lot of it.  Yum.

While the hi-def remastering brings out some details I could have done without seeing (the hairy backs and armpits of the males in the cast, the awkward early-stuff job breasts of barroom tart Linda (Roxanne Jones), the disgustingly filthy black feet of Tod (Kip Marsh) and Sharon in their final bed sequence – the floors of Spahn Ranch must have been particularly foul), flesh tones practically pop out of the screen, and come off as decadently luscious – aficionados of softcore of the era should be pleasantly surprised if not outright delighted to see Matt and the other ladies on display in such a vivid “reach out and almost touch her” fashion.   In fact, this represents a truly impeccable cleanup job on some films that have been sitting in storage untouched for more than my entire lifespan.   Interiors are vivid and vibrantly colored.  Some exterior scenes appear to have fallen into a much worse state of disrepair, showing strong grain and some particularly noticeable roughness, but others are pristine as day – it’s unlikely the film looked half this good on its initial screening.

black_love_003

So next up, I went straight for the gold and tackled Black Love.  Much to my amusement, the film actually begins with the same awkward apologist narration from the trailer.  We are informed that the proceedings were both “written and narrated by” one “Joseph L. Turner”, while the rather funky period soul music is provided by a “Harold Harris”, each of which are very possibly pseudonymous.  That said, it is quite apparent that neither voice or music are provided by Lewis, so who exactly was involved, beyond producer Bob Smith, Lewis himself (as both director and cinematographer) and the Wizard of Gore himself, Ray Sager as assistant director, is unknown.

What we have here, according to the very first title card of the film (repeated within the first few seconds, just to hammer the point home), are “people who in almost every way are exactly like you”.  Well, at least if you happen to be a black man or woman, who also happen to be willing to star in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ sole known porno.  But that said, the proceedings are both straightforward and somewhat dry.  Produced just under a year before the cultural touchpoint that was Deep Throat and the popular boom in “porno chic” that swept the nation and more or less kicked the sexual revolution, and the so-called Me Generation, into high gear, Black Love suffers greatly by comparison with just about any porn of the period – anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the “Bucky Beaver” or “Dragon Art Theatre” lines from Something Weird should immediately notice the difference, and it’s clearly not limited to the makeup of the cast.  Even by comparison to similar pornographic forays by contemporaries like Doris Wishman, Ray Dennis Steckler or Roberta Findlay, Lewis’ plunge into the cinematic netherworld of hardcore is more than a bit lacking and fails miserably at giving its intended target audience what it wants.

Couples or solo onanists are highly unlikely to be aroused by the proceedings here, which consist of brief vignettes of some of the most boring missionary position sex you’re ever likely to see.  There’s even a scene late in the proceedings where some guy leaves his black socks on and gets busy with a skanky housewife type with a giant pair of curlers in her hair (seriously, they were that unconcerned about how this would look on camera that they didn’t bother with the basics).  If this is truly to be taken as representative of “black love”, then we condemn an entire demographic of the populace as both boring and bourgeoise to the extreme.  Taken solely on its prurient merits, this one’s a real snore.

That said, I have strong doubts that anyone purchasing this lovingly restored set of films would actually be coming in on the strength of seeing the self professed “Godfather of Gore” Lewis’ sole foray into full tilt erotica, but rather with the prospect and appreciation of finally seeing three films that have been long lost to the populace, discussed in longing whispers among collectors and fans of the director and his work, and in that respect, Black Love is a real treasure.  A camp classic in the making, I could easily picture this one making the rounds at hipper, more open minded parties of cult film aficionados – a Hobgoblins or Troll 2 for the less prudish among us.  Between the ridiculous narration (one hopes against hope that this was written tongue planted firmly in cheek, while knowing at some deeper level that it was probably intended to impart a modicum of “seriousness” to the proceedings), the many awkward scenes of younger folks stumbling across or walking in on compromising situations, or the absolutely priceless club sequence, this is a real rip, and I for one am quite glad the folks at Vinegar Syndrome have finally allowed it to see the light of day.

Before closing the book on Black Love, allow me to flesh out the details (pun intended) on the aforementioned club scene.  After an establishing shot of a dingy Chicago hole in the wall advertising itself as “The Apartment”, we open to three couples getting their groove on with varying degrees of soul and ability on the world’s tiniest stage, with a good 6 tables worth of other folks crammed up against them, like a lower rent version of a Rudy Ray Moore club scene in a Dolemite film.  There’s a petite cutie in white go go boots who really knows how to work it, and a dude in a styling leather suit who’s got the moves ladies never fail to love, but most of them just seem to be going through the motions in varying stages of distraction, if not abject boredom.

Eventually other couples from the audience join them onstage (a feat in and of itself, given the incredibly cramped square footage under discussion), and with a slight zoom, poof!  Everyone is topless, still frugging, ponying and doing the funky chicken as if nothing happened (be aware that there are at least one or two folks who should really never have been seen naked, much less onscreen, involved in the proceedings here).  Another closeup, and surprise!  Everyone is buck naked, and it’s what’s been retroactively described as “pickle and beaver shot” territory.  With an unusual eye towards keeping things essentially aesthetic, Lewis does have a tendency to pull back and focus on dancing legs and hearken back to his earlier nudie cutie territory by focusing on bare posteriors, but the producer likely pushed him into getting at least a minute or two worth of close shots on their most private areas.  And that’s it, folks!  The scene changes to a couple in a cramped apartment, and a hilarious bit where the guy bends over sideways, eyes popping out of his head and mouth open, to see (or in the bizarre narrative of the film, “imagine”, Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In style) her naked bottom.  It’s clear the two of them were getting a good laugh out of following direction here, and caps off the film’s most ridiculous segment with a well deserved final frisson of amusement.

If (like myself) this sort of abject absurdity puts a bemused smile on your face and brings a snicker to your lips, then you need to run out and grab yourself a copy of this set ASAP.

ecstasies

With a silent prayer that the film in question could possibly live up to its hilarious trailer, I moved on to the final film in the equation, which was actually the first produced, namely Ecstasies of Women.

Four goofy but essentially likeable guys are holding a fairly dry attempt at a bachelor party at a fairly ramshackle strip bar (the set is so minimal, it could easily have been the same stage and location used in Black Love).  After the group flirts a bit with cute topless barmaid Kitty (Eleanor Riggs), Harry (Walter Camp, he of the aforementioned trailer) nods off and remembers his conquest of the first of several wholly unrelated girls, Annette (Jeannette Mills).  Ms. Mills, while possessed of yet another botched early breast stuff job and of average looks, turns out to hold two major charms: a pleasantly rounded derriere and an unusually good set of acting chops.  Back to the club, where they call down doofus stoner chick Summer (Bonnie Clark) for some inane chatter about nothing, and this time more understandably, Harry passes out again for another flashback.

You see where this is going; of all the films in this set, this is the closest to one of Lewis’ classic nudie cuties in format and tone, and as such turns out to be the odd duck of the group – this will either be the favorite or least of the pictures presented here, depending on one’s orientation towards Lewis and grindhouse films of the period.

Among other lovelies on display are knockout bodied, if somewhat horse-faced and obnoxious Vincene Wallace (of Vixen! and the same year’s Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet), cutie Sharon Matt of Linda and Abilene, and Dee Howard, star of a few minor softcore pictures of the same vintage.  In the end, Harry goes with the least of all possible choices and runs off with the dope fiend (which shows some really poor taste, if not a complete lapse in judgment on his part).  All told, they kind of deserve one another, as Harry is one of the more obnoxiously sleazy misogynist characters I’ve had the misfortune to spend an hour and change with in some time, and with his scrawny gawk build and tighty whitey undies so often on display, you sort of just hope for him to crash and burn in the end.  Mission accomplished, thank you Herschell!

It must be said that as an aficionado of crimson haired lassies and scarlet women (as it were), this film seems to positively overflow with them, from Riggs to Wallace to Matt, and as such comes highly recommended to those suffering from similar inclinations.

In the end, what remains to be said about The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis that hasn’t already been mentioned?  There are no extras to speak of, but with three extremely rare, long presumed lost films cleaned up to such a vibrant degree and crammed on one Blu Ray, plus the liner notes booklet and possibly the collectible buttons as a bonus, was anything more really required?  Those already familiar with Lewis films will be positively ecstatic over this one; newbies may want to stick to the more famous films of his oeuvre before diving in to the deep end of the HGL catalogue.  This classy debut from Vinegar Syndrome comes very highly recommended.