Some pleasant shots of suburbia open A Saint, A Woman, A Devil, which boasts Maniac and Vigilante director (and subsequent Anchor Bay/Blue Underground impresario) Bill Lustig as AD and production manager. It’s otherwise something of a vanity project, being written, directed and co-produced by Peter Savage, whose acting credits include Doris Wishman’s Double Agent 73, Raging Bull and Lustig’s Vigilante…and yes, he gives himself a fair portion of screentime here as well.
Beautifully shot and quite aesthetic, the sheer attention to setting, bric a brac and decor is much welcome, particularly with such a questionable, if not downright homely, trio of leads.
“Oh, sock it to me.”
Mr. 10 1/2 himself, Marc Stevens is a door to door salesman for vacuum cleaners. His latest stop is the rather well appointed suburban home of Sylvia (Joanna Bell, whose sole credited role this represents.) And boy, is she a piece of work.
Even when she transforms from the frumpy hausfrau the film opens on to a more reddish haired vamp with long flowing locks a few minutes later, Bell’s enormous face (one wonders at the sheer proportionate ratio of face to body here) isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. She’s vaguely Streisandesque, but Babs has nothing to worry about in terms of competition here.
Further, the weird faces she cops and strange affected demeanor she adopts in the odd delusion that she’s “being sexy” are simply absurd, if not downright laugh inducing. At least she has a fairly nice body…
It’s saying something when Helen Madigan, known best for her appeal to the MILF and cougar crowd, is among the better looking things on display here. Well, the decor is pretty nice, but in terms of female appeal, it’s looking a bit iffy.
While Hoovering Stevens, Sylvia is surprised by two guests, old friends Sheila (Madigan) and cousin Toby (Pamela Serpe, a hangdog arts and crafts type who thankfully never disrobes for camera). Well OK, she doesn’t notice them, but they get a good view of the action.
“See? All the kids on campus swing. Except you.”
Of course, when they return a few minutes later, Sylvia has mysteriously returned to her bun wearing, glasses-bedecked hausfrau form. But it’s not long before the sight of an exhibitionistic Madigan exiting the shower brings out the Third Face of Eve…I mean Sybil. I mean Sylvia.
Anyway, now she comes complete with a bad ‘fro and dressed like a 50’s tough guy (not so coded language for this persona’s bulldyke lesbianism), and they diddle each other with one of those newfangled electric toothbrushes.
While listening to the two go at it, Cousin Toby has a weird flashback to a “party” attended by herself, Sylvia, a typical 70’s intellectual type and a slow witted stoner who talks like one of those dumb henchmen from the cartoons and blames the sexual revolution on the rise of the fraternity panty raid (seriously). Unbelievably, this doofus’ attempt at deep thought and philosophizing turns Sylvia on, and they get it on. Boy, Peter Savage really has a thing for rim jobs, eh? This makes two guys, two ass lickings, and we’re only a third way through the running time…
The film also comes in an R rated cut, a bizarre affectation of the days of plot-driven porn that one would encounter on occasion (see also the Bill Osco Alice in Wonderland for one recently restored example). I always found this quite strange, like voluntarily purchasing the eviscerated ‘clean version’ of a rap album – yes, Mr. Government overlord, please censor all content before I receive it, protect my virgin eyes and ears…
I recall being shocked to find VHS copies of John Holmes’ Dracula Sucks and Rinse Dream’s Cafe Flesh out in the open at an old Fox Video store, only to realize why when I got them home – boring 50 minute hack jobs that would cut to a new scene right when things were about to get good.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: American ‘morality’ is really screwed up. A nation founded by Puritans, we’ve never really lost the specter of the prude and the spirit of the old spinster in our politics and mores…
“It’s written in Revelation 13 that every thousand years the devil is freed from his chains and wanders the earth as woman.”
With this bizarre and wholly imaginary ‘Bible quote’, Bell effectively rapes lay minister ‘Mr. Wavery’ (Grover Griffith, who looks a hell of a lot like the little bald guy from semi-hip 70’s kid show the Electric Company) while faux-blaspheming and pretending to be the devil as an electronic synthesizer version of the Dies Irae from Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain plays.
Savage himself appears in a straight role as a psychiatrist Serpe consults in regard to Bell’s obvious issues, kicking off yet another role for Bell as MPD case study ‘Mary’, a sexually repressed girl who suddenly turns aggressive when her fiancée finally coaxes her into bed.
But wait a minute…this isn’t a case study, it’s a fourth personality for Sylvia?!? Yes, that’s what comes out during a later sequence, where Savage turns out to have already consulted with Sylvia…so Cousin Toby just happened to get recommended to the very shrink who’d analyzed Sylvia previously?
We also find out the title of the film is inaccurate, when Savage appends it to “a multiple entity that is at times a saint, a woman, a devil…and, a butch type lesbian.” So wait, Mary got promoted, and Toni the bulldyke gets the boot? Did they make up the plot as they went along here? Sheesh…
Besides having a decent body, Bell really seems to enjoy herself onscreen, whether hamming it up uncontrollably or voraciously going at it with her various sex partners. Like a horribly overacting, more testosterone fueled take on Darby Lloyd Rains, it’s clear that the lady is having the time of her life here. hmm, maybe she’s not so bad after all, despite the enormous face…
Funny man Bobby Astyr shows up as the guy hosting an orgy where some familiar CAM cues play and Serpe gets raped (offscreen) by a cast member from blaxploitation classic Cotton Comes to Harlem spouting the unbelievable line “Baby, I’m gon’ whip yo’ ass till you black like me!”
Mainstream actor Sonny Landham (of the Warriors, 48 Hours, Predator and Action Jackson) overacts shamelessly as one of the two junkies Sylvia sleeps with to get them to kill shrink Savage, and yes, it’s hardcore. He does a lot for Bell by making her look positively restrained…
The film closes out on this fascinating tidbit: “The producers wish to give special thanks to the crew of this film, which was composed of undergraduates from the New York University Film School.”
As hinted at earlier, A Saint, A Woman, A Devil (originally released as simply ‘Sylvia’) is clearly the porn take on the then-popular case study Sybil, itself hearkening back to the earlier film the Three Faces of Eve in dealing with the subject of multiple personality disorder (and repressed sexuality as a factor in the onset thereof).
While it seems incomprehensible to the rational mind that someone out there might actually be turned on by the idea of boffing a schizo, I guess there must have been an audience for it, at least at the time…or at the very least, a saleable hook linking to a then-topical commodity or property (a hallmark of the porn industry to this very day).
Lustig’s cinematographic touch is apparent in the crisp and vibrant photographic imagery on display. While framing isn’t always as wide angle as this viewer might have preferred, one can’t fault his aesthetic choices or eye for visual impact. As with his other early works (particularly the aforementioned slasher classic Maniac and the equally gritty revenge film offering Vigilante), his films translate quite well to hi-def, and Vinegar Syndrome delivers a film so clean, so suffused in period atmosphere, color and clarity that it almost feels like you’re present in the room with these folks. So good does this film look, in fact, that it almost makes both Bell and Madigan look halfway tempting…and all things considered, that’s saying quite a lot!
There’s no question why A Saint, A Woman, A Devil was granted the honor a standalone release. While a huge fan of double features, a companion piece to the focus of this particular picture, director or sheer aesthetic cannot be envisioned. Despite some perhaps less than stellar casting in terms of visual appeal, Sylvia and her friends come recommended to the fans of classic grindhouse and devotees of the heyday of porno chic.