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Best known as the impresario behind the glory days of Anchor Bay DVD and later Blue Underground, Bill Lustig was a New York filmmaker of the Grindhouse era responsible for such notorious yet gritty and (in a way) realistic time capsules of late 70’s/early 80’s New York as Maniac, Vigilante and Maniac Cop. But what you may not know is that Lustig actually had a brief career in adult film to his earliest credits.

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Debuting as the assistant director and cinematographer behind the Sybil done hardcore effort Sylvia (recently released by Vinegar Syndrome as A Saint, a Woman, a Devil), Lustig followed this interesting effort with two further entrees into the world of porno chic, both contained on a therefore quite invaluable single disc courtesy of our friends at Distribpix.

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First and best of these solo affairs is 1977’s Violation of Claudia, which showcases a youthful, pre-cropped hair Sharon Mitchell.  For those unfamiliar, this was her prime era, before her willowy beauty hardened into the near Tyne Daly angularity she’d bring to later, perhaps kinkier but far less appealing roles in films such as The Poonies, Club Ginger and Beverly Hiils Cox.

The (at the time) surprisingly subdued and soft spoken Jersey Girl is trapped in a loveless marriage with businessman husband Don Peterson.  They’re well off, which allows her to spend her days taking tennis lessons at the sort of establishments that come with fine dining just off court(!).

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After getting balled (ahem) by instructor Jamie Gillis, she embarks on a voyage of sexual experimentation, first picking up a teenage hitchhiker (Victor Hines) and taking him back to her place, plying him with champagne and seducing him in front of a roaring fire. Then she graduates to getting felt up Emmanuelle style by Gillis while peeping on hooker ‘Crystal Sync’ and her john.  Finally Gillis leaves and the two women embark on a seemingly endless lesbo sequence that kills a good 12-15 minutes of the film’s brief hour and change running time.

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Apparently inspired by her flirtation with the wide world of whoring, Mitchell pimps herself out to a borscht belt comic of a “Senator” (Waldo Short) who dons a deli owner/soda jerk apron and hat before turning her into a human sundae.  Surprisingly for this sort of character, he actually does strip down and (it would appear) go hardcore.  While it’s certainly possible from the editing here that there was a body double employed for the action per se, there’s no question the guy was willing to expose his rather goofy, somewhat dumpy self to the public…

Disgusted by a trannie client who wants to give her the yellowcard (so to speak), she goes home in time to catch hubby engaging in some gay lovin’ of his own with none other than Gillis.  Roll credits.

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The film is blessed by a sophisticated funky soundtrack from one Michael Karp, an unusually subdued if not languid (and therefore often quite erotic) pace punctuated by minimal dialogue and a strong focus on visual aesthetic. 

Lustig is a very cinematographically inclined director who recognizes the value of setting and emphasizes atmosphere throughout his all too brief oeuvre (on both sides of the filmic spectrum, hardcore as well as more mainstream exploitation), and this comes across vividly herein.  The only thing more arrestingly beautiful than the young Mitchell herself are the simple if lavishly filmed sets and his trademark New York City street filming.

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Oddly, he followed his stunning work on both Sylvia and The Violation of Claudia with a far more standard if not rushed bit of hackwork going by the name of Hot Honey.

You know things have changed dramatically within the first few minutes of filming, when a hairy crew member’s forearm bursts into view for a good 10 seconds worth of running time.  Seriously.  Sets are dingier, the focus is blurred and over-reliant on muddy, inappropriate closeups, and the music, while still in the funk spectrum, has declined exponentially from the more high end variant we were treated to in Claudia.

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New York public access regular Robin Byrd kicks things off in all her sub-Wendy O Williams glory, her rough, somewhat odd looks having recently skewed portions of the famed Debbie Does Dallas.  Thankfully, this is followed by the far more visually appealing Lisa Marks, who gets it on with a heavily ‘fro’ed, mustachio sporting Herschel Savage.

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Marks’ pal Honey shows up for a midday chat and after complaining apropos of nothing about “still being a virgin”, the two embark on a spot of pseudo-ballet before getting all Sapphic.  So much for her virginity.  At least Marks’ townhouse spread is nice…

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The things get all depressing, with a wheelchair bound Jamie Gillis and his nurse Serena, who manages to get the supposedly handicapped fellow to fairly agilely get it on with (of all people) his supposedly virgin sister Honey.  Lustig even makes a point of putting fake blood on the guy’s shlong.  It’s pretty gross and inappropriate any way you slice it.

These two experiences turn our “virgin” into a nymphomaniac whore, first giving a treat to her long suffering boyfriend “Jack Hammer” and then heading back over to Marks’ place for a three way with ol’ Herschel.  As soon as Savage finishes, freeze frame. The end.

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Filmed in (or restored to) a far less sharp, hazily smoky aesthetic and (for the most part) without recourse to the sort of upscale locations we were treated to in The Violation of Claudia, this one’s just sort of a mess.

Possessed of no one of any real visual interest beyond Ms. Marks and virtually plotless, Hot Honey is proof positive that Lustig had already lost interest in the adult film milieu.  It’s really no surprise, given such a precipitous decline in quality between his first two ventures and this last, at best workmanlike offering that his future lay more in gritty horror and action (albeit at least initially enlisting the assistance of some of his adult film contacts for minor parts therein).

While there really isn’t much I can picture Distribpix being able to do to save Hot Honey, the lead feature, while brief, is well worth the time of any aficionado of adult grindhouse, and there are both audio commentaries and a reasonably engaging podcast interview spanning the man’s life and career to sweeten the package.

The bottom line is, if you know and love Lustig’s other work, you should like myself be quite pleased to see these films restored (in Honey’s case, inasmuch as the film’s own limitations allow) and in general circulation, completing and filling an important gap in the career of a filmmaker who leaves us with all too few slices of vibrantly New York-centric cinema to his credit.

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