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Director: Joe Sarno
RetroSeduction Cinema

After wowing the exploitation world with their excellent special editions of Joe Sarno’s INGA, SEDUCTION OF INGA, SWEDISH WILDCATS, and the Marie Forsa trilogy VAMPIRE ECSTASY, BIBI, and BUTTERFLIES, RetroSeduction steps up to the plate with arguably their finest Sarno release to date, the official home video debut of ABIGAIL LESLEY IS BACK IN TOWN. Long thought lost and appearing on a handful of grey market lists, this unique feature was almost wiped completely off the face of the earth due to a distribution snafu by the notorious Allan Shackleton, ABIGAIL LESLEY is one of the crown jewels of Sarno’s career and is a must-own for any self-respecting DVD Drive-In reader.

In the small seaside town of Bay Point, lovely Priscilla’s life is thrown into a tailspin when a mysterious name from her past reappears on the scene: Abigail Lesley, a promiscuous nymph who successfully seduced and bedded Priscilla’s husband Gordon years before. Shunned by most of the town and whispered about in hushed tones, Abigail still manages to work her sexual wiles on a number of willing recipients. Though Priscilla fears that Abigail will once again jeopardize her marriage, she soon realizes that she may have found a better partner in Chester, a handyman from the wrong side of the tracks.

Viewers who haven’t yet experienced a Joe Sarno film could probably start with a better example of what makes Sarno such a brilliant master of the genre. Those expecting a bump-n-grind sexploitation vehicle like, say, BUTTERFLIES, should…well, go watch BUTTERFLIES. Died-in-the-wool Sarno fans will find it easy to see why this gem is one of his finest. Other than a few brief moments of sex and a healthy dose of nudity, ABIGAIL LESLEY is a film about people, their emotions and interactions, and the psychology behind sexual desire. Sound heady for a grindhouse flick? It is, which is why I’m giving fair warning to those who are thinking of picking up ABIGAIL LESLEY. It’s a thinking-man’s sex film, as with most of his masterworks, and unlike other movies by his contemporaries, it plays like an actual FILM, with an intense script, well-written characters, and impressive technical specs. Sarno’s scripts featured several key elements which were recurring throughout his career: sexual frustration, incestuous desires, sexual awakening with the help of an older confidante or a same-sex peer, the joys of lesbianism, one sexually active character acting as a catalyst to stir the loins of those around him/her. All of these can be found approached with maturity and care in ABIGAIL LESLEY. The film is dialogue-driven, and in typical Sarno fashion, it’s all captivating and believably delivered by a uniformly excellent cast. It’s illuminating to watch the interaction between his characters, feel the thick tension between men and women who desire one another, yet hold back for fear of what society will think, and thrill at the aura of another PEYTON PLACE unfolding before our very eyes, complete with naughty sex acts performed behind closed doors. Around the middle mark, the plot takes a backseat to the sex, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either when the scenes feature Rebecca Brooke, Jennifer Jordan, and Jennifer Welles.

ABIGAIL LESLEY also has a sort of tragic quality to it. Populated by actors and actresses hand-picked from the world of XXX, everyone is so damn good in their roles that it’s a real shame they would never move past the surly world of exploitation and into more “respectable” fare. All of them would work with Sarno again in other films of the period, usually in various character types to display a range of acting talent they weren’t afforded in hardcore cinema. Top-billed is Sarno’s 70s muse, Rebecca Brooke (real name: Mary Mendum). After appearing in a number of plays in New York City during the late 60s and early 70s, Brooke fell into the world of sexploitation working with Chuck Vincent, who apparently saw the special combination of beauty and talent which others saw and cast her in three films (GRACE’S PLACE, MRS. BARRINGTON, BANG BANG). She finally found Sarno, her “Svengali”, the man who provided her with the ultimate vehicles to prove herself as an actress and a sex symbol. They worked together on THE SWITCH, LAURA’S TOYS, ABIGAIL LESLEY, MISTY, and CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, each one of them a high point in both artists’ careers. Brooke only shot three hardcore features: Radley Metzger’s THE IMAGE, Max Pecas’ FELICIA, and Chuck Vincent’s BANG BANG, so labeling her as a porno starlet is doing a great disservice to a fine actress. But still, these pornos haunted her and apparently affected her ability to get quality roles. Her last noteworthy flick was LITTLE GIRL…BIG TEASE, before she left the world of sinema behind. During an interview with Jamie Gillis for the DVD of NEON NIGHTS, Gillis revealed that Brooke was in fact Metzger’s fiancée for most of the decade, and when he flew to France to produce hardcore films by Gerard Kikoine and never returned for her, she understandably broke off the engagement! Last he had heard, she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man, possibly moving to the Middle East with him. Wherever Brooke ended up, she left behind a legacy of consistently good films; not one of them should she be ashamed of. In ABIGAIL LESLEY, she is a childlike housewife who wants to keep her marriage intact…but can’t seem to understand why. She’s almost ashamed that she is insatiable during sex with husband Gordon, and even guiltier at the budding feelings she feels for Chester, the bearded working man who walks on the beach with her twice a week. Sex is dirty in her mind, but like every good Sarno heroine, she soon learns to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh.

The title role of Abigail Lesley is inhabited by one of the most underrated porno starlets of the 1970s New York scene, Jennifer Jordan, billed here under her other pseudonym (real name?), Sarah Nicholson. Jordan’s smoky speaking voice, curly honey blonde hair, and healthy breasts were her trademarks, and she worked most often with Roberta Findlay, who afforded her some of her best roles in ANGEL #9 (the title role), ANYONE BUT MY HUSBAND (the Rosalind Russell-esque wisecrackin’ best friend of C.J. Laing), and FANTASEX (the ditsy secretary of Roger Caine). Outside of Findlay’s world, her all-time best roles are probably in Henri Pachard’s THE BUDDING OF BRIE, playing the movie star diva Diana Farnsworth, the adult film’s version of Bette Davis’ ‘Margot Channing’ from ALL ABOUT EVE, and Peter Locke’s ANGELA THE FIREWORKS WOMAN as the title role, a woman whose childhood love for her brother influences her sexual appetites as an adult. Jordan’s distinctive voice makes her perfect for the femme fatale characterization of Abigail Lesley, but she also injects a certain amount of pathos into the classic bad girl stereotype. She’s not bedding down everyone she meets out of viciousness or to add names to a little black book, she simply does it because she must. Her appetite doesn’t discriminate against gender or social class (a prominent line drawn in the sand in Bay Point), and she’s really the only happy character in the whole film, spreading sexual cheer to all her conquests. She uses sex as a healing power for herself and for others, not as a weapon to intentionally harm others. Jordan unfortunately disappeared around 1982, after producing her own hardcore film, but she’s probably happily married, living somewhere in upstate New York with a couple of kids, and without one thought to her film career. Too bad, because she was definitely a fascinating creature.

Most critics rightfully point out the striking performances of cover girl Rebecca Brooke and title character Sarah Nicholson, but I was equally impressed with Chris Jordan, another Sarno favorite. Her unique look resembles a very young Rosanna Arquette, and with a rather plain beauty hiding her superb acting talents, it’s no wonder Jordan has been glossed over by cult film historians for years. In addition to her Sarno films, which were arguably her most popular, Jordan did just a few hardcore films, apparently all non-sexual roles as in Armand Weston’s classic THE TAKING OF CHRISTINA and Sarno’s DEEP THROAT II. Here, she portrays Alice Anne, a tough-talking woman of the wharf who, underneath her raw exterior, is a fragile young girl starved for the love of her brother, Chester. It’s too bad her character disappears directly after her sexual encounter with Abigail. For an interesting contrast to this brilliant characterization, check her out in Sarno’s CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE to see her prove her mettle with comedy as well!

Of course, any American Sarno film of the 70s would be incomplete without busty blonde Jennifer Welles, the ultimate “older woman” of the earlier part of the decade. Welles turned in dynamite performances in 60s roughies like SUBMISSION, THIS SPORTING HOUSE, and CAREER BED, but by the time she began working with Sarno had graduated on to hardcore fare and was taking Manhattan XXX sinema by storm! Her final film would be in 1977 with INSIDE JENNIFER WELLES, probably her ultimate excursion into porn, but before that, she would work with Sarno on four films in-between hardcore appearances in classics like HONEYPIE, TEMPTATIONS, EXPOSE ME LOVELY, and LITTLE ORPHAN SAMMY (for which she won an acting award). In all of her Sarno films, she plays basically the same character: an older woman, like an aunt or the lead’s mother, who is just as sexually active as she would have been 20 years earlier. She’s pretty much wasted here, with a few good dialogue scenes and a visually interesting sex scene with Sonny Landham, but drifts in and out of the picture without making much of an impression. You won’t find many critics writing about the last two ladies of the cast, Julia Sorel and Anne Keel. Neither of them would ever do major films in either softcore or hardcore avenues outside of Sarno’s films (Sorel was in VIRGIN AND THE LOVER, also with Jennifer Welles), but they do a great job as the vastly different high school girlfriends. Sorel, as the sexually adventurous Lila, is very good, but Keel’s performance is a tad uneven as Tracey, the good girl gone bad.

The central male roles are all played by hardcore heavyweights: Eric Edwards, Jamie Gillis, and Sonny Landham. Edwards and Gillis, who always did their best in their hardcore films, will really open the eyes of those used to seeing them pound it home in up close and personal sex scenes. Edwards made a name for himself playing the good-looking charmer, but as Chester, we can see a different dimension to his performance that he rarely revealed in other films. He seems to genuinely love acting in this film, wrapping himself around the character with great ease. In an interesting trivia note, this same year, he played the polar opposite of this character (a boy from the right side of tracks) in the similar CLAMDIGGER’S DAUGHTER from Roberta Findlay, with Chris Jordan (his sister/sex partner here) playing his paramour there! They were reportedly real-life boyfriend and girlfriend for a time before Edwards became involved with Arcadia Lake. Gillis, like Edwards, found himself typecast in a certain kind of role, but unlike Edwards, almost always as the smarmy villain making life miserable for the heroine. While Gordon is kind of a prick for cheating on his wife, there is a certain vulnerability and guilt Gillis expresses for his infidelity. During the aforementioned NEON NIGHTS interview, Gillis and I talked about his films for Sarno and he refuted the claim that the sex in Sarno’s films was real, with no penetration shown. For the films he shot with Sarno (ABIGAIL LESLEY), the sex was strictly soft (save DEEP THROAT II, of course), surprising considering the porno people casts. Of the leading men troika, only Sonny Landham moved onto anything close to mainstream success, with small roles in POLTERGEIST and 48 HOURS before plunging into straight-to-video hell. His hardcore career is more interesting, as he worked with most of the big names in the business (Radley Metzger, Shaun Costello, William Lustig, Cecil Howard, Chuck Vincent), appeared in most of Sarno’s hardcore films, and believe it or not, he also planned to run for President of the United States a couple of years back, and may very well try again in the future! Landham is given a small supporting role here, and gives no sign of being an accomplished actor. In a supporting role (three dialogue scenes) is Alex Mann, mainstay of New York City sexploitation who, to my knowledge, never went the full penetrada in XXX, though he would act in them (WINTER HEAT with Jamie Gillis, for one).

In addition to the cast hailing from hardcore, two behind-the-scenes personalities would move on to rock the adult industry: production manager Armand Weston and composer Jack Justis. Weston made consistently excellent hardcore films, including DEFIANCE, TAKING OF CHRISTINA (I’ve mentioned it many times in this review in hopes that you’ll go check it out, it’s that good!), TAKE OFF, and EXPOSE ME LOVELY. Contrary to popular belief, Weston was not the same person as Anthony Spinelli. In addition to other differences, Spinelli died in 2000 and Weston died in 1988. As for Justis, I can’t confirm it, but in addition to composing the scores of all of Sarno’s major American films of the 70s, he is probably aka Jack Malken, the man behind the excellent rock score in Weston’s TAKING OF CHRISTINA.

Digitally remastered from the last remaining theatrical print known to exist, from Joe Sarno’s personal collection, ABIGAIL LESLEY looks pretty breathtaking!! Colors are bold and beautiful, especially yellow, red and blue, and the image is virtually grain-free, sharp as a tack! Some imperfections do exist, like a print jump which occurs during a dialogue scene, some other minor damage, and some speckling pops up during reel changes. But this looks as clean and bright as it ever will, and there’s virtually no room for improvement in this transfer. The mono audio is exceptionally strong, bringing across the dialogue, the soothing sounds of the ocean, and the sparse musical score beautifully.

Extras kick off with a 6-minute interview with Joe and Peggy Sarno that reveals some interesting tidbits, including the fact that the film was shot in Amityville, NY (the setting for the infamous haunted house case), memories of Mary Mendum and her beautiful breasts, Sonny Landham’s personality, and working with hardcore actors. In addition to the theatrical trailer, check out previews for other Sarno classics: MISTY, LAURA’S TOYS, BUTTERFLIES, GIRL MEETS GIRL (BIBI), VAMPIRE ECSTASY, SWEDISH WILDCATS, SEDUCTION OF INGA, two trailers for INGA, and the newest Joe Sarno film, SUBURBAN SECRETS (formerly known as LUST FOR LAURA).

The most tantalizing special feature is, of course, the audio commentary with director Joe Sarno, Sarno biographer Michael Bowen, and EI President Mike Raso and color transfer technician Bruce Goldstein. Unfortunately, it fizzles out fast. It’s too bad that Peggy Sarno, the assistant director, couldn’t sit in on the commentary, as her memory of Joe’s career and her own career is incredible and full of unique stories. Without her, the commentary is only mildly interesting, with Bowen trying his very best at posing questions about the cast, character motives, his frequent themes, and shooting the film in Amityville. Sarno does discuss his approach to shooting softcore in times of hardcore (though he doesn’t really discuss the fact that he himself did hardcore films) and his philosophy on human nature and sex, as well as talking about his regular casting process, but in his golden years, his memory is not as strong as it once was, resulting in the listener craving great stories that never surface. To make matters worse, the audio for the film is too loudly heard in the background as the commentary is being recorded, and only Sarno seems to be microphoned properly, resulting in the listener straining to hear the moderators when Sarno isn’t speaking. It’s also kind of unprofessional that the moderators don’t know the names of the actors while recording, so have to read out loud off the IMDB listing until Sarno can identify Chris Jordan (!!) or confirm Sarah Nicholson’s pseudonym Jennifer Jordan. There’s also a phone call heard during the commentary; guys, pause the tape and edit it in post!! It’s a valiant effort by RetroSeduction, and at least there are few dead spots, but is ultimately disappointing and only worth a one-time listen. However, Bowen proves he knows his Sarno, and that his eventual Sarno biography will be an incredible read, with the accompanying liner notes booklet. This proves to be the best special feature of the disc, with Bowen covering the genesis of the production, behind-the-scenes stories, discussing the cast and the characters, and the eventual distribution deal with Allan Shackleton’s Monarch Releasing that led to the film disappearing for 30 years. (Casey Scott)