Capitalizing on their licensing of the Crown-International library, BCI/Eclipse has released a swarm of discs double-featuring popular exploitation titles like POLICEWOMEN, DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE, THE TEACHER, MALIBU HIGH, SUPERCHICK, the list goes on. A short while ago, BCI decided to give consumers more bang for their buck by dumping a large number of Crown titles in eight-movie packs, including some previously issued on double-feature discs (like Bennie Hirschenson’s excellent PICK-UP, included on this set). While I’m split between excitement (so many movies, legitimately licensed and in mostly new transfers, for a low price!) and disappointment (some of these films deserve more attention and respect, and how is this any different from what Rhino did with the Crown library?), the AFTER DARK THRILLERS collection is notable for including the DVD debuts of two of the best Crown jewels, Alain Patrick’s BLUE MONEY (making its home video debut) and Dennis Kane’s FRENCH QUARTER. The remaining films in the package aren’t anything to crow about, and won’t be reviewed here, but for the low price, this is a bargain and a half just for the two films mentioned above alone!
DISC 1 SIDE A: BLUE MONEY (1972)
1972’s BLUE MONEY was one of several early 1970s films executive produced by Bob Chinn, the man behind the JOHNNY WADD series and a number of other cheap adult titles throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While his name is largely synonymous with forgettable porno (save some fun classics like CANDY STRIPERS and TELEFANTASY), Chinn’s softcore sexploitation titles are among the best of the 1970s: THE ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, THE LOVE GARDEN, THE DEVIL’S GARDEN, and EVIL COME, EVIL GO are the best-known, and they’re all unique experiences created by a man thinking outside of the box. For years, BLUE MONEY remained nigh impossible to see, but its inclusion here, with little to no fanfare, is a joy to behold! Writer/producer/director Alain Patrick Chapuis stars as Jim, a French-Canadian filmmaker supporting his beautiful flower child wife Lisa, a former actress, and their young daughter by shooting cheap porno films on a shabby sound stage. Yearning to make real films, Jim encounters problems with not only his troubled performers and sleazy distributors, but is under constant surveillance by the FBI, looking to bust him in the process of shooting. But his relationship with Lisa begins to take a tumble when he begins sleeping with starlets and becomes emotionally distant as the industry takes its toll on him.
Just when I had given up hope, thinking that every good exploitation film, every diamond in the rough had been unearthed, BLUE MONEY comes along. This insightful and well-made look behind the scenes of shooting low-budget erotica in the early 1970s is not only intelligent and well-made, but features one of the best leading roles sexploitation starlet Barbara Mills was ever afforded. Mills, billed here as “Barbara Caron” (her maiden name), is pure magic on-screen as Lisa, the emotional wife trying to understand how the business is changing her husband and what she can do about it. I would recommend interested readers pick up MATINEE WIVES and THE LOVE GARDEN for the ultimate Barbara Mills triple feature. She’s magnetic in all three! And while supporting actress and one-shot wonder Inge Maria is quite memorable as Ingrid, this is Mills’ show all the way.
Fans should be forewarned: this is not your standard exploitation film. The deliberate pacing and restrained use of exploitable elements like sex and nudity make this more of a drive-in art film, but it’s still very satisfying. Reliable exploitation cinematographer R. Michael Stringer’s photography is scrumptious, especially his atmospheric work inside the dark studio where Jim shoots his perverse moneymakers. It’s interesting to note that for a film about the ins and outs of adult moviemaking, there is little to no sex here. Sure, there is an odd topless shot here and there, but all nudity is shown very matter-of-factly, and not for titillation’s sake. In fact, the process of shooting porno movies is portrayed as being dire and unfulfilling. Considering that Bob Chinn would soon become a workhorse in the industry, not only making a number of films himself, but being a “ghost director” for gangster’s moll Gail Palmer’s films, this is interesting real-life foreshadowing to how Chinn may have felt making these films (and may provide an explanation as to why his hardcore films generally weren’t very good). No other film of the period seems too interested in showing the stark realism of the industry as it was at the beginning; one scene here stands out, with a series of people coming into Jim’s office to audition for parts in his films. A dirty-looking hippie couple applies to appear in some of Jim’s films because they need the bread; a swarthy lothario brags about his appendage (echoing the infamous John Holmes discovery); an elderly woman begs to be a part of the youth movement. These are exactly the type of people who appeared in these early weekend wonders, and their interviews with Jim sounds far too real to not be based on reality.
In addition to Mills, other popular adult performers of the early West Coast scene appear here. Porno actor John Keith, with a mustache, plays a sound engineer, and adult film regulars Maria Arnold, Sandy Dempsey, Eve Orlon, and Suzanne Fields appear briefly as performers being directed by Jim. Dempsey is the most memorable, as a starlet who shows up for work on her period (!), and Arnold plays a dizzy dame, as I indeed imagine her off-screen persona was. Of the familiar faces, Susan Westcott (star of SEX PSYCHO and Spinelli’s first feature, DIARY OF A NYMPH) has the most to do as a go-to starlet named Michelle. And yes, that’s Gary Kent as the cop interrogating Jim!
Chappuis also made several other obscure sexploitation films (THE AFFAIRS OF APHRODITE, FEMALE FEVER) that haven’t turned up over the years, but if BLUE MONEY is any indication, they would surely be fascinating to watch today. Until then, BCI’s release of BLUE MONEY does an admirable job of preserving the film. Mastered from a wonderful source print, colors are solid and the image is bright and clean throughout. A few print blemishes show up, and the audio is rather subdued (pretty standard for low budget films), but the letterboxed transfer is a beautiful home video debut for this title!
DISC 2 SIDE B: PICKUP (1975)/FRENCH QUARTER (1977)
After releasing the incredibly obscure and wonderfully off-beat PICKUP on DVD as part of a double-feature disc, BCI decided it would be wise to include it here on this eight-pack. This has become a standard practice of the company, so if you see them releasing a double-feature anytime soon, wait a couple months and it will pop up on an eight-pack for less than you would pay for the two-film release! My original review of the double feature disc with PICKUP paired with Hikmet Avidis’ THE TEACHER can be found here.
Alongside PICKUP on disc 2 side B is the second reason you will want to pick up this budget-priced collection: FRENCH QUARTER, one of the most unusual drive-in films of the 1970s. A mix of “Alice in Wonderland” and THE HAPPY HOOKER may be the best way to describe this jambalaya of sex, fantasy, and romance. Teenaged orphan Christine treks from her backwoods home to the flashy big city of New Orleans to make her way in the world. The only job she can find is shaking her goodies as a striptease dancer in a juke joint. Enraged at her small paycheck, she is pointed towards the dilapidated home of a voodoo priestess with the promise of a ticket back home. Instead, she is drugged and after passing out, is transported back to the turn of the century, where she has become Trudy Dix, a virgin prostitute and the crown jewel of the French Quarter’s most popular cathouse. She shares the house with a strange gaggle of women: Big Butt Annie, a brassy blonde who cracks wise on everyone in her path; Coke-Eyed Laura, a British drug addict with blazing wide eyes; Ice Box Josie, a frigid somnambulistic whore who no man can bring to life; Bricktop, a red-headed spitfire who wears layers of make-up and can flex her pectorals; and the mother hen madam, Countess Willie Piazza, an elderly woman with a figure that would still stop traffic. While Trudy is prepared to be sold off at a virgin auction to the highest gentleman bidder, she begins a courtship with down-on-his-luck piano player Kid Ross, resulting in a whirlwind romance threatened by a rival cathouse’s swindler of a manger, the jealousy of Coke-Eyed Laura, and good old-fashioned voodoo!
Whoo boy, this is a weird one! FRENCH QUARTER will likely be a polarizing film. Some will be anxious to follow the bizarre path it leads, and others will feel it’s too rushed and nonsensical. Strangely, I fall into both camps. While the film has many totally unexpected moments and is a marvelous mix of fairy tale wonder and exploitative thrills, it also drags during the maudlin romance between Kid and Trudy and the last 10 minutes have an improvised and hurried feel to them that comes close to destroying the film’s effectiveness. But the entire film is a unique wonder unlike any other. Most of the exploitation elements feel thrown in as an afterthought, including a random lesbian encounter between Icebox Josie and Coke-Eyed Laura and a comic interlude between Big Butt Annie and an elderly male client in a rocking chair.
Alisha Fontaine had a very short-lived career, which is surprising because she’s not a bad actress and is easy on the eyes. Her only other major role of note was as the title role in TEENAGE TRAMP, other than a few bit roles in Hollywood films. With a weak pedigree in terms of screen work, she’s an odd choice for the producers to fly to New Orleans to star in such an adventurous project, but she gets the job done. Beautiful Lindsay Bloom (one of the most underrated starlets of the 1970s) is much more memorable as the loud-mouthed comic relief hooker Big Butt Annie, and it’s really surprising to see British horror starlet Ann Michelle (looking a bit worse for wear a couple of years after her lovely turn in Pete Walker’s HOUSE OF WHIPCORD) as Coke-Eyed Laura. Michelle’s performance is just as warped and outrageous as her character’s name would have you believe! And what is classic Hollywood star Virginia Mayo doing in this? Her appearance here is quite a far cry from her brilliant performances in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. In dual roles as a good-hearted barmaid and an equally good-hearted brothel madam, she is quite good, and wears revealing dresses to show that she has aged quite well! Mayo published her long-awaited memoirs in 2002 before passing away in 2005. I’d love to know what she had to say about her work here, if she even mentions it! Other than Mayo, it is also nice to see Bruce Davison, shortly after WILLARD and before he would become a regular Hollywood character actor, as Kid Ross, the charming piano player. He acts circles around Alisha Fontaine in his scenes with her, gets into a violent bar fight with a pimp smacking around his woman, and really seems to be having a good time in this little movie. His scenes with street-wise shoeshine kid Satchelmouth are especially fun! Like Mayo, I’d love to learn his thoughts and memories of shooting this cult item.
Unfortunately for its DVD debut, BCI has opted to simply port over a fullframe tape master of FRENCH QUARTER. It’s a shame that no care was put into this digital restoration of the title, as it’s a visually pleasing film that would greatly benefit from a new widescreen transfer. The image is at least a tad brighter than previous versions, but when the film stops cold and the screen goes black for 10 seconds in the middle of an exciting voodoo ritual, you have every right to feel ripped off. If you have the old VHS of FRENCH QUARTER, don’t part with it, simply put it onto DVD-R yourself, and if you’ve never seen the film before, at least you can finally see this classic, albeit in a less-than-optimal version. (Casey Scott)
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