Praise the exploitation gods, Something Weird has finally taken the plunge into their large Joe Sarno catalogue to unleash not one, but TWO double feature discs of four of Sarno's singular accomplishments! This is the first installment of a rumored series of Joe Sarno double feature discs continuing throughout the next couple of years! I am hoping and praying that every single Joe Sarno title in Something Weird's vaults is released on DVD. You may wonder why all the hoopla over a name usually not mentioned in the same breath as Dave Friedman, Harry Novak, Doris Wishman, or Michael Findlay? Sarno has a slowly growing cult of appreciators, but his films are quite simply the best sexploitation films the East Coast had to offer. Casting his films with honest-to-goodness ACTORS, writing superb scripts brimming with smart dialogue and witty characterizations, and armed with the best crew he could afford (luckily they delivered!), every single one of Sarno's films, even the weaker efforts like FLESH AND LACE (presented here) and INGA, is a breath of fresh air for those who think that all grindhouse films were the same. One wonders what the raincoat crowd thought of these deeply psychological melodramas as they unfolded across the silver screen in front of them; with virtually no below-the-waist nudity and a clear focus on the facial and emotional results of sex rather than the physical, Sarno's cinema still scorches up the screen and each new title you uncover will lead you to seek out more. Neither film here is a defining work of Sarno's, but provides a good stepping stone to his vision.
New York City, 1964: Naive blonde Bev is the new girl in town, forced to work in a dimly-lit bar populated by topless dancers (including nudie-cutie regular June Roberts, who bears a striking resemblance to Something Weird's leading lady, Lisa Petrucci) and femme fatales who coerce numerous drinks out of loaded patrons. Even though Bev is one of the least effective bar girls in the joint, her guardian angel Joanie (Alice Linville, real name - Judy Young, infamous for playing 'Elaine' in OLGA'S HOUSE OF SHAME) sticks up for her when bespectacled bar owner Dop threatens to throw her out on her ass. It seems our lovely heroine is a bit frigid and becomes uneasy at the thought of physical love...until she is swooped off her feet by Joanie's greasy gambler boyfriend Rook. Joanie will have none of that and sends Bev packing after beating her black and blue, but Bev finds solace in the arms of Julian, a sinister-yet-sweet toy store owner (familiar character actor Joe Santos) who loves her so much he calls up all his guy friends to feed her growing nymphomania in her basement dwelling. Like a spider devouring her prey, each man ventures into the cellar of the toy store to be sucked dry by the insatiable vixen. Meanwhile, back at Joanie's place, Rook's evergrowing debt gives her the bright idea of a toy store robbery...the same toy store in which Bev now resides...
Does it seem like I've written a longer than usual plot synopsis for this film? That's a Joe Sarno film. You won't find wall-to-wall sex and outrageous violence typical of the grindhouse sludge churned out in the Big Apple; Sarno was an adept screenwriter and every one of his films is rife with melodrama, repressed sexual desires, and plot twists aplenty. In order to make his scripts work, Sarno cast a wealth of out of work stage actors slumming in New York City, resulting in some of the best-acted skinflicks you'll ever see. Unfortunately, leading lady Heather Hall is a cold fish, even in her love scenes where she's supposed to be craving any man that comes her way, and her line delivery is stiff, leading me to wonder if she was an actress or a model? The real star of the show is Alice Linville. Where did she disappear to? With the face of a bratty teenager but the talent of a young Joan Crawford, Linville plays the film noir femme fatale part to the hilt, covering a wide range of emotions from protective mother hen to love-starved girlfriend to furious angry bitch. She even sings a superb bluesy tune in the bar, showing an incredible range and coming across as a genuine chanteuse. I wonder if she was a lounge singer in real life? She's billed in this film as Alice Lin, but the IMDB says she is "Judy Young," which I assume is her real name. Judy Young, wherever you are, you are missed. The male leads, Joe Santos and John Aristedes became regulars of Sarno's work and respectively play the lovesick puppy dog and the double-crossing gangster parts well. The statuesque June Roberts is given little to do than dance topless and look sensuous, but does it well and surprisingly delivers her two lines effectively. One of the real treats of Sarno's films is that they were actually shot with decent budgets, which means LIVE SOUND RECORDING! You can finally hear Doris Wishman fave June Roberts' real voice here! FLESH AND LACE isn't one of Sarno's best, though, simply because the film takes forever for a plot to kick in (which is unusual for him) and when it does, Heather Hall's wooden performance leaves no impression on the audience, resulting in a lack of compassion for her character. The sudden nymphomania is never explained, which is ALSO unusual for Sarno, and the sinister side dealings of Julian are brushed aside too quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the tail end of a multiple-picture deal Sarno had with an enterprising producer, but even if it is, Sarno's magic touch is still in full force here and it's better than a lot of the junk it played alongside in 1964.
Access to the original negative of FLESH AND LACE results in a sparklingly beautiful transfer. Blacks and whites have lovely contrasts and believe it or not, it looks like Sarno shot the movie yesterday! There are a few instances of white lines and dirt, but won't distract from what is a real stunner of a remastering. The audio is another story: I assume that the sound man on some of Sarno's flicks weren't really sure how to work the microphones because the dialogue is often painfully under-recorded, leading viewers to crank the volume on their TV's to hear each character's words. This is a real shame, as his films are constantly dialogue-heavy, but just leave your volume at a good setting and enjoy.
Exiting New York City, Joe and Peggy Sarno trek to upstate New York state, posing as the Deep South, for PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS, which is a real slow burn of a sex film. When a hot to trot city couple in a swanky ride drive up to two country bumpkin bikers (looking just like members of The Electric Prunes!!) asking where the Overlook House is, you know this is a very different kind of Sarno film. Gritty, sordid, and playing like a cheaper version of PEYTON PLACE, it doesn't take long for this little gem to dig itself under your skin like a chigger and seep its psychological effects into your bloodstream. Not a pretty image, eh? Norma Sue and her studly "husband" Parker (Alex Mann, the amputee in I DRINK YOUR BLOOD) return to their hometown to visit her stuffy older sister, Norma Jean (Uta Erickson, in her defining career performance), who now runs the local inn, the Overlook House. Jean is not happy to see her sister, and Sue reveals to Parker that the two have been rivals since childhood, when Sue would get in trouble for her sexual promiscuity while Norma would hide away in the barn pleasuring herself with her rag doll. The vindictive sister aims to bring Norma's hidden desires out into the open (by jason). Outside of the Overlook, the two bikers in the opening sequence are having relationship problems of their own. Billy Joe has sparked a romance with new girl in town Anna, a French woman whose husband is away on business, after tiring of his marriage to Linda Lou (sexploitation fave Linda Boyce, proving once again why she was a much better actress and presence than her contemporaries). Linda Lou's pretty tired of their dead love life, too, so shacks up with Billy Joe's best friend Luke. It isn't long before these dysfunctional sexual partners cross paths many times over, as Sue and Parker entice Linda Lou into multiple ménage a trois' and Billy Joe sells Anna to them for a night of pleasure in exchange for some quick cash.
On the surface, other than the superbly written script, this could be your standard upstate New York semi-roughie shot by any Joe-schmoe seeking to sell sex at the local Deuce theater. The print used for the transfer, apparently the last remaining element of the film, is in rough shape, so upon first viewing, none of Sarno's personal touches may be evident. But PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS is a very special film for many reasons, and is a film the man himself is deservedly proud of. First things first: my personal fetish figure Uta Erickson, the sensual blonde of countless sexploitation films of NYC, has her largest speaking role here, shot in live sound, and proves that she WAS a real actress, portraying a deeply complex character and still finding time to look lovely, both fully clothed and displaying her beautiful body in Sarno's sexy shadowy lighting. According to Joe and Peggy Sarno, Erickson was of Norwegian descent, which would explain the European-sounding moniker, which I assume is her actual name. Erickson was a favorite of the Findlays, Doris Wishman, John Amero, and Barry Mahon, appearing in highlighted roles in many of those directors' best films (LOVE TOY, BACCHANALE, THE ULTIMATE DEGENERATE), but Sarno provides her with a superb vehicle for her Nordic beauty and superior thespian talents. He shot this back-to-back with her only other major speaking lead role, MARCY, which is still lost at the moment, and used her in several other films before this one, so it appears I'm not the only one with an affection for Uta.
Secondly, if you're expecting a brightly-lit bump-n-grinder with cavernous crotch shots and close-ups on hairy asses pounding away because the censors were less harsh on 1969's skinflicks than 1964's, think again. Instead, Sarno's sex scenes and self-love sequences are sparsely lit, with a single shaft of light highlighting impassioned faces, aroused caresses, and atmospheric performances by the excellent leads. A masturbation sequence with Uta Erickson, wherein she lays on her bed, hanging her head upside-down over the side with a look of perpetual pleasure plastered on her beautiful visage, (resembling a darker, more sinister variation of a similar scene with Marie Liljedahl in INGA) is an example of how perfectly sexy Sarno sinema really is. The pinhole lighting set-up only allows the audience to witness Erickson's looks of satisfaction as she explores herself, experiencing the excitement as both a voyeur and a participant. Camerawork is also solid in outdoor sequences, with beautiful countryside scenery providing the backdrop for Shakespearean sibling rivalry and double-crossing amongst the various characters. The theme of closeted sexuality as a dangerous social problem is one that Sarno had visited before and would many times again, but no matter how many films of his feature a scheming couple and a repressed financial/sexual target for their psychosexual games, they never wear out their welcome.
The highlight of the disc is the audio commentary on PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS by director Joe Sarno, his wonderful wife/leading lady Peggy Steffans (Sarno), special guest Dave Friedman, and moderated by Mike Vraney and Frank Henenlotter. There isn't an incredible amount of information divulged surrounding the film at hand, but any talk with one of the most talented exploiteers of the time period will hold plenty of interest. Joe is actually the quietest of the quintet, almost coming across as entranced by his own film and admiring his handiwork so many years later. He does explain the difference between shooting in Sweden and America, working with various different producers in New York, and how his films were received by audiences of the Deuce. On the other hand, the very talkative Peggy, of whom I am a huge fan, has plenty of marvelous stories to tell. She actually remembers more details of production dates and cast members than Joe. Surprisingly, she admits to having no recollection of working with Michael and Roberta Findlay or Doris Wishman (except "her horrible voice") simply because of the volume of exploitation films she was shooting at the time, and amusingly jests that because she was a flat-chested true actress, she was immediately cast as the heavy and/or killed off. She does remember working for Sande Johnsen on JUSTINE (1967), a film which is still lost, and offers her hilarious thoughts on seeing TASTE OF FLESH after all these years! One of the best stories I've ever heard Mike Vraney relate on an audio commentary is included here, when he tells the closest he got to ever speaking to Roberta Findlay. Priceless! Speaking of the First Couple of sleazy 42nd Street, there is plenty of background info and appreciation of the raunchy filmography of the Findlays, who the Sarnos were close to, as well as their memories of Allan Shackleton, Chelly Wilson, Barry Mahon, and the move from softcore to hardcore. Overall, this is one of the most entertaining commentaries Something Weird has pressed to disc, and not just because Col. Friedman was involved. It's a treasure trove of history surrounding shooting sexploitation fare on the East Coast, as opposed to the West Coast (which is the usual focus of SWV's audio commentaries), and makes me proud to be such a hardcore devotee of the genre. My one caveat: I wish that Sarno, Steffans and Co. had recorded a commentary for FLESH AND LACE as well, but one can assume that because of time constraints or the fact that Sarno may tire easily in his 80s (!), or perhaps because all involved parties see FLESH AND LACE as the average film it is, only PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS gets the audio essay treatment. Let's hope each and every Sarno disc hereafter gets at least one commentary included, because if this is any indication, not a one of them will be a boring affair.
One of the most striking segments of the audio commentary is Mike Vraney and Frank Henenlotter proclaiming their love for scratches, print jumps, and blemishes. I can't say I would go so far as to say I LOVED them, but I can see their point: print imperfections are the film world's version of battle scars, and it has taken quite a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to bring these films onto DVD. So with that in mind, I have decided as a reviewer to no longer gripe over the print quality of Something Weird DVD's. I will of course point out where footage is missing, where a particular version differs from another, and if they have done an exemplary job remastering a film, but to quote Mr. Vraney as he caps off the commentary: "Fans, enjoy the splices!"
Unlike the other Sarno double feature disc accompanying this release, there is a large collection of trailers for his work included here. My personal favorites, ANYTHING FOR MONEY and THE BED AND HOW TO MAKE IT, are not represented, but there are still plenty of mouthwatering titles here to send any interested viewers scurrying to order them from Something Weird! No trailers for the feature films, but the selection covers Sarno's New York City period, Florida period, and Sweden period, in color AND black-and-white. The most interesting are those for films that have yet to resurface: BED OF VIOLENCE, MARCY, and SCARF OF MIST THIGH OF SATIN. Even better, a surprise trailer for the tres obscure ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN is included on the disc and not listed on the cover! BED OF VIOLENCE looks to be a crime drama starring "Cleo Nova" aka Peggy Steffans AKA Peggy Sarno. It has yet to be found in any form MARCY looks to be another super vehicle for Uta Erickson, shot in beautiful color in upstate New York, apparently at the same time as PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS, with many of the same cast, including Linda Boyce. Erickson is Marcy, the local girl who causes a stir with her open bisexuality, seducing and bedding both married men and their spouses. SCARF OF MIST, THIGH OF SATIN stars Monique Drevon (PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS) and "Cleo Nova" with Judson Todd (ANYTHING FOR MONEY). Peggy stars as a female dressmaker who also acts as a pimp, loaning out her female friends to buyers and businessmen. It's a shame this one is still missing, as it looks superb! THE LOVE MERCHANT is a black-and-white crime drama, starring most of the cast of THE BED AND HOW TO MAKE IT, including Peggy Steffans, Francine Ashley, Judson Todd, Lorraine Claire, Patti Paget, and Michael Alaimo (TASTE OF FLESH, INDECENT DESIRES). A rich bastard allows a business associate to pay off his debts by spending 48 hours with his beautiful blonde wife (it's pretty obvious that the makers of INDECENT PROPOSAL saw this one beforehand). It looks simply marvelous. THE SWAP AND HOW THEY MAKE IT is double-featured with SIN IN THE SUBURBS, also being released this month. Sarno regulars Lorraine Ashley, Francine Ashley, and Peggy Steffans appear in this tale of suburban spouse exchanges. ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN is a 70s color sexploitation Sarno classic, which has previously only appeared via a battered print on Alpha Blue Archives' video label. Alex Mann (PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS) makes his return to Sarno cinema, and porn favorite Jennifer Welles stars alongside adult film contemporaries Eric Edwards (a regular of many Sarno 70s films) and Jamie Gillis. It's another tale of a small seaside town turned upside-down by the reappearance of Abigail Leslie, a swinging sexual dynamo. The real surprise here is seeing Mary Mendum, the star of Radley Metzger's sublime S&M epic THE IMAGE, under her usual nomme-de-porn Rebecca Brooke. RED ROSES OF PASSION is a surprise because it stars Jess Franco stock player Ewa Stroemberg (!!), under the name Carol Halleck, as a young woman who calls upon a secretive witch (Helena Clayton of THE BRICK DOLLHOUSE) to relieve her life of boredom. The black magic woman has a cult of followers (including June Roberts and Francine Ashley) which worships the erotic stimulation of rose petals. This looks pretty darn amazing! TO INGRID MY LOVE, LISA is one of Sarno's Swedish films, with a heroine not unlike INGA. Ingrid is a young budding teenager experimenting with sex in a barn with her boyfriend, but finds herself being seduced by Lisa, an older woman. All the dialogue in the trailer is in Swedish with no subtitles, strangely enough. MY BODY HUNGERS stars Joe Santos and John Aristitides of FLESH AND LACE, and also features Tony King of other Sarno pictures. It's a murder mystery about a young orphan who treks into New York City to find her sister, only to discover she has been murdered in the go-go club where she works. The girl goes undercover to reveal the murderer. Of course this is a must-see! RIDE THE WILD PINK HORSE lives up to its wild title; a swinging young female artist has orgies at her lighthouse dwelling and aims to corrupt her beautiful blonde student. With some truly superb imagery, typical of Sarno. THE SEX CYCLE once again stars the Sarno stock players: Joanna Mills, Cleo Nova, Monique Drevon (PASSION IN HOT HOLLOWS), Tony King, and Michael Alaimo. It's another tale of jealousy and corruption with a hint of the supernatural, with a pair of magic earrings acting as an aphrodisiac to any man who sees them.
Two extremely rare theatrical short subjects shot by Sarno for a cheapskate producer are included. "A Sneak Peek at Strip Poker" is basically what the title suggests: a long, drawn-out game of strip poker with two guys and two gals with groovy library music blaring. "A Peeling We Go Go" is a simple stage show of three strippers strutting their stuff with a curtain backdrop. Both featurettes are so far removed from Sarno's trademarks that it's a wonder he put his name on them in the first place! Rounding out this superior disc is the familiar gallery of exploitation movie magazine covers, with titles like Art Films Review and Naked Films, all playing to the familiar BOOBY TRAP theme. An Easter Egg appears on the Main Menu, a trailer for MISTY, starring Mary Mendum AKA Rebecca Brooke once again. If you're used to her quiet performance in THE IMAGE, be surprised at her comic flair and dramatic line delivery! It features much of the same cast and locations as ABIGAIL LESLIE, leading me to believe they were shot back-to-back. Rumor has it that ABIGAIL LESLIE is being prepared for a DVD release in the near future by Something Weird, and I hope they manage to track down a print of MISTY as its co-feature! (Casey Scott)
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