Director: Joseph Sarno
RetroSeduction Cinema

By 1975, director Joseph Sarno had produced a consistently excellent series of sexploitation films for almost a decade: noir-influenced black-and-white and sensual color films shot in the New York area, and unique European-flavored films shot in Sweden and Germany. With LAURA’S TOYS, Sarno combined those two worlds into a sexual stew of infidelity, sexual exploration, and lesbianism, flying his latest muse, Mary Mendum, and reliable hardcore performer Eric Edwards to shoot on-location on the Swedish island of Mjolko. Unfortunately, of Sarno’s collaborations with Mendum, this is his least interesting and overall, despite an abundance of intense sex scenes, is not one of his best offerings.

Handsome archaeologist Walter and his able assistant Anna are spending their summer investigating the remains of an ancient village on a remote Swedish island. Walter’s beautiful wife, Laura, is bored silly and though she and Walter spend every night feeding their hungry sexual appetites, feels that Anna’s obvious attraction for her husband is having an affect on their relationship. To make matters more interesting, Laura’s long-time friend and lesbian lover Hanni is in town vacationing with another of their Sapphic playmates. While Walter and Anna explore their attraction to one another, Laura craves all she can get, including pursuing Anna herself and giving in to her desires to bed down with Hanni and her rotation of bed partners.

Rather than his usual script involving incestuous siblings, sexually repressed women, and/or the sexual hypocrisy of high society and suburbanites, Sarno’s storyline for LAURA’S TOYS is an interesting tale of a married couple pulled in opposite directions by their overwhelming sexual needs. As discussed in one of many great dialogue scenes by Mary Mendum, Laura was essentially a nymphomaniac from her schoolgirl days, while Walter kept busy sleeping with a number of women around the time he met Laura; the two complimented each other so well that they married. When they find that they desire a more active and varied sex life, their relationship is tested as both Walter’s assistant and Laura’s childhood lover become intertwined with all parties involved. With such a unique storyline, it’s unfortunate that the film isn’t executed better. In a long 105 minute running time, there are a number of very intense sex scenes, with the most memorable and erotic being the outdoor first encounter between Anna and Walter; Sarno’s camera focuses on Anna’s tightening face as she experiences not one, but two overwhelming orgasms. Outside of the trademark Sarno sex scenes, the most intriguing moments of LAURA’S TOYS are those between Anna and Laura. Laura initially has a mixed reaction to Anna’s interest in her husband, at one moment competitive, and another intrigued by this wall flower, a potential sexual volcano waiting to erupt. Her wonderfully written dialogues with Anna, providing back story to her sexual emotions and relationship with Walter, as well as allowing the two characters to open up to one another and eventually find a mutual attraction to one another, are excellent.

However, all this said, the film doesn’t quite gel, for some reason. Perhaps it’s the focus on the relationship between Laura and Hanni, her secret love, clashing with the vastly more interesting love triangle between the couple and Anna. As Hanni, Mac Ahlberg regular Anita Ericcson is lovely, but can’t pull off the characterization of this seemingly hastily-written character. Where Sarno’s pacing is usually deliberate and almost hypnotic, using many long single-takes and wise use of pauses and actor nuances, here it simply feels glacial at times and the film’s extended climax is irritating. Special note must be made of Katja Graff, in her only film, doing a fine job as Anna, and Eric Edwards had by then patented his “handsome nice guy having sex” roles. But the one always-excellent element of LAURA is star Mary Mendum. Sarno’s last muse, who he built several films around, striking blonde Mendum played a variety of different characters for Sarno, excelling in all of them. Here, as a calculating sexual pixie, Mendum steals every scene she’s in, is never less than mesmerizing, and most importantly, her character goes through a grand transformation come the finale, allowing Mendum to impress depth into her performance. Her speech to Hanni in the finale sums up the film and its message beautifully. Sex is fun, but becoming obsessed with it is dangerous, and at some point, one needs to grow up and emotionally mature.

Regular Sarno cinematographer (and Peggy Steffans’ brother) Steven Silverman’s photography is gorgeous, especially in the picturesque outdoor scenes taking advantage of a beautiful location. The late Jack Justis (who would compose several scores for Sarno, and contributed the wonderful soundtrack to Armand Weston’s TAKING OF CHRISTINA) doesn’t make too much of an impression, though, with his rather generic score here.

Sarno and Mary Mendum completists will absolutely have to purchase this disc, and the commentary (discussed further down) is mandatory listening, but others are advised to rent it first. LAURA’S TOYS isn’t a terrible or even a simply average film; as with Sarno’s other films, it’s head and shoulders above other genre entries of the time, and is a worthy piece of a dynamic oeuvre for this visionary director. But it simply pales in comparison to Sarno’s other excellent films of the period; newcomers and veterans of Sarno’s work are advised to compare this to ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN, a vastly superior film in every way.

Culled from the original negative kept in storage for years, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer of LAURA’S TOYS looks quite bold and colorful. Other than a few instances of debris near reel changes, outdoor scenes are bright and sharp, with sparkling greens. The mono audio, unfortunately, needs to be cranked up to hear the dialogue, probably due to the shooting conditions of the original production.

A nice selection of extras supports the film’s lovely transfer. A brief interview with Joseph and Peggy Sarno discusses the film’s genesis, the very beautiful locations used, and Peggy gives the best anecdotes (as usual) about Joe convincing non-actress Katja Graff to appear in the film and her thoughts on Eric Edwards’ prowess as an on-screen lover. A second video interview with the still very handsome Edwards is basically a nice runner-up (including the revelation that Edwards and Mary Mendum didn’t really click off-camera) to the disc’s best supplement, a very in-depth feature-length commentary with the actor. I must admit, I was apprehensive about this commentary due to the fact that it’s a performer-based commentary (actors/actresses tend to not have much to say about a quickly shot film, and are better served through interviews), but moderator Michael Bowen focuses not only on the making of LAURA’S TOYS, but also allows Edwards to discuss his beginnings in acting and the adult industry, his memories of shooting in Sweden and working on other Sarno films, his philosophies of what makes films erotic, the process of shooting overseas, the loops factory of New York, the move of the adult industry from the East to West Coast in the 1980s, his personal experiences as a filmmaker and observations of Sarno’s filmmaking techniques, and many more fascinating stories of this incredible man’s life and career. A few dead spots don’t detract from the overall excellence of this track. A vast improvement of the previous Sarno disc commentary (ABIGAIL LESLIE), this should be considered the blueprint for future performer-based commentaries. The one caveat is that it cuts off before Bowen and Edwards can finish bidding the audience adieu. Sarno biographer Bowen also contributes another wonderful set of historical liner notes in a color booklet. A trailer vault contains previews for MISTY, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN, LAURA’S TOYS, BUTTERFLIES, GIRL MEETS GIRL (real title: BIBI), VAMPIRE ECSTASY, SWEDISH WILDCATS, THE SEDUCTION OF INGA, INGA (two different trailers), and Sarno’s newest instant classics, SUBURBAN SECRETS. All are available from RetroSeduction Cinema (except for MISTY, whose DVD release has been postponed), and the mandatory purchases are ABIGAIL LESLIE, BUTTERFLIES (as part of the GIRL MEETS GIRL COLLECTION), and the two INGA films.
(Casey Scott)