Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Vinegar Syndrome

Seemingly the last three unaccounted-for films of “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis have been brought to Blu-ray (and DVD) courtesy of intriguing new label Vinegar Syndrome (and a bunch of supportive Kickstarter contributors).

THE ECSTASIES OF WOMEN (75:00) was one of two productions directed by Lewis as Mark Hansen for producer Thomas J. Dowd (earlier in the decade, Lewis had directed a couple of tame nudies for Dowd as well as ALLEY TRAMP previous to the film under discussion). The impetus for these productions – according to the informative ten-page liner notes booklet by Casey Scott – was Dowd’s fetching discovery Sharon Matt, who only has a small role here (however, she would take one of the title roles in Lewis’ other “Mark Hansen” feature LINDA AND ABILINE). The film’s focus is actually Walter Camp as soon-to-be-wed traveling lingerie salesman Harry. Harry seems happy enough to settle down; however, at his bachelor party, his friends Gene (Forman Shane, THE BUSHWHACKER) and interchangeable Ted (William Vickers) and Fred (James Brand, MANTIS IN LACE) pose some thoughtful questions about his decision: such as how will the wife feel about his lingerie-peddling, and will she want to live on his swanky floating brothel of a boat? The go-go girls are there for his friends since Harry’s already contenting himself mentally by reliving his past conquests (his pals call his far-off expression sphinx-like, but I’d describe it as drugged to the gills).

First up is model Annette (Jeanette Mills, THE TALE OF THE DEAN’S WIFE). Mills had a short filmography and although her body is firm, her face does have a subtly weathered look to it; but that’s part of what makes the flashback featuring her worthy of its near 20-minute length (longer than any of the others). She and Camp engage in dialogue that seems to parody the usual bar pickups with “you should model for me” come-ons and offers to let her try on some of the stock he has on his boat exposed as the obligatory artifice to what both want to do aboard his boat. It’s a mature (though not jaded) encounter that could have done with some more energetic editing and creative coverage when it finally got to the sex scene. In contrast to that is an encounter with an aggressive double-talking beach bunny Sandy (Vincene Wallace, VIXEN) who all but drags Harry back to his yacht. The scene starts out like a 1960s men’s magazine color photo spread fantasy with sunbathing Harry finding a scantily-clad beauty looming over him only to start making cracks about his manhood. When they get back to the boat, his seduction routine of sending her to change into something more comfortable while he fixes drinks is too slow for her. The whole thing culminates in another lengthy tussle in the bed with a similar selection of camera angles listlessly cut together. Harry’s encounter with Philomena (Sharon Matt, BABY VICKY) is another “adventure” as the underage girl jumps into his convertible and asks to be taken away. She attacks him for his expression of concern over her vague predicament and her age, but they go back to his boat anyway; however, the flashback ends before they do anything (although the film’s trailer suggests that he counts her age as a bonus). Taken in chronological order, maybe it’s not so surprising that Harry wants to settle down with a normal broad; that is, until topless waitress Kitty (Eleonor Riggs) introduces him to go-go dancer Summer Frenzy (Bonnie Clark, THE HANG UP) – her real name, apparently – from Climax, Arizona (did I mention that Harry hails from Intercourse, Pennsylvania), who may turn out to be the perfect gal for Harry (she even arranges for go-go dancers Teddy Bear [Dee Howard, THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD] and Chris [Antoinette Maynard, SIN IN ‘69] to join her and Kitty on Harry’s boat for an orgy).

The progressive, fullscreen transfer from the original negative is virtually spotless and clear enough to expose all manner of freckles and pimples (and maybe a little rug burn) which might have been washed out in a faded release print. The only flaws seem to be two barely perceptible moments of image trembling at the start of reels. A couple of close-ups during the sex scenes are slightly grainy, possibly due to the insufficient lighting or optical enlargement to give a little variety to the coverage. The DVD presentation generally looks handsome but the darker shots are not only grainier but reveal the bitrate limitations of four plus hours of material on one dual-layer DVD. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC encode on the Blu-ray features is superior in every respect (fortunately, you’ve got both in this combo). Both encodes feature the same clean Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track (although the Blu-ray’s main menu screen features DTS-MA audio). The only extra is an amusing trailer (3:55) in which our hero espouses the titular “ecstasies of women” and is continually surprised to find a different woman under him. The picture quality of the trailer is in comparable condition to the feature, but the audio is not as clean (although it seems to be the fault of the library music tracks – not the feature score – since the dialogue under the music sounds cleaner).

In LINDA AND ABILENE (92:27), homesteading siblings Todd (Kip Marsh) and Abilene (Sharon Matt again) have just buried their parents. Left alone in their isolated cabin, the siblings form a comfy domestic relationship with a tense sexual undercurrent spiked by bouts of skinny-dipping, voyeurism, sweaty shirtlessness, lingering embraces and goodnight kisses, and some mutual butter-churning. When passions explode, they do so all over the farm – and at the creek (in what may be the most uncomfortable position in the history of sex) – which soon runs to ruin (well, the housekeeping suffers at least). Perhaps feeling a bit guilty about all the incest, Todd heads into town to the local saloon where he catches the eye of local whore Linda (Roxanne Jones) who plies him with liquor and drags him into bed. Having overheard that Abilene is on her own back at the cabin, Rawhide (Tom Thorn) rides on over there and rapes her, setting the stage for a bloody shootout (but not before Linda and Abilene get a go at one another).

LINDA AND ABILENE has the look and feel of one of Harry Novak’s Box Office International period-set softcore pics. Lewis sustains the period well for much of the running time despite some inconsistent performances; however that all goes out the window when Jones is introduced (her dialogue delivery is stilted and her dresses look more like she’s heading to a 1950s prom). Lewis lingers too long on the opening scenes trying to summon up some tension before moving on to a series of vignettes communicating the growing awkwardness of Todd and Abilene’s relationship (these and the multiple short sexual encounters following their consummation suggest a passage of some time, but then a bartender informs Linda that the siblings’ parents have only been dead a week!). Todd’s revenge against Rawhide is pushed all the way to the last five minutes of the film and is captured seemingly in as few shots as possible. Lewis (acting as his own cinematographer under the name “Lewis H. Gordon”) does manage some nice compositions (mostly static long shots, although he seems to have been suitably inspired by Matt’s attractive face to get some nice close-ups of her in ecstasy). Lewis regular Larry Wellington’s score veers from period-suitable harmonica to 1960s guitar and sleazy sax during the sex scenes. Once again, the coverage of the sex scenes is pretty monotonous with the only introduced novelty being the single girl-girl scene late in the film.

The progressive, fullscreen transfer seems like it could have sustained 1.85:1 matting with mostly balanced compositions (although the top of Marsh’s head does occasionally graze the top of the frame in some of Lewis’ static long-shot setups when zoomed into 16:9). The materials are spotless and free of damage apart from a minute instance of jittering. The Blu’s 1080p pillarboxed rendering is the way to go, but the DVD encode is the best of the three on the single dual-layer disc. The mono audio (Dolby Digital 2.0 on both Blu-ray and DVD) is in fine condition. The film is accompanied only by a lengthy trailer (5:20) that highlights all of the sexual encounters. Picture quality of the trailer is comparable to the feature, but the audio quality is similar to that of the trailer for THE ECSTASIES OF WOMEN (clean-sounding dialogue and narration with the hiss probably originating in the library music track).

BLACK LOVE (74:15) is even more of a departure for the “Godfather of Gore” than the previous two softcore pics. The narrator states that the film is not “an erotic sex film; it is rather a study of an important aspect of the black experience” but it’s really just a hardcore film with an all-black cast masquerading as a documentary on… well… BLACK LOVE. The film takes the viewer through scenarios depicting the discovery of “black love” (the narrator uses the same emphatic inflection every time he uses the phrase) as children – one of which is more than a bit creepy because of the kid’s expressive reactions to what she likely did not actually see on set – social gatherings (dancers at a disco gradually lose their clothes so the camera can depict differences in physiology), courtship rituals of persuasion and resistance (the culmination of a married couple’s night on the town and a younger couple being caught by a returning parent), and the influence of sleep and dreams on sexual arousal (a dowdier couple also used to explain the importance of reciprocation with a certain numerically-related act).

Had it not been a porn film, BLACK LOVE might have found a cult following as a spoof of a 1960s sociological study. The narrator tells us that the black male is the “physical embodiment of male strength and beauty” and the black woman “symbolic mother of all downtrodden people” and that the real purpose for their creation is the realization of “black love”; but before more PC viewers (who probably wouldn’t admit to watching porn in the first place) take Gordon and company to task for the condescending narration, they’ll probably realize that many of the generalized psychological facts espoused by the narrator (the harmful influences of religion, morality, and social criticism on sexuality) apply to just about any Western population. The narrator differentiates black love from other forms of lovemaking “because of the physiological, sociological, and psychological differences among black people” but also says that some of the differences are imagined or based on myth, ignorance, or fantasy. The non-professional performers were chosen, according to Scott in his liner notes, by the film’s producer Bob Smith (owner of several Chicago-area Baskin-Robbins shops at the time) and Lewis seems to be on auto-pilot with the combination of inserts and limited angles during the sex scenes (and even more limited angles during the setups).

The progressive, fullscreen encode on the DVD and pillarboxed 1080p presentations are once again spotless, more subject to the quality of the photography (especially during the shot-on-the-quick exterior vignettes) than any preservation issues. The mono audio (Dolby Digital 2.0 on both DVD and Blu-ray) has a little distortion in the high end, noticeable at times in both the music and the narration. The film’s trailer (2:30) is horrendous-looking, but the heavy splices appear to have been caused by trying to edit a trailer from a print of the finished film – and cutting away just before a hardcore angle – instead of any preservation issues with the element (2:30). Supporting this theory is the fact that trailer’s narration comes from the feature’s scored opening, and most of the intertitles are seen during the opening credits. Watch the trailer first to see just how much better the feature transfer looks.

Besides the trailers and the Casey Scott booklet, Vinegar Syndrome has also included reproductions of the lab cards that were included with the negatives as well as three pins: two with reproductions of the LINDA AND ABELINE and BLACK LOVE posters (imagine wearing the latter on a stroll downtown) and one with the LOST FILMS artwork. Vinegar Syndrome has some interesting titles in the pipeline and seems to be poised to replace - possibly along with Distribpix - the Retro Seduction Cinema label in preserving 1960s and 1970s sleaze. (Eric Cotenas)