Antony Balch may not be a household name in the U.S., but he was a fascinating figure in the world of British exploitation cinema. In the 1960s, Balch distributed a number of European exploitation films in the U.K., convinced the British censors to finally allow Tod Browning’s FREAKS to be screened, and made several short films with famed writer William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Balch finally made first full-length feature in 1969, a thing called SECRETS OF SEX, and it was the first of two collaborations with legendary producer Richard Gordon (the second being HORROR HOSPITAL). Previously issued on DVD under the title BIZARRE (in which it is better known in America), Synapse is now re-marketing the film as SECRETS OF SEX with a new cover (and an October 12, 2010 street date), and fans of obscure British horror and exploitation who missed it the first time, may want to give it a try.
SECRETS OF SEX can easily be described as an “anthology” or "omnibus” film, but trying to bestow description on it is utterly pointless. Like its American release title, it truly is “bizarre” and unlike anything else released in Britain at the time, in either the horror or sex arenas. Opening up with slow-mo footage of two naked guys and a beautiful naked blonde woman, a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost is read and this very strange movie experience unravels. A short tale about a judge (Richard Schulman) burying a trunk that may hold his wife’s lover is told, and then a stationary mummy delivers some preachy narration (as he does throughout the whole picture). What soon follows is a string of topless women dancing and getting food belted at them, and some shirtless men pointing machine guns on them as the gals retaliate with shaving razors.
More short stories unfold. A female photographer (Dorothy Grumbar) – who apparently specializes in S & M shoots – leaves her male subject (Anthony Rowlands) tied and weighed down to a sharp-bladed “Spanish Horse” while she and her companion take an extra long lunch. Then, pretty scientist Mary Clare (Yvonne Quenet) promises to have a child with her much older wealthy lover Sascha (Kenneth Benda). She never mentions that an uncommon birth defect is inherited in her bloodline, and the results are monstrous. Next, a man is burglarized and when he finds out the intruder is a “bird”, he proceeds to take a shower with her and beds her before she finishes her pilfering. The next segment concerns Lindy Leigh (Maria Frost), a secret agent and her sexy adventures. This segment also embodies a spoof of silent movies, where dual same-sex couples end up in bliss. Then, a strange man (Elliott Stein) rings up for a call girl (Sue Bond) who gets freaked out when he introduces his pet lizard into the kinky scene. Lastly, an older woman (Laurelle Streeter) in a greenhouse brags about the number of men she’s ruined, but her tampering with souls of males is made punishable by her servant. The film then ends with an orgy involving the guys and girls from the opening, with lots of exploding fireworks intercut (Love, British Style?).
BIZARRE/SECRETS OF SEX is more of a multi-faceted sexploitation film than horror, and although the stories are unusual, they pretty much build up to nothing, leaving the viewer going, “Hah?” But as a whole, it’s tough to compare it with anything else (a far cry from the straightforward and structured Amicus anthologies of the same era) and the viewing experience will be a unique one for certain. Balch’s training in short, experimental films was a perfect breeding ground for this sort of trial feature, but his love of horror films would better shine through in his second and final effort, HORROR HOSPITAL (1973). The bandaged mummy is actually played by Elliott Stein, but voiced by Valentine Dyall, who also starred in HORROR HOTEL (CITY OF THE DEAD) and dubbed Mike Raven’s voice in Hammer’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. The film was done on a minuscule budget, so actors show up in multiple scenes, sometimes playing different parts, but theater goers at the time probably thought this was an artistic decision, and not brought on by budget restraints. Most of the cast didn’t do much else, but you might recognize the sinister-looking Kenneth Benda from SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and as the train station attendant in Balch’s HORROR HOSPITAL, and buxom blond Sue Bond was a regular on “The Benny Hill Show” for a number of years.
Not only is BIZARRE/SECRETS OF SEX a peculiar film, it’s distribution history is fascinating, and it's never been available on home video before until Synapse first issued it on DVD as BIZARRE a few years ago. When I interviewed executive producer Richard Gordon some years ago, he had this to say about the distribution: “It was released very briefly here [the U.S.] as BIZARRE by New Line Cinema, who were just starting out at the time. That’s what gave us the idea of later retitling it TALES OF THE BIZARRE. It only had a few bookings here. It really wasn’t a film for the American market. After we retitled it TALES OF THE BIZARRE and made some cuts to get an R rating, it did go out through a company called Fanfare Films, [run by] Joe Solomon, who was actually distributing it through AIP. It went out as a second feature with different pictures [including TOWER OF EVIL, WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS and SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES]. The version approved by the MPAA is only 73 minutes as opposed to the original 90 minutes. There were a lot of bare breasts, which at that time was enough to prevent you from getting a rating.”
Gordon himself has finally brought BIZARRE back into circulation, restoring it to its fully uncut form and wisely licensing it to Synapse Films for the DVD release. The film is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, and looks terrific. Colors are extremely bold, and the image is impeccably sharp. There is some slight dirt spots on the print source, but absolutely nothing to bark at, especially considering the shoestring budget this was shot on. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English track suitably fine, without any noticeable flaws.
The supplements on here pay fitting tribute to Antony Balch, who sadly passed away in 1980 while still in his early 40s. There’s a running commentary with Richard Gordon, moderated by author Tom Weaver. Gordon was actually in America while BIZARRE was being shot in England, but he still shares a wealth of information on the film, its distribution, and his late friend Antony Balch. Gordon also talks about their collaboration on HORROR HOSPITAL, which is always a pleasure to hear about. Weaver quotes some of the original BIZARRE reviews, and asks good questions, and the two of them have a great chemistry for doing commentaries together (an excellent Gordon/Weaver commentary can now be found on Dark Sky Films' recent release of HORROR HOSPITAL). There’s a video interview with New York-born Elliot Stein, who not only played two roles in BIZARRE, but was also one of the writers. Stein gives a solid talk in the 11 minutes he’s allotted, and discusses his participation on this film in detail (a great anecdote is when he was walking around the studio wrapped as the mummy), as well as his friendship with Balch. Two of Balch’s early black & white experimental short films – “Towers Open Fire” (1963) and “The Cut Ups” (1966) – which feature author William S. Burroughs as an actor, are also included. Rounding out the extras are the original British trailer and concrete liner notes by Chris Poggiali. (George R. Reis)
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