SHE-MAN (1967)/SINS OF RACHEL (1968)
Directors: Bob Clark, Dick Fontaine
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

The #1 cult video company has always been kind to its gay customers, offering several early examples of queer cinema and hardcore gay porn alongside their straight moneymakers. Considering these third sex relics probably aren’t their bread and butter, it was a major move for Something Weird to put out a double feature of THE MEAT RACK/STICKS AND STONES a couple of years back. Returning to once again celebrate Gay Pride Month of June, SWV has spewed forth a Gender Bender Double Feature, pairing two more Stonewall-era flicks with varying levels of success.

Dr. Louis Pessolano introduces the tale of SHE-MAN, a wild shot-in-Florida wonder that will doubtlessly leave the viewer asking who the hell was this film made for! Albert Rose is a clean-cut, all-American male enjoying his life as a dashing ladies’ man until he finds himself being blackmailed for deserting during his Army days in Korea. The culprit? The sleek, seductive Dominita, a blonde woman who demands that Albert give her a year of his life in exchange for keeping his secret. Little does Albert know that he must spend the year in drag as Dominita’s maid, popping estrogen pills to fully transform him into a woman! Ruth, Dominita’s lesbian secretary, finds herself attracted to the newborn “Rose Albert”, and helps her expose Dominita’s peculiar secret and free the large group of blackmail victims posing as members of the opposite sex populating Dominita’s compound!

This black-and-white oddity is really surprising to watch today, even for the most jaded viewers. The whole affair is just so bizarre and strange, with a perverse storyline and a cast of performers who somehow signed onto this project without realizing its quirkiness. Amidst the bizarre premise and the parade of gender-bending characters are some nice moments of shadowy photography and S&M-inspired dialogue spouted by the smooth Dominita, wielding her cigarette holder and griping about Rose’s dirty fingernails. The problem with SHE-MAN is the pacing, as with many Florida-shot sexploitation films. It starts off promisingly, with Dominita striking an imposing figure as a vicious blackmailer, but the film eventually goes downhill, focusing too much on the ridiculous romance between Albert and Ruth and spending a very long time at one of Dominita’s parties, where she records conversations for future blackmail purposes. With a title like SHE-MAN, we want more transvestite action, not talky scenes featuring normal people. Thankfully there’s still plenty of beefy Albert parading around in a giant blonde wig and a maid outfit, and the flashy Dominita, to keep those craving cross-dressing satisfied. At 64 minutes, the film is thankfully over before it runs completely out of steam and though the “surprise” finale can be seen a mile away, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Besides the intriguing title, the film’s primary claim to fame is that its director is Bob Clark, but fans of his will do themselves no favors by checking out this film for that reason alone. Clark would helm the half-good CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS in a couple of years, and soon after would, of course, be responsible for the brilliant horror classic BLACK CHRISTMAS. 10 years later, PORKY’S and A CHRISTMAS STORY would establish him as an accomplished comedy director, but nowadays, he’s wallowing in kiddie trash like BABY GENIUSES. He discusses SHE-MAN on the Blue Underground commentary for DEATHDREAM, but in general dismisses this early film, for good reason that doesn’t seem to have to do with the subject matter. It’s simply nowhere near indicative of the talent that would soon appear on movie screens in the 1970s.

Amidst a cast of non-thespians, one stands out: Dorian Wayne, the titular “she-man”. Wayne was a popular Miami drag queen performer who seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth, and SHE MAN only really works when she is on-screen. She obviously comes from the school of complete female impersonation, rather than the later 1970s renaissance of drag kickstarted by Divine, when drag became a caricature in and of itself. It would be interesting to find out what happened to Wayne; it sounds clichéd to suggest that he eventually succumbed to AIDS, but so few gay men survived this era without encountering the deadly virus at some point. If anyone has any information about Wayne’s career as a stage performer and/or his whereabouts today, please forward it to me via DVD Drive-In.

On the flipside of this strange double feature is the mega-obscure SINS OF RACHEL, a bargain basement “Peyton Place” with a little homosexual flavor, gruesome gore shots, and outrageous dialogue thrown in. It’s actually more fascinating than SHE-MAN. Washed-up lounge singer Rachel Waring, an obese auburn-haired wannabe sexpot, is found in her spacious home butchered and bloody, and her little town is chockfull of suspects! Together with the cops, a visiting publisher questions her various acquaintances, including a number of catty neighbors, her closet homosexual son Jimmy, his hopeful romantic girlfriend Shirley, his secret boyfriend Peter, jealous barmaid Jane, and local singing hunk Hank Gregory. It seems that a target was immediately placed on our devious deceased diva once she announced her plans to publish a tell-all autobiography, exposing the sordid secrets of her family and friends, meaning that anyone who knew her could easily be capable of murder…

Man do I love no-budget regional rarities like SINS OF RACHEL! Shot just outside of the fringes of Hollywood, with a no-name cast and threadbare production values, this is one of the looniest attempts at soap opera the exploitation genre would yield. Taking a blatant page from the tale of Grace Metalious, the notorious author of the 1950s sex scandal novel Peyton Place, the film throws one shady character into the pot after another, and to make this different from the usual murder mystery, a timely gay sensibility is on-hand with the revelation that Rachel’s son, Jimmy, has been shacking up with sexy stud Peter. Jimmy even has an awkward semi-confession to the local minister, who just so happens to be his girlfriend’s father! In an effort to straighten out, he suggests joining the “church drama group” before finally giving in and bedding down with sex magnet Peter!! In addition to the ahead-of-its-time homosexuality, an incest subplot, with Rachel becoming so horny and needy for a man that she demands Jimmy sleep in her bedroom, and eventually graduate to her bed, where she gives him a creepy goosing and sends him into a screaming fit! Even when there isn’t something completely tasteless and exploitable on-screen, the over-the-top dialogue, soap-sudsy antics, and cardboard performances of the cast will keep you glued to the screen. How much more tacky can a film get? The filmmakers need only have added hardcore sex to make this the ultimate skeezefest.

Ann Noble, who also wrote this monstrosity, you probably won’t recognize from Ted V. Mikels’ THE CORPSE GRINDERS, where she played a creepy gravedigger’s wife. She glams it up here, obviously intent on becoming a Hollywood superstar and believing herself a renaissance woman, equally adept at acting, vamping, and screenwriting. She fails on all three counts, but boy oh boy, it’s sure fun watching her try, especially when she looks at all times like Marlene Dietrich after a two-week bender! Sporting a dazzling array of costumes, lounging in cheesecake lingerie with zero sex appeal, and batting her long fake eyelashes at any young man who crosses her path, Noble makes the most of her star vehicle and is completely memorable. To make her diva status complete, the film was apparently shot in Noble’s actual home, utilizing glamour shots and self-portraits adorning her wall! Yikes! Another cast member would work with Mikels the same year, Brett Mariott, who apparently was in the snoozefest BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS. Patricia Rees, playing the dizzy girlfriend Shirley, strongly resembles contemporary actress Linda Cardellini, albeit with a platinum blonde hairdo. Director Dick Fontaine, who died in 2000, was renowned for his gay physique photos and early gay feature films, including what is considered the first theatrically released gay erotic film, THE DAYS OF GREEK GODS, so it’s fitting that he is the man behind the camera producing this attempt at gay storytelling. The entire affair resembles a cheap gay hardcore feature from this era, like Tom DeSimone’s CHAINED or Jaguar Films’ A DEEP COMPASSION, and like any one of those films, the male cast members have long hair, mustaches, and thick sideburns. My heart yearns for 1972! No female nudity included here, no sirree, but handsome guys in skintight pants, tightie whities, shirtless, or even providing butt shots to drive home the gay angle. Fontaine worked for Athletic Model Guild in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and released many photos under other studio names (Apollo, Apollo International, R.A. Enterprises, Zenith [the banner under which SINS OF RACHEL was released]), so it’s only natural to think that the “R. Mizer” credited as assistant cameraman is most probably Bob Mizer of AMG Studios. Also worth noting: the excellent opening theme song “What Would a Bird Do”, sung by Jerry Kane! If you’re feeling a bit let down by SHE-MAN, roll around in the cheap filthiness of SINS OF RACHEL, one of the best unsung trash pics of Southern California exploitation.

Of the two transfers on the disc, SHE-MAN is the superior, from a clean 35mm print featuring fair black and white contrasts and solid blacks. However, it’s far from perfect, with a good amount of grain and speckling. The lighting on the set is at times too bright, transforming faces into glowing white orbs. If SINS OF RACHEL didn’t feature muddy color, cheap credits, print jumps, green emulsion lines, and a tinny soundtrack, it simply wouldn’t be as charming. It looks like it has been rescued from the garbage at the nick of time, and in all likelihood probably was. The real surprise is that it’s mildly letterboxed at 1.66:1. Both features unfortunately have weak mono soundtracks, thanks to the production values of the time.

Raiding the gay sectors of their massive vaults, Something Weird goes over the rainbow even further with the excellent supplements presented here. The SINS OF RACHEL trailer doesn’t even mention the homosexual angle of the film, instead focusing on the cheap drama, brief gore scene, and potboiler mystery. Most trailers with such heavy hyperbole and cost-cutting production values are for features that are now lost, reminding us how lucky we are to be able to savor SINS OF RACHEL today. Interestingly, the preview utilizes alternate takes throughout. THE 1970 HOT SUMMER SPECIAL is one such film, or series of films, currently unavailable. This early collection of hardcore gay sex shorts (with the really naughty bits edited out), all set to a goofy library music selection, stars the type of rough trade, gay-for-pay types that frequented the first gay porn of the 70s. Lots of pickle on-hand here, as well as ridiculous sideburns, and judging from the trailer look a tad more graphic than, but similar to, Bob Mizer shorts. Several of these guys look underage, with pimples galore, and that wouldn’t be surprising considering the unsavory methods of casting in the early days of the industry. A MESSAGE FROM KEN MARLOWE has appeared on a few discs before, and is intriguing because Ken Marlowe is virtually forgotten today. Apparently he was the author of a book called “Mr. Madame” and the preview is an announcement for a personal appearance starring his stable of men, presumably hustlers or escorts he recruited from the streets. THE QUEEN has somehow remained hard to see, despite a recent VHS release, and is an amazing look at a 1967 drag queen competition in New York. Witness catty backstage fights, transformations from men to women, rehearsals for big dance numbers of the men pre-drag, and revealing interviews with the contestants. The critics loved this one, raving about its accurate and intriguing portrayal of the subculture. Highly recommended, and hopefully First Run Features or a similar gay DVD label will release it on the digital format sometime soon. GAY LIBERATION looks to be a newsreel compilation of gay pride parades throughout the country, and is a great time capsule of the beginning of an era when gay men and women walked proud and strong. Very important footage. VAPORS is one of only three fantastic Andy Milligan features (the others are SEEDS and FLESHPOT ON 42ND STREET, for reference’s sake), and the only blatantly homosexual-driven feature of this gay director’s oeuvre. Known for his schlocky horror outings, Milligan is touted as an important new director of the underground film movement, and it’s true, watch the three films in a row and you’ll be amazed at what a good writer he was. If he was a tad more conventional, he might have joined Paul Morrissey and John Cassavetes among the most influential New York City independent filmmakers. Instead he was responsible for stuff like BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS and LEGACY OF BLOOD… I WAS A MAN is one of a large group of currently missing Barry Mahon films; what remains of Mahon’s output is largely pretty boring, but the lost efforts (including this one, THE DIARY OF KNOCKERS MCCALLA and a few others) seem more intriguing. This one stars an ugly middle-aged man who can’t get it up with women and decides to get a sex change in Denmark. Of course the subject matter doesn’t stop Mahon from piling in his trademark beauties in nude scenes. You also get to see how terrifying the sorry bloke looks in drag! MY THIRD WIFE GEORGE is apparently here because of the gender-bending title, but is really a pretty darn funny sexploitation relic from the sunny state of Florida. H.G. Lewis star Bill Kerwin stars as Ralph Higby, a dork “with many faces” whose experiences with women become progressively more and more ridiculous. This would be a good candidate for a future SWV DVD, as it mixes naked ladies and humor very well. Watch for Bunny Ware (STRANGE RAMPAGE, MUNDO DEPRAVADOS) as Ralph’s hippie girlfriend who introduces him to pot and orgies! THE LUSTING HOURS, out on an essential DVD on a triple feature with ULTIMATE DEGENERATE and IN HOT BLOOD, is a crazed fake documentary following the sexual exploits of call girls, street girls, hookers, models, and hustlers in New York City. It’s a fine introduction to the tongue-in-cheek world of the Amero Brothers, the foremost gay directing team in exploitation and later hardcore (both straight and gay). It’s here because of the drag queen girlfriend of hustler Ron Skideri, played by Lem Amero! Must be seen to be believed!!

Further gay merriment can be experienced with a group of shorts, beginning with “Jean LaRue”, culled from an unnamed burlesque film. Believe it or not, in the 1940s and 1950s, burlesque acts often featured female impersonators, something that really astounds me because of general homophobia in society of the time. The most famous is probably Vicki Lynn, as seen in the Unholy Trilogy of burlesque films, STRIPORAMA, VARIETEASE, and TEASERAMA. Jean LaRue is more unique not only is she a female impersonator, but she’s also black, making her kind of a hero for pre-Stonewall drag queens and a precursor to popular follow-ups like RuPaul! Three 8mm beefcake shorts follow, and comparing these innocent nudie reels to the up-close-and-personal, shaved and buffed porn of today, they’re quaint and actually kinda sexy in their own way, much like nudie cuties of the period. The first one is just weird, though, resembling a home movie of sorts. Titled “Going Native at the Beach”, we see a 1950s gent disrobing and prancing in his birthday suit on a beach in 1956 and are told via title cards that he goes there for several years, enjoying nature, lounging on a towel, and playing with a dog at one point. Surprisingly, he also appears to have shaved pubic hair!! “Naked Cowboy” features a cowboy (who looks Native American) laying on a rock in the desert to worship the sun, and indulges in some exercise for the camera. “Warren Frederick Goes to Bed” features a mega-muscled naked black stud flexing, rubbing himself down, and posing for the camera. This is a posing strap fan’s dream come true, and still very erotic today.

For more information on Dick Fontaine’s physique photography, try tracking down THE DAYS OF GREEK GODS: THE PHYSIQUE FILMS OF RICHARD FONTAINE, which hasn’t officially been released on video but I’ve seen it on a few collector’s lists. Or better yet, read the memories of one of Fontaine’s models, Chuck Roy, at: Fontaine’s history would be perfect for a book, and considering he’s the man who inspired Bob Mizer to begin shooting films for AMG in addition to photography, he could be considered the most important innovator for gay erotic filmmaking of all time. Consider that while watching SINS OF RACHEL. And then yearn to watch his lost features, like I AM CURIOUS…GAY and IN LOVE AGAIN. (Casey Scott)