Directors: Stu Segall/Mark Haggard
Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome continue their neat Drive-in Collection double feature DVD line with a pair of disparate films that both tease the limits of softcore (in both cases, with the help of co-star Barbara Mills): Stu Segall’s THE SUCKERS and Mark Haggard’s THE LOVE GARDEN.

“The contract with the madman was an oral agreement… he fed them a line and they swallowed it!” touts the poster for THE SUCKERS. Modeling agent George and his photographer wife Carol (Barbara Mills, BLUE MONEY) bring two fifty-dollar-an-hour models – Barbara (Sandy Dempsey, PANORAMA BLUE) and Joanne (Laurie Rose, THE HOT BOX) – out to the California desert to pose with the kills of former big game hunter Steve Vandemeer (Steve Vincent, MANTIS IN LACE) who is mounting a hunting expedition with a very special kind of game on his vast estate. Along for the challenge is big game hunter Jeff (Richard Smedley, THE ABDUCTORS) who finds it strange that he can find no animal tracks on the estate nor hear any animal cries at night. After screwing around (literally) for fifty-odd minutes of the 80-minute running time, the group discovers that they are “the most dangerous game” and will be hunted by Vandemeer and his two rape-happy guards.

Director Stu Segall (as Arthur Byrd) beat Jess Franco to the punch by two years with this sexed-up “adaptation” of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (I’m assuming the title THE SUCKERS refers to the duped characters, however the French title for the hardcore version of the Franco film was THE MUNCHERS); but fans of the recently departed “enfant terrible” of European sex needn’t worry about him being eclipsed by Segall (who went from directing softcore and later hardcore porn like INSATIABLE to producing TV shows like HUNTER, RENEGADE, and SILK STALKINGS). THE SUCKERS is perfunctory on almost (emphasis on almost) every level. Rather than offering up an intriguing teaser, the pre-credits sequence rattles off exposition of “Here we are in the middle of nowhere…” variety, and subsequent dialogue scenes merely pass the time rehashing the “there’s something fishy about this setup” angle without adding anything new. The film’s three (well, three-and-a-half) sex scenes eat up nearly half of the eighty minute running time – although they are the film’s raison d’etre, so no complaint there – and at times look (well, about as real as similar scenes in some Harry Novak releases) and sound real (going by some truly embarrassing and undignified sounds made by one actress), and they are given better coverage than the exposition scenes. Vincent’s Vandemeer doesn’t get a close-up until the final act, but either lazy scripting or cutting by the distributor makes him a nonentity for most of the film despite being the host (he’s no Count Zaroff). The chase and capture scenes are so lackadaisically shot that one is caught off-guard by the requisite rape scene, which should prove shockingly unpleasant even for the most jaded sexploitation film viewer (the victim looks believably terrified, the blows look real, but the flinching reaction at the treat of another slap is genuinely unsettling). Cinematographer Hal Guthu was also a talent agent for softcore (and later hardcore) films, and represented actress Mills (he also shot a few films for Ed Wood including LOVE FEAST and NECROMANIA).

Vinegar Syndrome’s progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 with slivers of black matting at the top and bottom of the frame) comes from a 35mm print beaten with the ugly stick. Colors seem accurate (one overexposed exterior bit seems more like the fault of the cinematographer not adjusting the exposure when the sun changed position) and the image is reasonably sharp; however, it is riddled with green scratches and blue stains (the Dolby Digital mono audio from the optical track reflects this damage with hiss, crackling, and buzzing). One or two jump cuts sacrifice a bit of footage (nothing important) but there seem to be some far more abrupt cuts, possibly to knock a few minutes off the film for better double billing. Some dialogue refers to action that doesn’t occur onscreen, and we never see the hunted group disperse after Vandemeer spills the beans (the scene cuts to Barbara and Joanne splitting up after what seems to have been an exchange over whether to go with experienced hunter Jeff). Since the film hasn’t been released before on video or DVD, it’s hard to determine how much is actually missing from damage, how much was lopped off by the distributor, or how much of the action the filmmakers thought they could talk away. The film’s sex scenes do not seem to have been at all curtailed. A lesbian scene is shortened by a fade out, but it was probably always like that since it’s hard to imagine the distributor ponying up for an optical given the rest of the film’s treatment (which includes reprising the film’s main titles as the end titles by splicing them in different order and trimming out all other shots of the characters who were alive at the start but not at the end). Considering the price of the disc, the rarity of the film, it’s skin quotient, the second complete feature (see below), and what customers are already expecting from Vinegar Syndrome’s “Drive-in Collection” line, I really can’t write this one off for looking like it came from the drive-in.

In THE LOVE GARDEN, freelance magazine writer Mike (Jason Scott aka THE GODSON’s Jason Yukon) spots gorgeous Claire (Linda York, A SCREAM IN THE STREETS) – the roommate of saleswoman Ines (THE SUCKERS’ Barbara Mills) – lounging around poolside and it is lust at first sight. From subsequent chance meetings with her, he discovers that she has just lost her job by refusing the attentions of her boss and that she consumes feminist literature; therefore, the usual come-ons are not going to work. She gently rebuffs his invitations to dinner and a movie despite apparently having little else to do. Mike is bewildered until he discovers by chance the true nature of Clare’s and Ines’ cohabitation arrangement, which only makes him want Claire more.

Almost a chamber drama, THE LOVE GARDEN was produced by Bob Chinn (the inspiration for Burt Reynolds’ character in BOOGIE NIGHTS) but the overall film seems to be the somewhat trite brainchild of writer/director Mark Haggard (whose subsequent career included the X-rated films ALL-AMERICAN GIRL and ALL-AMERICAN WOMAN, and the R-rated THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL, although he also scripted the Fred Williamson vehicle BLACK EYE). Described on the poster as a “sexually explicit film for men and women who have loved”, the film is structured around two fairly graphic sex scenes that spike the usual bumping and grinding with some startling – for softcore – shots between the legs of its three game performers. Seemingly intended for a broader audience than the raincoat crowd, THE LOVE GARDEN’s trio of characters (actually the only characters in chamber play-like scenario, seemingly appropriate to the story being told than a concession to a low budget) are somewhat deeper than they appear. Ines first comes across as the cliché icy, possessive lesbian (more prevalent in film up until the mid-1960s before giving away to the fun-loving bisexual gals who are happy to be watched with other women by men and even invite them to participate) and Mike the macho stud who can win away changeable Claire; however, while the story does proceed as expected (Mike does get to bed Claire), all three characters prove more self-aware and mature (after a bit of melodrama in the aftermath of Claire’s infidelity). As a writer, Haggard – who also wrote Paul Thomas’ award-winning hardcore film THE MASSEUSE (1990) – demonstrates some knowledge of storytelling when Mark (in voice-over) surmises that the film is more Claire’s story than his since she knows what she wants in the end and he still does not. Future porn stars Scott and York are not so much bad as bland, but Mills is good as the (ultimately) most sympathetic character. Cinematographer Douglas Knapp moved onto photographing John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 but his work here is bland apart from a couple inventive compositions to frame the actors in depth within some small apartments. Editor Ray Nadeau would serve as post-production supervisor on MESSIAH OF EVIL.

THE LOVE GARDEN was previously released on VHS and DVD-R by Something Weird Video, and Vinegar Syndrome’s 2K-mastered fullframe transfer features more subdued colors and better detail (although the hotter colors and softer image of the SWV could have to do with their duplication practices in addition to the watermarking). Slivers of more information are visible on the sides of the frame. There is some print damage, but considerably less so than the disc’s co-feature. The VS transfer restores the “Robert C. Chinn presents” card to the height of the print; otherwise, the two versions appear to be the same in terms of explicit content. There are no trailers for either film apparently, although VS might consider including trailers for other films once they’ve built up their library. Both films are chaptered not by scenes, but by reels; as such, THE SUCKERS has four chapters and THE LOVE GARDEN only two. Whereas Vinegar Syndrome’s previous two Drive-In Collection releases – the cancelled SAVAGE WATER/DEATH BY INVITATION and EXPECTATIONS/CONFESSIONS – were incorrectly-encoded as interlaced, both transfers on THE SUCKERS/THE LOVE GARDEN are progressively-encoded at the correct framerate. (Eric Cotenas)