Director: Joseph Sarno
After Hours Retro

One of the great auteurs of New York City sexploitation, Joseph Sarno has only recently been given his due as a rare instance of an artist working in a generally sleazy industry. Throughout the 1960s, his films displayed a beautiful noir aesthetic, making beautiful use of light and shadow, and Sarno’s trademark voyeuristic cinematography added depth and intrigue to his melodramatic scripts. Titles like THE SEX CYCLE, MY BODY HUNGERS, and ANYTHING FOR MONEY hide a series of consistently astonishing works that easily stand head and shoulders above other films playing 42nd Street theaters at the time. With the advent of hardcore in the 1970s, it was only natural that Sarno begin to make the move from X to XXX to pay the bills. Followers of his are familiar with his softcore offerings of the decade, such as the Marie Forsa films (BUTTERFLIES, VEIL OF BLOOD, BIBI) and his Rebecca Brooke/Mary Mendum films (ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN, MISTY, LAURA’S TOYS, CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE). But he also helmed three excellent hardcore titles (SLEEPYHEAD, SLIPPERY WHEN WET, THE TROUBLE WITH YOUNG STUFF), worked uncredited on Evart’s starlet profile films, and actually took the director’s chair from Gerard Damiano for DEEP THROAT PART II, the sequel to Damiano’s biggest moneymaker. Using many of DEEP THROAT PART II’s cast, Sarno shot another comic adult romp, A TOUCH OF GENIE, long considered lost….until now! Rescued from obscurity thanks to After Hours Retro, Sarno fanatics can finally see this missing piece of his filmography. The question is: was it worth the wait?

Melvin is a shy, gawky nerd who runs an antique shop when he isn’t donning a fake mustache and glasses to jerk off in adult movie theaters all over New York City. The poor guy not only can’t get laid, but is perpetually nagged by his worrisome and controlling mother. One afternoon, when he’s feeling particularly randy, he masturbates into the nozzle of an antique vase, releasing a scantily-clad genie named Amara who grants him five wishes. Seeing as he loves porno movies, he naturally wishes to transform into the biggest male names in adult cinema to pork his favorite skinflick actresses, including Miss Tina Russell. However, Melvin is so occupied with living out his fantasies that he may be ignoring the girl of his dreams right in front of him.

Anyone who has watched DEEP THROAT PART II can be forgiven for thinking that Joe Sarno simply has no place in the comic genre. A misfire in just about every way, the only novelty to be found in DT2 is enjoying the over-the-top comic performances of its who’s-who cast of New York porn; even the legendary lost hardcore footage couldn’t possibly save the mess. Keeping in mind Sarno’s mishandling of comedy material there, one may go into TOUCH OF GENIE with some natural caution. So how does TOUCH OF GENIE stack up in the grand scheme of Sarno’s oeuvre? Quite well, actually. The comic script is a vast improvement over the hodge-podge storyline of DT2, combining the male fantasy of “I Dream of Jeannie” with the imagination and whimsy of WALTER MITTY, and while there are no visual flourishes so typical of Sarno’s work throughout his career, it’s clear from the overall atmosphere on-screen that everyone involved with the production is having a ball. This is not the film to introduce you to the world of Sarno, but anyone who already adores his work of both the 1960s and 1970s will definitely enjoy this excursion into the absurd from a man known for his singular melodramas.

This infectious free-for-all really works because of the comic abilities of the cast. Sarno leaves it up to them to carry the film, and they do so admirably. It was a gutsy move of Sarno to cast a lead actor who actually performs no sex in the film, but thankfully for actor Doug Stone, the script’s imaginative premise finds him wishing to be his favorite porno actors, resulting in him being replaced by Harry Reems, Marc Stevens, Eric Edwards, and John Ashton (better-known as Levi Richards). Stone is rather amateurish in the part, but is really quite endearing and geeky as the perpetually horny, befuddled virgin living out his fantasies through the bodies of porn’s biggest male names. You also may recognize Harding Harrison, appearing here as Melvin’s henpecked best friend, from Armand Weston’s DEFIANCE, among other films of the period like, always in non-sex roles, like WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO MISS SEPTEMBER. Even though the male porn stars here are given very little to do, it’s great to see some of the biggest names in New York City erotica actually get a chance to act, especially as all of them (except Marc Stevens) had acting backgrounds and did these films on the side while looking for legitimate work. The most effective of the group is actually the only non-professional actor of the lot, Stevens, especially during a scene from one of the many films-within-a-film that Melvin sees at his favorite adult movie theater, where he is held at gunpoint by Tina Russell. Stevens even wears a “Marc Stevens 10 ½” T-shirt! How much would one of these be worth today??

In addition to forgotten starlets Linda L’Amour (billed as Lynn Stevens) and Sandy Foxx, the real female star of the film is Ultramax, a middle-aged sexpot who actually has less sex here than she would in any other film she did. Ultramax was the odd one out among the New York City adult film starlets. Looking like your Aunt May or perhaps a well-worn elementary school teacher, she certainly helped to pave the way for less-than-youthful actresses like Georgina Spelvin, Kay Parker, and Juliet Anderson in later years, but is largely forgotten today. Why? She simply didn’t make that many films, and the ones that are available aren’t very good. As Melvin’s Yiddish, qvetching mother, she really delivers the comic goods, and is in fact so amusing and perfect in the part that one forgets she’s an adult film actress…until she briefly has hardcore sex in the second half of the film! The biggest female name in the cast, and one of the real surprises, is Tina Russell, the first major female star of East Coast pornography. Despite her immense popularity on stage and screen, Tina (like her West Coast counterpart, Rene Bond) made only one great film: Sarno’s SLEEPYHEAD. It’s clear from her work here (and in DT2) as a comedienne that Sarno’s reputation as an actor’s director is completely justified, and that he could work wonders on even the most questionably talented actress in the industry. Try watching Tina in anything else; while she has charm to spare and is one of the most gorgeous creatures to ever make adult films, she’s not really an actress. In the accompanying interview on the disc, Sarno’s eyes twinkle as he remembers working with Tina, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more films together. Looking back on her film career, the highlights would have to be SLEEPYHEAD (as a repressed nun brought out of her shell by sister Georgina Spelvin’s ) and TOUCH OF GENIE. Try tracking down her autobiography, “Porno Star”, wherein the first chapter details her affectionate memories of Sarno while working on SLEEPYHEAD (though she uses pseudonyms for all involved).

Special attention must be given to Chris Jordan, the GENIE herself, who was never a superstar of the adult industry, but who has developed a small cult following in recent years, thanks in no small part to her work in Sarno films. Though Chris performed hardcore at the start of her career in loops with long-time boyfriend Eric Edwards, she was pretty consistent about appearing in strictly non-sex roles throughout the 1970s. She’s simply adorable as Amara in GENIE, heart-breaking in ABIGAIL LESLIE, goofy and eccentric in AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, tragic in CLAMDIGGER’S DAUGHTER. Her effortless portrayals of both charming comic sprites and captivating emotional trainwrecks over the course of her career should have seen her making the move from exploitation to legitimate television and film work. Though I’m still confirming details, it appears that Chris Jordan passed away at a young age, not long after shooting her last film.

Culled from the last remaining print known to exist, found in a stroke of luck on eBay, TOUCH OF GENIE looks the best it possibly could, though there are a number of print jumps, discoloration spots, and other instances of print damage. Just be thankful the film exists at all! Thankfully, unlike some of After Hours Retro’s 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers of sexploitation and adult films of the past, the transfer does not look to be overmatted.

A brief featurette covers an April 2007 screening of the film in New York City (which I was supposed to attend, but unfortunately could not due to scheduling conflicts), and interviews a few surprise guests like Anthony Lover (cinematographer of Sarno’s MOONLIGHTING WIVES, RED ROSES OF PASSION, and MY BODY HUNGERS) and Sarno’s son! Sarno and star Doug Stone appear in another featurette discussing the movie, how it came about, and their memories of working with the superstar cast.

While I already take issue with the fact that Joe Sarno is labeled a “grindhouse director” on the disc’s packaging, the inclusion of a second disc containing two 60-minute cheapies with a genie theme rather cheapens the historical home video debut of TOUCH OF GENIE. While some may consider it added value, they may want to rethink that after watching the movies. Of the pair, SWING GENIE is the more enjoyable. A pothead, played by Keith Erickson (a quite unsung stud of early West Coast porn), discovers a fat, jolly genie erupting from his marijuana smoke, who can grant his every sexual wish. He invites over his friends (including Sandy Dempsey) to experience what the genie can offer. That’s about it. There’s some funny improvised dialogue, mildly erotic sex scenes, and nifty animated credits, and watch for Ric Lutze in an orgy scene. GENIE’S MAGIC BOX is harder to comprehend, following a mad scientist who discovers a genie who can transport female historical figures through time to please her male masters. GENIE’S MAGIC BOX unfortunately, as is standard with these 16mm flicks through After Hours Retro, has stolen music replaced with new music, and while this is understandable to avoid legal complications, rather detracts from any historical value there is in preserving the film on DVD. Sadly, the film isn’t available anywhere else. A liner notes booklet contains another excellent essay by Michael Bowen (including quotes from producer Jason Russell) and a run-down of the accompanying two films on disc 2 (these liners incorrectly identify Sandy Dempsey as “Sandy Carey”).
(Casey Scott)