Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet

This One’s for the Ladies . . . (2018)

It’s difficult to pinpoint what separates a truly great niche-subject documentary from a mediocre one, especially in a film festival environment. At a certain budgetary & distribution level, the festival-circuit indie documentary is only going to have so much variation in its successes & failures (give or take a form-breaking bomb-thrower like Rat Film or The World is Mine). They all usually excite in their initial rush, thanks to the novelty of their subject matter that likely landed them festival screenings in the first place. The Litmus Test for a great niche-subject doc then, as opposed to a merely serviceable one, might be in sustaining that initial rush throughout. Whether in finding deeper political or societal implications in its subject beyond surface-level interest or in exploiting those surface pleasures for all they’re worth, the well-behaved small budget doc has to work tirelessly to sustain its initial, opening-minutes appeal. A straight-forward, small budget documentary about the raunchy black male erotic dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies has an even harder (heh) time than most keeping it up (heh heh) once its initial rush settles into a well-worn filmmaking groove. The initial immersion into the explosive hedonism of its subject is a tough act to either follow up or maintain, so the movie instead just coasts on that initial appeal. It mostly gets away with it.

The black erotic male dancer circuit may not see much mainstream media exposure (outside maybe the Atlanta mansion sequence in Magic Mike XXL), but it’s explained to be long-established, self-contained culture in This One’s for the Ladies, one with its own celebrities & legendary figures. Pulling clips of VHS footage from “dance events” dating back to at least the 1990s, the doc sketches out a densely populated world of celebrity dancers & dedicated fans. Oiled up muscle-men with gigantic cocks stuffed into colorful sleeves boast over-the-top monikers like Smoove, Raw Dawg, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Satan. The more well-established regulars in their audience have their own nicknames (women like Mamma Joe, Pound Cake, and Double Trouble), as their own contributions to the dance events are just as crucial as the erotic performers’. These are self-catered D.I.Y. happenings staged in living rooms, cruise ships, and rented event halls. The more infamous dancers might sell merchandise like DVD compilations, autographed headshots, and erotic wall calendars, but their art is also the center of a community where performer & patron have to pull equal weight to keep the scene alive. It’s a weirdly wholesome subculture, considering that its anchor is a group of muscled-up dancers who mime making love to strangers who wave dollar bills at their face & genitals, but its existence outside a brick & mortar strip club establishment affords it a genuine sense of community.

As compelling (and visually interesting) as that subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Dancers licking chocolate syrup from a blushing participant’s inner thigh or simulating making them squirt with a concealed water hose rig is some A+ cinematic content, and those indulgences never feel repetitive or dull. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way. It’s an understandable impulse from a filmmaker’s perspective, but this search for wider cultural context only feels satisfying when it creeps up naturally through the subject. For instance, interviews with a butch lesbian dancer named Blaze about her conflicts with fiercely Christian parents or unaccepting male dancers who don’t want her working “their” circuit both opens the film to wider cultural context and feels specific to the subject at hand (so much so that a doc just about Blaze could easily be justifiable). The same just isn’t true about tangential commentary on underfunded neighborhood schools or childhood Autism; they’re worthwhile topics in isolation, but too disconnected to be explored here in earnest.

My quick fix for This One’s for the Ladies would either be to come in 20min shorter or 20min raunchier. There’s no way the movie could ever have time to fully tackle the wide world of systemic racism outside the dance events, so it might as well just lean into the prurient strengths of its subject instead and let the implications of those cultural circumstances creep up naturally (as they do with Blaze). There may not be enough time to solve racism or poverty in a documentary of this scale, but there’s certainly time for more exposed erect dick (there’s only one!) and erotic pageantry, leaving the cultural subtext implied. Whether or not that’s the correct fix for this fine-not-great doc, it definitely needed something to help sustain the initial rush of its subject’s inherent interest – the documentary equivalent of a cock ring.

-Brandon Ledet

Fulci’s Clairvoyant Visions: The Psychic (1977) & A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

When we were first discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the 1977 paranormal horror The Psychic, we were all taken aback by the soft hand of restraint Lucio Fulci took with the film. Outside the opening clairvoyant vision in which a woman leaps to her death off a cliff & smashes her face on every rock on the way down, The Psychic felt remarkably restrained for a Fulci work, not to mention for giallo at large. This restraint extended beyond the film’s violence & sexuality to inform the way the protagonist’s visions were depicted onscreen. Unlike in most thrillers where a clairvoyant protagonist solves a murder based on their psychic visions, the clues in The Psychic are not pieced out throughout the runtime in a gradual reveal. Instead, all clues are dumped in the first act deluge of a single vision, then the individual objects of that one premonition (a lamp, a mirror, an ashtray, etc.) are examined in isolation as the mystery is solved. What I didn’t know while watching The Psychic is that Fulci had already made the movie we were expecting it to be based on its pedigree. He had already gotten the violent, erotic, psychedelic genre expectations of a clairvoyance giallo out of his system with a previous picture.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is much more at home with the giallo genre’s more lurid tendencies than Fulci’s The Psychic. It’s the inferior film of the pair, but after wondering how Fulci exercised so much restraint in the sex & violence of his latter clairvoyance horror, there was something cathartic about watching him him go full sleaze in a nastier picture with the same solving-a-murder-through-psychic-visions premise. Switching those visions from a single psychic premonition intruding while driving to a series of intense, lingering sex dreams involving orgies & lesbianism should clue you in on just how much trashier A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is than its much classier follow-up. The protagonist in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin surfers a lot of the same anxieties as her The Psychic counterpart. Both women are left isolated by absent or unfaithful husbands and discuss the disturbing intensity of their visions with the other men in their lives whose skepticism is letting them down, their psychiatrists. Instead of receiving psychic flashes of past, present, and future murders, however, the protagonist of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin receives her visions in the form of wet dreams. While trying to enjoy stuffy dinners with her family, she can hear the wild orgies thrown by her hippie neighbor on the other side of the wall. This fuels her nighttime fantasies, which typically depict her navigating a complex web of hippie flesh until she can be alone with her neighbor, a meeting that culminates in lesbian erotica staged on red satin sheets. This ritual is disrupted when one of these intense dreams ends with her stabbing the neighbor multiple times in the chest while they make love, an encounter she describes to her therapist & records in her dream journal before discovering it really happened, her neighbor was actually stabbed to death.

The fun of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the prurient first act bursts of its wet dream premonitions. The measured way The Psychic handles picking apart the details of a single psychic vision suggests a maturity for Fulci as a filmmaker, but it’s undeniably fun to watch him let loose in a more sophomoric way in this earlier, hornier work. The psychic visions of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin are prolonged, lingering indulgences that openly gawk at lesbianism & bloodshed. Their penchant for dream logic allows for non sequitur intrusions of strange images like crowded train car orgies, electric chair executions, and gigantic angry swan puppets to disrupt the hedonistic fantasies of the protagonist. You could do worse than watching a film solely to see that kind of visual excess paired with a classic score from Ennio Morricone. The problem is, like with a lot of giallo, after that lurid energy dissipates and the film shifts focus from stylized visuals to setting up the mechanics of a traditional murder mystery, it loses a lot of steam. The Psychic not only shows more restraint in its exploitation of sex & violence; it also does a much better job of constructing a mystery the audience actually needs an answer to in order to leave satisfied. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is only truly recommendable if you’ve already seen that superior work and are wondering what it would look like if it were driven by Fulci’s more salacious tendencies. It was the movie I was expecting to see when we first watched The Psychic, but it wasn’t necessarily made better for delivering on those directorial & genre-based expectations.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

-Brandon Ledet

Deadly Weapons (1974)

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The soundtrack may have gotten a little more psychedelic, the blood may have gotten a little more colorful, and the breasts may have gotten much, much larger, but not much else seemed to have changed for producer/director Doris Wishman in the decade between her by the books roughie Another Day, Another Man and her “erotic” crime thriller Deadly Weapons. Doris Wishman’s weirdly casual approach to sex & violence in her exploitation work remained entirely lateral in terms of filmmaking quality and it’s pretty impressive in its own way that a filmmaker two decades into her career managed to make something as genuinely amateurish and, frankly, as punk as Deadly Weapons. A crime thriller in which famed burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan (billed in-film as Zsa Zsa) assassinates mafia types by smothering them with her gigantic breasts, Deadly Weapons certainly pulls more weight as an odd curiosity than Wishman’s era-appropriate 1960s roughies. It’s no different than these films in terms of craft or tone, though, except that it readily provides the naked breasts her roughies would only tease (unlike her early nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon). In fact, like a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a single sitting, Deadly Weapons confronts the audience with so many shots of large, naked breasts it often feels as if you’re about to choke on them & die, like so many dirtbag mobster goons.

Chesty Morgan stars as a successful advertising executive (or so we’re told) who is dragged into a life of crime when her boyfriend runs afoul of some mafia types. Stupidly blackmailing the mob with a stolen hit list, the boyfriend is promptly murdered in his own apartment (which looks suspiciously like the apartment from Another Day, Another Man) while the buxom ad exec listens in horror on the other end of the phone. Luckily for her, the gangsters hang out long enough after the hit to loudly & clearly discuss what hotel they’ll be hiding out in until the police investigation of the murder cools off. Armed with all the information she needs to track them down, the ad exec poses undercover as a burlesque dancer (go figure) at a nightclub near the Las Vegas hotel where her boyfriends’ killers will be staying. Easily seducing the men individually, she ceremonially slips knock-out pills into their wine glasses (after making a big show of it for the camera) and, once they’re dazed, smothers them to death with her cartoonishly large breasts. After fully enacting her revenge for her lover’s murder, she returns home from Vegas to encounter a Shyamalan-level plot twist on who was truly responsible for the initial crime. This revelation drives the story home to an ending befitting of a Shakespearean tragedy: bodies strewn about the stage, laying in pools of their own blood & the stench of betrayed trust. It’s all very silly.

Although Deadly Weapons is obviously remarkable for the novelty of its breasts-as-weapons premise, it’s worth noting that those kills don’t occur until over 50 minutes into the film’s 70min runtime. Worse yet, our killer burlesque dancer only dispenses of two mobsters this way – one per boob. Those two kills are highly entertaining as oddities, though, especially in the soundtrack that accompanies them. As the gangster meanies suffocate on Chesty Morgan’s plentiful tit flesh, a nightmarish cacophony of wailing guitars, animal roars, and grotesque, masculine grunts overpower the film’s audio. Meanwhile, Chesty Morgan herself looks nearly orgasmic in these moments, giving off the embarrassing cross-eyed, empty stare people usually save for sexual congress. What saves the film from tedium before these third act kills, however, is the fact that Morgan’s superhuman rack is a sight to behold even when it’s not being employed as a murder weapon. There’s nothing especially erotic about watching Morgan take a bubble bath or somehow squeeze herself into a t-shirt, but those simple tasks are oddly compelling as an audience due to her . . . unique proportions. Even in a scene when she’s just wistfully staring out a window, admiring a ring her boyfriend gifted her, her breasts fill almost the entire frame, suffocating any potential focus on anything else onscreen.

Psychedelia + Giant Breasts is certainly a formula that’s been exploited onscreen before; just think to Roger Ebert & Russ Meyer’s collaborative trashterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Deadly Weapons boasts neither the manic energy nor the absurdist dialogue of Dolls, though, and its own appeal as a vintage curiosity is based in something much more laidback & misshapen. Wishman’s erotica is never exactly erotic; her violence is never truly shocking. Her fetishistic focus on unerotic details like ashtrays, dime store pantyhose, plastic-covered couches, and pills hidden in cleavage are the visual equivalent of a cold shower for anyone potentially turned on by Chesty Morgan’s physique. The film’s bloodiest fit of violence, a multiple stab wound incident in a stairwell, is similarly undercut by a disorienting trip down multiple, identical flights of stairs and the fakest-looking (but apparently very real) mustache I’ve ever seen, sported by hardcore porn performer Harry Reems. It’d be easy to pick on Deadly Weapons for its blatant use of stock footage, its continuity errors during a poorly staged strangling, its awkward moments when cameramen are bumped into or set lights are mistakenly exposed, the nausea-inducing green & purple tints of its impressively shitty film transfers, etc. However, that kind of nitpicking entirely misses the basic appeal of the novelty of this Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a combo that would later reunite for Double Agent 73).

There’s a candid, proto-punk amateurism to Deadly Weapons that tops even its killer-tits premise in terms of basic ridiculousness. It’s rare that this grade of schlock is so inherently fascinating just in its basic existence, although plenty of films have certainly tried to pull off that very trick. Wishman is undeniably a filmmaker all of her own, a distinction that can either annoy or delight you depending on things like how interested you’d be to watch a film about a pair of killer breasts & how willing you’d be to settle for one kill per tit.

-Brandon Ledet

Viva (2007)

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One of the more intimidating aspects of discussing Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch was coming to terms with the fact that most of its reference points as a pastiche were way beyond my grasp, even as someone who regularly watches schlock. The Love Witch mined old modes of horror-themed erotica, pictures like The Velvet Vampire, for its distinct visual palette & absurdist humor, but repurposed the genre for modernized modes of feminist discourse. I loved the results of that experiment, but have to openly admit that my very basic, surface-level knowledge of the genre & era The Love Witch was evoking was puny in comparison to Biller’s encyclopedic command of the subject. It turns out her debut film, Viva, would be even further outside my grasp as a genre film tourist. Paying homage to the softcore smut of the early 1970s that rode in on the success of Deep Throat and the optimistic promises of The Sexual Revolution (the kinds of films you’d hear detailed on the excellent podcast The Rialto Report), Viva is operating on a whole other level of schlock I have little to no experience with. My limited knowledge of smut peddlers like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman don’t equip me with the full vocabulary necessary to discuss the ways Viva acts as a love letter to softcore smut past. The film feels very authoritative on the subject, though, and it achieves such a specific image & tone that I have to again put my trust in the fact that Biller knows exactly what she’s doing.

Viva often looks & feels like an early 70s magazine layout. Its bored housewives, swinger couples, and nudist camp vouyerism all read like a Letter to Penthouse, but its iconography is the stuff of that magazine’s advertisement: Scotch, lingerie, deviled eggs, jellos & dips. Emboldened by a newfound sexual freedom afforded to them by the commercial availability of the birth control pill, the Liberated women of Viva take charge of their sex lives by leaving behind the incessant sexual pressures of husbands, neighbors, and bosses to become high class sex workers & “models.” One friend turns to prostitution as a convenient means of making money and finds immediate fulfillment in a wealthy, older men who showers her with gifts: diamonds, horses, fur coats, etc. The other woman, Viva, has a much narrower path to satisfaction. Instead of money, she seeks a genuine emotional connection with a kind, sensitive man. No matter how many supposedly sensitive artist-types her pimp set her up with, though, the results are always the same. Men throw pouty fits whenever Viva doesn’t give them exactly what they want (casual sex) upfront and instead of waiting to meet her on her own terms, they manipulate, drug, and physically force her into copulation. It’s a fucked up plot for a campy genre throwback, but finding feminist themes in these old modes of schlocky smut seems to be Biller’s forte and the basic story structure of Viva feels true to roughies like Lorna, Another Day Another Man, and, I have to presume, the “mainstream” smut that followed in the 1970s.

If Viva has a central problem, it’s that it’s a little too faithful to the films it pays tribute to. At 120 minutes, with multiple extensive musical numbers, the film can often feel as tedious as its source material for once the initial turn-on wore off. It’s also disappointing that its modern feminist criticism wasn’t as fully pronounced in the dialogue & plotting as it was in its more outrageous follow-up. Biller threatens to steer away from genre traditions with some queer plotlines & rape culture criticism that bubble up naturally in Viva‘s era-evoking plot machinations, but imstead decides to follow the old guard and allow the story to play out exactly as it would have four decades ago. However, even though it feels slightly less brave in its willingness to shake up & modernize the formula, Viva is still an impressive feat for a debut feature. Much like with The Love Witch, Biller exudes auteurist control in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft – not only writing, directing, editing, and handling the set & costume design herself, but in this case also starring in the titular role. There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.

It’s exciting to know that Biller’s best work is likely still ahead of her, but her aesthetic’s beginnings in Viva are worthwhile enough on their own merit that it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t yet fully formed as a filmmaker at the time she made it. If nothing else, the film expresses an incredible knowledge & affection for the past of America’s mainstream erotica. It also helps that Viva can be riotously amusing in stray absurdist moments, never playing like a dry, academic exercise in genre pastiche.

-Brandon Ledet

The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)

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Sometimes a movie is only useful in illuminating what makes its better version so successful. Last December, I was so floored by the unexpected greatness of The Vampire and the Ballerina that I immediately sought out another title in its general vicinity in a desperate search for a similar gem. Both The Playgirls and the Vampire & The Vampire and the Ballerina are 1960 Italian horror erotica about a group of oversexed professional dancers being terrorized by vampires in an isolated, crypt-like castle. Only one of those films is at all entertaining or artfully constructed, though. The Playgirls and the Vampire is the exact kind of deflated trash I expected to watch when I was surprised by the startlingly artful The Vampire and the Ballerina. It’s a thoughtlessly tossed-off cheapie with all the naked skin & bloodshed of its superior contemporary, but none of the eroticism or sense of style.

I had high hopes for The Playgirls and the Vampire after its opening shot: a long, quiet pan over a drastically lit crypt that ends when a hand moved the lid to a coffin from within. This is more or less when the film’s interest in thoughtful cinematography ends. A bus load of exotic dancers are derailed on the way to their performance due to a storm. The master of the castle where they take refuge shows a peculiarly intense interest in one of the girls, who looks suspiciously like a painting of an ancient woman on one of the walls. Long vampire cliché short, this girl is converted into his vampire queen and her fellow dancers are hunted individually over the film’s short, slight runtime. Nothing in the plot matters nearly as much as finding excuses to show skin. Girls sleep corseted, there’s some leering shots of their stocking-clad gams, and when the playgirl vampire appears in the dark to drain her former manager’s blood there’s a brief glimpse of her bare breasts (which I guess was risque in 1960, even for European genre cinema). In that last scene, the vampire playgirl is lit interestingly to initially obscure her naked body and the film concludes with an amazing practical effect where the castle’s master ages Dorian Gray-style over an animated series of mat paintings. Everything else is forgettably bland, though, even when the girls are stripping to dance for the camera, and those two moments would be better served as .gifs than as parts of the larger, less interesting whole.

I wanted to find some kind of camp value in The Playgirls and the Vampire, but the film was stingy even with that potential mode of entertainment. I guess I was amused by the way the goofball manager’s English dub included such classic Italian phrases as “Wassa matter?” & “Wassa matter you?” and the way the dancers roamed the castle chasing kittens or unlocking secret doors by suggestively stroking axe handles could be occasionally amusing, but those moments weren’t nearly enough to turn me around on the film’s overall limp sense of style, humor, and sexuality. The only real value I found in The Playgirls and the Vampire was personal validation that The Vampire and the Ballerina really was that good and I wasn’t exaggerating its accomplishments. If anyone ever questions my love for that movie I now have a perfect point of contrast to show them how the exact same formula could be executed disastrously wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

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I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Erotica (1961)

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twohalfstar

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After the somewhat labored narratives of his first two nudie cutie films, The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve & The Handyman, Russ Meyer stripped away a few layers of narrative pretense for his third feature, Erotica. A series of ostensibly erotic vignettes, Erotica is little more than a loosely connected series of in-motion pin-up shoots strung together to reach a feature length (barely more than an hour, all things told). After the mundane & oddly nudity-light slightness of Eve & The Handyman, however, Erotica‘s loose anthology of naked girls & disorienting narration set-ups feel like a godsend. Just as the narrator of Mr. Teas hilariously droned on about such non sequiturs as the absurdities of modern life & the history of bathing while the screen was filled with the film’s true main attraction (bare breasts), Erotica‘s vignettes are each nudity-filled exercises in dissonance, establishing a strange contrast between the images on display & the completely besides the point narration (provided by Jack Moran, who would later write one of Meyer’s undeniable classics, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) that compliment them.

The wraparound

The segment that binds this loose anthology is a self-reflective piece about the production of nudie cuties in general. In Erotica‘s opening minutes Moran rambles on about how a film evolves from an idea to an outline to a treatment to a shooting script until, eventually, “projectors explode their images across the movie screens of America.” Posing the nudie cutie to follow as a series of “intimate, moving portraits of women […] made by adults, for adults”, Erotica bends over backwards to remind you that it is but a simple, entertaining diversion that amounts to “one hour, a very small segment of the day”. In other words, don’t get your hopes up for anything too significant.

“Naked Innocence”

Perhaps the least disorienting of the film’s five segments, “Naked Innocence” makes the brave decision to actually match the off-screen narration to the action on display. A woman explains that she was, more or less, just too damned horny & tired of being stared at by strange men on city streets so she retreated to the woods to calm down. Stripping nude & enjoying an impromptu tanning session & nude dip in a stream, our narrator starts to muse about how even Nature is trying to seduce her. She describes the Sun as a “hot, burning eye probing my bareness” & the feeling of water on skin like “many hands moving against you.” Originally escaping city life to avoid the oppressive male gaze, she discovers that even in Nature she is not safe from salacious oggling. If nothing else, this is a much stranger idea than anything you’d encounter in Mr. Teas or The Handyman, but at the same time all three properties really don’t amount to much more than a reason to gawk at naked women, the very thing this character is trying to escape.

“Beauties, Bubbles”

The second vignette keeps the first’s weirdness improbably rolling with an even stranger idea. Upping the on-screen nudity from not one, but three beauties, “Beauties, Bubbles” depicts a trio of nude models bathing each other in a swimming pool in what, without the narration, could’ve just have easily been titled “Boobs, Boobies”. As with the first segment, it’s the narration that makes the accompanying images so odd. As the girls bathe each other using swimming pools, trash cans, and army helmets full of soapy water (sometimes in the pastel voids that populate Meyer’s other nudie cuties), an offscreen East Coast plumber poses the segment as a PSA to help promote the act of daily bathing in hopes of boosting work for plumbers in general. There’s a goofy dissonance between the plummer’s nonsensical words & the pin-ups in motion imagery at here that’s enjoyably disorienting . . . when it’s not testing your patience.

“The Bare & The Bear”

Speaking of testing your patience, the exact same format from the plummer’s segment is repeated in “The Bare & The Bear”. There’s only one mild variation: instead of promoting bathing, this segment is promoting the sales of bearskins by, how else, showing a nude model wearing nothing but a bearskin intercut with images of real life bears. It’s a very strange sensation to flip back & forth from monstrous bears to a woman rolling around in the nude, especially once the narrator goes off on tangents about “beatniks & coffee drinkin’,” but back to back with the plumber segment the weight of the film’s mercifully short runtime becomes a little laborious.

“Nudists on the High Seas!”

Continuing the diminishing returns of the film’s segments, a narrator drones on about “damsel deckhands” & the history of women being excluded from sailing as the titular “Nudists on the High Seas” sun their nude selves of the deck of a sailboat. It’s nothing much to speak of.

“The Nymphs”

Seemingly becoming bored with itself, Erotica completely devolves here. The narration erratically switches from rambling about subjects as varied as botanical gardens, the sex life of the amoeba, and proper card-playing etiquette, the movie just completely falls apart & loses faith in itself in an irreverent & self-referential way as the models combine previous segments’ affinity for bathing & sunbathing into a single incomprehensible vignette.

“Bikini Busters!”

Falling apart even further, Erotica concludes with a chaotic segment about the history of the bikini. In the only segment to approach the purple prose absurdity of the “Naked Innocence” opener, “Bikini Busters!” features this insane thought: “This is a bathing suit. And this is a girl. Separately these are both in a sense aesthetic, appealing, but together a certain chemistry takes place & the living compliments the inanimate.” “Bikini Busters!” is deliciously empty work that features not only Meyer’s affinity for visually comparing a well-built woman to a well-built steel structure, but it also calls back to both the half-hearted disgust with the male gaze of the first segment (this time featuring the only on-screen men of the film, all ogglers) & the self-referential musings about the nature of the nudie cutie in the wraparound segment, making direct nods to the two Meyer pictures that precede Erotica by displaying their advertisements poolside. “Bikini Busters!” follows the history of the bathing suit from the time the biblical Eve first covered herself with a leaf through a possible future of space-age pasties, a very silly & improbable endeavour that I doubt was well-researched.

By the time an over-excited Russ Meyer (presumably playing himself) falls into a swimming pool trying to film the nude models on display & breaks his (amusingly fake-looking) camera at the end of “Bikini Busters!” Erotica reveals itself as what it truly is: a light romp without too much of anything on its mind outside of bare breasts & cheap jokes. It’s neither the height nor the depth of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, but it is occasionally amusing in its narrative dissonance & surprising attacks on the male gaze in its opening & closing segments (considering that the film itself is an act of leering). However, you could easily cut out at least three of the film’s six segments & retain its full range of amusement, which isn’t exactly high praise for an anthology film that barely lasts an hour from front to end.

-Brandon Ledet