I’ve been a voracious audience for Doris Wishman sexploitation cheapies over the past few years. There’s a wholesome amateurism to the schlockteur’s decades of D.I.Y. smut that appeals to me as a fan of B-movies and kitsch erotica, especially in the context of her being one of the few women directors to “make it” in that industry. I will admit that I’ve hit a wall with my appreciation of Doris Wishman’s back catalog, though. It’s the exact same genre barrier that made parts of my Russ Meyer retrospective such a prolonged slog. I hate “roughies.” Somewhere between the cutesy nudist-colony novelties at the start of her career (titles like Nude on the Moon) and her late-career, absurdist whatsits (titles like Double Agent 73), Doris Wishman cranked out a lot of roughies. They’re violent rape-fantasy films in which a female protagonist is stripped, exploited, and assaulted by every man she encounters on her journeys, her torment played purely for the audience’s sexual titillation. A lot of Wishman’s auteurist quirks repeat throughout her roughies period—most notably her adorable obliviousness to what is and what is not erotic—but I’d much rather seek those pleasures out in a genre that’s less inherently grotesque. It’s slowed me way down on seeking out her work, since the bulk of the remaining ones I haven’t seen appear to fall in that category.
I’m at least glad that my general distaste for roughies delayed me from seeking out Bad Girls Go to Hell sooner, despite it being one of Wishman’s most widely recognized titles. My appreciation of the film is just as muted now as it would’ve been a few years ago when I was at the pinnacle of my Wishman binge, but the film’s presentation has changed in the meantime. Whereas I’ve previously had to seek out Wishman novelties like Dildo Heaven or A Night to Dismember as fuzzy VHS rips on YouTube or sub-legal porn streamers, Bad Girls Go To Hell is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel – all cleaned-up and presented as Important Art. It is a roughie in the strictest sense, following a sheltered housewife’s moral decline after she kills her rapist neighbor and flees from the law by bed-hopping across the country, mostly against her will. The film is included in Criterion’s “Close to Home” programming, which highlights films shot in their directors’ homes & apartments (alongside another pre-hardcore erotica classic, Pink Narcissus). I initially suspected it was added as a bizarro Pride Month selection, given that our housewife-in-crisis’s only consensual sexual encounter while on the run is shared with another woman. Regardless, seeing a Doris Wishman film all cleaned up and prestigious on Criterion feels like a major cultural Event. I just personally wish they had programmed something outside of her roughies period; almost all of her films were at least partially staged in her NYC and Miami apartments, so pretty much anything she’s directed could’ve fit the bill.
Despite my reluctance to dig any further, I’m sure that there’s a Doris Wishman roughie out there that will wholly win me over someday. If nothing else, the women-on-top, femdom variation of the roughie format in titles like She Mob and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! appeal directly to my sensibilities, and it’s likely Wishman has waded into that exact territory sometime in her career – if not only through having made so many films in that genre. There’s also plenty pure-Wishman goodness oozing out of Bad Girls Go to Hell as is. Her instantly recognizable apartment is starting to feel like a nostalgic setting after seeing it repeat in so many of her classic-era pictures. There’s a statement-piece glass ashtray always on display in her living room that’s used as a murder weapon in this particular appearance, and it feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Wishman’s camerawork is also as wild as ever here, sometimes tilting around the room as if her sex scenes were set on a carnival ride and sometimes statically fixating on the most mundane details imaginable: strangers’ feet on the sidewalk, pigeons, beaded curtains, etc. I’ll even admit that Wishman is highly effective at times in highlighting the sleaze & grime of the roughie genre. Her flashlit crime scene lighting and insert shots of lace panties resting on the corner of a mattress are incredibly lurid for a smut director who largely doesn’t seem all that interested in sex.
Bad Girls Go to Hell is not the best Doris Wishman has to offer, but it’s maybe her most iconic – at least among Something Weird VHS collectors and other video store weirdos of that ilk. It’s cool to see any of her work presented in such crisp, respectful packaging from a taste-making institution like Criterion. Anything that gets me closer to owning Deadly Weapons restored in HD on Blu-Ray has to be counted as a victory, so I’ll gladly suffer a few more roughies to get there.