The Exotic Ones (1968)

I don’t know how useful this review of the 1968 creature feature The Exotic Ones (aka The Monster and the Stripper) will be to anyone reading it, since the film is very precisely my exact personal brand of trash. This locally-set novelty attempts to combine the Roger Corman rubber-suit monster movie with the post-Russ Meyer nudie cutie into one perfect swinging-60s trash pile. It has so much fun establishing a nonstop party atmosphere on its French Quarter strip club set that it goes to Matt Farley levels of effort to delay the inevitable disruption of its horrific monster – almost a full hour into its 90-minure runtime. This movie has nothing on its boozy, lingerie-clad mind beyond ogling as many burlesque performers as it can before it must sober up and deliver the horror genre payoffs promised on its poster. It’s a sloppy, horny, locally flavored party film with no clear themes or purpose beyond the cheap, simple pleasures of Bourbon Street hedonism; it’s also my new best friend.

Bourbon Street mafia types abduct a swamp-dwelling sasquatch known as The Swamp Thing from the Louisiana bayous (played by rockabilly musician Sleepy La Beef) and force him to perform onstage as part of a cheap strip club act. In color! You can pretty much guess how the story plays out once the “monster” (a shirtless, hairy oaf with vague caveman features) is displayed for the public, assuming you’ve seen any monster-in-captivity movie released since 1933’s King Kong. The Exotic Ones delays those tedious plot concerns for as long as it can manage, though, saving the entirety of its creature feature narrative for its final half hour. Everything that precedes that third-act genre shift is just a parade of go-go dancers, burlesque performers, and various other salacious sideshow acts. Some slight attention is paid to fabricating a rivalry between the club’s newest act (a shy R&B singer who’s reluctant to strip for tips) and its long-established queen bee (a daredevil stripper with flaming titty tassels and drag queen eyebrows), but it doesn’t amount to much. You can guess which one the monster falls in love with once he arrives to the scene, can’t you? And which one taunts him into a rage? You’ve pretty much already seen this movie, outside the specific quirks of its strip routines, and the producers wisely pack the screen with as large of a variety of them as possible to keep you alert & entertained.

The Exotic Ones very quickly won me over as a fan with its opening newsreel-style introduction to New Orleans as a city – a rapid-fire montage that was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s strip club “documentary” Mondo Topless. Machine gun-paced cuts of strippers & French Quarter storefronts assault the audience as a beat-reporter narrator invites us onto “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night.” It’s not exactly hyperbole when he describes Mardi Gras as “a time of reckless abandonment,” but the monologue is still deliciously overwritten & tonally chaotic – harshly juxtaposing a “Get a load of this filth!” moralism with tantalizing shots of naked, gyrating flesh. I personally loved seeing local 1960s sleaze-joints documented with the same reverent, drooling eye that was typically reserved for notorious prostitution hotspots like Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” or New York City’s 42nd Street porno theater strip. I don’t know that a New Orleans-specific remake of Mondo Topless disguised as a dirt-cheap monster movie is exactly the movie most audiences needed in their lives, but it is exactly the one I needed in mine.

Judging by most genre nerds’ boredom with the Ed Wood-penned Orgy of the Dead (a film I’m personally fond of, to my discredit), this movie’s 5% monster mayhem, 95% strip routines mixture will likely not win over everyone. The go-go strip routines and the surprisingly gory violence are both far more enthusiastically wild & erratic than those in Orgy, but you must already be on the hook for that genre imbalance for the formula to work on you. It seems that even the film’s own producers—June & Ron Ormond—weren’t entirely sold on the artistic merits of this kind of amoral hedonism. Shortly after The Exotic Ones‘s release (and a life-threatening plane crash) the couple shifted into making fire & brimstone Christian propaganda meant to scare audiences away from the temptations of Hell. Oh well. I personally could have watched a hundred Bourbon Street monster movies in this same vein, but no party lasts forever – not even the “reckless abandonment” of Mardi Gras.

-Brandon Ledet

JLo: All-American Hustler

It’s almost undeniable that the most All-American event on the cultural calendar is the Super Bowl: a championship football game adored for its TV ads, its excessive snack food rituals, and its pop music spectacle intermission. There’s a reason why so much emphasis is placed on who will sing the National Anthem that kicks off the game every year (and how well they did or didn’t perform); the event is just as much a celebration of American culture as it is a championship football game. I’ve gradually stopped watching football over the years as pro wrestling, the Oscars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have replaced it as my competitive sports events of choice, but even I still tune in for the Super Bowl Halftime Show most years due to my overriding interest in pop culture at large. This year was a great one! Whoever booked the game’s intermission entertainment made great use of its Miami venue by featuring Latinx entertainers like Shakira & Bad Bunny, representing an often-overlooked facet of the American cultural fabric that’s been especially politically charged under the xenophobic reign of the Trump Presidency. The centerpiece of this celebratory Latinx protest display was a pop music medley from singer-dancer-movie-star Jennifer Lopez, whose section of the show took the biggest, most direct political jabs of the event – while also conjuring Lopez’s most recent onscreen persona as a modern marvel of Cinema in particular.

The reason I’m talking about football & pop music on a movie blog is that JLo’s Halftime Show performance was greatly influenced by her recent movie-stealing role in the film Hustlers. Adapted from a New York Magazine article chronicling a real-life series of crimes, the film is a post-2008 Financial Crisis period piece about a ring of strip club employees who drugged & fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clientele for tens of thousands of dollars. Told in a flashback style directly borrowed from GoodFellas, the film is ostensibly aligned with the POV of its top-billed narrator character, played by Constance Wu. In practice, Wu is the lead performer in name only. As soon as Jennifer Lopez saunters onto the screen to perform a strip routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the movie is entirely her show. Both the audience & Wu herself are fixated on the spectacle of the almighty JLo as she shows us the ropes – first on the gymnastic basics of working a stripper pole, then on the basics of fraudulently running up transactions on an unconscious client’s credit card. Some of Wu’s fixation on JLo’s Stripper Queen persona is explained to be a result of her character’s Mommy Issues (a refreshing change of course from cinema’s usual Daddy Issues fixation among macho narrators), but that almost feels like overkill. It’s self-evident; no explanation necessary. Even much-advertised cameo roles from major pop music personalities like Lizzo & Cardi B do little to distract from JLo’s nuclear charisma. She just casually walks away with the entire movie tucked into her overpriced designer handbag, never breaking a sweat.

Early in Hustlers, Constance Wu’s narrator pontificates that “This whole country is a strip club,” drawing a parallel between her industry’s sexual hustling to the “stolen money” of Wall Street’s own daily hustles. Nothing could better illustrate America’s function as the world’s largest strip club than JLo performing from atop a stripper pole at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Bringing her newfound exotic dancer skills from the Hustlers set to that All-American pop music venue was a brilliant maneuver, as she then had an entire nation gawking at her in awe the way Wu & Hustlers‘s (much smaller) audience had already been on the hook. And what did she do with this amplified, captivated audience? She redirected our eyeballs to Latinx children posing in cages on the football field, peeling back the pop culture escapism of Super Bowl spectacle to refresh our horror with ICE’s abuses in the ongoing refugee border crisis. JLo even emerged from one of her many onstage costume changes during her short set in a fur coat/body suit combo outfit that directly recalled her Hustlers costuming, except redesigned to resemble the American flag. In the movie, she welcomes Constance Wu into the warmth of her coat, purring “Climb into my fur.” On the stage, she opens her All-American fur in the same fashion, only to reveal that it’s a Puerto Rican flag on its reverse side – further emphasizing the Latinx prominence in America’s DNA that’s often dismissed by the country’s falsely “patriotic” right-wing goblins. This whole country is a strip club, and it was wonderful to see it get so flagrantly hustled by a performer who’s been in her prime for decades, with no signs of slowing down.

The only way Jo’s Halftime Show performance could have been more blatantly political is if she had ripped a picture of Donald Trump in half, à la Sinead O’Connor on SNL (although the political effectiveness of either performance is up for debate). The only way it could have been more directly tied to her movie-stealing, Oscars-snubbed persona in Hustlers is if she had looked directly into the camera to ask the entire country, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” You can even see her Hustlers persona echoed in how easily she steals the show from Shakira, who’s just as capable of a singer & dancer as Constance Wu is an actor. Shakira is both a sex bomb & a total goofball, positively lighting up that Super Bowl stage with her spectacular hip gyrations, her to-the-camera tongue-wagging, and her comically over-the-top song selections (like choosing to open with the werewolf anthem “She-Wolf”). As the first & longest sustained performer on that stage, Shakira should technically be positioned as the central star of the Halftime Show, with Lopez slotted as a special guest star. Instead, as with in Hustlers, JLo’s blinding charisma easily overpowers Shakira’s own formidable presence – emerging as the de facto star of the show. If the Super Bowl is going to stand as an annual distillation of American culture, it’s only appropriate that the event acknowledge the country’s Latinx contingent through artists like Shakira & JLo as well as the hedonistic exploitation & excess detailed in Hustlers – both of which are American as fuck. It’s your patriotic duty to give it a watch even if you care way more about movies & pop music than you care about football:

-Brandon Ledet

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Stripped to Kill (1987)

In a career defined by inconsistences and exploitation of passing fads, the one constant to Roger Corman’s instincts as a producer is that the knows how to make money. He even proudly marketed his own autobiography on that conceit, titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That’s why it’s so bizarre to hear Katt Shea recall in a recent interview with Blumhouse’s Shock Waves podcast how difficult it was to pitch her wildly successful debut feature to Roger Corman in the mid-1980s. If you boil Stripped to Kill down to its bare essentials, the film is basically just 15 (!!!) strip club routines, a few scenes of horrifically gruesome violence, and an extremely offensive twist ending that has aged about as well as a fart in a jar. It’s possible that Corman’s queasiness with the film’s #problematic conclusion was a smart instinct, and he should not have caved to Shea’s repeated, insistent pitches on the film. I doubt being politically correct ranks as highly in the producer’s mind as making enough money to fund his next picture, though, as evidenced by the existence of Stripped to Kill 2 and Katt Shea’s continued employment under his wing. Shea had a distinct, neon-soaked vision for a movie so sleazy it made Roger Corman afraid of making money; even if Stripped to Kill is so morally offensive that it should not exist, you still have to admire that accomplishment.

Two Los Angeles detectives stumble into an investigation of a serial killer who targets local strippers. Both detectives want to use this opportunity for a promotion to the homicide division, but only the woman of the pair has to strip for it. Undercover among strippers while her male coworkers cheer her on from the audience (to boost the appearance of her popularity), our heroine finds herself torn between staying focused on the investigation and losing herself to the unexpected pleasures of sexual exhibitionism. Her initial prime suspect for the stripper murders is far too obvious of a misdirect, meaning the real murderer is hiding in plain sight among the main characters. There isn’t much time for the audience to pick up on clues ourselves, though, as the film is (under$tandably) much more concerned with packing in as much sex & violence as it can manage in it brisk 88min runtime. There are brief glimpses of backstage stripper drama in the film that recall the backroom politics of sex work in flicks like Working Girls & Support the Girls, but they’re inevitably interrupted by flashier, more attention-grabbing indulgences: misogynist hyperviolence, leather fetish strip routines, explosions, etc. Even the opening credits of the film are accompanied by a full-length strip routine set to sub-Lou Reed beat poetry, just to squeeze in a little more bare flesh without wasting any time. It’s remarkably easy to lose track of the undercover cop’s hunt for a crazed killer among all this hedonism (a thread the cop loses herself as she comes to enjoy her new trade), which almost makes the unnecessary transphobic twist ending even more offensive, since the film makes very few narrative strides to justify it.

To be fair, Stripped to Kill is offensive long before the arrival of its killer reveal. The way it gawks at women both performing onstage and privately engaged in lesbian foreplay, then turns around to gawk at those same bodies being mutilated by a misogynist killer leans into the ickiest trappings of the sex thriller genre. The violence on display in this film is upsettingly brutal; women are strangled, tossed off bridges, raped, set aflame, and dragged behind giant commercial trucks. It has a shockingly gruesome mean streak for something that’s ostensibly meant to be sexually titillating (given the space it allows for more than a dozen strip routines, which often punctuate its kill scenes). There is something transgressively perverse about watching a young woman recreate this misogynist violence herself, especially in the case of Katt Shea believing in this project so passionately that she effectively bullied Roger Corman into greenlighting it. In its best moments, Stripped to Kill recalls the same 80s LA grime Jackie Kong exaggerated to a cartoonish degree in her cult classic horror comedy Blood Diner. Played straight here, the misogynist violence & sexual exploitation on display feel like a detailed time capsule of the era’s sleaziest sleaze – decorated perfectly with big hairsprayed mops of curls, high-wasted black lace lingerie, and intense washes of neon lighting. As shameless as they are, the sex & crime that defines most of Stripped to Kill are perfectly in tune with the hardboiled LA detectives & drug-addled street punks that populate its sleazy, greasy world. It’s just that sometimes that sleaze results in a badass moment (like women kicking an offending john to pulp in a back-alley act of vigilante stripper justice) and sometimes it results in poorly-aged cringe (the ill-considered twist).

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Stripped to Kill’s merits outweigh its faults. As its never-ending pileup of strip routines & grotesque murder scenes continually muscled out any room for genuine, legitimate drama, I found myself impressed by its wholehearted commitment to sleaze. Your own appreciation of that commitment will depend on your personal taste for unembarrassed, hyper-sexualized, politically careless trash. Thankfully, Roger Corman himself was won over by the film’s box office receipts despite his early reservations with Katt Shea’s pitch, and the young director was able to churn out a few better-respected titles under Corman brand – notably Poison Ivy, Dance of the Damned, and Streets. I’m looking forward to seeing how her keen sense of sleaze evolved in those pictures, but also a little weary of her instincts after the conclusion of this one.

-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

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

Scott Valentine’s Other Over-Sexed Demon Feature: To Sleep with a Vampire (1993)

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As Boomer mentioned in our Swampchat discussion of April’s Movie of the Month, the romantic horror comedy My Demon Lover, the film’s star Scott Valentine had struck it somewhat big as a bad boy heartthrob on the televised sitcom Family Ties, but mostly failed to convert that success into a long term film career. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Valentine had a long string of starring roles in minor titles throughout the 80s & 90s, but his turn as the titular monster in My Demon Lover would mark the high point of a career that never truly took off. Topping out with My Demon Lover might help explain why the actor later returned to the antiheroic position of romantic love interest/supernatural threat in the straight-to-VHS oddity To Sleep with a Vampire six (six six) years later. To Sleep with a Vampire & My Demon Lover are two vastly different films working in two entirely separate genres (the erotic thriller & the romantic comedy, respectively), but Scott Valentine’s starring roles as the dangerous, titular love interest in both works serve as a clear connecting piece between them.

Some of the genre markers of To Sleep with a Vampire are seemingly at war with themselves. The film opens with Scott Valentine stalking back alley as if he were the brooding antihero in a self-serious neo-noir, immediately announcing himself as a vampiric threat. Once the film shifts gears, Valentine does his brooding in a cheap strip club, revealing the film’s true nature as a sleazy erotic thriller. To Sleep with a Vampire commits a little too earnestly when it reaches the strip club, indulging in so many passionless strip teases that it started to feel like a strange, vampiric modernization of the Ed Wood-penned “classic” Orgy of the Dead. Thankfully,the film eventually moves on and blossoms as being . . . actually pretty great? Valentine’s vampiric sex demon materializes at a sleazy strip club not only to oggle, but to search for a potential victim, one he finds in a down-on-her-luck stripper who is hopelessly suicidal due to an estranged relationship with her young son. The stripper, who’s essentially hit rock bottom on this particular night (and, thus, more attractive to her vampire predator, since killing someone suicidal is justifiably more ethical), is convinced to follow the bloodthirsty beau back to his bachelor pad (lair?) to discuss the delicacies of mortality until he plans to feast on her blood just before sunrise. Eventually, they bone.

A straight-to-VHS triviality produced by Roger “The Best There Ever Was” Corman, To Sleep with a Vampire is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. At times threatening to devolve into a deeply misogynistic masturbation fantasy for immature man-children, the film gradually reveals itself to be something much more poignant. Its all-in-one-night plot structure eventually morphs the film into something of a glorified stage play (from way, way, way, way off Broadway) akin to Steve Guttenberg’s passion project PS Your Cat is Dead. It’s far from the vampiric romance of titles like The Hunger, Near Dark, Only Lovers Left Alive, Innocent Blood, or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night in terms of quality, but there’s still an interesting back & forth in the film’s understanding of gender politics through a vampiric lens & Scott Valentine’s monstrous heartthrob really does have great chemistry with his sex worker victim (Charlie Spalding) despite the predatory aspect that relationship dynamic implies. This is an atmospheric work where the gloomy, horny atmosphere is often undercut by an overbearing sense of camp, but it’s a compromised formula that works surprisingly well. In particular, the objectively bad acting of the two leads makes their overwrought characters seem all the more “human”. In a more tongue-in-cheek work, the exchange “Tell me about the daylight. How does the sun feel on your skin?” “How the hell should I know? I work nights,” might’ve been worthy a hearty eye roll, but the deadpan performances sell it wholeheartedly here.

That’s not to say that To Sleep with a Vampire is anything more than a campy trifle. There’s plenty to scoff at here: the black & white vampire cam, the titular antihero’s oversensitive concern with vampire stereotypes, weird exchanges where the mismatched protagonists become physically a combatitve & then immediately make out, an inevitable love-making scene that nearly outdoes The Room in sheer audacious cheese, etc. However, the movie still has a surprising emotional weight to it, especially in its exploration of the vulnerability in following a complete stranger home for casual sex. Scott Valentine also shows a surprising amount of range here. His two portrayals of sex-obsessed demons could not be more different. In My Demon Lover he’s pure cartoonish id, not unlike a murderous version of Rik Mayall’s performance in Drop Dead Fred. In To Sleep with a Vampire he goes full Batman in his performance (this was the Tim Burton era of the character’s popularity spike, mind you): gruff, brooding, misunderstood, conflicted. Again, it’s difficult to discern which is the better film out of To Sleep with a Vampire & My Demon Lover because they are so artistically disparate (and so politically regressive in their own unique ways), but both are transgressively entertaining in an odd way & both do their best to showcase Scott Valentine’s talents as a dangerous bad boy sex symbol. My Demon Lover is more readily recommendable to potential Scott Valentine fetishists in its (minor) cultural significance & its commitment to let the actor run wild, but To Sleep with a Vampire features the 80s semi-icon wearing only a pair of leopard print bikini briefs on a moonlit beach, so who’s to say which is more essential in that regard? Either way they compliment each other nicely & they’re both worth a watch for the shlock-inclined.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the 1987 romantic horror comedy My Demon Lover, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look on how it reflects the work of director Ate de Jong, and last week’s unlikely, uncomfortable look at how it compares with Harold Ramis’s 2000 remake of Bedazzled.

-Brandon Ledet

Pandora Peaks (2001)

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In the two decades between Russ Meyer’s last proper theatrical release, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and his straight-to-video swan song, Pandora Peaks, the once-on-top-of-the-world pervert auteur suffered a long line of never-completed projects. He mostly attempted to continue his thread of warped, post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls retreads of his former glory days that started with Supervixens. This included the never-realized The Jaws of Lorna; The Jaws of Vixen; Blixen, Vixen, and Harry; Mondo Topless, Too; Up the Valley of the Beyond; and Kill, Kill, Pussycat! Faster!. Even more intriguing were the announced anthology projects Hotsa, Hotsa & the reportedly 17 hour in length The Breast of Russ Meyer. Worse yet was the nearly-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?, with a Roger Ebert screenplay ready to go. Dejected by the endless assault of false starts, Meyer had pretty much resigned himself to retiring from filmmaking altogether & focusing on his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast (which actually did see the light of day). It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to the money-making possibilities of the home video market that he decided to return to his home behind the camera.

Pandora Peaks is a home video advertisement for its eponymous stripper/porn star. A supposed “documentary on Pandora at the peak of her popularity, the film plays like an episode of HBO’s Real Sex or a Playboy TV exclusive. Narrated by Meyer himself, Pandora Peaks resurrects the rapid-fire montage & non sequitur background chatter of the feverish go-go dancing nightmare Mondo Topless, but distinctly lacks that film’s white hot passion. You can also find traces of his home movie tourism in Europe in the Raw in sequences featuring a Hungarian stripper named Tundi (whose “interview” dialogue is provided by Meyer vet Uschi Digard), but again the film lacks any of the paranoid jingoism that made that “documentary” special. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole going-through-the-motions affair is that he director continuously references the glory days of past works in the film, particularly the successes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As clips from better Meyer times & shots of Pandora doing her thing at old shoot locations roll in, it’s apparent that the director is in an exhausted, retrospective mood, clearly disinterested in making earnest art out of what ultimately feels like a DVD extra.

There are some residual Meyer charms lurking in Pandora Peaks, mostly in the way the innocuous narration mixes harshly with the supposedly titilating imagery to crate a disorienting effect. As Pandora herself tells fond childhood stories about her enormous breasts & her over-active libido, Meyer blandly intones passages from his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast. His anecdotes about how his boob fetish saved him from a dull life toiling away in a battery factor & why he loves to go fishing with his old war buddies are oddly sober & level-headed, far from the unfocused ramblings of the madman vision in his previous two pictures: Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. The best effect the film has is in its way of lulling the viewer in to a dulled, hypnotic state, one occasionally interrupted by slide whistle & sqeaking toy sound effects. In its worst moments, though, it’s an entirely dismissable home video of a nightmarish Dallas strip club on a field trip. Even excusing his diminished enthusiasm, Meyer’s aesthetic didn’t translate well to the modern, plastic era. The plastic Walkmans & modern street signs of Pandora Peaks have nothing on the old world radios & hand-painted advertisements of Mondo Topless, Similarly, the director’s love of gigantic breasts had reached its crescendo in its final picture, with Pandora trying to pass off her HHH-sized busom as a natural phenomenon, fooling no one.

If Meyer hadn’t already entered the arena of self-parody critics had been accusing him of since Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Pandora Peaks pretty much solidified the transition. It’s a little disappointing that his career ended with such an empty exercise instead of a more ambitious project like Who Killed Bambi? or The Breast of Russ Meyer, but there are honestly worse possible fates. At least Pandora Peaks is far from the morally reprehensible depths of Blacksnake or Motorpsycho!, except maybe in a couple isolated moments of casual homophobia. The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which the auteur & eternal perv is yearning in some way to make sense of his own career, reaching back to past glory & repeatedly cutting to a mosaic representation of his own face as if frustratingly gazing into a mirror & asking what will become of his legacy. 15 years after Pandora Peaks & 11 years after Meyer’s death the answer to that question is still ambiguously hanging in the air. He’s a tough artist to pigeonhole, a complicated brute of a man that defies you to defend everything he’s said & done in its entirety. And yet he’s made some of the most vibrant, idiosyncratic films the world has ever seen. The question is what are we to do with the mess he’s left behind? It’s been fun picking through the pieces of the wreckage, but I doubt I have any significant answer to that conundrum now that I’ve made it through to the other side. I doubt I ever will.

-Brandon Ledet

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

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I’ve long considered pro wrestling to be the hyper-masculine equivalent to the way femininity is vamped up in drag performances. Magic Mike XXL poses that male entertainment (read: male stripping) fills that role instead. As represented on the screen here, it’s a solidly convincing argument. Early in the film male strippers & drag queens meet eye to eye in a small dive bar where the male entertainment crew from the first Magic Mike film participate in a voguing contest hosted by a wonderful small-part drag queen MC named Ms Tori Snatch. This scene not only gives the world the wonderful gift of watching former pro wrestler/NWO member Kevin Nash attempt voguing (he at least gets the spirit down more than some of his buddies, even if he can’t move his lumbering body very well), but it also establishes a connection between drag & male entertainment as artforms. Although the strip routines at the big competition at the end of the movie feature a ludicrous amount of faux ejaculations & weightlifting human beings that you’re unlikely to see in a roadside drag show, that brand of cartoonishly gendered performance is not far from what Tori Snatch does for a living. It’s just at the opposite end of the spectrum.

This exploration of stripping as absurd gender performance is limited almost entirely to Magic Mike XXL‘s on-screen stripteases & the brief foray into voguing (although Channing Tatum’s titular protagonist does reveal that his drag queen name would be Clitoria Labia), though, so what of the rest of the film? Besides a couple refreshingly casual nods to a few characters’ bisexuality & some vague philosophising about male entertainment’s role as female worship & sexual healing, the film doesn’t have all too much on its pretty little mind. The first Magic Mike film was an existential, melancholy look at the personal lives of male entertainers that had a lot of devious fun clashing their gloomy off-the-clock behavior with the over-the-top escapism they delivered on stage. Magic Mike XXL, by contrast, is pure escapism. The sequel ditches its predecessor’s despondent character study in favor of an aging-boy-band-goes-on-a-road-trip slapstick comedy. The opening of the film revisits a little of Mike’s downtrodden attempts to escape The Life, but once he rejoins the fold & starts dancing again the film is essentially a long list of road trip gags that all land beautifully (when they aren’t interrupted by the film’s hot & heavy strip teases).

True to the film’s boy band dynamic, its narrative focus mostly distinguishing the individual personalities of Mike’s crew of stripper buddies. There’s the pretty boy mystic, the aging giant with an artist’s heart, the boytoy who’s looking to shed his casual sex life in favor of a longterm relationship, etc., all for you to fawn over while they remove clothing from their shaved & oiled bodies. Magic Mike XXL only loses its spark when it strays from detailing the quirks of its all-growed-up boy band heart throbs & tries to find women for them to love. A lot of the heart of the first film was wrapped up in finding a budding romance for Mike, but the idea of repeating that process for the sequel isn’t exactly an enticing one. The love interest angle of XXL is treated like a necessary evil that the movie attempts to downplay at every turn. Mike’s potential partner is an unlikeable Ke$ha type who fancies herself an important artist too wrapped up in herself to engage with the oustide world in an interesting way. She’s self-absorbed, too young & too naive for Mike, and “not going through a boy phase right now” anyway, so her role as the generic Love Interest #2 is significantly downplayed, but it still feels like a waste of the movie’s time. Brief turns as potential love interests from Jada Pinkett Smith & Andie MacDowell (whose Georgian accent is so bad here that she uses the phrase “you guys” instead of “y’all”) fare a little better than Ke$ha the Self-Important Photographer, but they don’t make much of an impression either. The best XXL has to offer story-wise is as a goofy roadtrip movie about a ludicrous group of male entertainment buddies each finding themselves & bringing their true natures into their acts instead of emptily filling the Village People type of stripper roles like fireman in a thong, policeman in a thong, etc.

Beyond the road-trip story, which survives on the strength of its individual gags, Magic Mike XXL‘s greatest asset is its intense imagery. It’s totally understandable that a franchise about male strippers often gets overlooked for the quality of its cinematography, but it’s still a shame. Certain images (like a BDSM-themed strip tease set to Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” & a surreal tour through Jada Pinkett Smith’s dream-logic sex mansion) are just as striking as anything you’d find in a well-crafted art film, but still feel comfortably at home in this over-sexed road-trip buddy comedy. Magic Mike XXL is an impressive melding of the high & low brow, engaging both in its wealth of comedic & over-sexed surface pleasures & in its intense visual palette & light philosophising on the nature of gender performance & sexual healing in male entertainment. It’s difficult to say whether or not it’s a better film than the first, but it’s undeniably more fun.

-Brandon Ledet