American hardcore

Pub date September 2, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

X-RATED CLASSICS A sexploitation lifer who reportedly has directed so many features even he doesn’t know how many, Joe Sarno is nonetheless also enough of an idiosyncratic talent to have won a cult following and some high-culture-institution retrospectives. No education in psychotronic cinema is complete without the likes of 1962’s Sin in the Suburbs, a B&W exposé of swinger "bottle parties" that defines just how lurid movies could seem before they were actually allowed to show anything, and 1972’s Young Playthings, the rare erotic film one might — even must — call "Pirandello-esque."

Though he confessed to being shocked at first, Sarno didn’t blink in making the transition from softcore to hardcore, though his output finally slowed in the ’80s. Alternative Cinema has taken on the task of releasing as much of this voluminous oeuvre as possible to DVD, including some films long thought lost. (They also induced his filmmaking return — at age 83! — via 2004’s Suburban Secrets.)

The latest releases represent both his 1960s monochrome melodrama period and a mid-1970s sojourn into goofy sex comedies, the latter often available in "hard" and "soft" versions. Shoestring 1968 production All the Sins of Sodom was shot when "adults only" films could expose breasts, but nothing more beyond a lot of sexy (albeit nonprofane) situations and talk — which fortunately Sarno was most excellent at writing.

Nudes photographer Henning gets involved with several models while obsessively searching for a particular "look." He urges them on, shouting things like "More feeling! More EVIL!" à la Austin Powers. Purportedly shot over a long weekend, its cast names never even recorded, it’s a claustrophobic weirdie recalling such exploitation zeniths as Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) and Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd St (1973).

Its gorgeous widescreen B&W restoration stands opposed to three-color features on the Deep Throat Sex Comedy Collection. Their visual quality (and variably complete edits) underline the ephemeral nature of movies often sporadically released at best originally, and that no one thought to "preserve." The headline attraction, Deep Throat II, was a spectacular 1974 flop inaccessible even to bootleggers until now. It reunited the original "porn chic" smash’s stars Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems — albeit in an aggressively dumb, atypically amateur (for Sarno) espionage spoof nobody liked. Dubious authority Al Goldstein called it "the worst movie ever made" because it committed the ultimate sin of omitting all graphic sex, even Linda’s signature oral party trick. (Rumors persisted for years that hardcore scenes were shot, then lost, in a lab fire.)

The other two Sex Comedy inclusions are equally rare but more rewarding. Likewise featuring a range of famous vintage porn stars, The Switch, Or How To Alter Your Ego and A Touch of Genie (both from 1974) each have their own inimitable softcore charms. Female Jekyll/Hyde spin Switch debuts long-term Sarno fave Mary Mendum as a scientific researcher whose formula turns her from unconvincing Plain Jane into a raving beauty who perpetually arouses others, male and female. Starting out in a burlesque-humor mode, it gets surprisingly darker as it goes along.

Genie is about Melvin Finklefarb, a Woody Allen-like nebbish granted five wishes by a junkshop’s bottled Barbara Eden aspirant. In one "wish," he’s Harry Reems. Evidently video-transferred Switch comes with mysterious (Danish?) subtitles; Genie‘s 35mm source is streaked and spotted. Apparently no better prints exist. Particularly ingratiating are Sarno’s invariably kind recollections in the extras — either he never met a performer he didn’t like, or they all liked him enough to be on their best behavior.