The Offbeat Marquee #2: A Snapshot of Adult Cinema

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

This second installment takes on the wild world of adult cinema. Hardcore pornography was a unique beast in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, allowing for a trip to your local grindhouse as a way to see almost anything you desired. The films discussed existed during this era of “porno chic,” preceded by films such as Andy Warhol’s 1969 film Blue Movie, the first major example of explicit sex in American cinema that, by challenging conventions of the time, helped to usher in this “Golden Age of Porn.”

Introduction

You ever get the feeling to just do something you haven’t really done before? You just say to yourself, “to hell with it, let’s give this a shot.” That was me with the world of porno chic; a sweet spot in American film history from 1969 to 1984 where skin flicks soared to wild financial heights, and even found themselves taken seriously by mainstream media and critics. I found myself fascinated by what produced such an environment for this type of film to flourish. After all, we now live in a day and age where you can find anything (and I mean anything) via the power of the internet. The democratization of media production and consumption has rendered what production value there was in X-rated motion pictures from the 70s and 80s rather mute.

So, what I settled on doing wasn’t anything terribly scientific or academic. Find a few dirty flicks and give them a watch. While I unfortunately wasn’t able to indulge in a Radley Metzger (Camille 2000) or a Russ Meyer film (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), I did wind up choosing two “classics” of adult cinema, one notable film of cult status I had discovered through a few people, and a European production to see if any of the momentum or style of “porno chic” had reached oversees and lasted into the 1980s. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t greeted with an Emmanuelle

The last thing I’ll mention is that I intend on treating these as films. Honest-to-God motion pictures, regardless of how obscene they get. 

And boy do they. 

As such, I will note that there will be spoilers, if you care about such things in these pictures.

Odds are you aren’t here for a tight narrative though.

The Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

Gerard Damiano is a name that will be no stranger to anyone who has any experience with this era. The director manned two of the most successful pictures of this golden age, Deep Throat in 1972, and The Devil in Miss Jones in 1973. Miss Jones was given a notably positive writeup by one Roger Ebert back in the day, in a review that boiled down to “it’s good for what it is.” It also became one of the highest grossing films of its year of release. So, what was all the fuss about?

To quote Mr. Ebert, “somehow an ambiance is established in the first 10 minutes of the movie that carries over and gives even the most explicit scenes a curiously affecting quality.” In a way, Ebert got this one completely right. Damiano, after a bizarre prologue and the credits, creates a most morbid entry point. The lonely Justine Jones, portrayed by a more-than-competent Georgina Spelvin in her first credited role, commits suicide in her bathtub. She finds herself in Purgatory as an angel, Abaca, tells her that she’s going to hell on the technicality of her suicide. When faced with these facts, she begs for the opportunity to at least earn her way into hell. She selects one of the seven deadly sins to indulge in. Can you guess which? What follows is basically a big ol’ bender of sex, including doing it with adult film icon Harry Reems. Like she goes all out, does almost anything you could film, including one of the film’s more memorable images. 

That being playing with a snake in her mouth. 

What makes the film fascinating is how it ends. Jones, now an absolute sex maniac, winds up not in fire and brimstone, but in a worse hell. She is in a cell with a man (portrayed by Damiano himself) who has zero interest in her, more concerned with a fly supposedly in the room. A somewhat amusing, possibly damning statement on the sex-crazed that the Sexual Revolution may have shed some light on.

The film is well photographed, which some beautiful shot compositions and lighting schemes. The silhouette of Jones before she climbs into her bathtub to seal her fate is a frame that has stayed with me as I just didn’t expect such mood from the film. The Devil in Miss Jones was shot by João Fernandes, who would go one to shoot Joseph Zito’s 1981 slasher classic The Prowler. During these days of his career, he would often use the pseudonym Harry Flecks. A name I would rediscover on another one of these films. 

Easily the greatest asset to the film (as you’ll find with many of these) is the music. Alden Shuman writes a score of tremendous lyricism and beauty. His main theme, “I’m Comin’ Home,” is a gorgeous melody and pops up every now and then. The rest of his score is frankly twice as seductive as the film could be, with rich orchestrations and melodies abounding across the film’s 62-minute duration. It’s easy to see how this became a classic, as it shows up, does what it needs to, but brings something more to the table. Dirty, but beautifully moody.

Behind the Green Door (1972)

Okay. So, I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not going to speak of the drama surrounding the Mitchell Brothers and one’s murder at the hands of the other (have fun Googling that one).

Behind the Green Door was based on an underground short story penned by an anonymous author. Its title suggests Jim Lowe’s 1956 hit “The Green Door,” a song about a most secretive club. 

Appropriate for the film at hand.

What the Mitchells delivered to theaters, after two years of producing 20 adult pictures of varying lengths, was an Eyes Wide Shut orgy. An elite sex club of masked upper-crust individuals are treated to a live sex show, with the star being a rich socialite (portrayed by Marylin Chambers in her breakout role) who has been kidnapped. What follows are three separate exercises in lovemaking, with the audience growing more aroused with each stage.

Home to psychedelic money shots, a mime dressed as a clown, the first glimpse of interracial intercourse to hit the Silver Screen, and a bizarre trapeze rig used for the final act amongst many other details, Artie & Jim Mitchell bring together an oddly ambitious work that fits quite nicely in the world of grindhouse cinema of the mid-century. There isn’t really much to say beyond that it is pretty well shot, has a subtle but effective soundtrack, and there is something humorous about how everyone slowly gives themselves over to the carnality in a way where the fourth wall between the stage and the audience in the film is broken. I don’t know why I found it funny, but I did. Another one where I see its classic status earned by its experimental filmmaking, with its only flaw being that the proceedings seem to take their sweet time a little too much. 

Through the Looking Glass (1976)

Here’s another moment where I found porn that personnel I recognized had worked on. Through the Looking Glass takes some basic ideas from Alice in Wonderland (a mirror with seemingly supernatural/magical qualities, an insane world found on the other side of said mirror) and places them in a dark narrative surrounding a middle-aged woman of status, portrayed by Catherine Burgess (who shares the name with her fictional counterpart). Her past traumas, inflicted on her by her father, are unleashed by an old gothic mirror from her youth. Home to taboo themes and some of the most surreal sequences I’ve seen in a while.

Here, the explicit imagery is a bit more artfully presented, and the narrative a bit more cohesive. And those who aid in maintaining the atmosphere of the piece are the people I knew of. The film was, once again, shot by João Fernandes, and thus, Looking Glass is shot quite beautifully. A lot of tenebrous lighting schemes in the attic, a fascinating use of the mirror for blocking, and some really beautiful location shoots. I’ll also mention this: there is a certain, simply magical shot that I’ll let Unboxed Watched and Reviewed host Tanner Toobach explain. This man’s work is some of the most entertaining when comes to old-school grindhouse and adult cinema. Now, the other personnel I wasn’t expecting came in the form of the music.

The film is scored by the team of Arlon Ober and Harry Manfredini. I remember Ober for his association with the animated franchise Robotech and a slasher he scored, Bloody Birthday in 1981. Manfredini is, well, Harry “Friday the 13th” Manfredini. Funnily enough, it appears these two kept in touch, as Ober served as an orchestrator on the first two House scores in the mid-80s, as well as on DeepStar Six. There is a gorgeous main theme with a heavenly voice floating over it, almost in the style of Italian composers like Ennio Morricone. There is also a lot of obviously proto-Friday the 13th horror music at play here that amplifies the deliberate discomfort crafted in the film, especially when Jamie Gillis is on screen as the father of our leading lady.

All in all, I really do appreciate how ambitious director Jonas Middleton got here. There is a great beauty to the piece and it really is a ride I don’t think I’ve ever been taken for, or at least quite like this film. It does have its dull moments, but they are more than made up for with its poignant lyricism and striking surrealism. A bold adult film from the other side of our looking glass.

Orgasmo Nero (1980)

Ah yes, the film from across the way. One of Italy’s schlockmeisters-in-chief, Joe D’Amato, cranked out many an adult picture in his day, and ultimately ended his career making direct-to-video skin flicks. Orgasmo Nero, while of course not a classy film in any sense of the word, carries itself in a way uncommon from the rest of his horror-centric work. The story of a member of a native Caribbean tribe being brought into the cosmopolitan world of an ethnologist’s wife is nothing short of a recipe for a melodramatic love triangle, done with the good taste only D’Amato knows. 

In all seriousness, this softcore outing is kind of a testament to the European approach to erotic cinema, with an emphasis on sensuality than explicit intercourse. Even stuff that is stronger than most, much of it made by D’Amato (the director of films like Porno Holocaust that very year), still has a certain, well, softness to it.

I showed up (and stuck around) for namely two reasons. The first was Italian genre actress Nieves Navarro, billed as Susan Scott as she often is. Still as beautiful and as confident a performer as she was back in films like The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion in 1970. The second was the music of Stelvio Cipriani. When Cipriani breaks out his synthesizers, you know you are in for a treat, and this score is a testament to his ability to meld haunting melodies with seductive instrumentation. The saxophone and electric piano are key ingredients in the Maestro’s recipe for a sexy soundtrack.

The third element I stuck around for was the imagery. 

No, not that (as enticing as it was).

I’m talking about the location shoot in the Caribbean, filmed by Alberto Spagnoli, who debuted as a cinematographer with the well-liked 1972 gothic giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. He is in a position where there aren’t really that many bad ways to shoot locales such as those in the Dominican Republic. The modernist sets are eye-candy and the beaches are eye-candy. All he has to do is get that camera pointed in the right direction. He does get a chance to craft some gorgeous compositions, usually of our Caribbean girl (played by Lucia Ramirez) sunbathing, including one fabulous shot on the shoreline. 

Beyond those aforementioned components, Orgasmo Nero’s biggest crime is that of forgettability. I just kind of got bored of it all at a certain point, and somehow, D’Amato stretched this film out to 90 minutes. The characters don’t really have any personality, and D’Amato doesn’t have the mood-piece chops of a director like France’s Jean Rollin. Hell, I’d take the manic, Marquis de Sade melodrama of the movie-making machine Jess Franco over this. Orgasmo Nero was a relatively pleasant 90 minutes, but a criminally dull 90 minutes at that. I’ll give the Americans credit where it’s due: if you don’t earn your runtime, you keep that shit curt.

Conclusion

Now it’s my turn to keep this short, sweet, and to the point: adult cinema was, and is, a fickle thing. It either works for you, or it doesn’t. For myself, it worked. Not in any unusual way, but it certainly made for many fun late nights of praying to God that no one was looking over my shoulder. I’m more curious about everything from a historical perspective. While these films do have an appeal and the capacity seduce the viewer, I find myself more fascinated with what brought them about in the first place. They have a surprising amount of technical merit to them, but nothing life-changing. So, I suppose I’ll just keep investigating this as one of the many niches of cinema I study and research.

“Research.”

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