Color, 1976, 78 mins.
Directed by Bud Townsend
Starring Kristine DeBell, Larry Gelman, Bradcford Armdexter, Gila Havana, Alan Novak, Bree Anthony, Tony Richards, Juliet Graham, Terri Hall, Jason Williams
Subversive (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

After the success of the softcore sci-fi spoof Flesh Gordon, enterprising young producer/actor Bill Osco continued mixing juvenile pop culture with smut for an equally ambitious and even curiouser follow-up, a naughty musical version of Alice in Wonderland. As with Flesh, it was filmed as an effects-laden narrative film with a handful of explicit sequences which never made it into the final product, though in this case a subsequent reissue through Essex Films added back those few minutes of graphic close-ups. How do they measure up now? Let's take a look...

Still refusing to loosen up and give herself to her gas station attendant boyfriend, buttoned-up librarian Alice (DeBell) picks up a copy of Alice in Wonderland and sings about how she missed all the fun stuff when she was a kid. Suddenly she's approached by a white rabbit (The Bob Newhart Show's Gelman, hiding out here under the name "Jerry Spelman"), who says he's late for a date with the queen ("The queen's a bitch!"). She follows him into a magical world where she gets fondled by mischievous animals, attends a tea party with a horny Mad Hatter (Novak), romps on a hillside with siblings Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Anthony and Richards), and runs up against the Queen of Hearts (Bloodsucking Freaks' Graham) before returning home a little wiser and a lot less inhibited.

Featuring songs like "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing on a Knight Like This?," Alice in Wonderland is an engagingly sweet and witty film that still holds up as genuine entertainment. Much of its appeal rests with the charming DeBell, a pretty and charistmatic actress who had appeared in Playboy and went on to a mainstream career in films like Meatballs and The Main Event as well as lots of television. Flesh Gordon star Jason Williams pops up fleetingly as well, while the rest of the cast contains some familiar porn faces, most notably busy X-rated star/dancer Terri Hall, who turns up in numerous roles and shows off her gift for fluid body movement. After the success of this film, Osco, DeBell, and Williams reteamed again three years later for the more mainstream Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend, which is also worth hunting down; none of them created anything remotely explicit again.

Upon its original release, Alice in Wonderland carried a self-imposed X rating and was definitely softcore, with much of the dialogue hilariously referring to eye-popping activity occurred just outside of the frame. Its distribution was handled by several parties over the years (including under the radar handling by 20th Century-Fox!), and its success prompted Osco to reinstate a few seconds of a graphic oral DeBell footage as well as some crude insert shots (mainly at the end, which pretty much drags it to a halt); only the added Tweedledee/Tweedledum footage really works at all, and the XXX variant is really a curiosity worth seeing once for DeBell novelty value alone. If you're new to the film, stick with the single-X version (which was later trimmed slightly to gain an R rating by the MPAA); it really works better with the concept of the film and is more genuinely sexy and funny. Both the R-rated and hardcore cuts have been widely available on home video since the dawn of VHS; the soft version in particular turned up at every single mom and pop video shop in the 1980s. The hardcore version popped up on video in a truly sorry transfer from VCX and is best avoided. Fortunately Subversive Cinema has given it a more respectable treatment with its DVD release, which features anamorphic transfers of both versions. Image quality is obviously far superior to any video version before (and probably better than any of the ragged remaining theatrical prints); fleshtones look a bit more orange and oversaturated than they should be, so prepare to tweak your TV settings a bit. The mono audio on both sounds fine. The general release version opens with a quick, amusing restoration demonstration ("over 500,000 individual corrections!") as well as the General National logo, while the hardcore one begins with a disclaimer about the poor condition of the surviving material (which appears to have been inserted into the body of the other transfer) as well as a scratchy Essex Films logo. Both versions contain the same gag opening credits, complete with "Underwater Nude Volleyball Sequences by Jacques Coote" and "Hawaiian Number Staged by Halelokie Steinberg."

The sole extra is a solid featuretee, "Alice in Wonderland: Back Down the Rabbit Hole," which was shot and edited by maverick Australian director Mark Savage. It features porn industry vet William Margold, current adult actress Lena Romane, and, believe it or not, Larry Gelman (who doesn't get mentioned on the packaging!) talking about the film and its place in classic adult history. Obviously Gelman talks the most about the production itself ("It was a very strict set; they wouldn't allow me to see what they were doing!"), while the surprisingly intelligent and articulate Romane talks about being a fan of the film and her appreciation for Osco's filmmaking, while Margold covers the stories of the various participants and places it in context with the direction the industry has taken since (with a particularly grisly summation at the end involving sex and stomach acid). For some reason the theatrical trailer isn't included, but you can find it on plenty of readily-available adult trailer compilations. Even for those with no interest in porn, this disc comes highly recommended for anyone with an interest in drive-in curiosities or fearless, genre-bending filmmaking with a childlike imagination.

Color, 1972, 86 m. / Directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm / Starring Jason Williams, Suzanne Fields, Joseph Hudgins, William Hunt, John Hoyt, Candy Samples, Lance Larsen, Mycle Brandy / Hen's Tooth (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

A breathtakingly stupid cult item, Flesh Gordon rose to prominence as a midnight and college campus hit around the same time as other word of mouth hits like A Boy and His Dog and El Topo. Unlike those films, however, Flesh can't really be defended as a work of cinematic art, nor does it even try. Instead the filmmakers chose to do a goofy, corny, sexually outrageous tribute to the old Flash Gordon serials, complete with up-to-date special effects, kitschy costumes, and godawful acting. Of course, in the right frame of mind, it's also a huge amount of fun despite some slow stretches, laced with a few memorable lines of dialogue and surprisingly ambitious visuals.

A mysterious attack of sex rays are sending the Earth into pandemonium. According to a venerable scientist (John Hoyt), these rays are being sent from another planet and cause earthlings to collapse into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. When a plane flight is sabotaged by these rays, two passengers, Flesh (Jason Williams) and Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields), manage to escape and find themselves at the remote home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgins), an eccentric scientist. Jerkoff informs the newcomers that he has designed a spaceship by which he will thwart the evil plans of the planet Porno, which is responsible for the attack. The trio take off and, upon arriving at Porno, wind up in the court of the wicked Wang the Perverted (William Hunt). Emperor Wang devises a number of grisly tortures for the earthlings, but Flesh manages to escape with Princess Amora (Paula Principe), who ravishes him on her ship. A number of further misadventures ensue, with Dale attacked by a gang of lesbians led by the hook-armed Chief Nellie (Candy Samples) and Jerkoff discovering the Power Pasties by which he can defeat Wang's army. With the help of Prince Precious (the wry Mycle Brandy) and his tribe of gay forest men, Flesh and his friends return to Wang's castle and stage a daring attack.

Rumors have abounded about Flesh Gordon since its initial release. Producer Bill Osco and co-director Howard Ziehm had first struck gold with Mona, the Virgin Nymph, the first narrative hardcore feature film, and originally Flesh Gordon was conceived as a $25 million porn epic. When it was released with an X-rating and nary an explicit close-up to be found, audiences assumed that a stronger version existed somewhere. However, as anti-erotic as the final product may be, Flesh is still definitely not for kids, considering the heavy amounts of frontal nudity, lewd puns, and softcore sex. (However, a couple of distant, fleeting hardcore moments can be spied during the orgies in Wang's palace.) In the late '70s and early '80s, a softer R-rated version circulated through theaters, with virtually all frontal nudity trimmed out (the result played like a dull Saturday Night Live skit). The 78 minute X-rated cut appeared on home video from Media in a blurry, badly cropped edition that nevertheless won over a new legion of fans, followed by the same transfer on laserdisc from Image. Unfortunately, Flesh went into moratorium hell for over a decade after Media's disappearance, only to resurface from Hen's Tooth Video with a widely touted extra ten minutes of restored footage. Many fans gathered that these extra scenes would be hardcore, but in fact this footage consists of many minor trims made by Ziehm after the film's premiere to speed up the pace. There is some additional nudity, but mostly the unseen material consists of extra dialogue, more establishing shots, and a few transition scenes, particularly with the forest people. It makes for a better paced and less exhausting film, but don't expect anything terribly revealing.

The technical production of Flesh Gordon was extremely complicated, but basically, it was mostly shot in 16mm, with the stop motion effects added when it was blown up to 35mm. Thus, the 16mm negative (assuming it still exists) would be useless. The Hen's Tooth transfer is culled from the longer 86 minute premiere print (35mm), letterboxed at approximately 1.66:1. Though the film isn't well framed by any means, the extra vertical information makes it less claustrophobic and adds some aesthetic value to the amusing comic book opening titles. The effects sequences look the best, featuring some terrific work from Jim Danforth (whose name is spelled backwards in the credits) and a number of other soon-to-be-prominent FX artists. Highlights include a Jason and the Argonauts-style beetleman attack, a blinking penisaurus, and a great, hilarious clambering monster (voiced by an uncredited Craig T. Nelson!) reminiscent of Harryhausen's beloved Ymir. The film itself has always looked pretty rough, with lots of grain and washed out color, and the DVD isn't really any different. Turning down the brightness control on the TV helps it out, though, and reduces the grain considerably. While the film's fans will be accustomed to this appearance and probably don't expect much, anyone looking solely for a great visual experience would be well advised to look elsewhere. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer (which deemphasizes the sex, oddly enough) and, astonishingly, a commentary track by director Ziehm. Thankfully, Ziehm answers a number of nagging questions about the film, and while he often seems to be reading notecards and never comments directly on the film's action, he delivers a number of fascination and sometimes shocking anecdotes. He blasts the shoddy and manipulative techniques of Osco (who also released the porno musical Alice in Wonderland before winding up in jail) and co-director Michael Benveniste, who was fired off the film. While the orgy scenes in the film were obviously performed for real (including a mentioned gay orgy that never materialized in the final product), only one sequence, with Flesh and Amora, was actually lensed as a full hardcore sequence. However, legal wrangling in California resulted in all of the graphic footage being chopped out of the negative and confiscated by the local government, never to be seen in a final edit of the film. For anyone who claims the initial release of the film was XXX, it just ain't so. Ziehm also relates the numerous special effects hassles, the budgetary nightmares, the loss of the original assembled negative, and his own early experiences doing porn features and stag loops, including some personal details that may have been better left unsaid. Ziehm's chat is a frank, unashamed, and very welcome contribution to the film, often more startling and graphic than the film it accompanies. For the curious, this alone should make this presentation of Flesh Gordon an essential installment in any DVD cult film library.

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