Color, 1976, 70 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Starring Pauline LaMonde, Dominique Santos, Joy Silver, David Pirell, Shaker Lewis, Tony Richards, JImmy Laine Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), VCX
It's common knowledge that many famous film figures got their start in adult films ranging from Wes Craven to Barry Sonnenfeld to Spalding Gray. Perhaps the strangest name on that list is Abel Ferrara, future director of Bad Lieutenant, King of New York and Ms. 45, who directed this very cheap New York porno quickie before making what is generally considered to be his first true feature, The Driller Killer. Most viewers might not peg this as a Ferrara film off the bat if they didn't recognize the director himself performing in one sequence (in every sense), but the nature of its authorship has given the film a far longer life than many of its smut peers -- as has its censorship history, but more on that in a moment.
The essentially anthology-style format here involves Gypsy (Santos) smoking opium, reading tarot cards, and talking about the exploits she's learned from letters sent by Pauline (LaMonde), a wealthy young lady who married well but is first seen dabbling in the hay with the new stable boy. Gypsy isn't that thrilled about all the details about these "greasy paramours," especially since Pauline seems to be working her way through all of Gypsy's past lovers. Pauline isn't neglected in bed by her coke-snorting, bisexual husband, David, but his detachment drives her into the arms of anyone in sight including a handy gas station attendant (The Vixens of Kung Fu's Richards). We even get a peek at Pauline's incestuous family tree thanks to her Bible-crazy great-grandfather (Ferrara), who was drunkenly seduced by his own two daughters. In the most notorious, nightmarish and Ferrara-esque sequence, Pauline's Nigerian princess girlfriend recounts her traumatic welcome to America when she was pursued and raped at knife point by two men in a stairwell and slashed one of them with a glass bottle.
With its dreamy narration, fractured structure, dark supernatural ending, and moody cinematography with an emphasis on deep, dark shadows, this is as much a youthful piece of cinematic experimentation as much as a standard grungy East Coast porn film. It's especially fascinating as an early effort for two regular Ferrara collaborators, composer Joe Delia and screenwriter Nicholas St. John, who would both go on to excel with Ms. 45, The Addiction, King of New York, and The Funeral. (St. John can even be spied early on as Pauline's chauffeur.) They both do solid work here, giving the film a stronger atmosphere than the material would normally require; in particular, it's fascinating hearing Delia doing a striking variation on the usual porno music funk formula, particularly during the two creepiest scenes.
This film has remained in circulation more or less throughout the home video era, though its VHS bow was hobbled by the Meese Commission scare that sent distributors scissoring away at their films to remove any content that might involve rape, BDSM, or other touchy subject matter, even if it was depicted as consensual. (See Radley Metzger's The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann for one of the dumbest examples.) In this case, VCX trimmed out the entire stairwell sequence which remained unseen until footage from it turned up in the trailer included on Cult Epic's two-disc edition of The Driller Killer. The title was also changed to the somewhat softer 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat, an alternate offering 9lives5.jpgto exhibitors as well, and Ferrara himself would refer to the film for years in his bio (if at all) as simply an indie film called 9 Lives. Fortunately the uncut version finally made its U.S. home video bow in 2019 from Vinegar Syndrome as a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition with a new 2K scan from the original 35mm negative. Not surprisingly it looks much, much better than drab, '80s-era transfer we've been stuck with for years; the added clarity also makes it possible to disprove once and for all the rumors that Ferrara used a double for his menage a trois scene. English SDH subtitles are provided for the DTS-HA MA English audio, which is also a lot clearer and punchier than before. The theatrical trailer is included here in a new HD scan as well, but the big new extra is an audio commentary by Samm Deighan. Hearing one of our most astute current film writers tackle an Abel Ferrara hardcore film is just as surreal and entertaining as you'd expect as she tackles the visual and thematic tropes of his work, the role of women (especially Zoe Lund) in his creative output, and the challenging, revolutionary aspects of adult filmmaking that are still being discovered by new audiences.