B&W, 1966, 79 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Joseph W. Sarno
Starring Laurene Clair, Helena Clayton, Carol Holleck, Jean James, Steve Barton, Liz Love, Laura London Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Legendary erotic director Joe Sarno was in the middle of a startling run of monochrome studies of sexual repression and experimentation when he helmed this supernatural take on sinful antics in the American middle class. Here our debauched heroine is Carla, played by Sarno '60s veteran Clair (The Swap and How They Make It), a.k.a. Patricia McNair, who runs afoul of a secret female sex society where the main instrument of pleasure and spiritual awakening is, yep, Red Roses of Passion.
The fun starts with neighborhood tarot card reader Martha (Clayton) comforting her distraught, panting brother in the basement before performing a reading for sexually unsatisfied Carla (Clair), who seeks release from her "enemies," sanctimonious Aunt Julie (Love) and cousin Tracey (London). Accompanying Carla is coworker Enid (Holleck), who's colluding with the fortune teller to induct Carla into their sect of pagan Pan worshipers who have a communion with aphrodisiac wine, rub roses all over those bare skin, and saying things like "Once you have tasted the wine of Delphi and touched a rose from the garden of Pan to your breast, you will forever be a priestess of Pan." Carla doesn't have any interest in becoming a Pan priestess at first, but her frustration with her relatives leads her to use some liberal application of that wine of Delphi to turn auntie and cousin into unabashed disciples of carnality.
One of the daffier premises in the Sarno canon, Red Roses elevates itself well above the level of laughability thanks to Sarno's usual committed, low-key dedication to melodrama and intense air of humid sexuality. The skin level here is mostly confined to shots of the actresses in see-through negligees as they go about their rose-worshiping rituals (which would only be out-kinked later with School of the Holy Beast), and the dialogue is wisely kept to a bare minimum since the acting level is definitely not up to the level of the director's stronger work. (Clayton in particular has a community theater vibe and frequently mangles her lines.) As usual it's obviously shot very cheaply in a couple of rooms with dark, stylized lighting giving it an otherworldly feel you only tend to find in '60s sexploitation films, and it's always fun when Sarno decides to swerve into the uncanny to give his chamber dramas a little bit of weird flavoring.
Red Roses of Passion has long been available on VHS and then DVD-R and digital download from Something Weird transferred decades ago from a scratchy print, but the 2017 dual-format release from Vinegar Syndrome is a whole different animal. The pristine transfer from the recently uncovered negative is gorgeous and ranks up there with the best '60s softcore HD releases to date, and the DTS-HD MA English mono audio (with optional English subtitles) is also in terrific condition. The sole video extra is a few interview with Sarno biographer Michael Bowen (20m49s), who ranks this among his favorite Sarnos and chats about the challenges of nailing down the film's shooting dates and release history as well as the significance of some of the players behind and in front of the camera.