SEPTEMBER 29, 2007

Greetings, and welcome to your (hopefully regular) guide to recent, notable releases related to trash, drive-in, or just flat-out disreputable cinema on DVD. Instead of my standard full-on review and banner format, this looser section will cover oddball titles that may not be heavy on respectability or historical significance but do deliver the goods when it comes to pure exploitation.

Little seen in America, 1972's Rica was part of Toho's three-film attempt to compete with the growing wave of Pinky Violence movies pouring out in Japanese cinemas from studios like Toei. (Trailers for the other two, Rica: Lonely Wanderer and Rica: Juvenile's Lullaby are included as extras.) Aoki Rika stars as the title character, the teenaged offspring of a Japanese woman raped by a GI. She's first seen avenging the death of a fellow gang member who's just given birth by demanding the gangster bury his infant, which quickly escalates into violence which lands her in reform school. Soon she breaks out when she learns her gang sisters have been shipped off into Vietnamese sex slavery, and the plot continues to escalate in a breathless series of maimings, go-go strip scenes, sexual assaults, murders, chases... well, you get the idea. Any ten-minute segment of this film would make a priceless drive-in movie by itself, and the entire film barely pauses to catch its breath. The style is gritty and naturalistic overall (with none of the stylization which tended to creep into many Pinky Violence and Roman Porno films), but it ladles on the sleaze with plenty of topless nudity and a show stopping arm removal by butcher knife that must be seen to be believed. A great party film, to be sure. Media Blasters' sublabel, Exploitation Digital, brings this to English-speaking audiences in fine form with a splendid 16x9 scope transfer and a new English subtitle translation. Don't be surprised if a cult builds up around this one quickly, and one can only hope the two sequels live up to it. Apart from the aforementioned trailers, extras include more ED trailers (Porno Holocaust, etc.) and a still gallery.

Certainly less sexy but no less violent, the films of Sonny Chiba have been steadily gaining in popularity over the past decade or so. BCI/Eclipse's exploitation line, Deimos, has unleashed two double-feature Chiba discs as part of their "Welcome to the Grindhouse" series, and both should bring a huge smile to the face of any Asian action fans (at least those with a fondness for English dubbing, anyway). First up is The Bodyguard, a popular Chiba home video and TV item widely circulated in cruddy pan-and-scan prints since the '80s, now finally presented in a sterling 16x9 scope transfer (still in its US cut with a different opening, but currently the Japanese cut still hasn't popped up anywhere). Chiba portrays a badass who, after taking out a group of terrorists on a plane, publicly hires himself out as a bodyguard and uses the opportunity to take out a ruthless bunch of gangsters while his client has other schemes going behind his back. The plot's not too important, though; mainly it's an excuse for lots and lots of violence, all over the top and delivered for maximum audience enjoyment. The English dub track is lots of fun and makes one less sorry for the absence of a Japanese language track. Its co-feature in this set is the spin-off from the popular Street Fighter series, Sister Street Fighter, which has also been around for ages in less-than-optimum condition. (More about that film and its sequels here.) Note that this is again the English dubbed version, though completists can snag both language tracks as part of the Sister Street Fighter Collection. Both films can be watched separately or as part of the "Grindhouse Experience," which sprinkles in trailers for Crown International titles like Ninja War, Burnout, Killpoint, and Kidnapping of the President.

The next Chiba two-fer in the "Welcome to the Grindhouse" series pairs up two more video favorites in new scope transfers easily worth the upgrade. Dragon Princess kicks off with Chiba as master karate instructor Agaki, who squares off against four thugs intent on taking his title. Blinded in one eye and beaten nearly to death, he moves to New York where he hones his daughter (Shiomi again) into a razor-sharp killing machine to avenge him. Obviously this isn't purely a Chiba showcase, but this is a terrifically enjoyable martial arts showcase and a good example of funky '70s action filmmaking. Then Chiba returns in Karate Warriors as Cheiko, a loner who uses his skills to play two rival gangs off each other. Yes, it's another rehash of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (already the subject of unauthorized remakes like Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars) and a pretty darn fun one at that, with as much blood and nudity as an R rating will allow. Again the films can be played separately or with the "Grindhouse Experience," which tosses in trailers for The Bodyguard, Legend of the Eight Samurai, 9 Deaths of the Ninja and Sister Street Fighter.

On the more recent front, Happy Cloud Pictures, the guys who gave you such films as Weregrrl and Severe Injuries, go a bit more ambitious and upscale with their recent outing, A Feast of Flesh (announced in earlier press as Abattoir). As far as DIY vampire movies go, it's a lot more complex and thoughtful than most with a twisty story about a gang of horny guys going for a trip to the remote Bathory Brothel and becoming entangled with the disappearance of one guy's girlfriend, who's fallen in with the mysterious ladies of the evening. In this case, that also means they're bloodsuckers. Turns out the brothel and the township have an agreement not to tangle with each other as long as no residents get pilfered, but now the deal's broken and a squad of vampire hunters comes a-callin'. The DVD packaging plays up the "violence, eroticism and throat-ripping bloodlust," though be advised that most of that hits in the second half; the set up is still interesting, though, and worth getting through. Some nice touches abound, including the means used to ward off the vampires (including blessing an Arrowhead bottle), and the lack of budget and hit-and-miss videography still yield a few nice visual effects. And since Dennis Miller isn't around, this is automatically a lot more fun than Bordello of Blood. Bloody Earth's DVD features an anamorphic transfer that looks about as good as the uneven source material will allow, and the cast features a few recognizable faces like scream queen Debbie Rochon (Terror Firmer) and Chainsaw Sally (aka April Burril) along with the usual Happy Cloud regulars (Amy Lynn Best, director Mike Watt, Zoe Hunter). Extras include a making-of featurette, lighthearted audio commentary with Wyatt and Best, a five-minute gag reel (mostly hard to hear, unfortunately), additional trailers (American Punks, Blood and Sex Nightmare, Killing Machine), and a pretty nifty 15-minute short film, "A Feast of Souls," about two guys lost in the woods who become entangled in a gory, time-warped nightmare involving slavery and redneck soldiers.

Recently the wonderfully depraved folks at After Hours Cinema have been going ballistic raiding the vaults for both soft and hardcore Take me nowobscurities. Their fascinating "Grindhouse Trash Collection" series probably won't do much for fans of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, but it's pure bliss for anyone with a taste for trashy T&A with a twist. For example, the two-disc Shocking Sixties Cinema set kicks off with yet another discovery from the recently plundered works of Nick Phillips, whose filmography ranges from soft-lesbian smut to comic gore to full-on hardcore. This time it's 1968's Uta, another of his meditations on girl-on-girl lust with a nubile 20-year-old discovering herself in hippie-covered San Francisco by -- what else? -- becoming a hooker. Slow, dreamy and arty, it's pretty much what you'd expect from Phillips -- little plot, lots of flesh, boot worship galore, and tons of atmosphere; plus, the print's in shockingly great condition. Bonus points for the snazzy original jazz soundtrack and a "what the hell" ending straight out of an educational film. The other two anonymous entries are in much more visually battered condition, but they're worth a spin, too. The Pimp Primer (listed as 1969 on the packaging, so I'll take their word for it) is a pretty plotless affair with marginal names like Colleen Murphy and Tommy Toole rubbing limbs on a series of sofas and floors in somebody's Hollywood condo to the strains of a teeth-grinding library soundtrack, with the massive talents of Uschi Digard and John Holmes making cameo appearances during a climactic orgy. Oh yeah, and there's some Andy Milligan-style dramatics and dreary voiceover for good measure, too. The Lusty Neighbors belongs to that sparse subgenre of Joe Sarno rip-offs, proffering a sordid tale about suburban horndogs whose games of "Strip Snakes and Ladders" lead to all kinds of extramarital shenanigans. However, the ending's much harsher and more anti-sex than anything in Sarno's canon. You also got the usual heaping of After Hours trailers, some video remarks by the ubiquitous 42nd Street Pete, and a handy liner notes booklet by Ed Grant, who pieces together what he can from these inexplicable oddities. Two of the three features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which looks a bit tight at times but could be right, considering the already berserk and random camerawork.

The After Hours series goes much, much harder with its next entry, Grindhouse Trash 2, a trio of eccentric, very low budget XXX '70s offerings that exist in an entirely different realm from "porno chic." The most entertaining of the bunch is definitely Melvin Kissem (no, I have absolutely no idea what that title means), a California-lensed quickie about three hot-to-trot working girls who take the idea of a secretarial pool literally by nailing everyone in sight, which in this case means three guys with whom they swap out in a spacious house complete with a huge bed and an indoor swimming pool. Most of the cast is better looking than usual, and everyone seems to be in the spirit and having more fun than the usual disinterested bumping and grinding. The same can't be said for In-Flight Service, which was probably a fun porn comedy (directed by former softcore vet C. Davis Smith, here credited as "Charles Lamont") about a bunch of stewardesses frolicking with their passengers and featuring regular faces like Bobby Astyr and Alan Marlowe; unfortunately, the ragged print on display is abruptly edited to remove all of the explicit shots, making for a very bumpy and frustrating ride indeed. You want to fly over that one and instead skip to Fires Down Below, the most valuable time capsule of the bunch about a Vietnam vet who comes home to find all the housewives hungry for action. Again it's light on plot, but the very retro suburban imagery is actually just as compelling as the organ-grinding footage.

Of course, any semblance of plot goes straight out the window with 42nd Street Pete's Busty Stag Collection; for example, 8mm Madness Part IV offers three hours of mail-order 8mm loops with various buxom starlets plying their wares for the camera; the most notable visible faces (if one is even looking at those) include the always wonderful Uschi Digard, Lillian Parker and Virginia Bell. Quality is super scratchy, of course (and I have no idea why these are 16x9 widescreen), but whadda you expect? A shade-sporting Pete also pops up at the beginning for a quick intro next to a projector, too.

No discussion of '70s exploitation cinema would be complete without a mention of fresh-faced skinflick legend Rene Bond, and she's well-represented on another double-disc set, Diary of a Nymph. She's the centerpiece of the most interesting feature, Diary of a Schizo, in which she stars as Sarah, a frustrated housewife prone to orgiastic fantasies and painting her face like Raggedy Ann. A narrator clad in a doctor's coat informs us that's she suffering from schizophrenia, which naturally means she's going to screw her way right into oblivion with her hapless husband powerless to stop her. This one's been a video staple for years, and it's nice to have an upgraded (albeit still scratchy) edition on DVD. Suzanne Fields pops up again as well, and supposedly one of the anonymous members belongs to The Pigkeeper's Daughter's John Keith, though it's difficult to say for sure. Of course, it's really Rene's show as she gets to act frenzied, tormented, and lustful nonstop for over an hour, which is worth the price tag by itself. The two other features are naturally inferior since they don't feature Rene, but they're curious enough to merit a look. The title feature is another frustrated housewife tale as a blonde Los Angeles hausfrau takes out her frustrations on any passing gentlemen. Diary of a Bed is basically an X-rated twist on James Broughton's arty short film, "The Bed," in which a brass bed relates its sex-soaked history to entice a shapely new potential owner. Lots of people walk through in period clothing and have sex. The end.

The age of the hardcore roughie ended somewhere in the '80s video era, and jittery companies started excising anything that smacked of bondage or non-consensual sex in XXX titles (which usually rendered them completely incoherent, a fate that befell at least three major Henry Paris films courtesy of VCA). Still, it's possible to get a taste of these forbidden fruits if you look hard enough. After Hours serves up a triple helping of no-holds-barred roughies with their Grindhouse Hostage collection (and of course, I should probably insert a disclaimer here that these films in no way portray realistic sexual assaults, and such crimes are of course heinous in real life). Probably shot over the course of a day in someone's apartment complex, Virgin Hostage follows three bank robbers as they invade the home of two pretty young things (one played by Flesh Gordon's woefully blank Suzanne Fields), with ringleader Willy ordered the other two guys in a series of listless sexual positions while Willy copes with his own erectile dysfunction. Then two other folks show up and start going at it, and the robbers have a Machiavellian about-face for an utterly random climax. Not too steamy, really, but the strange dialogue and plotting -- not to mention the utterly random on-and-off sex scenes -- make for an amusingly disorienting experience. And the whole cast pretty much stays naked from start to finish, probably to ensure nobody left the theater. A bit more ambitious is Play Only with Me, a bald-faced porn imitation of Play Misty for Me with hard-working Joey Silvera in one of his thousand or so leading roles as a player whose decision to settle down with Desiree West is hampering by a psycho conquest with revenge on her mind. Nobody gets slashed, though; just lots of captivity and demented sexual behavior. If you like a little art with your captivity smut, the obscure Danish import The Blue Balloon should fit the bill. After her husband goes out of a town, Danish sex kitten Lisbeth Olsen winds up getting drugged and raped by a crazy lesbian who turns her into a prostitute by offering her to a succession of tricks. Soon our heroine's out on the streets soliciting her way towards an ending that's at least more upbeat than Sweet Charity. Only this last film is presented in anamorphic widescreen; all are from obviously battered prints, but they're watchable enough. The After Hours logo pops up fleetingly on each, but at least here it's not too distracting.

Of course, no other roughie can dare to hold a candle to the sheer, unbridled brutality of 1971's Forced Entry, one of the darkest and most notorious porn films ever made. Audiences must have reacted in stunned disbelief when this thing unspooled in theaters, and it's been a forbidden underground video fixture ever since. This was the first directorial outing for exhibitionistic director Shaun Costello, who started out performing in loops and soon began filming himself in a string of grim, better-than-average smut films. However, this will always be his best-known and most controversial title. After a gut-churning Vietnam atrocities prologue, Harry Reems (looking unsettlingly deranged without his trademark mustache) appears as unhinged Vietnam vet Tim Holt, now a gas station attendant who's prone to peeping in windows and invading apartments where he attacks women at knifepoint. Reems' hateful speeches in this film really have to be heard to be believed, and the unrelentingly despairing tone of the film puts it in much closer company with Combat Shock or In a Glass Cage than Deep Throat. It's also a terrific snapshot of early '70s New York, with several recognizable locales which still exist to this day. The transfer is taken from the only located film print around, and it looks fine enough presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (don't try matting this off on a widescreen TV; the compositions don't work). The picture quality isn't perfect given the nature of the film's history, but it's a whole lot better than the muddy VHS conversion included in Alpha Blue's Shaun Costello/Avon box set. Also, no After Hours logo anywhere on the print - yay! This marks the first installment in their "Grindhouse Directors" series, so we can only hope more titles come very, very quickly! (How about a special edition of Waterpower?) Extras include a knockout set of liner notes written by Costello himself, charting his entry into the industry and his reasons for making this film (the Vietnam footage was included for "social significance," of course). You also get a trio of ragged-looking loops, all under 10 minutes (with Reems and Costello making separate appearances), plus a newly-created trailers and an additional promo for Joe Sarno's long-lost A Touch of Genie. Incredibly, this extreme title is available at mainstream video retailers like Amazon; times have certainly changed, haven't they?

Okay, if you feel like you need a shower after that, how about little clean, refreshing Euro softcore? Impulse Pictures follows up their smashing release of the first Schoolgirl Report film with its equally compelling follow-up, Schoolgirl Report #2: What Keeps Parents Awake at Night. As the German narrator explains in the opening, "The first Schoolgirl Report told you about masturbation, petting, that is, playful intimate contact, deflowering or losing one's virginity, intercourse and same-sex love. So we had to do further studies and reveal the facts that even young people don't talk about." Well, yeah, obviously. A visiting doctor talks to a classroom of girls about "getting tingly," a nymph photographs her best friend getting it on with an older neighbor, a girl loses her virginity in a barn loft, a stupid blond guy in the woods loses his girlfriend to a passing hunter in a ridiculous hat, 16-year-old Tessie ("now beyond the reach of the Protection of Minors Act") turns into an IV drug user and gets gang banged after going to a local pub, and various ladies on the street talk about their own sexual opinions. It all ends, as such things must, with a courtroom showdown and an attempted hanging. Yes, it's just as awesome as it sounds, and the peppy theme song will stick in your head for weeks. Once again this print is in German only with optional English subtitles, as this is the original longer cut with about 20 minutes of footage (including lots of frontal shots) hacked away from the dubbed American prints. Image quality is fine given the scruffy nature of the film; it's anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) and colors have that slightly washed-out, unnatural early '70s look.

Another Impulse release with a more traditional narrative is Anita, a 1973 vehicle for a very young-looking Christina Lindberg. As with most Swedish films of the period, it's very serious and dramatic with a few skin shots thrown in for maximum export value. It's actually a pretty solid film, sexploitation or not, and Lindberg gives an admirable performance in a difficult role. It doesn't hurt that her co-star is a young, pimply Stellan Skarsgård, years before Lars Von Trier films and Exorcist sequels. Christina plays the title nymphet, whose parental neglect and sexual traumas have turned her into a slut on wheels and a fascinating psychological case study. Naturally, college psychology student Erik takes an interest in her and decides to unblock her sexual pathologies by introducing her to a commune where she might become socially acceptable. Unfortunately her behavior is still seen as a threat, and Erik decides that she must learn to experience true, fulfilling, orgasmic sex to become a more balanced human being. Ain't it the truth? The 16x9 transfer on this no-frills disc (framed at 1.66:1) is taken from a 35mm print and looks a bit the worse for wear, but considering the rarity of the film, it's nice to see in any condition. Don't expect a demo piece by any means, but check i\t out for the quality of the feature. Only the Danish language track is included with optional English subtitles; presumably the scarce American dubbed version has long disappeared.

Then Impulse gets much, much filthier with one of the wackiest porn films in many a moon, Refinements in Love. Basically a mondo project spiced up with hardcore vignettes, this film is credited to busy and always intriguing adult director Carlos Tobalina, who even goes all postmodern by including references to himself and his films as case studies here. The film's narrator, Liz Renay (the late star of Desperate Living), informs us that a new sexual morality has taken hold of the world, a revolutionary freedom which can be found in, well, porn films and San Francisco free love. A number of uncredited adult performers strut their stuff (with phony stories narrated to give them some justification), including Rene Bond (again!), her real-life boyfriend Ric Lutze, Brigitte Maier, Ron Darby, and one of the few hardcore performances from William Howard, best known for a string of Zoltan G. Spencer softies like Danish and Blue and Terror at Orgy Castle. (The mysterious identities of both Tobalina and Spencer have spurred theories that they are one and the same.) It's all utterly random and unpredictable (with the title card popping up halfway into the film!), creating a disorderly but compelling experience. Anyone expecting a normal porn film will be utterly baffled, but if you're up for some delirious tabloid filmmaking with whiplash-inducing sex scenes, this should fit the bill just nicely. The anamorphic (1.78:1) transfer looks great with only some minor print damage, which is surprising given the incredible obscurity of this release.

If you prefer your Euro softcore with a bigger helping of extras, might I direct your attention to the always fine folks at Severin Films who continue to unearth forgotten cable classics in pristine new editions. The best-known title of their softie catalog as of now is certainly 1976's Laure, better known to VHS junkies as Forever Emanuelle, a Philippines-set slice of erotica starring Eurosleaze veteran Annie Belle as the title character, who hooks up with bearded anthropology photojournalist Nicolas (a pre-Zombie Al Cliver, her real-life beau at the time) for a series of escapades around the exotic East as they seek a mysterious, amnesia-prone tribe. They also rotate through a series of other sexual partners before a climactic jungle journey where Laure gets body-painted silver for a final metaphysical orgy. The script was penned by "Emmanuelle Arsan," the author of the famous novel, which was actually a real-life husband and wife team. Emmanuelle appears in the film as well (as the shower-loving "Myrtle!"), while her husband, Louis Jacques Rollet-Andriane, handled writing and directing chores. So technically this is a film from the "real Emmanuelle" in every possible sense. This cut of the film also runs longer than prior American editions, and both of the leads show an unabashed amount of skin in their numerous sex scenes. Technically it's all beautifully shot, but the standout aspect is really the killer score by Franco Micalizzi, which is really screaming out for a CD release. Even if the film itself isn't the most explosive sexploitation title around, the extras make this a must-see all unto themselves. Producer Ovidio Assonitis appears for a terrific interview featurette ("Emmanuelle Revealed") in which he goes into detail about the Emmanuelle identity controversy, the tumultuous making of the film (which originally starred a very uncooperative Linda Lovelace!), and the location shooting, while another featurette, "Laure: A Love Story," features Cliver and a voice-only Belle talking about their relationship and the making of the film, with Belle's sad personal history since the mid-'80s making for some very bittersweet viewing indeed. The 16x9 transfer looks terrific and makes for a welcome upgrade over dreary-looking past editions, and the English dubbing is still a ridiculous mess (a good thing in this case).

As if the exotic Orient weren't hosting enough sexual awakenings already, 1977's Vanessa offers another take on this familiar scenario with Bloody Moon's Olivia Pascal walking through the unclad paces as the title character. This one kicks off with Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" just like Tales from the Crypt, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Obviously imitating the original Emmanuelle, the film follows convent-raised Vanessa as she goes to Hong Kong to claim some inherited property -- only to find that she's responsible for a bunch of brothels. As she comes to accept her new role, she also awakens her inner sexuality with both genders, with plentiful nudity everywhere from beaches to jacuzzis. It's all above-average cable-ready fare, with lots of simulating moaning and groaning, naked lounging in wicker chairs, a loungy vocal theme song, and that ever-present trash cinema veteran, Anton Diffring (Faceless, Circus of Horrors), popping up now and then to lend a bit of pseudo-class. Once again Severin's featurettes are the real stars of the show, kicking off with "High Life in Hong Kong," with director Hubert Frank (a German softcore regular) and cinematographer Franz X. Lederle having a genial on-camera chat for about half an hour about the making of the film and the vagaries of Hong Kong shooting. Also worthwhile is "Vanessa Revealed," a 16-minute chunk of behind-the-scenes footage shot on Super 8, also packing with plenty of skin shots; the theatrical trailer is included as well.

Of course, others can play the Euro softcore game as well. Blue Underground chips in with a gauzy bit of period French erotica, Justine De Sade, another take on the oft-filmed Marquis De Sade story about a virtuous innocent who finds out that only vice and corruption are rewarded out in the real world. Jess Franco regular Alice Arno is probably the most recognizable name here, but director Claude Pierson opts for a far more literary and straight-faced approach that generally sticks to the tone of De Sade's writing. Inevitable comparisons to Franco's Justine (aka Deadly Sanctuary) are inevitable, but this version (which also clocks in at just under two hours) actually ramps up the sexual material and makes for a more satisfying viewing experience unto itself. The plot is basically a perverted Disneyland ride through the awakening of young Therese, who relates her story through flashbacks as she's being hauled off to prison, and the standout sequence is undeniably one in which she falls afoul of a group of monks who molest her on a table. The film is presented in its longer French cut, so while the French language track (with optional English subtitles, or more accurately dubtitles from the English track) is the more preferable, you can also watch the awkward English dub with a few segments switching to French with subs as well. The anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer looks terrific, with pastel-style color schemes and rich detail. Extras include an alternate opening, a clothed version of the monk scene, a saucy French trailer, and an inexplicably horror-slanted English trailer as The Violation of Justine.

Now that we've talked about Jess Franco, how about something he did direct? Blue Underground's Women Behind Bars is bound to surprise folks expecting a typical Franco torture-fest like Barbed Wire Dolls or Ilsa the Wicked Warden; this time his regular muse Lina Romay gets to do something a bit different as Shirley, a voluptuous vixen caught in the middle of a diamond heist which culminates in the shooting of her boyfriend. When she winds up in the slammer, Shirley attracts the attention of various shady parties interested in locating the loot, and she's the only one alive who knows its location. Though Shirley goes through her share of trials behind bars, that's just the beginning as twist upon twist leads to the big double-cross finale. Fast-paced, smartly plotted and sprinkled with just enough skin and violence to please the drive-in crowd, this is actually a good intro to Franco's prison style and holds up better than the soggier 99 Women. Franco's scope framing really doesn't look like anyone else's, and once again his love for jungle settings pays off during the last third. Blue Underground's DVD sports a terrific 16x9 transfer, a decent enough English dub track (with another nicely loungy Daniel H. White score), a subtitled French trailer, and of course, another terrifically entertaining Franco interview in which he talks about his personal fondness for the film, working with Linda during that period, his own onscreen role as a pistol-wielding crook, and its place in his women-in-prison pantheon. Viva Jess!

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