Color, 1969, 89m.
Directed by Ottavio Alessi
Starring Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech, Eva Thulin, Maud Belleroche, Ruggero Miti, Maurizio Bonuglia
Camera Obscura (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL)
Originally exposed in American movie theaters as The Seducers with an early X rating, the 1969 sexy potboiler Top Sensation was dismissed at the time among a slew of erotic thrillers but became something of a holy grail for collectors based on one irresistible selling point: it's the sole cinematic teaming of Italian sex sirens Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri, both steaming up the screen thanks to plenty of kinky plot twists and opportunities for exposed skin. About to take the crown as queen of the giallo in a string of films by Sergio Martino, the gorgeous Fenech was still a newcomer at the time, while Neri (future star of Lady Frankenstein and The Devil's Wedding Night) had already racked up a string of credits and even made a trio of Jess Franco films back to back with this one.
Here the twisted mayhem takes a decidedly nautical turn when concerned mother Mudy (author Belleroche in her lone movie appearance) decides to help her simpleton son Tony (Miti) become a man. While most movies would be content to exploit that idea by having mom hire a hooker, this one goes off the deep end right away as Mudy sticks her boy on a yacht along with a perverse married couple, Aldo (The Perfume of the Lady in Black's Bonuglia) and Paula (Neri), and their prostitute plaything, Ulla (Fenech), who has no problem taking time out during shore leave to pose for kinky nudie photos with the local livestock. Double crosses and complications pile up as the characters hop in and out of each other's beds, setting the stage for a grimly ironic finale.
Taking an obvious cue from Roman Polanski's ship-bound Knife in the Water but adding plentiful sleaze, Top Sensation usually gets treated like a giallo in reference books but doesn't really look or feel like one at all. Instead it occupies that strange twilight realm between erotica and art film, featuring characters whose warped psychologies become evident in the way they use each other's bodies. Seen now it's also an obvious precursor to several later Italian films, most obviously Ruggero Deodato's Waves of Lust, but there's no way anyone could top the casting here. Plus it has Edwige doing that photo spread with a goat, which has to be seen to be believed, and composer Sante Maria Romitelli (Hatchet for the Honeymoon) chips in with a fantastic score featuring a very catchy main theme and several groovy pieces of party music. This was also the second and final directorial effort for screenwriter Ottavio Alessi, who adopts a conservative point and shoot aesthetic here that suits the material well enough but doesn't even try to compete with some of the stylish cinematic maestros of the period. After this he went back to strictly writing, turning out a string of '70s credits including the exotic curio Bali, the dual exploitation feat of The Black Decameron, and the excellent, wildly underrated 1978 occult horror film Damned in Venice, which is still screaming out for a decent special edition.
Mostly seen in shoddy dupes taken from rare VHS copies, Top Sensation exists in a multitude of versions indicating the powers that be were trying to aim it at the largest number of markets possible. The state of film censorship was very odd at the time with the recently minted MPAA finding its footing and countries like Italy and the UK trying to figure out how far audiences would be willing to go. (As it turned out in the following decade, the answer was a lot further than anyone could have predicted.) The version known as The Seducers features a particularly sloppy English dub but contains some racier shots of the leading ladies, mainly shots of their derrieres which were shot in alternate covered versions for the Italian market. In Germany, a shorter and drastically different version was released containing newly shot scenes with a couple of completely new characters added to the mix (shades of Kiss of the Vampire), including some graphic frontal nudity that's far more extreme than anything in the original feature. The US version popped up briefly on VHS from Something Weird, but on the whole this film was maddeningly hard to find for three decades.
Continuing its quest to salvage outrageous European cinema curios for a new audience, Camera Obscura presents one of its most lavish Region 2 editions to date with their Top Sensation release, which is spread out to two DVDs this time and represents an astonishing labor of love for a film most thought had been forgotten. The version found on disc one is the standard Italian release version with loads of topless nudity, transferred from the original negative. A disclaimer indicates this isn't up to the label's normal standards, and if one had to guess, this is probably the transfer provided as is based on the fact that it's softer than usual and appears to have undergone some digital scrubbing, including some grungy video noise that looks all too familiar from some past Italian-sourced releases. That said, it's amazing to have a commercial DVD of this title at all, and the presentation easily blows away any version we've had so far by a tremendous margin. (And yes, the 1.33:1 framing is correct.) Audio is presented in English, Italian, or German with optional subs in English or German. On the English track, some footage never dubbed over is presented in German or Italian with subs. As usual, there's also a good-natured audio commentary by Christian Kessler and Marcus Stiglegger, both of whom get a big kick out of the film and explore its strange release history with a particular focus on the bizarre German variant, with plenty of asides about the actors and some possible critical readings of the film's social attitudes. The alternate opening titles and spicier shots from the U.S. version (around 10 minutes' worth) are included as a separate reel sourced from VHS, along with a separate sampler from the German version. There's also a different edit of the ending aired on Italian TV, included here with a broadcast bug in the corner. A photo gallery is included as well along with a half-hour featurette, "Boats and Goats," with actors Neri and Salvatore Puntillo (who plays a pivotal role in the third act) recalling working with Alessi, the transitional state of European filmmaking at the time, media censorship, and the sunny shooting locations including the challenges of filming the majority of a film on a boat. Disc two contains the German version in its entirety (sourced from the only master available, a VHS), with optional English subtitles, as well as a 20-minute video interview with producer Gunter Hendel, who talks about how that particular cut came into existence and the ins and outs of his career behind and in front of the camera. Especially interesting is another bonus, a video presentation of the original fotoromanzo (or photo novel) with optional English subtitles; it runs 39 minutes and offers yet another variation of the film thanks to some alternate photos for some scenes, and in a nifty bonus, it's all accompanied by the film's terrific soundtrack in stereo (presumably sourced from the very rare soundtrack LP with some tracks repeated). Finally the attractively packaged set closes out with a liner notes booklet in English and German by Kai Naumann, who takes the unexpected approach of tackling this film as an apocalyptic character study of the last surviving people on earth. An essential release for any discerning Eurocult enthusiast.
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Reviewed on October 1, 2013.