on January 23, 2013
Love him or hate him, no one makes a film quite like Herschell Gordon Lewis. His unique blend of bad-movie mayhem stands as a simultaneous testament to and complete abnegation of the concept of "auteur theory," the idea that a film is marked by the signature vision of its director. While Lewis' films, even by his own admission, seem perpetually bereft of any "Vision" besides simply "get it on film in as few takes as possible," they are nevertheless undeniably his own - the jittery pans, numbing master-shot-only expository one-takes, and straight-off-the-cue-card "performances" of his thespians all instantly betraying a Lewis film from scene one. Up to now, Lewis fans have been lucky enough to be blessed with the majority of his catalog on home video. In fact, of Lewis' entire filmography, only three films remained missing - "Ecstasies of Women," "Linda & Abilene," and "Black Love." Little was known about these films and they seemed, aside from a few posters or lobby cards, to have vanished without a trace after their original release. Still, fans held out hope that like Lewis' other previously-thought-lost sexploiter, the deliriously titled "Miss Nymphet's Zap-In," a ratty, battered print of any one of these titles might materialize one day and rescue it from oblivion.
Well, here it is 2013, and fans' prayers have finally been answered, as newly-minted cult label Vinegar Syndrome comes roaring out of the gate with all three lost oddities in one convenient package - and straight from the original negatives, no less. For Lewis fans long awaiting these three titles, this stands are more than just a blessing - it's a miracule.
"Ecstasies of Women" kicks off the set, and it's probably the best of the bunch. The film's thuddingly simple plotline hearkens back to Lewis' early nudie-cutie days with producer Dave Friedman, joining soon-to-be-wed Lothario Harry at his stag party in a sleazy strip joint as he prepares for his wedding the next day. As his pals slowly slip into a drunken stupor, Harry keeps flashing back to his various female conquests, and Lewis chronicles them all in exhaustive detail. Much like the early nudies, there's little going on here in the way of plot, though between the strippers and bedroom partners, those looking for a fair share of late-60s pulchritude won't leave dissatisfied. What truly makes this a treat for bad-film lovers, however, are the dialogue scenes, chronicling Harry's flirtations in exhaustively scripted detail:
SEE! Harry and his date chew over shopworn single-entendres about Climax, Arizona and Intercourse, Pennsylvania that had whiskers on them back when they were doing the rounds on the vaudeville circuit.
SHUDDER! as Harry's quarry reads her entire paragraphs-long replies off cue-cards hidden just below frame (shades of Lewis' "Alley Tramp").
GASP! as Harry and his lifelong friends keep forgetting each other's names and have to ad-lib to cover the flubs (no room for re-takes on a Lewis production!).
Yup, "Ecstasies" is a Lewis movie all the way, and fans will definitely not leave disappointed with this one. For a 75-minute movie with basically no plot, it's incredible how well it held my attention.
Things take a remarkably precipitous plunge with "Linda & Abilene," a watery and overlong bore produced to cash in on the late-60s sex-western craze. Linda and her brother Todd have just lost their parents, and suddenly find themselves all alone on the old ranch with no one but each other for company. Over the course of an agonizing hour, the two siblings slowly grow closer before finally crossing the ultimate line. Once they do, there's no turning back, and they spend so much time romping in bed together that they neglect all their chores and the ranch becomes completely overgrown. Finally gaining a modicum of control over his immoral desires, Todd heads into town and meets Abilene, whom he hooks up with while Linda is being violated by a sleazy cowpoke. When the paths of all four finally cross, we can rest assured things won't end too well for the two gentlemen, though as the title suggests, the ladies make out just fine!
The most ambitious sounding film in the set, this one is really hampered by its limitations. The film doesn't even introduce a third character until almost an hour in, and by that point it's been so deadeningly, crushingly dull there's no saving it. This is a classic example of a typical exploitation film gambit - five minutes' worth of story stretched agonizingly to feature length. Regardless, there's absolutely zero reason this nonsense should run 92 minutes. Even 70 would have felt long, but at 92 I felt like I had been watching for as many hours by the time it was over. Some will undoubtedly try to argue the glacially paced mutual seduction of the two siblings as a naturalist or realist approach, and they're welcome to their opinion, but I have to call a spade a spade and say I definitely won't be watching "L&A" again.
"Black Love," probably the rarest film here and the last chronologically, closes out the set. Pretty much nothing was known about this film for years, and Lewis has variously denied, claimed full credit for, and insisted he was "only cinematographer" on the picture over the years. With the discovery of the film, we know that at the very least this last claim is true, as its opening credits betray one of his trademark pseudonyms, "Sheldon Seymour," as cinematographer. The director is credited to one R.L. Smith, who seems to be the film's actual financier (supposedly he owned a number of Chicago Baskin Robins back in the 70s), though exactly who did what on the production remains in doubt. After all, many's the time, particularly on a production this small, that a more experienced crewmember takes on greater duties than he was originally assigned just to get the thing done. Judging by the film presented here, whether he was hired to be director or not, Lewis certainly seems to have had a major hand in its creation.
What hasn't been known about the film for these years is...what exactly is it? Fans long assumed, based on the title, it would probably be a sexy blaxploitation extravaganza, but that turns out to be pretty far from the truth. Surprise of all surprises, it's actually a white-coater (!), a genre of adult picture that flourished right before "Deep Throat" ushered in the porno chic moment for good. White-coaters form an interesting portrait of the time right before adult films became widespread, showing the full monty but attempting to keep it cloaked in a veneer of respectability by posing as documentaries complete with dour-voiced narrators or even medical "experts" appearing on camera. There's no such talking head in this production, probably in the interest of keeping the dialogue limited to narration and eliminating the need for sync sound, but what a jewel is narrator is! The film itself is a ridiculously empty look at the love lives of African-Americans, the entire thesis of which seems to boil down to: did you know black people like having sex too? It's true! And Lewis is there to chronicle it in all its glory, from meet-ups in clubs (including a bizarro nude-dancing sequence included to show the audience "the range of body types" embodied by the African-Americans male and female) to the final she-bang as couples head back home together. That's really all there is to it, though the overly florid narration (haltingly delivered in what are no doubt single-take readings) goes into overdrive trying to legitimize it. I suggest putting it on with a few friends and taking a drink every time the narrator shoehorns the phrase "black love" into the narration - you'll be soused well before the halfway point, which can only help.
Regardless of the quality of the films themselves (honestly, any self-respecting Lewis fan should have known what to expect, right?), the work Vinegar Syndrome has put into this set is beyond reproach. The fidelity on this dual-layer BD-50 is rock-solid, and in the case of "Black Love," you'll probably be seeing far, far more detail than you might ever have wanted to! "Ecstasies" may be the most eye-popping feature in the set, with the details in Harry's sleazy house-boat love nest appearing so razor sharp it feels like you can reach out and touch them. It should be noted the VS has wisely omitted applying any sort of noise reduction or other digital manipulation, resulting in transfers that are vivid and film-like and accounting for the staggering preponderance of fine detail. To anyone who spouts off nonsense about an old film "not being able" to look great on blu-ray, I offer up this set in refutation. For three films previously thought to have vanished from the face of the earth, the fact that we have them now, in these stunning HD transfers, is nothing short of a miracle.
Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer for each film (the first two appearing negative-sourced, "Black Love" looking like it came from an edit copy based on the frequent splices and marking on the film), but considering the rarity of the material and the fact that Lewis himself probably is loathe to discuss it (certainly "Black Love," now that it's back from the dead), that's easily forgiven. Honestly, while you won't be giving any of these pictures a spin with the frequency of your Gore Trilogy disk, for dedicated Lewis fans (and you know who you are), the immaculate transfers of these newly rediscovered films alone make this set a must-by. And considering that even at full retail you're barely paying more than $8 a title, it seems a no-brainer. Grab this set while you can, before the Lost Films of HG Lewis disappear for another 40 years!
on February 13, 2013
Just released from the brand new purveyors of exploitation, Vinegar Syndrome is a rare treat from the Godfather of Gore (and smut apparently), Herschell Gordon Lewis. The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis features three of the master's long lost sexploitation flicks: Ecstacies of Women, Linda and Abilene and Black Love.
Ecstacies of Women begins with four swingin' guys at a nudie bar, one of which is the poster boy for ADHD as he continually zones out and has wild fantasies of bringing different women he meets back to his house boat. Yup, he lives on a house boat. Will this space case and his friends actually score with some real women?
Linda and Abilene is the story of a brother and sister in the old west who live in a cabin in the woods. They become attracted to each other and begin a creepy love affair. The brother, Tod, however begins to get frustrated at his sister, Abilene, and goes off into town, where he meets a local girl named Linda. While they are getting it on, a stranger appears at the cabin and torments Abilene.
Black Love is a white coater (sex film disguised as an educational film) featuring the "love making habits" of African Americans in the 70's. I don't know how else to summarize this film without sounding completely racist, so I won't.
Vinegar Syndrome are off to a great start with their premier title. Not only are we provided with 3 lost gems from the golden age of sexploitation, but the presentation is amazing. The prints are from the original camera negatives and look incredible. The set comes as a Blu Ray/DVD combo and features trailers for each film. Also included is a very informative booklet explaining the back story of these three films. As a nice addition, we are also given reproductions of the original lab cards. As far as the films themselves go, they were exactly what I was hoping for. Amateurish, silly, fun and sexy. Linda and Abilene is the "best" of the bunch but Ecstacies of Women was a blast too. Black Love, with its dated stereotyping and borderline racism, is quite an oddball but if you take it with a grain of salt, it's a hoot. Black Love featured real hardcore sex while the others were strictly softcore. To end this review, I just want to say Bravo Vinegar Syndrome. Can't wait for their upcoming titles!
on October 28, 2013
Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome's painstaking attention to detail, the negative transfers of each of these heretofore unseen films is amazingly clear and crisp, much better than any previous release of a Herschell Gordon Lewis film. While these might not be anyone's first choice for the three in HGL's body of work to receive such treatment, the astounding quality nonetheless makes for a nice cherry on top of this long-abandoned pipe dream of mine.
As for the films themselves, I can't help but compare them as I watch to my longstanding presumptions pieced together from spartan available artifacts. I naively thought "Ecstasies of Women" would be a little more somber and straight-faced than what it turned out to be; but then, the movie was never really sold on the merits of it's comic stylings. That it was made in tandem with "Miss Nymphet's Zap-In" makes a great deal more sense upon viewing. It still, though, has some terrific period exterior shots of cheapo SoCal haunts and a killer bossa-sleaze soundtrack. "Linda and Abilene", on the other hand, is about exactly what anyone might have guessed. Nudie-lesbian-incest western. Yup.
The enigma of the three, of course, is "Black Love". Lewis disavowed all involvement, no synopsis was available, and all the posters clarified was that "Everything you can imagine is in this picture". Well, I have a pretty vivid imagination. But nothing I had, in fact, imagined, was in the picture (say, plotlines, for example). Instead, a string of vignettes outlining variants on the supposed mating practices of African Americans, narrated loosely by a disembodied voice standing in for the usual lab-coat-wearing "medical professional" typical of other movies of this strain. Sort of a hardcore Mondo with a pleasant funk soundtrack.