ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (1968)
***/**** Image A- Sound B- Extras B
starring Maria Lease, Sue Akers, Cherie Winters
written and directed by Joe Sarno
**½/**** Image B+ Sound C Extras B+
starring Maria Lease, Marianne Prevost
written and directed by Joe Sarno
by Bryant Frazer Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience--and, often, commercially exploitative gestures--but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it's also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory--the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic--was Sarno's turf. Sarno's arrival on the exploitation circuit came during the 1960s, at a time when sex movies were becoming more bold and explicit but before hardcore pornography destroyed the market for simulated sex on screen. A former World War II airman who learned his trade directing training films for the U.S. Navy, Sarno made a name for himself with films purporting to reveal how suburban New York housewives responded to the sexual revolution. By 1967, he had travelled to Sweden to make the first in a series of titles that influenced the direction of that country's erotic film market. Shortly after his debut on the Swedish scene, he made All the Sins of Sodom, Vibrations, and The Wall of Flesh, which were shot back-to-back in the New York studio of photographer Morris Kaplan, whose generosity earned him a producer credit. The first two of those films are included on the Blu-ray release reviewed herein.
"She's a hypersexual girl with a very expressive face, and she just might be able to give me that look," says All the Sins of Sodom's photographer-protagonist Henning (a distinctly hirsute but uncredited and apparently unknown actor who showed up in multiple Sarno pictures) after his first photo shoot with Leslie (Maria Lease), a Liza Minnelli-esque beauty with dark eyebrows and a mussed pixie cut. "That look" proves to be elusive. Henning, who mentions that his father was a preacher, is obsessed with Biblical ideas of sin and seduction; Leslie is a little too fresh-faced to embody the feminine archetypes he seeks on demand. "More feeling--more evil!" he cries to her at the end of a frustratingly wholesome photo session. Leslie falls in love with him despite these odd preoccupations. Her predicament is that Henning is an omnivorous womanizer who habitually beds his models--she worries that she'll lose him if she can't deliver the performance he yearns for. Complicating matters is the recent arrival of Joyce (Sue Akers), a model Henning lets crash in a corner of his studio as she hustles for jobs. But Henning seems uninterested in Joyce as a subject, allowing her free rein to lurk in the shadowed corners of the place, seducing his models and, as he realizes too late, sabotaging his work as an artist.
I hadn't seen any of Sarno's work prior to sitting down with this disc, but I knew his reputation as one of the more artful filmmakers of the sexploitation era. Some sources refer to him as "the Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street," which sounds like a thoughtless comparison until you watch one of the films. All the Sins of Sodom is unmistakably low-budget, but it does a lot with what little it's got: a single location overlooking the corner of Broadway and 47th Street. Once Sarno sets his story in motion, the evolving relationships are depicted mainly through a series of sex scenes, each staged plainly though generally enacted with some vigour. Pubic hair was still taboo in 1968, so Sarno framed each scene horizontally, depicting the actors mostly from the waist up. What sets the scenes apart is the exceptional cinematography credited to Sarno's brother-in-law, Steve Silverman, working in a chiaroscuro style that obscures background details and focuses attention on the shape and volume of human bodies to intimate effect. The style is partly born out of budgetary imperatives--Sarno referred to shots where the background was completely shrouded in shadow as "limbo shots," thanks to their ability to obscure the fact that multiple scenes were being filmed in the same drab locations--but elevates the skin-flick trappings to a spookier, almost spiritual plane.
Sarno's actors deliver, too, depicting the sex act less as a boisterous carnal triumph than as a grinding of the psychic gears. While the hirsute Henning seems to rub fairly contentedly against any proximate warm body, the women are laden with all the baggage of his lingering daddy issues--shame, guilt, self-abnegation. One of Henning's models (Cherie Winters) is seduced by Joyce and comes back repeatedly for more, humiliation writ large on her face every time. Leslie, meanwhile, is crushed by Henning's insistence that she allow Joyce to feel her up on camera, the only tactic that reliably ensures her face will bear the impure glower he prizes. By film's end, Henning is too self-absorbed to realize that he has depleted Leslie's once-romantic spirit; her psychosexual humiliation is consummated in a harrowing shot that shows her grimacing in darkness, groping hands reaching up from the void like flames lapping at the body of Joan of Arc or demons dragging her down to Hell. I wouldn't describe All the Sins of Sodom as feminist, exactly--it caters almost slavishly to the male gaze, its aesthetic appeal resting largely on the artful visual treatment of a variety of female bodies. But it recognizes and grapples with the idea of the ego-driven male artist who explores and exploits women for creative and commercial benefit. All the Sins of Sodom presents as a dirty movie about manifestations of wicked women, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see its preacher's son protagonist as the more intemperate sinner, blind to his serial corruption of innocents.
Less thematically ambitious, if probably more effective as straight erotica, is Vibrations, a sex-drenched soap opera populated by men and women who make a pastime of controlling one another's sexual appetites. Maria Lease is back as Barbara, an aspiring writer just moved into a new NYC apartment, where she takes paying gigs typing manuscripts for other authors to make ends meet. There's a storeroom next door where a nude girl (Rita Bennett) hangs out, alone or with friends, masturbating with one of those early, industrial-style handheld pleasure devices that gives the film its title; Barbara, already disturbed by the cries and whispers emanating through the walls, has her life turned topsy-turvy by the unannounced arrival of Julie (Marianne Prevost), some kind of old acquaintance who moves in uninvited. Barbara warns Julie not to bring men home, but Julie is more interested in the adjacent closet, which turns out to be a figurative feeding trough for sexually-voracious urbanites who seek nourishment at all hours. ("You can bet they're not playin' Mahjong," cracks the cleaning lady played by Sarno's then-girlfriend/later wife Peggy Steffans, from the hall outside.) And, despite her traditional mores, Barbara can't help but be curious as Julie becomes more and more fixated on the orgiastic goings-on one door down. "What happens in that room?" "It's impossible to describe."
Sarno's storytelling is again well above the norm for this sort of thing. He carefully builds a multi-layered character reveal into the script, first suggesting that Barbara and Julia knew each other from their Midwestern hometown, later establishing that they were lovers, and eventually revealing that the two are sisters. ("You do love me, but not like a sister," Julie hisses at the end of one heated exchange.) And if the actors' line readings can be hesitant and stiff, Sarno's dialogue has a playful, slangy snap that makes up for it. Welcoming horny newcomer Park Walton (the aforementioned hairy actor who played Henning in Sodom) to the sex party, one woman asks, "So you wanna ride the seesaw with us?" When Barbara professes disgust at Julie's sexual exploits, Julie responds, "You're right, I am out of my mind--with satisfaction." And there's a great scene involving a potential paramour--a writer from downstairs named, ahem, Dick Parrish (Dan Machuen), whose failed seduction of Barbara is followed by a scene where the two of them devour enormous bowls of ice cream in lieu of cold showers. It's fun, knowing stuff. Silverman's lighting (this time flying solo, according to Sarno authority Tim Lucas) is on point, too, presenting heavily shadowed action with splashes of light that highlight faces or features in the mode of the European arthouse film. I kid you not when I say that some of his photography of Prevost here reminded me directly of Gianni Di Venanzo's iconic shots of Monica Vitti in Antonioni movies.
At only about 75 minutes in length, Vibrations feels significantly less weighty than Sodom. The farfisa organ soundtrack by Michael Colicchio, credited as Sandy McVane, is incongruously jaunty, and even though vintage NYC photography has some inherent appeal, the repeated inclusion of numerous almost-identical shots of Prevost in her double-breasted trenchcoat ascending the steps to Central Park West is too-obvious filler. The film climaxes with Julia participating in a sexy storeroom-fivesome; the experience inspires her to decamp with Park, a decision that may prove wise or not but at least gets her the hell out of that apartment. Left behind, Barbara appears resigned to her new urban lifestyle: the film closes on her face as she's shackled to some pipes while two female sex-buddies perform untold shenanigans just below the frameline. Earlier in the film, Julie described her emerging conception of pleasure as "exquisite torment," and in these scenes Sarno seems skeptical that the experience offers meaningful return on her spiritual investment. "It's great, isn't it?" the girl with the vibrator demands. Wailing through tears, Julie replies: "It's great it's great it's great."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations are available together on the single-disc second volume of the ongoing Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series from Film Movement Classics and Film Media. (A total of 11 double- and triple-feature releases are planned.) All the Sins of Sodom, especially, is a beaut, featured in an HDTV-friendly 1.77:1 framing sourced from 2K scans of the original 35mm camera negative. (Sodom debuted in HD last year in a now-out-of-print 1.85:1 presentation from Vinegar Syndrome; reviews indicate the picture quality is similar but not identical.) It looks particularly good for a film of this vintage and budgetary provenance, with relatively infrequent appearances of dirt, dust, and other minor imperfections against an image that varies between scenes of subtle, silvery delicacy and bold, almost noirish stylings. Film grain has been nicely resolved and resists artifacting despite a relatively low-bitrate 1080p transfer (~27 Mbps); dynamic range is more than solid, boasting inky blacks, ample shades of grey, and assertive highlights. (Though the whites do clip in a few shots, that may be endemic to the filmed image.) The worst thing in the transfer is a few very brief segments towards the beginning where the picture freezes while the audio plays unimpeded. (Since my set-top Blu-ray player and my PC BD-ROM drive both exhibit the same behaviour, I'm assuming it's a deliberate decision owing to missing or damaged frames rather than a glitch on my end.) It creates an annoying, albeit momentary, distraction.
Vibrations' cinematography is not as aggressively stylized, meaning the overall image isn't as impressive. The 1.77:1, 1080p transfer proper exhibits less grain, which makes it and less distinctive in texture, but the presentation is clean for the most part (some segments are in noticeably rougher shape than others, thanks to some scratches in the source print), with a luscious, velvety smoothness that again belies the film's minimal budget. Don't get me wrong--we're talking here about movies made quickly and on a shoestring, where shots aren't always in focus, so don't expect home-theatre reference material unless your reference is micro-budget NYC filmmaking in the 1960s. Even for the vintage, the lossy DD 2.0 mono sound is somewhat brittle across the two films, the crumpled dynamics affording nothing in the way of subtlety. In a scene set on a beach in the Hamptons, the waves crashing across the sand make a sound more like someone shovelling snow. Once or twice I found myself wishing for subtitles since I couldn't quite make out a word of dialogue.
Supplements consist mainly of audio commentary. All the Sins of Sodom features a friendly conversation, apparently ported over from a 2009 Alternative Cinema DVD, between film historian Michael Bowen and Sarno's widow, Peggy Steffans, who does her best to recall anecdotes and other details about the making of a movie she barely remembers--this despite her appearance in it, wearing a blonde wig and playing the photographer's agent or manager. The two of them chatter amiably for the film's duration about its locations, its cinematography, and especially its performances. "Because he never came on to these women--it was just a professional relationship--they were more than willing to do things for him," Steffans says. An eight-minute HiDef interview with Sarno himself, also originally from that 2009 DVD, offers further insight, such as his descriptions of Silverman's lighting set-ups and his abiding desire to let actors' faces convey story. "If hands go to breasts, I try to slide away from those hands," he says.
Vibrations comes with a commentary twofer. First-up is a brand-new full-length yakker from VIDEO WATCHDOG's Tim Lucas. Lucas is said to be working on a book about Sarno, and it shows. His commentary is a polished, writerly affair that's scene-specific in nature yet full of informative asides and anecdotes drawn from across Sarno's career. Noting a two-shot that Steffans identified as "the classic Sarno shot," Lucas casually offers this doozy: "Relationships are a contest of wills--a struggle with shame, containment and conformity whose ultimate prize is self-knowledge and liberation." Exactly. He also synopsizes The Wall of Flesh, the third film shot in the marathon back-to-back sessions in Morris Kaplan's studio and featuring the returning Maria Lease. Although the 2009 Bowen/Steffans commentary described it as lost, Lucas says here the rights are "tied up with another company." (He's coy about this, but the "other company" is Something Weird Video, whose DVD-R and digital download offering Lucas reviewed last October.) Lucas additionally notes specific errors in both films' IMDb credits and seems to contradict Steffans's commentary by asserting that Sarno's previous DP, Bruce G. Sparks, worked alongside Silverman on Sodom. Credits included in the 16-page booklet reflect many of Lucas's corrections and amendments, while still more can be gleaned from his six-page essay covering the two films in this package.
On a separate "mini-commentary," Paige Davis of Film Media gets her own session with Steffans in which they repeat but also embellish much of the information provided in the Sodom commentary. This interview track is not scene-specific and runs just under 42 minutes. "It was a really wonderful life," Steffans says near the end. "I have no regrets." Recently-minted Film Media trailers for Vibrations and Sarno's broadly comic Deep Throat Part II, alongside a vintage one for his 1973 film Vampire Ecstasy (a.k.a. The Devil's Plaything), round out the disc in HD.