Good bad film club #3: SexWorld.
To be a fan of exploitation cinema, and by fan I mean the kind of scuzz lord who finds there to be redeeming qualities to some of the most irredeemable films ever committed to celluloid, it's pretty much a requirement to be either extremely forgiving or to have a highly attuned sense of bad taste. Even so, there are still films that even your friendly neighbourhood gorehound is likely to detest, that could never be described as even remotely approaching art, and yet chances are such a title can bought in HMV, sourced online or streamed at your leisure.
Whereas one of the features from the so-called golden age of porn, when storylines, plot, lavish sets and reasonably high production values will either have to be downloaded (illegally) or imported from overseas. With a few notable exceptions, the BBFC denies features "whose primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation" a normal 18 certificate, instead classifying them at R18, meaning they can only be sold in registered sex shops. While you can then buy In the Realm of the Senses, The Idiots, Baise-Moi, 9 Songs or even Caligula easily, as all have been passed at 18 despite either featuring penetration, hardcore scenes or in the case of 9 Songs being one long advert for actual porn, the Devil in Miss Jones or the Opening of Misty Beethoven are verboten. In practice this distinction has been moot since the internet became the biggest sex shop in the world, but it has meant that a UK-based company has never established itself as the number one destination for smut. With such barriers put in the way of distributors, Deep Throat is around the only film from the "porno chic" era to have had even a rudimentary release on DVD in this country.
Yep, in America during the 70s, that strangest of decades, for a short time and even only really in the cities, going to see a porno at the cinema was a thing for people other than the dirty raincoat brigade. No one has any idea how much money Deep Throat made, but suffice to say it was a lot. The Devil in Miss Jones took even more. The Washington Post named its Watergate source after Gerard Damiano's mob-funded picture. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson made jokes about it. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver takes his date to see a porn film. The stage had obviously been set by the skin flicks of the 60s, the rise of exploitation, European mould breakers like Denmark legalising all pornography, mondo pictures and so forth, and yet Deep Throat, a feeble film even by porn standards, for just a moment looked like changing everything. Helen Mirren in her commentary track on Caligula makes clear what seemed possible: the potential that name actors themselves might have to go all the way on camera.
It of course didn't happen, and nor has there really ever been an actor to make the crossover and go on to be a huge star. Marilyn Chambers, Traci Lords, James Deen, Sasha Grey, all have tried to do it and none have properly succeeded. Sure, some porn actors might have come close to being household names, but actually go beyond infamy or sniggering to be an A-lister? No chance, surely.
And yet for an audience enjoying the shock of the new, helped along by the various obscenity cases brought against Deep Throat, the idea clearly wasn't absurd. In truth, a fair number of the performers of the period, Linda Lovelace sadly excepted, were either amateur thesps or had been in theatrical productions. Georgina Spelvin, star of TDiMJ, was a chorus girl, featured on Broadway; Robert Kerman, the guy who does Debbie in Debbie Does Dallas, was a trained actor turned one of the most unlikely fixtures of the late golden age. Frustrated straight actors unable to pay the bills or wanting to be able to get their own theatrical projects off the ground were persuaded to make a quick buck.
By the time SexWorld debuted in 1978, the era had already almost passed. Video, which would do for the by now often squalid grindhouses screening the new releases, was just around the corner, making it far cheaper to shoot and also providing punters with the opportunity to yank it in the comfort of their own home. AIDS was about to cut down a number of directors and actors, the latter of whom often made both gay and straight features. A few producers carried on shooting on film into the late 80s, and even today there are still a few studios that attempt to build a plot around the sex, but any real money remaining either goes to the niche producers or the porn networks, Brazzers, RealityKings, BangBros et al, churning out scene after scene day after day.
All the more reason then for these films from the golden era to be preserved, even if they are never going to be cherished except by a select few. Enter Vinegar Syndrome, a US distribution company taking it upon themselves to finally do full justice to as many of these features as they can get the rights to. After building a head of steam with their Peekarama double-bill DVD releases, they've started releasing their most popular and best titles on Blu-Ray, of which SexWorld is the most notable. Directed by Anthony Spinelli, SexWorld does not by any means make a TDiMJ-style case for porn most definitely being art, but is nonetheless a world away from the plastic rigidity of today's gonzo pornography.
One feature it does share with some of today's output is that it's almost a parody of Westworld and Futureworld. Almost in that it really only shares the idea of a resort where the customers can live out their desires; the sex partners conjured up by the scientists, after our motley gang have detailed their wants and needs to counsellors most certainly do not rebel. The film is though in step with the changing times, as though it could be otherwise; a shy girl who can only get off by donning a blonde wig while phoning up sex lines (yes, really) is paired with a black man, who is the sensitive lover she always needed, while a racist bigot played by porn stalwart John Leslie is seduced and converted by the gorgeous, voluptuous Desiree West. A couple on the brink of separation thanks to the husband's perverted obsessions are brought back together thanks to him being taught by SexWorld how to satisfy his wife, while more prosaically Annette Haven, the most classically beautiful of all the golden era stars, less feasibly tries a man after tiring of her long-term lesbian lover.
Just as important as the sex is the look of the film. While you can't say no expense was spared, especially when the exact same shot of the SexWorld bus travelling along a highway is used twice, the sets most certainly look the part, and naturally there is some very 70s decor: the boudoir of one of our couples features a mural that shouts BEEF. As for the performances beyond the ones in the bedroom, Kay Parker is especially persuasive as the disgusted partner, while Leslie and Haven, usually good value, are on the level here also.
More impressive than the film itself is that it has been released on Blu-Ray at all, looking absolutely stunning, probably better than it ever has other than at its première. You will sadly have to pay through the nose for it, whether by importing, going on eBay, or sourcing it from somewhere like Strange Vice, a reality that will only change if the BBFC is forced to change its policies, but those with a taste for this sort of thing are no doubt used to that by now. Don't expect change to come soon, mind: it wasn't until 28 years after the release of Deep Throat that hardcore was formally legalised in this country.