Monday, May 10, 2021

Mirror Images (1992) / Mirror Images II (1993)

Just like 80's action films had guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, horror had icons throughout the ages like Karloff, Lugosi, Robert Englund and the innumerable ladies dubbed “Scream Queens” and westerns were dominated by marquee names like Wayne and Eastwood, the erotic thriller, too, had its share of icons and genre synonymous names. Obviously Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone were the two biggest Hollywood names to be associated with the genre during its 90's heyday, but the direct-to-video erotic thrillers had its own roster of reoccurring players. Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Tonya Roberts, Kathy Shower, Monique Parent, Martin Hewitt and Andrew Stevens, all became very familiar to video store patrons and late night premium cable viewers and are all deserving of their statuses among the few who genuinely appreciate these kinds of movies. Two of the top honors however have to go to Delia Sheppard and Shannon Whirry. Along with being the best at what they did, both Sheppard and Whirry were also tremendous assets to Gregory Dark, the best director in the field, starring in some of Dark's finest films from the period, Whirry in particular being the driving force behind some benchmark films. After a small but memorable role in Dark's Secret Games (1992), Sheppard, a former Penthouse Pet, took center stage in a duel-lead role in the twin sister-themed Mirror Images, its 1993 sequel being another Dark/Whirry showcase.

Worlds removed from some of Sheppard's previous endeavors like Witchcraft II: The Temptress (1989), the first Mirror Images film is Sheppard's finest hour as twin sisters Kaitlin and Shauna. Although well off, Kaitlin is terminally bored, ignored by her husband Jeffery who cares more about his job on the campaign staff for corrupt businessman and wannabe politician Carter Sayles. Shauna by contrast is the archetypal free spirit. When Kaitlin receives an ominous message from Shauna saying she's going away for a while, Kaitlin suspects something isn't right. After snooping around Shauna's apartment, Kaitlin beings to assume her sisters identity and soon finds herself involved in a murderous plot, uncovering more than just Shauna's secrets.

Mirror Images is a case study in Dark's ability to slightly subvert a formula while still checking all the necessary erotic thriller boxes. The potential for the cliché good/bad twin dilemma was certainly there, but Dark turns it on its heels by giving both Kaitlin and Shauna plenty of shades of gray. Kaitlin certainly fits the bill as the archetypal erotic thriller neglected housewife, but there's an added layer of psychological depth to Kaitlin with her appropriating her twin sisters identity in her absence, even playing amateur sleuth while in her twin's guise. The crime plot that eventually develops even finds Dark treading some giallo territory, not rare for erotic thrillers, with some pretty major swerves and reveals. The giallo and even horror influence also rear their heads in some of the films visuals, most notably in the form of a strange mask, Dark injecting the film with a few moments of heroin-induced surreality making the film one of the most visually accomplished of Dark's erotic thriller cycle. Ultimately though, this is Sheppard's show to steal. Not simply just a sex bomb, though she knows it and flaunts it, especially as Shauna, Sheppard balances both Kaitlin and Shauna's personalities with ease. Speaking to Psychotronic Video, Dark claimed “My original intention was for one to be a mean, greedy, angry whore, while the other one was basically normal. But the distribution company felt her being so vicious was a little strong. In Mirror Images 2, I tried again and got closer to that idea.”

By 1993, Shannon Whirry had become Dark's main softcore muse having become the marquee name of Dark's Animal Instinct films, starring in the first two as well as Body of Influence (1993). Like Sheppard in the first film, Whirry really gets to show off in Mirror Images II as twins Carrie and Terrie, separated since their teens after Terrie witnessed their father murdering their mother. Years later, Carrie, though financially well-off, is repressed and unhappily married to Clete (Ghoulies (1985) director Luca Bercovici), a philandering, corrupt cop only in the marriage for the money. Carrie's issues only increase once the resentful and far more libertine-minded Terrie makes a re-appearance along with a plan to ruin her estranged sister.

Dark may have side-stepped the good twin vs. evil twin scenario in the first Mirror Images film but he dives in head-first with Mirror Images II, more-or-less realizing the vision he initially had for the first film. Things are pretty black-and-white from the start, with Terrie established as the obvious villain, and an pretty unrelenting one at that. Over the top some might say, though it was clearly intentional as Dark brings his sardonic sense of humor, usually reserved for his adult films, to Mirror Images II, giving Whirry (as Terrie) lines like “I have an overheated everything” and “I want to fuck on her bed so she smells me on her sheets!” and Bercovici nearly stealing the show from Whirry as Clete, the most diabolical of all erotic thriller husbands. The Ghoulies director is responsible for some of the films more hilarious moments, relishing in his character's horribleness, outdoing even himself while giving play-by-play color commentary of the sisters climactic confrontation while listening over a police radio. Whirry is not to be defeated however, embracing the outrageousness of Terrie and knowing exactly the type of character she's playing, while at the same time making Carrie an actually fully rounded character. Dark of course uses the identity theme to craft some tricky moments, and despite the obvious differences between the sisters, when the situation requires Whirry's subtlety at juggling the two personalities does leave things ambiguous, echoing a similar tactic she and Dark used the same year in Dark's blistering Body of Influence.

Dark singled out the scene of Bercovici giving commentary to the sisters confrontation, telling Psychotronic “Luca Bercovici is just great in that... That was my favorite part of the film. Yeah, I like things like that... extremes in emotion, violence... scenes that leave a very strong image, either sexual or violent, because I think in a sense that's what we do in life: we go though life collecting certain types of images or experiences, and then we relive those experiences over and over again. They become our reality... especially as we get older, then they become a history of ourselves. So I look for the extremes in these matters as often as I can, which has occasionally gotten me into some controversy.” Dark also spoke of getting around having one actress play two characters in one scene, saying “Technically the Mirror Images films weren't that difficult to shoot. I didn't use any split screens to show the twin sisters together. Instead, I just did over-shoulder shots and reverses. It's really all about eye-lines and sizes... Stuff like that. It's easy”. Dark also made quality control look easy in 1993, a being a banner year with Dark helming three of his very best softcore films alongside Mirror Images II, Body of Influence, Sins of the Night and Secret Games 2: The Escort, all essential titles in the genre as are both Mirror Images films.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Secret Games Trilogy (1992-1994)

Along with being two of the most ghettoized genres, despite being successful audience favorites, the erotic thriller and horror genres share a few interesting characteristics. While many actors, directors and writers have used both genres as starting points and quickly moved away from the genre, many found themselves becoming specialists and icons in their fields and became associated with the genre. Although associated more with horror, sequels are another parallel between horror and the erotic thriller. Curiously, it took 14 years for one of the genres biggest titles, Basic Instinct (1992), to get a sequel, and it remains the only studio erotic thriller from the genre's 90's heyday to receive a sequel. The direct-to-video market however thrived on sequels throughout the 90's with many films inadvertently spawning franchises. Adult auteur Gregory Dark was one director who quickly proved himself an erotic thriller specialist, being at the forefront of the DTV erotic thriller explosion with Carnal Crimes (1991) and he would eventually become the master of the DTV sequel as well with Mirror Images (1992) being followed by an excellent 1993 sequel and Animal Instincts (1992) becoming a trilogy. Although a number of the key obsessions that would define Dark's erotic thrillers were established in Carnal Crimes, it was the follow-up, Secret Games, where Dark really found his groove with Secret Games perfecting the “bored housewife” scenario and spawning a trilogy of its own.

Despite living a leisurely life, Julianne Langford as grown increasingly frustrated with her husband Mark (Billy Drago) paying more attention to his cushy job than her. Following the advice of her friend Sandy, Julianne introduces Sandy to Celeste (Delia Sheppard), a madame for high class escorts operating out of a lavish mansion who informs Julianne that she can be anything and anyone she wants to be should she join Sandy and the other girls under Celeste's wing. Reluctant at first, Julianne eventually indulges herself, giving herself the name “Arianna” and soon meets Eric (Martin Hewitt), one of Celeste's biggest spenders. In spite of the Celeste's warnings to never become attached, Julianne becomes smitten, and Eric seems to be as well, returning numerous times to see Julianne, though the fairytale soon turns dark when Eric reveals his possessive nature and his intent to keep Julianne all to himself, preparing to take out anyone who becomes an obstacle.

A seminal film for not just Dark but for the direct-to-video erotic thriller as a whole, Secret Games could be seen as the perfect distillation of everything that placed Dark's erotic thrillers a notch above other films in the genre. Dark may have had all his main ideas in place with Carnal Crimes, but Secret Games is where everything gets smoothed out and a mythology of sorts begins to develop that runs through both the Secret Games sequels as well as several of Dark's future erotic thrillers. For the first Secret Games, Dark takes the influence of one of his favorite films, Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967), and crafts his own signature take on prostitution (which would become the driving force of the future Secret Games sequels), the bored, affluent housewife, voyeurism and out-of-control fantasies, variations of which would soon be at the center of films like Animal Instincts and Mirror Images. Just as Dark's themes are slightly more polished in Secret Games, the same could be said of characterization as well with Martin Hewitt's Eric being the quintessential erotic thriller villain. While future Dark heels like Woody Brown in Secret Games 3 would brilliantly channel rage and frustration and were much more physical, Hewitt is much more understated and slyly sinister. The surreal influence of Buñuel also manifests in the form of religious based dreams and note that the style of such fantasy scenes in Dark's erotic thrillers is more opulent than the abrasive surreal imagery found in Dark's adult films.

When the time came for a Secret Games sequel, Dark carried over the prostitution theme, but the film itself was wildly different from the first, focusing not on a bored housewife but rather a husband, Kyle Lake (Hewitt), an ex-critic turned out-of-work performance artist who's sex life with his professor wife Heather has long lost whatever spark it once had. While Heather goes out of town, Kyle calls an escort service and after meeting high-end call girl Stacey, Kyle quickly begins to fall in love with her, but also begins an affair with Irene, a potential home-buyer interested in buying Kyle's house. Falling harder for Stacey and trying to dissuade Irene's romantic intentions, Kyle documents his thoughts on video, breaking the fourth wall and delivering monologues to the camera, musing on the concepts of love and sex.

The best film of the trilogy and one of the best films from Dark's softcore cycle, Secret Games 2: The Escort stands out from both the other Secret Games films as well as most of Dark's other softcore films in a few ways. The first and most obvious being that it's actually not an erotic thriller, but rather a blistering erotic psychodrama. The second, and more important difference being the film is male-centric. By and large, most of Dark's erotic thrillers earn the “women's picture” tag with the majority of the storylines focusing on a female main character and more often than not in Dark's softcore films, female sexuality is at the center. Secret Games 2 is the complete opposite and it's perhaps because of that that the tone of the film is noticeably more sinister. Dark always had a fairly jaundiced take on romance and sex in both his hardcore and softcore work but even still Secret Games 2 is an angry, bitter film that once again see's Dark presenting marriage in a less-than-ideal light, but Dark has much more to say about the relationship game in general and does so in a fascinatingly experimental manner via Hewitt's home video monologues, foreshadowing Dark's own Shocking Truth (1996-'97) videos somewhat. Dark also brilliantly plays a secret game of his own with the editing, waiting for just the right moment to reveal a timeline swerve, really hammering home just how easily both sexes can confuse sex with love and use each as a weapon.

When Dark turned the series into a trilogy, he returned to the first film for inspiration, essentially telling the same story with some additional tweaks and giving the louse husband a different job, a doctor this time around, Alex Larson, who's demanding job keeps him away from the new home he just bought with his wife Diana (Rochelle Swanson). Growing increasingly fed up with Alex canceling plans and outright neglecting her in general, Diana takes the advice of her new neighbor and accompanies her to the home of Ruthie, a high class madame. Like Julianne in the first film, Diana can't bring herself to go through with it at first, though eventually gives into temptation and soon becomes the favorite of Terrell (Woody Brown), one of Ruthie's highest paying, albeit most mysterious customers. Terrell's affections however soon cross the line as he begins to terrorize Dianna, making her his plaything in a twisted psyschosexual game and posing a threat to those around her.

Despite the plot similarities with the first film, Secret Games 3 is actually a superior film in a few areas. This time around Dark puts the fractured marriage front and center, heightening the drama and tension once the film really kicks into thriller gear. The film also feels much more like a mean thriller than the first film thanks to the physicality of Woody Brown. While Martin Hewiett was brilliant as the villainous Eric in the first Secret Games, his approach was more laid back and low key. Very snakelike. Brown by contrast is brute force. It's not that Brown is all histrionics. Quite the opposite, in fact his calmer moments are some of his most chilling, it's just that his characters for Dark are always holding in years of rage and are always on the verge of exploding with violence. It's the same bottled up aggression Brown brought to his role in Animal Instincts 2, Dark's softcore magnum opus, the same year. Dark also gives Terrell a much more credibly dangerous background and the climax of the film is certainty some of Dark's most outright violent this side of his slasher film See No Evil (2006). Although Dark sets aside the surreal, Buñuel influenced religious based fantasy scenes from the first film, the two bookend bathtub scenes, along with being quintessential additions to any erotic thriller, do leave some things open to interpretation, a rather brilliant move by Dark at the last minute to further set the film apart from the original.

Dark himself was open about the Belle de Jour influence. Speaking to Psychotronic Video in 1997, Dark described the first Secret Games as “Sort of a Belle de Jour, that's what it was based on, more or less. A little surreal, it was sort of a cross between Belle de Jour, Emmanuelle and a Chanel commercial”. Dark again mentioned Buñuel's film in his excellent Rialto Report interview, even mentioning the giant Spanish poster for the film he has hanging in his living room. The first film is also notable in Dark's erotic thriller cycle for being the first Dark softcore film to feature former Penthouse pet Delia Sheppard who would take the lead in Mirror Images, play a critical role in Dark's Night Rhythms (1992) and appear once again in Animal Instincts. In the same Psychotronic piece, Dark opined on Secret Games 2 saying “There's a great deal of menace in that film... I looked at the film about a month ago, and quite honestly, I think it's a lot more interesting than most of the stuff put out by folks doing this shit.” Indeed, and in truth the same could be said of the entire trilogy which is why all three stood out in their day and over 20 years later still stand as an example of how higher a caliber Dark's softcore works were in the grand scheme of 90's erotica.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Carnal Crimes (1991)

If the erotic thriller were to be analyzed through a Gartner Hype Cycle, the genre could currently be seen as experiencing its “Slope of Enlightenment”. Time has revealed the erotic thriller to offer much more than it was ever given credit for during its heyday or “Peak of Inflated Expectations”. Little wonder (Or perhaps it's ironic?) then the genre and its complex depictions of sexuality are finally starting to gain appreciation again when the prevailing attitudes towards the types of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, seen in 90's erotic thrillers seem increasingly illiberal. While legends like Paul Verhoeven and William Friedkin owned the big-budget studio side of the genre with benchmarks like Basic Instinct (1992) and Jade (1995), even more fascinating was the direct-to-video/late night cable area, the undisputed champion of which was Gregory Dark. After revolutionizing adult films with his outrageous and surreal style, Dark, along with producer Walter Gernert, AKA Walter Dark, the second half of the Dark Bros, noticed a niche to be filled in the marketplace for sexually charged, noir-based potboilers a good year before Basic Instinct. The erotic thrillers made by Dark from 1991 to 1996 represent the very best the genre has to offer. The genesis of them all, Carnal Crimes, saw Dark was already confident in the ideas he wanted to explore with his softcore films as he found himself becoming an auteur in a new medium. 

Despite her attorney husband Stanley being an overweight, neglectful louse, Stanley's wife Elise is desperate to bring back some spark in their long defunct love-life, though she fails to turn Stanley's attention away from his work. Something changes in Elise when Stanley introduces her to Renny (Martin Hewitt), a mysterious photographer with a penchant for sadomasochistic imagery at an exhibit of Renny's work. Immediately taken by something in Renny, Elise soon finds herself in Renny's shop and not long after outside his apartment fire escape, beginning an affair that briefly fills the void in Elise's romantic life. The fling quickly takes a turn for the dangerous when Elise becomes aware of Renny's past, suddenly finding herself the central player in a twisted game.

Despite being the first in what would eventually total fourteen erotic thrillers for Dark, very little of Carnal Crimes feels like a first time go-around with virtually all the obsessions Dark would explore in his subsequent softcore films on display. By and large, a lot of the themes in Dark's erotic thrillers are are fairly representative of the direct-to-video erotic thriller as a whole like bored, affluent wives embarking on affairs with potentially dangerous men, voyeurism and sprinkles of sadomasochism. Dark, however, always took each of those ideas and turned them on their heads and even at this early stage, Dark is already finding ways to subvert them. Like most of Dark's erotic thrillers, Carnal Crimes is very much a “women's picture” with the female at the dead center of the story and Dark giving extra attention to psychology, more specifically psychosexuality, with a genuinely surprising late in the game twist that wouldn't feel out of place in a Sergio Martino giallo, making the film, and the way certain characters are perceived, all the more interesting. By his own admission, Dark's erotic thrillers were never “sex positive” and right from the beginning with Carnal Crimes there is a fascination with supposed adults failing to properly handle their desires. The married life also isn't presented in a very warm light in Dark's softcore films from the put upon wife's point of view, something which began here with Carnal Crimes, Dark brilliantly using the twist to reveal even more secrets hidden between Stanley and Elise.

Dark has long credited himself with the explosion of erotic thrillers in the 90's. During a 1997 interview with Psychotronic Video, Dark claimed “I sincerely believe I started it in this country. Zalman Kin is credited with it, but I did Carnal Crimes way before his stuff. I was developing Carnal Crimes in '89, and there were no erotic thrillers in the US at that time. My softcore films are really not so much underground. I mean, Hollywood tries to rip me off in wholesale fashion as often as they can. Carnal Crimes was my first bored housewife feature, where the heroin gets involved with the “wrong” guy”... Dark described leading lady Linda Carroll as “very pretty” and “very strange”, telling Psychotronic “I saw her sitting outside of this casting call, and she was so strange... had this bizarre energy that I can't quite describe. I thought she might be right for this character. But she was quite difficult to work with and proved me wrong”. With the Secret Games (1991-94) and Animal Instincts (1992-96) trilogies plus films like Night Rhythms (1992) and Body of Influence (1993) following in quick succession, Carnal Crimes, being the first of Dark's softcore thrillers, might get overshadowed by Dark's thrillers that followed, but the film is a crucial stepping stone in Dark's career and being his first in the genre, a crucial and frankly, essential erotic thriller.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Psychosexuals (1997) / The Psychosexuals 2 (1998)

Speaking to The Rialto Report in 2017, Gregory Dark was asked if he ever had trouble consistently conjuring up the type of bizarre, surrealistic imagery that defined his adult features. Dark responded in the negative, stating “I never run of ideas of strange images or strange things, it's just ever present with me. Just odd ideas that are not necessarily connected but these ideas just never end in my head.” It's easy to take Dark at his word as not only was he prolific but his ability to subvert the expectations of adult film time and time again was unparalleled, especially during the 90's. With the last Rinse Dream video having been released in 1993 and John Leslie taking the gonzo route from 1995 until his passing in 2010, Dark was a man on an island in the second half of the 90's in terms of unorthodox adult fare. The series of films made by Dark from 1996 to 1998 saw Dark further pushing the limits of adult films, but around the same time Dark's plate was becoming increasingly full, with Dark becoming an in-demand music video director which was soon to become a full-time gig. Dark did however deliver two more mind-warping hardcore videos before bowing out entirely in the form of The Psychosexuals and its sequel, both of which further Dark's 90's experimentation while also feeling like a logical stopping point.

Coming after abstractions like Snake Pit (1996), fourth wall-breaking psychological profiles of adult performers like Shocking Truth (1996) and a grotesque rant like Living on the Edge (1997), The Psychosexuals is a curious work in that Dark takes bits and pieces of his previous few films and reworks them in The Psychosexuals, resulting in a film that, while certainly identifiable as a Gregory Dark film, does things just a bit differently. Dark doesn't seem all that interested in telling a story per say, but the film does have a narrative thread, Dark framing the sex around a Total Recall (1990)-esque scenario surrounding William X, a mysterious business man type testing a virtual reality headset that can project any sexual fantasy as realistically as possible. A rather ingenious way of plotting an adult film, and Dark does bring this idea full circle, having X override the system and become stuck in his fantasy world, though Snake Pit again comes to mind with things becoming obscured rather quickly, Dark's music video experimentation being applied right from the opening credits. Although the virtual reality concept could have provided Dark the chance to be interactive and break the fourth wall yet again, Dark was wise not to repeat himself and indeed the tone of The Psychosexuals, while still being intense as ever with certain moments sure to give a shudder to normie viewers, is noticeably different than the films that came before, the film even containing two of Dark's most random yet hysterically funny bits of dialogue.

The Psychosexuals 2 can lay claim to be Dark's most abstract film. A mighty big statement, not just with the likes of Snake Pit and Shocking Truth in mind but also New Wave Hookers 4 (1995) and The Devil in Miss Jones 5: The Inferno (1995) as well. Unlike the first film, Dark has no time for anything close to a story and while the film might not contain the elaborate production design of his past films, the sheer amount of post-production experimentation with the visuals and editing make the film Dark's most avant-garde and experimental. While not technically “about” anything really, the films focus is the various sexual exploits of a nameless voyeur, Dark repeatedly cutting back to said voyeur in a bondage mask, Dark yet again manages to take the most base formula for an adult video and produce something totally alien. 99.9% of the film is presented in first person, including the sex, Dark showing off his technical trickery even in one of his most threadbare yet oddly stylish in its own way productions, with all the hallucinatory post-production image altering resembling some of the same techniques used by Jess Franco in his later digital films. Like the first film, The Psychosexuals 2 strikes a slightly different tone than the rest of Dark's later 90's self-produced works and sees Dark experimenting even more with the styles he was playing around with in music videos, though the slight discomfort that Dark's adult films have the potential to produce is ever present.    

Along with the heavy music video workload, by 1998 Dark was becoming increasingly frustrated with the adult industry. Although Dark told Psychotronic Video in 1997 that he enjoyed making the films he was doing at the time, Dark was also a longstanding critic of his chosen industry, feeling that too many hardcore directors were content with being boring. Dark is quoted in the Psychotronic piece saying “And as far as straightforward porn... quite frankly, I've never watched anyone's pornography except my own... I just don't know what other people do. I shoot porn according to what I consider professional filmmaking... I try to use odd cutting styles, counterpoints of images, flashing, musical video kind of stuff. See, I don't make porno films just to make money, because I don't make that many porno films. I try to do films I really want to do. And if I stop liking them, then I don't want to do anymore.” That last sentence proved to be prophetic as both Psychosexuals films stand as Dark's last two hardcore titles. Given how late in the game they came, it's unlikely that either will be viewed in the same light as New Wave Hookers (1985), but both films, really all of Dark's adult work from the mid-to-late 90's, showcase a singular talent pushing things as far as he possibly could and really do signify the end of an era.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Living on the Edge (1997)

Speaking to The Railto Report in 2017, Gregory Dark commented on the misleading reputation his adult films have for being sadistic and violent, stating “I think that people, because of the intensity of the scenes and how odd they were and how non-erotic in places they were and how, peculiar so to speak, you would think they were violent but they're much less violent than anything, you know, that I've seen over the last few years. But yet they're stranger than anything I've seen over the last few years.” Indeed, Dark's surrealist sex films always had an unusual intensity to them, quickly gaining a reputation for upping the raunch factor in the sex scenes to the point of being un-erotic, with performers often wearing bizarre costumes and/or animal masks. Dark's total disregard for adult video conventions reached its apex in the 90's with films like Snake Pit (1996) and Shocking Truth (1996) where he began injecting an unnerving psychology to his films, breaking the fourth wall to interview performers before and after sex scenes. Always an incendiary director in one way or another, Dark's later 90's titles have a sinister disposition to them and Dark's film with the biggest attitude problem came in 1997 in the form of the bizarre and spiteful Living on the Edge, where it seems as if Dark's intention was not to arouse viewers, but rather to repulse them.

Opening with a nameless man ranting about what's reality and fantasy to an individual in a donkey costume, Living on the Edge is yet another one of Dark's subversions of the plotless adult video. Not once does Dark attempt to craft a narrative, but just like Shocking Truth, Dark's approach puts the film worlds away from gonzo. If the film has a centerpiece, it's the nameless man who's sole purpose is to berate the performers to their sex scenes, wherein Dark goes out of his way to remove even the slightest trace of eroticism. Just as he did in Shocking Truth, Dark presents the sex devoid of any context or fantasy scenario, though nothing about Dark's imagery is rooted in reality. Although the man in the donkey costume doesn't partake in any of the actual sex, he just wanders in and out of scenes at random like Star Chandler's devil character in the Shocking Truth videos, there is a pretty strong donkey fixation throughout, with several grotesque looking donkey masks being worn at points during the scenes, the nameless man ordering a performer before one such moment to “Dance for the jackass gods!” Despite the rawness of the sex and the overall harsh tone of the film, Living on the Edge never gets quite as grimy as Snake Pit gets in spots but its also not quite as slick and detailed as the first Shocking Truth, Dark once again balances his production value with some of the more unsanitary moments of the film.

Despite being a niche filmmaker in an already fairly niche market, Dark's films had always done good numbers and even got good reviews from AVN, the industry's top trade publication who dubbed Living on the Edge a winner in their brief review of the film, though others at the time felt Dark had finally taken the weird sex a bit too far, some even proving Dark right by misremembering scenes in the film being violent. As strange as it might sound for an adult video reviewer to get offended by anything, the breakdown of the film by the Cyberspace Adult Video Review website come across as just that, with the reviewer puzzled by many of Dark's decisions, even claiming film is too mean to its female performers. Dark himself commented on his reputation, telling Psychotronic Video in 1997 “I suppose you could say I'm somewhat megalomaniacal about my films. I tell the sex stars exactly what to do. I tell the cameraman every move... the performers think I'm heavy-handed. I shoot very, very hard scenes. And I do that to push the envelope of these people's minds." It's worth pointing out that even with all the infamy, some of the biggest adult names of the 80's and 90's worked with Dark numerous times with zero complaints, even Roxanne Hall, who took a break from the industry following Snake Pit, after supposedly being “broken” by her scene, still worked for Dark again in a Melvins video, submerging herself in a bathtub full of worms.

Dark explained his unorthodox approach to adult films in the same Psychotronic piece saying “I just find the whole act of sex to be very peculiar... visually. Even the sounds they make... that's what I try to capitalize on, those moments of oddness... What if the girls were really beautiful and the guys were wearing... duck costumes. How would that be sexy? Or would it be sexy? Maybe if you made it really nasty, that would be sexy? Or would it be nasty and weird? I mean, what exactly would that imply?... There's a lot of things you could do that are kind of disgusting... And what I'm basically trying to do is is explore new directions. How can you discover a new way of finding and exploring of the dark side of sexuality? I mean, this is the kind of question I keep posing to myself... But the films which result aren't always going to be completely erotic because you need to uncover stuff.” Although Dark was nearing the end of his hardcore run, Dark nonetheless continued to find new directions to explore before fully devoting himself to directing music videos. Those accustomed to Dark's warped style of hardcore should find the barbed, albeit noticeably more bitter, tone and deviancy of Living on the Edge to be genuine Dark. Everyone else will be repulsed and possibly genuinely unsettled, much to Dark's delight.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Shocking Truth (1996) / Shocking Truth 2 (1997)

Throughout the 90's when Gregory Dark was pulling double duty in both the hard and softcore worlds, a conscious decision was made to keep the two separate with the “Gregory Dark” moniker reserved strictly for the adult films whereas the erotic thrillers were typically singed with “Gregory Hippolyte” or a variation on said name. Primarily done for marketing purposes, it made sense as Dark's adult films and erotic thrillers are two very different animals, though there are instances where certain parallels can be drawn, the concept of the interview, or interrogation, being a constant obsession of Dark's. Several of Dark's erotic thrillers like Carnal Crimes (1991), Secret Games 2: The Escort (1993) and the Animal Instincts trilogy (1992-1996) all feature their protagonists narrating their tales to an interviewer or breaking the fourth wall and confessing to camera while Body of Influence (1993) approached the confessional angle through a psychoanalytical lens. Dark had previously incorporated interview cutaways in both The Devil in Miss Jones 3 and 4 (1985), though he would bring back the interview in a hardcore context in a big way beginning with Snake Pit (1996), which psychoanalyzed its performers before and after their respective scenes. Dark would once again step into the role of grand interrogator in the Shocking Truth videos, with the interviews coming to the forefront in two of Dark's most challenging and ahead of their time video experiments.

Unlike Snake Pit which, although being one of Dark's most inaccessible and abstract works, did have somewhat of a reoccurring, albeit obscure, thread running through it, with Shocking Truth Dark dispenses with narrative entirely, his focus being squarely on the interviews and sex. Dark's line of questioning is similar to the ones he asked in Snake Pit, the headline question of the former “Do you think you're a slut?” being central to Shocking Truth as well and existential topics like fear and death are broached often. Dark goes even further than he did in Snake Pit however, getting the performers to open up about their families, asking what makes them feel shame and occasionally throwing in a hilariously crass question. Like Snake Pit, Shocking Truth is especially fascinating due to how the performers respond to the questions, some playing it coy and trying to avoid answering honestly while others really got what Dark was attempting and hold nothing back with their answers, getting uncomfortably personal at times. Like Roxanne Hall in Snake Pit, it's Chloe who steals the show in both her interview and subsequent scene and gives the most revealing and worrying response to one of Dark's questions, saying “It's not the darkness outside the scares me, it's the darkness inside that scares me.” Speaking to Psychotronic Video, Dark commented on that particular scene, saying “And her interview is so strange because she's so self-abusive... and she further portrays that self-abusive nature in the sex scene... It was really sort of unpleasant.”

Shocking Truth 2 takes the same approach with a new line of similarly themed questions for a new group of performers and is as equally interesting as the first when it comes to the performer's various responses to Dark's questions. This time around however, Dark opted to shoot the second half of the interviews immediately after the sex scenes have concluded, making the film even more loaded given some of the topics being discussed with many of the interviewees going to some fairly distressing places. While not without style, the production design in second film is dialed back a bit when compared to the first, which had the girls being interviewed on an electric chair, heavy blue lighting at points reminiscent of Dario Argento's Inferno (1980) and a strong voodoo influence with Dark once again dressing up his performers in skeleton and devil costumes. Dark even spliced in footage from voodoo heavy Melvins “Bar-X the Rocking M” video he directed while also taking a visual cue from the album art of Stag, the Melvins album which “Bar-X the Rocking M” appears. The second film does take off where the first one left off in terms of Dark's trademark unorthodox approach to the actual sex which by 1997 had become more intense and deliberately un-erotic, with many scenes veering off into the surreal with performers in animal masks and both films feature adult starlet Star Chandler as a nude Satan-esque character, painted red head-to-toe occasionally wandering into scenes to bark orders at the performers.

Although Dark's videos did consistently good business, Dark speculated on how viewers would react to Shocking Truth, stating in the same Psychotronic piece “But, lets face it, when people rent porno, they want to jerk off, right? Now all of a sudden I'm dealing with a lot of issues, a lot of questions, a lot of commentaries on what we see as sexual and don't see as sexual, and how the starlets relate to what we consider standard morality. And I think this format makes some viewers uncomfortable... When viewers are exposed to questions “What is sin?” or “Where will you go when you die?”, they begin to have thoughts about these things. And I think that's sort of this antithesis of porn in general. But, see, there's such a distinct level of mediocrity in the whole porn market that, in order for me to push the envelope of pornography as it currently exists, I've got to go to these different places.” Dark would continue to go to different places for a few more years before bowing out of hardcore in 1998 to focus on music videos, but his continued ability to find inventive ways of subverting a medium even after what it had become far into the 90's made Dark the last of his kind, with the Shocking Truth films being stand out titles from a period of immense creativity for Dark.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Snake Pit (1996)

Given their radical, surrealist approach to adult films and the fact that both are often labeled as the godfathers of “alt-porn”, the names of Gregory Dark and Stephen Sayadian (Rinse Dream) often seem intrinsically linked. While there are obvious parallels that can be drawn between the two, just like whenever Jess Franco and Jean Rollin or to a lesser extent Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, are held-up alongside each other, the results are the same. Similar in some ways, yet ultimately the styles of both are entirely singular. With that in mind, one undeniable trait that both share is the way in which both, in their own unique ways, managed to subvert what the adult video had become in the 90's when plotless, all-sex gonzo became the industry standard. Sayadian did this brilliantly in both Party Doll a Go-Go! (1991) and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West (1993), pulling the rug out from under unsuspecting video store back room patrons expecting typical adult fare. While his films were always out of the ordinary, Dark's work in the mid to late 90's became even more experimental and confrontational with Dark exposing not only the bodies of his performers but their minds as well, a tactic that began with Snake Pit, a fairly extraordinary and at times distressing piece of video art that delivers exactly what it's cover promises, “the ultimate descent into erotic insanity.

Described at the time of its release as a porn take on Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), it wouldn't be fair to label Snake Pit as 100% plotless, though the film is one of Dark's most abstract, rendering any narrative cohesion obscure from the get-go. Structured around a back alley dice game with toy bones, skeletons and grotesque masks with “Hatman”, as he's billed, being the luckiest player, Dark segues to a sex scene when Hatman dons a new mask. The first thing that stands out about Snake Pit is the grungy, shot-on-video look and feel of the film. Whereas Dark's previous features were notable for their striking and colorful design, Snake Pit is scaled back considerably and as a result feels more prurient and dirty. Being a Dark film, of course the masks from the dice game come into play during the sex scenes and with there being no context to speak of for the actual sex, the addition of the masks makes an already uncomfortably odd film feel slightly more sinister, further subverting the formula of non-narrative sex videos. The film could also be seen as the culmination of the editing techniques Dark had been experimenting with in films like New Wave Hookers 4 (1995) and The Devil in Miss Jones 5: The Inferno (1995) with Dark loading the film with mind altering, almost subliminal cuts that are somewhat reminiscent of the flash cuts utilized by Alain Robbe-Grillet in films like Eden and After (1970) and Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974).

What makes Snake Pit such a fascinating watch however, are the interview or “interrogation” segments that bookend the sex scenes with Dark getting inside the heads of his performers with a series of questions Dark developed along with a psychologist. Just as his films are worlds removed from standard pornography, the kind of penetrating questions Dark asks go far and beyond the realms of cliché casting couch Q&A's. The question of whether or not the girls in the film see themselves as sluts comes up often, along with more existential questions regarding the nature of evil, what scares the performers or do any of them see themselves going to Hell. It's especially interesting to see how each girl differs in their answers, some a bit more coy than others, some confused while some hold nothing back, almost to the point of concern. Kim Kataine, for instance gives one of the most memorable answers claiming that she doesn't fear Hell as she feels like she's already there, but it's Roxanne Hall that outdoes everyone in both her interview and subsequent sex scene. Among other things, Hall states that she believes it's her destiny to burn in Hell and that she fears herself, knowing that one day she's going to take things too far sexually and die with a smile on her face. “...I brought too many fucked up things out of her fucked up head” Dark told Psychotronic Video. “We were just moving her through her psychological landscape and she just overloaded... went crazy.”

Shorty after Snake Pit, Dark made his first foray into music videos, collaborating with the brilliant band the Melvins, directing the video for “Bar-X the Rocking M” off the masterful Stag album. Much of the videos imagery is informed by Snake Pit, including multiple instances of a dancing Hatman, the band playing a similar game with the same bones and skeletons as in Snake Pit and most startlingly, flashes of Roxanne Hall submerged in a bathtub full of worms, extended scenes of Hall featuring in the full uncut version of the video that played in select night clubs. Hall would take an extended break from adult films following Snake Pit, though she didn't think twice about doing the Melvins video with Dark. “...I didn't push her too hard in this video” Dark joked to Psychotronic Video in 1997. Dark said of the Melvins video “I really believe it's the best piece of film I've made in eight years, even though it's the first music video I've done”, though it was soon to become a full-time gig for Dark as the 90's drew to a close. Dark would incorporate flashes of the Melvins video in his follow-up to Snake Pit, Shocking Truth (1996), which would also take the interview concept even further, dispensing with narrative entirety, Dark fully taking on the role of psychoanalyst and pushing the psychological comfort levels of adult video viewers.