Monday, August 2, 2021

Mozart is a Murderer (2002)

Given the changing tides in the Italian film industry as the 80's evolved, it was an inevitably that Sergio Martino would begin working in television. With the obvious exception of Dario Argento and Ruggero Deodato who managed stayed in the theatrical game until 1993, more or less all the Italian genre masters that ruled the 70's and early 80's would find themselves at the helm of movies lensed for Italian TV as the 80's closed. Martino's later career is interesting compared to his contemporaneous in that he too took to directing made-for-TV movies in the mid-80's while also bringing in the 90's with memorable fare like American Tiger (1990) and the outstanding erotic thriller Craving Desire (1993). By and large, Martino's early TV-films were comedies, though when he found himself working almost exclusively in TV in the 90's he reunited with Edwige Fenech, the iconic face of his immortal giallos The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) for the mini-series Private Crimes (1993), co-produced by Fenech, which found Martino sitting comfortably back in thriller territory. Martino would tread familiar ground again after the turning of the millennium with Mozart is a Murderer, a modest TV giallo that would never challenge Martino's 70's work but nevertheless is the work of an master craftsman.

Following a botched recital, Professor Baraldi, the hardened maestro of a prestigious Italian conservatory, threatens to withhold all the performers from graduating. Later that night, Chiara, a student and musician in the group is brutally murdered outside her apartment. Along with a bottle of pills, Antonio Maccari, the detective assigned to the case notices a kind of cross carved into Chiara's body, a symbol he quickly becomes familiar with as more from Chiara's group of friends begin turning up dead marked with the cross. The deeper Maccari digs into the case, the more he finds himself in danger as the killer begins taunting him, and by proxy Dr. Marta Melli, Maccari's girlfriend and a psychologist who's patients was among Chiari'a friends, dredging up tragic memories of his late wife's death at the hands of a serial killer potentially compromising his investigation .

Due to its modest TV origins and restrictions, it wouldn't be right to claim that Martino was showing off with Mozart is a Murder (Mozart è un assassino) though the scripting and direction are so seamlessly controlled and executed there are several moments where it seems as if Martino was making a point that even when working in a limited television capacity he could still hit all the right giallo notes. The film operates very much like a 70's giallo and despite consisting of various elements that many familiar with the genre will immediately pick upon, the film is again in the hands of an assured master with Martino maneuvering the mystery in various ways up until the final swerve ensuring that, despite the familiarities the film stands on its own merits, never coming across as “giallo-by-numbers”, in other words. The red herrings, though fairly obviously are like everything else handled especially well as is the way Martino makes more out of the conservatory setting, a fantastic giallo setting, by weaving classical music into the murder mystery. Also kept effective is the lead cop getting too close to the case to his superiors liking, the drama around Maccari and Dr. Melli never seems contrived with Martino using it to great advantage late in the film. Despite being made-for-TV, Martino approaches some pretty dicey subject matter as it relates to Professor Baraldi and his younger students as well as a bizarre yet brazen pregnancy-related reveal near the end of the film involving the murderer.

The film clearly looks like a late 90's made-for-TV production but here is yet another area where it seems as if Martino is breezing right past any budgetary hindrances, delivering a final product that was undoubtedly the slickest and most professional looking thing to have aired on Italian TV the night of its premiere. The film might also lack the major presences of a Fenech or George Hilton but Martino was blessed with a fine band of players, Eleonora Parlante and Azzurra Antonacci especially who carry the majority of the film's expertly blueprinted climax. Same goes for Augusto Fornari Daniela Scarlatti as Maccari and Melli with Martino given their relationship a fairly emotional arc. The film also served as an arc of sorts to Martino's giallo career, being the film film he made in the genre, though he continued working in TV, including directing several episodes of the police thriller/comedy series Carabinieri before essentially retiring after 2012. For being the film in a genre from one best to ever do it, Mozart is a Murderer should be considered an adequate coda taking into consideration its TV circumstances. For however many who can't see past the missing 70's giallo flashiness, hopefully there's an equal amount of giallo fans with more than a passing, surface level interest in the genre willing to dive deep and appreciate Mozart is a Murderer and Martino's modest chamber symphony.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Devil and Father Amorth (2018)

In 2018 Slant Magazine published a piece on William Friedkin christening the filmmaker the “Auteur of Existential Dread”. A fitting moniker, seeing as Friedkin has openly discussed being fascinated with the balancing act he and fellow humans perform behaving for society versus the impulse to fully lose control. This almost sociological interest of Friedkin's was apparent from his entry into the film industry, the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) which centered on a death row inmate staring down his own fate. “The thin line between criminal and cop”, as Friedkin calls it, is at the core of films like The French Connection (1971), Cruising (1980), To Live and Die in LA (1985) and Killer Joe (2012) whereas films like Sorcerer (1977), Rampage (1987) and Bug (2006) all feature characters staring into some form of void or succumbing to the madness. The Exorcist (1973) is clearly the most obvious example of the tug-of-war between the light and the darkness that is at the core of so many of Fredkin's films, but it's also a curious film in that Friedkin had never explored that eternal, internal battle in such a literal (or spiritual) way before. It wasn't until The Devil and Father Amorth in 2018 when, stemming from a Vanity Fair article Friedkin had written two years prior, Friedkin returned to the topic of exorcism and the documentary format where his career began.

Until his death in 2016, Father Gabriele Amorth was the Vatican's “Exorcist-in-Chief”, said to have performed the right an innumerable amount of times. Introducing the documentary with the backstory that led to William Peter Blatty writing The Exorcist, Friedkin begins Father Amorth's story, his journey to performing exorcisms and his granting Friedkin permission to film his handiwork. More than a one-note work however, Friedkin presents the footage to and interviews a host of theologians, priests, doctors and psychologists that, along the journey with Friedkin himself, attempt to contextualize the strange phenomena of possession and exorcism.

In a lot of ways, The Devil and Father Amorth is reminiscent of another documentary from a controversial filmmaker focused on the esoteric, Richard Stanley's The Otherworld (2013), in that there's bound to be a large segment of the audience going in with a healthy amount of skepticism. Regardless of religious beliefs, pre-concieved notions of concepts like “God” or “Satan” or “good” and “evil”, The Devil and Father Amorth poses a litany of fascinating and potentially unsettling existential questions that throughout the course of the documentary that various persons of faith, science and medicine ponder and like in Friedkin's fictional narratives, there is a lack of concrete, black and white answers. The exorcism performed by Father Amorth is actually fairly typical of how such acts have been reenacted in various media. Nothing that comes anywhere close to Friedkin's immortal 1973 film, but some of the more common possession symptoms are displayed by “Cristina”, the unfortunate woman feared to be under possession. As noted in the film, the exorcism filmed by Friedkin was actually her ninth go-around with Father Amorth, and later in the documentary Friedkin recounts with great dramatic fervor an incident, not caught on film, an incident in an old village church that put the fear of God and Satan and him. Again, like everything else in the film, the story is open to interpretation but it's another engaging moment in a documentary that, while bound to be dismissed by many, is serious about its subject, Friedkin's connection to it being obvious.

Born and raised Jewish, Friedkin has spent most of his life as an agnostic, though has long stated that he views the New Testament teachings of Jesus as a utilitarian means of going through life, though as seen in the documentary, even among the most faithful there seems to be various personal “levels” of faith. One of the more telling moments in the film comes when Friedkin is taken aback by an admittedly surprising remark from Robert Barron, an Archbishop in Los Angeles, who admits that he would not be able to perform the same tasks as Father Amorth as his faith is not at the same levels as Father Amorth's to confront legitimate evils. Nietzsche's famous abyss quote is also brought to mind by writer Jeffery Burton Russell who warns Friedkin that devoting too much time to researching evil can have a profound and depressing effect on the psyche. As for the skeptics, Friedkin told The Guardian “I’m not interested in convincing you, or anyone else... This is what I saw, and the only way to deal with that conclusion was in this way, getting closure through this film. You’ll have to work that out for yourself.” Ironic that Friedkin would use to word “closure” as many will no doubt walk away from The Devil and Father Amorth without any, though ultimately it's that existential open-endedness that gives Friedkin's work its power.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Object of Obsession (1994)

Of all the parallels that can be drawn between the horror and erotic thriller genres, perhaps the most trite but also one of the more curious are the longstanding accusations of misogyny hurled at both genres. Curious in the sense that a lot of the criticisms tend to be contradictory and confused,  particularly as it relates to how women are written and portrayed, especially when it comes to erotic thrillers. The typical byline is that the women in films from both genres are perpetually victimized male fantasies, in effect denying the the characters the agency the screenplays give them. Direct-to-video erotica of the 90's was particularly fertile ground for subversive, female focused narratives, best exemplified by the series of softcore films made by hardcore pioneer Gregory Dark from 1991 to 1996. With a few exceptions, the classic erotic thriller or noir idea of the “femme fatalle” is a rare thing in Dark's erotic thrillers. Dark's fatales tended to be of the homme variety with his narratives beginning in Carnal Crimes (1991) and continuing in films like Secret Games (1992) and Animal Instincts 2 (1994) focusing on female fantasies turned dangerous. Made near the end of Dark's softcore cycle, Object of Obsession saw Dark once again taking a quintessential erotic thriller scenario's, the woman-in-peril, and flipping the script of the fantasy gone wrong, telling the story from the titular female object of obsession's perspective.

During one of her many nights in alone, Margaret (Erika Anderson), a single divorcee stuck in a romantic and professional rut, receives a phone call by mistake. Thinking nothing of it, the following night she receives another call from the same caller, a mysterious, smooth talking male voice calling himself “Blaze”. In her loneliness, Margaret begins to look forward to Blaze's calls and when Blaze proposes they finally meet, Margaret agrees. After proclaiming he should have “saved” Margaret sooner, Blaze (Scott Valentine) takes Margaret to his apartment. Finally excited by the prospect of something new, Margaret's hopes are swiftly deflated once Blaze leaves and Margaret finds herself trapped inside his large apartment, merely a plaything for “Blaze”.

Although being one of Dark's most explicitly female-centric erotic thrillers, Object of Obsession ironically shares a key quality with one of Dark's rare male-driven narratives, Night Rhythms (1992). Like that film, the more urban-based setting of Object of Obsession gives the film a noticeably different look than the more affluent suburbia set softcore, though the film is still very much a product of 90's erotica and story wise it is somewhat familiar territory for a Dark softcore feature. Once again he's zeroing in on desperate mindsets that lead to fantasies going haywire, though he'd never subverted the erotic thriller formula quite like this before. While not a limited set film in the classic sense like Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) or Rope (1948), naturally a good amount of the film is set inside Blaze's curiously decorated, very modern (by 90's standards), industrial-esque apartment where Erika Anderson literally becomes the films main focus being the only person on screen. Margaret's time alone leads to Dark taking the film into some truly unexpected territory, really turning the material on its head late in the film, particularly as is relates to the villain and voyeurism, a Dark constant, playing a major role. Compared to Woody Brown's obsessive psycho's in Animal Instincts 2 (1994) or Secret Games 3 (1994), Scott Valentine's Blaze, who looks a lot like adult star Peter North whom Dark worked with in the hardcore realm, is more measured and collected, and indeed Dark has noted the influence of The Collector (1965) on Object of Obsession.

Dark found himself at somewhat of a crossroads as the 90's drew to a close. Having begun to work in music videos in 1996 beginning with the video for the Melvins' “Bar-X the Rocking M” as well as continuing to make hardcore more visually and psychologically interesting with Snake Pit (1996) and Shocking Truth (1996), he began to tire of the limitations placed on erotic thrillers. Dark told Psychotronic Video in 1997 “Actually I like doing stuff like Snake Pit and Shocking Truth... And I like doing stuff in music video, like with the Melvins, more than I do those erotic thrillers. I mean, a lot of that erotic thriller shit is just like network TV, it's the worst, most unimaginative stuff you could come up with.” By 1997, the erotic thriller well was beginning to run dry and by then Dark was out of the softcore game entirely, though Animal Instincts: The Seductress (1996), Dark's softcore swansong, was a markedly different approach to the genre. While nowhere near as avant-garde as The Seductress, in a lot of ways Object of Obsession plays like attempt by Dark to break out of the mold of his previous erotic thrillers somewhat with an interesting central setting and a pretty radical turn of the tables story wise, Dark proving once again that the truly progressive films and filmmakers often reside in the most maligned of genres.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Body of Influence (1993)

Speaking to The Rialio Report in 2017, Gregory Dark spoke of the downbeat nature of his erotic thrillers telling host Ashley West “None of my noir, sort of erotic thrillers have happy endings per say. They're always kind of twisted in their own right. When they wanted me to make them like sex-positive kind of fun, sexual romps I stopped making them... I wouldn't make them for Playboy... I'm not interested in making movies like that. My erotic thrillers were, people were kind of very tortured with each other and themselves and trying to figure stuff out and nothing was really that happy.” Indeed, while Dark always knew the market he was working in, whether it be hardcore or softcore and delivered the requirements of both, his films always had a dark undercurrent that presented a jaundiced and cynical view on relationships and the failure to come to grips with compulsion. Dark's films were always more psychological than any of his contemporaries (Dark himself even has a Ph.D in psychology), getting up-close-and-personal into the home, work and love lives of his protagonists and antagonists. The crime subplots of many of Dark's thrillers leave plenty of room for the psychological evaluation of his characters and the profession came to the fore in Body of Influence, one of the most pessimistic of the lot and what has to be the finest showing from Shannon Whirry.

While assisting his detective friend map out a psychological profile of a serial killer, Jonathan Brooks (Nick Cassavetes), a successful psychologist set to be married meets a new patient, Laura (Shannon Whirry), an amnesiac with a lifetimes worth of sexual repression claiming to suffer reoccurring violent, sexual nightmares. Entering his office one day, he finds Laura, though her demeanor has changed from that of frigid repression to liberated exhibitionism, propositioning Johnathan and claiming her name is Lana. A clear case of split personality, Jonathan's attempts to cure Laura prove futile as the seductive Lana finally breaks Johnathan's moral code, ending his engagement and leading him down a professionally unethical and potentially deadly path.

Opening with a voice-over montage of Johnathan's patients spilling their sexual neurosis, mostly as it relates to men, Dark lets his intentions known from the outset. With Body of Influence, Dark does a bit of a swerve by hinting at one of his rare male-centric narratives ala Night Rhythms (1992) or Secret Games 2 (1993) by having the set-up of the film revolve around Johnathan, though as soon as Laura/Lana enter the picture, the force of nature that is Shannon Whirry takes over, wrapping everyone around her finger. Whirry is truly exceptional here. Much like she does in Mirror Images II (1993), Whirry not only effortlessly balances two drastically different personalty types but excels at playing both, particularly the immoral Lana. Nick Cassavetes (son of John) makes for a pretty interesting foil for Whirry with his classic 40's Hollywood look (and hair). Very noir, slightly gangster with a barely contained sinister urge, which makes his casting as a psychologist curious yet also perfect considering some of the paths taken by the film, Dark once again reflecting the general adult populations inability to deal with its own sexual hang-up's, even those who supposedly understand them. Dark also fuses psychology with the voyeurism found in all of his erotic thrillers by having Johnathan videotape his sessions with his patients, which spectacularly backfires on him in a wonderfully tense but awkwardly hilarious moment. Grim as the film might seem, it is incredibly gleeful in its perversity, Cassavetes going all in once under Whirry's body of influence.

Although she continued to appear in direct-to-video films, 1993 was the final year Whirry worked with Dark, who took credit for putting Whirry on the map. Dark told Psychotronic Video in 1997 “I pretty much discovered Shannon Whirry. It was during a casting call where she just walked into the office. She'd done a couple of scenes in Out for Justice where she played a waitress, and they were really pretty good scenes.” He would go on to lament her career choices as the 90's progressed saying “Unfortunately, Shannon Whirry's management has decided that this is not the image she should be promoting... Now she doesn't do any more nudity.” Casavetes, who already had a few erotic thrillers to his name before Body of Influence, also left the genre after working with Dark again in Sins of the Night (1993), following in his fathers footsteps and becoming a director in 1996. His most high-profile title is, of all things, the favorite of high school girls everywhere, The Notebook (2004). About as far removed from the likes of Body of Influence and Sins of the Night as possible, though ironically the same could be said of Dark's later music videos for the likes of Britney Spears and Mandy Moore. Nevertheless, Body of Influence stands alongside Animal Instincts 2 as the peak of Dark's erotic thrillers and a perfectly perverse antidote to impotent modern sensibilities.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Animal Instincts Trilogy (1992-1996)

Like a lot of genres, the erotic thriller had its own grab bag of things that no film of its type could do without, be it ethically questionable cops, dangerous women, bored housewives or deadbeat, philandering husbands, but if there's one thing that no erotic thriller can go without it's voyeurism. It's perhaps the most common thread that runs throughout both the studio erotic thrillers and the direct-to-video titles when the genre was at its peak and the favorite theme of Gregory Dark, the master of the medium. Throughout every one of Dark's softcore films, various forms of voyeurism can be found, be they photographic like in Dark's very first erotic thriller Carnal Crimes (1991), through videotape like in Secret Games (1992), it's blistering 1993 sequel The Escort, Body of Influence (1993) and Object of Obsession (1994) and various other means. If it's a Dark film, someone, somewhere is being watched. Perhaps they know. Perhaps they orchestrated it. “All you have to do is watch” claimed the video cover of 1992's Animal Instincts, the first in what would become Dark's greatest trilogy, the pinnacle of Dark's work in the genre contained within the three films, the first two being showcases for Dark's best muse, Shannon Whirry and the third having the distinction of closing out the erotic thriller chapter in Dark's career as well as being the most avant-garde of Dark's softcore films.

The first Animal Instincts film was not only Shannon Whirry's first film with Dark but it was her first erotic thriller, taking center stage as Joanna Cole who's marriage has lost it's romantic spark after her husband's job as a police officer consumes all his time and energy. Coming home early one afternoon, David catches Joanna in bed with the TV repairman, though his reaction is not one of anger, but of lust. Upon the realization of David's voyeuristic tendencies, their marriage is reinvigorated with Joanna entertaining a guest each evening while David watches via video feed in a nearby room. Their operation soon takes a turn for the dangerous when a rough client turns out to be the henchman for Lamberti (David Carradine), the gangster owner of a local strip club with a score to settle with David which threatens to expose everybody involved.

A great irony regarding Animal Instincts is that despite being a benchmark title for direct-to-video erotic thrillers, technically speaking the film doesn't become a “thriller” until the final third, Dark instead focusing on Joanna and David's marriage and the added dynamic of voyeurism and here too Animal Instincts differs from a lot of Dark's other erotic thrillers. Dark's portrayal of Joanna and David not simply coming to terms with David's kink, but embracing it, is actually rather healthy and positive, the nature of the relationship summed up nicely near the end of the film by the great John Saxon. This is of course in sharp contrast to the majority of Dark's other erotic thrillers where the failure to properly handle desire usually ends badly. Naturally, Dark couldn't help himself and throws a wrench into David and Joanna's newfound happiness, thus taking the film down a more conventional thriller route. DTV legend Jan-Michael Vincent is even in on the action as a corrupt politician. The crime subplot is fairly typical of the genre but in Dark's hands the sense of danger is heightened due to the consistently sustained drama and strong characterization. Animal Instincts is also a rare instance of Dark having a soured marriage turn back around somewhat. The voyeurism that springboards the story may be David's but this is Whirry's film and it's Joanna's story to tell, Whirry essentially narrating the events in Dark's favorite confessional, interview style which Dark would use as a framing device for the second and third films.

Whirry, who by 1994 had become Dark's main softcore muse, returned as a different iteration of Joanna Cole in Animal Instincts 2. This Joanna is a recent divorcee who in an attempt to start anew buys an expensive house in fairly well-off suburban residential area. Joanna instantly catches the eye her neighbor Steve (Woody Brown), a security contractor with a habit of installing hidden cameras in his client's bedrooms. He sneaks a camera in Joanna's air vent, though a hasty job results in Joanna discovering it. Much to Steve's surprise, Joanna makes herself known to him through the camera and begins putting on nightly shows, bringing home various men while Steve watches from his garage. When a guest gets rough, Steve rushes over in Joanna's defense. The dynamic is forever altered and Joanna, who soon enters into a relationship with her photographer boss Eric, tells Steve it's over. Already on edge and dissatisfied with his marriage, Steve becomes obsessive and begins to pose a threat to Joanna and anyone around her.

One of the best films in Dark's entire oeuvre, there's a strong case to be made for Animal Instincts 2 being the pinnacle of direct-to-video erotic thrillers. Dark was always head-and-shoulders above the competition but Animal Instincts 2 feels like the perfect realization of all the ideas that dominated his softcore work. Like the first film, there's somewhat of an irony to that because, one, it's a sequel, but also Dark is once again playing around with convention, making Whirry a single divorcee and giving the put upon housewife role to the antagonists wife. Unlike the first film however, Animal Instincts 2 is a full-on thriller, bordering on psycho horror at points thanks to the brilliantly threatening Brown, one of the genres finest heavy's, outdoing his own similar on-the-verge of boiling over performance for Dark the same year in Secret Games 3, essentially a two versions of the same type of character. Dark is also back in his usual state of mind on the subject of marriage, giving Brown some memorably acidic dialogue in a spiteful monologue on the idea of suburban perfection, leaving room for the excellent line “You have no idea how bad I want to be”. Dark is also back to his typical self when it comes to the consequences of unchecked desire. In sharp contrast to the first film where voyeurism leads to new life being breathed into a fading relationship, here what begins as risky fun quickly becomes more and more twisted, leaving no room for happy resolutions.

By 1996, Dark was entering a new phase of his career and took a radically different approach to Animal Instincts: The Seductress. The voyeurism theme remained, however Joanna Cole became “Joanna Coles” and was played by Wendy Schumacher instead of Shannon Whirry. The interview cutaway segments also remained, but this time around Dark added a second narrator, record producer and expert knife-thrower Alex Savage. Despite having perfect vision, Alex has managed to fool everyone around him into thinking he's blind, his “blindness” giving him license to indulge in his voyeuristic fantasies. Joanna, an exhibitionist author who writes all about her sexual escapades, catches Alex's attention and the two join forces with Alex, keeping up his blindness ruse, creating situations where Joanna can act out and “perform” for Alex.

The last of Dark's softcore films, The Seductress is a weird outlier for both the Animal Instincts series and Dark's softcore work as a whole. For starters, it's a stretch referring to it as an “erotic thriller” as it's really not a thriller at all. Somewhat like the first film, the thriller aspects of the story don't kick in until the film's final third and even then it's regulated to one particular segment which Dark turns sardonically hilarious thanks to a deliberately over-the-top gangsta rapper named Stone Chill. For the most part, The Seductress plays out like an avant-garde erotic drama, Dark putting another twist to the narration wraparound by adding a second talking head, but its look and tone are what really make the film unique among Dark's softcore films. Dark had always purposefully kept his hardcore and softcore films aesthetically different. On occasion such as in Secret Games or Mirror Images (1992), Dark would inject a dose of surrealism though it was noticeably different from the kind found in his adult films. While not as radical or inaccessible as the likes of Snake Pit (1996) or Shocking Truth (1996), The Seductress does feel more in-line with Dark's hardcore work, loaded with brief cutaway edits featuring a nude Schumacher in a variety of poses holding knives reminiscent of the sadomasochistic flashes Alain Robbe-Grillet peppered his films with. The sets and backgrounds during these moments even appear to be the same Dark used in Flesh, a hardcore feature Dark made the same year.

Dark admitted by the time he got to The Seductress he had grown sick of the genre. Dark told Psychotronic Video in 1997 “I really didn't want to do the film from the girls point of view, but the company wanted to. I mean, the idea of some blind guy who's not really blind, that's funny. But the idea of a girl who likes being an exhibitionist... who cares? We've seen it a thousand times. I've shot it a thousand times. But a blind guy pretending he's blind to get away with checkin' shit out, now that's interesting.” Dark was also vocal about a lack of creative control in softcore saying “...I'm not going to make a remake of a movie I've already done. If that's what you want, I'm not interested... It's just endlessly tiring. Besides, I'm really not much interested in making softcore films anymore. I'm more interested in the underbelly of the human mind.” He certainly followed through on statements like that with the previously mentioned Snake Pit and Shocking Truth, though it's also somewhat of a curious statement given most of Dark's softcore work is built around the underbelly of the human mind. Nevertheless, The Seductress made for a fascinating swansong to the erotic thriller and the Animal Instincts series for Dark while the first two stand as the most distinguished representatives of a sadly moribund type of filmmaking.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Night Rhythms (1992)

Overused as the phrase “this could never get made today” is, that certainly seems to be the case with the erotic thriller. Controversial as a film like Basic Instinct (1992) was upon its original release, given the stranglehold woke cultists have on modern Hollywood and the sociopolitical climate in general, the wave of sexually provocative and confrontational films that defined a good chunk of the 90's would be damn near impossible to greenlight. Time works in funny ways however, and well over 20 years later many have started to look back at erotic thrillers in a different way. Films that were once lazily dismissed as sexist are now starting to be celebrated for their portrayals of uninhibited female sexuality and agency. The direct-to-video erotic thrillers, even more lurid than their studio counterparts, were also even more female driven. Ironic as it might seem that the director of some of the most infamous hardcore adult films would also be responsible for the most female-centric softcore erotic thrillers, but that's exactly the case with Gregory Dark's softcore films. Dark's films like Carnal Crimes (1991), Secret Games (1992), Mirror Images (1992) and it's 1993 sequel and Animal Instincts (1992) are all driven by female-centric narratives. Sticking out in the crowd a bit is Night Rhythms, a rare Dark detour into a male-centric narrative and a film that finds Dark really playing around in a genre sandbox.

Nick West (Martin Hewitt), the host of a popular late night radio call-in show catering to the needs of lonely and unfulfilled women comes to in his studio next to the dead body of Honey, a fan whom Nick unknowingly had sex with live on-air after being knocked unconscious. Although innocent of the crime, Nick has no memory of the events prior to being knocked out and is forced to go on the run into hiding. With the help of longtime friend and ex-stripper Cinnamon, Nick attempts to clear his name and discover Honey's real killer, getting on the bad side of Vincent (David Carradine), a ruthless gangster and owner of Cinnamon's former place of employment in the process.

“Yeah, there's a lot of Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler in these shows” said Dark in regards to the hard-boiled crime fiction influence in the erotic thriller while speaking to Psychotronic Video in 1997. Indeed, a criminal element is an essential ingredient to any erotic thriller, with the other genre erotic thrillers are commonly lumped in with being neo-noir, and Night Rhythms is one of Dark's most explicitly nor-influenced films. Along with being a male-driven narrative, Night Rhythms also differs from Dark's other erotic thrillers by taking the story out of the cushy LA suburbs and into the heart of the city. The Hitchcock influence is also obvious, the man in over his head trying to clear his name being a favorite Hitchcock starting point, but the influence of giallo, a genre the erotic thriller owes a lot to, is quite strong in the plot of Night Rhythms. While the Italian influence may be more obvious in studio films like Basic Instinct and Jade (1995), a radio host going on the lam and playing detective in attempt to solve the murder he's being framed for could be the plot of an early Dario Argento film. One curious quality the film does share with Dark's other erotic thrillers is despite the lack of a domestic angle, Dark still works in some cynical commentary on relationships and the dating world and the film has become even more enjoyable overtime with some of the swerves sure to make the heads of the professionally offended spin.

Night Rhythms was the third of Dark's erotic thrillers to feature Martin Hewitt in the lead who has previously played the antagonists in Carnal Crimes and Secret Games. Although long retired from acting, Hewitt has become synonymous with 80's and 90's softcore and melodrama having starred in Endless Love (1981) and Two Moon Junction (1988) alongside Sherlyn Fenn in the later, directed by Zalman King, a softcore pioneer and the mind behind Red Shoe Diaries (1992) and the series that followed. Also crucial to the film is Delia Sheppard in her third role for Dark as Bridget, West's assistant at the radio station. Sheppard was also somewhat of a muse for Dark at the time, even playing a duel leading role in Mirror Images. Like Hewitt, Sheppard's name is forever linked with late night softcore, even playing the titular temptress in the second entry in the infamous Witchcraft erotic horror series prior to her series of films with Dark. Night Rhythms, if it wasn't obvious, is worlds removed from Witchcraft and one of Sheppard's finest showings. The same could be said for the film as a whole for Dark. While none Dark's series namesake films follow any sort of storyline continuity, being a standalone title, Night Rhythms does have a slightly different feel and despite Dark's flipping of the script with a male protagonist, the film is a key piece of 90's erotica.

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.