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.

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.