Sexploitation king Harry H. Novak finally comes to UK DVD with this release, the first collection of films from the Chicago-born trash-master’s prolific work as a producer and distributor who became infamous for pedalling cheap, smut-tinged schlock and low budget sleaze during the 1960s, before later branching into hard core. Novak started out in the film business during the forties and fifties, though, as a campaign manager for RKO Pictures, and so knew a thing or two about how to sell a movie by the time he’d graduated from distributing Swedish sex flicks and proto-Grindhouse fare in the period not long after RKO went out of business. It turned out that the one thing that sold the most was – surprise! – Sex. Or rather, the peek-a-boo variety of low-rent burlesque that passed for titillation via the ‘nudie cutie’ exploitation phenomenon. But the first film in volume one of this series also takes us back to the dawn of a mercifully brief craze for hippy acid trip movies that flared up during the late-sixties. “Mantis in Lace” (also titled “Lila”) is a psychedelic Grindhouse slasher from 1968, that introduces the druggy counter culture to the closed, steamy world of downtown go-go dancing on the Sunset strip – and serves as a stern warning against just what might happen if one were to recklessly introduce LSD into the diet of a formerly happy-go-lucky nymphomaniac bar dancer-cum sixties flower child with a phobia of bananas! The film mines the same areas of camp sleaze that, when combined with its sloppy-looking seat-of-the pants ‘guerrilla-style’ aesthetic, also characterised much of the early work of John Waters; except that the latter always exercised a knowing irony in his films that only mimicked the sort of half-assed material that nominal director William Rotsler’s efforts here delivers to us straight and unadulterated: kitsch dialogue, non-existent acting and a sort of listless quasi-cinéma vérité stylisation that one can’t help feeling comes about more by accident than design merely through managing to point the camera in vaguely the right direction 80% of the time. That said, the film has a sort of dopy awkward charm to it and is often edited (during the loopy acid freak-out sequences for example) with real verve and energy; and the sound design during the drug-soaked sex scenes that proceed these moments of invention renders much of the content more creepy than it is arousing. Plus, the ‘heroine’s’ inexplicable Freud-shaped dread of any and all phallic-shaped soft fruits, provides the piece with an extra fillip of weird that helps it go down all the more easily these days for an audience of cult cinema aficionados.
Susan Stewart plays the white leather-booted brunette beauty Lila, a hippy doll who dances by night under the glare of red gel lights to her own personalised theme music (a sort of meandering wind-up nursery rhyme; a Velvet Underground-imitating clunker that sports a sound-alike valium-doped Nancy Sinatra on vocals) in a crowded, seedy, beatnik-frequented Go-Go Palace. After shooting pool in her break time with a flowery shirted hippy patron called Tiger (Vic Lance), during which the two communicate entirely in a series of hilarious sixties-era Austin Powers beat-speak clichés (‘what’s your bag?’, ‘That’s where it’s at, baby!’, ‘I think you’re turned on!’), Lila persuades Tiger to forego his own ‘groovy pad’ and come back to her place – which turns out to be a pitch-black, semi-derelict dockside warehouse/factory space with a grotty bare mattress in the middle of it, surrounded by candles. ‘It’s the only place I can truly be myself,’ she confesses, much to her sex-seeking client’s bemused scepticism. A few acid-laced pills (‘this is the stuff dreams are made of’)and one candlelight striptease routine later, the latter performed to the same lazy track as before -- with lyrics that actually warn Lila’s prospective victims exactly what they should expect, if they’d only care to listen -- and the couple’s interminable drugged-up sexual union (shot with a prying but clumsy hand-held camera) is rudely interrupted when Lila takes a bad trip, during which her mental psychedelic light show is invaded by nightmare visions of a leering man in a surgical smock and mask who tries to force-feed her bananas, while backwards whispers and parental, reverb-drenched echo chamber voices on the soundtrack admonish her. Lost in a delirium of colour-saturated horror, Lila reaches out for a weapon with which to defend herself from the advancing visions, and alights upon an abandoned screwdriver that she then lashes out with, using it to stab her one night stand to death, afterwards hacking him to pieces with an equally handy meat cleaver and dumping his remains in a cardboard box (the warehouse is fortuitously heavily stocked with them) on some nearby waste-ground. A pair of stiff-necked homicide detectives (Steve Vincent and James Brand) is soon on the case, but they naturally suspect only a male perpetrator. The victim’s counter cultural credentials propels an investigation of ‘all the hippy joints in town’ with the duo making their way on foot to each and every ‘psychedelic shop’ and ‘Go-Go Palace’ they can find (‘it should only take about a thousand years!’). But since they are looking for a male ‘junkie-maniac’, the two walk straight past Lila during their tour of these sleazy nightspots, the hip girl dancer having by now gone back to her usual evening job while continuing to ingest her victim’s stash of LSD.
The plot doesn’t get elaborated very much more than has been already outlined here, since the vast majority of the running time is taken up with lengthy sequences of topless dancing in footage that looks like it’s been grabbed from a real strip joint situation. Most of the female cast are adult performers rather than actors, and the lusty males have been obtained from among Novak’s circle of friends. Although respected Hollywood cinematographer László Kovács (“Easy Rider”, “Ghostbusters”) started his U.S. career on Novak’s early features and his work here is frequently inventively lit, there’s an overall voyeuristic aura of street authenticity about the film (the womanly stripers display undisguised cellulite and visible appendix scars, shattering the illusion of their untouchability),and Kovács’s work is often shoehorned next to rushed, wobbly-looking second unit footage depicting the two detectives, plodding about the city outside the neon hoardings of numerous real-life clip joints and other sleazy emporiums one might’ve chanced upon at the time. Taken as a whole, there’s about enough ‘plot’ here to fill about fifty minutes; the other forty are taken up with added skin display material, such as a lengthy and irrelevant sex scene in which the owner of the bar Lila frequents is seen subjecting a prospective dancer to a torid casting couch audition.
Although “Mantis in Lace” is the closest thing to a ‘real’ film in this collection, with characters and a plot of sorts, it only ever hints at the backstory of its attractive acid-imbibing antagonist. Vague intimations of an abused childhood emerge from the deranged hallucinations which eventually drive the girl to murder; and one of her victims is an avuncular psychologist who tempts her with the possibility that he might get to “walk around inside her head” but then merely tries to disguise his lust for the pert breasts of hip speaking brunette go-go dancers by muttering how Lila is ‘a very interesting case’ in a faux professorial manner, the whole time he’s being seduced onto her grotty mattress of hallucination and inevitable bloody death. The film is helped considerably by a vein of straight-faced humour running through the mostly clunky dialogue, though; particularly in scenes depicting Lila’s manic giggles and cackled retort of “you look so funny like that!” while viewing the hacked remains of one of her victims during an LSD binge; and the two straight-faced detectives, who naturally are always one step behind the killer, discovering yet another cardboard box-full of human remains, this time those of the hapless psychologist, joke that: ‘I guess he treated one maniac too many, eh?’
The other two films here are likely only to be of interest to fans of vintage nudie cutie flicks, although “Kiss Me Quick!” -- Novak’s very first production from 1964 -- Is widely touted among those who harbour an appreciation for such material, as one of the very best of the form. It’s only an hour long, sports rudimentary painted cardboard sets and was shot in six days on rented camera equipment. The opening minutes are particularly striking though: to save money, Novak has a sultry female voice-over artist announce the names of the cast and crew as well as the title of the movie (a caption card has been retrospectively added for the DVD release, but the film’s patrons at the time would have seen no on-screen optical titles at all) and then we’re straight into what turns out to be a sci-fi spoof set-up, in which a portly Stan Laurel impersonator with a colander that has a feather stuck in it on his head (Frank A. Coe) is sent on a mission to Earth, charged with finding out about the second sex – women. It seems that the denizens of the ‘Buttless Galaxy’ reproduce themselves by dividing into two, and so have no need, themselves, for females. Sterilox’s boss has decided, though, that ‘these earth women would make ideal servants’, and so the alien sexual innocent is teleported into the lab of one Doctor Breedlove (Max Gardens), who has been experimenting with a ‘sex machine’ that can turn shipments of female beauties into topless go-go dancing wunderkind.
Borne on the back of a popular wave of monster flicks and successful TV shows such as “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family”, “Kiss Me Quick!” shamelessly exploits Universal’s famous roster of movie monsters. During the course of the flick, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and Dracula all appear in their familiar guises, and despite Novak never having bothered with attempting to clear the rights to use their likenesses, he apparently never experienced any legal difficulties over such blatant appropriation, perhaps because the film was so obscure and only ever really screened for a certain select clientele (‘we had tits and ass. Universal didn’t do tits and ass’ is Novak’s blunt way of putting it). Gardens affects a mimicked portrayal of Peter Sellers’ Doctor Strangelove, complete with errant gloved hand, dark glasses and crude whiteface makeup -- while also doing an exaggerated vocal impersonation of Bela Lugosi. The ensuing retinue of useless gags, annoying puns and hopeless comedy routines are of course merely punctuation to the nudie cutie goings-on in Breedlove’s dungeon lab. There is a trio of booby bouncing topless dancers constantly on hand, who shake their cleavage on command and happily splash about in a paddling pool for the viewer’s delight, including among their ample-bosomed number a blonde and a red head led by a perfect dark-haired Amy Winehouse lookalike sporting a two-foot high beehive and Egyptian eye make-up! Then we’re introduced to Breedlove’s sex dungeon, which is full of more gyrating womanly pulchritude for Sterilox to choose from. And that is about it! The only thing that marks out the film in any other way is László Kovács’s camerawork -- which prowls across the bodies of the female strippers with an unusually clammy appreciation for the main concerns of the film’s likely audience; that, and its brutally honest absurdist reduction of what those concerns amount to in the flick’s very final moments, when Breedlove is shown slapping stickers with the words PRIME and CHOICE CUT scrawled on them, onto the backsides of a row of crouched naked women seen emerging from a chute on a conveyer belt line!
The final film in this set was directed, like “Kiss Me Quick”, by Peter Perry Jr., but comes somewhat later in his career and therefore displays slightly more technique than the rudimentary monster parade of fancy dress carnival and novelty burlesque catalogued there. “The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet” indulges in a pointlessly elaborate contextualisation of its Shakespearian milieu, wasting much time in the opening minutes by introducing a Tudor era audience of rowdy and ribald Globe theatre patrons (although all of them sporting a range of hippy hairstyles, circa 1969!) with the camera plonked among them to better view the proscenium arch- framed enactment of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that we’re apparently about to witness, as introduced by the playwright himself. The film’s early attempts at following the Bard’s own lines are played for laughs here, leaving in the outtakes of the not-exactly-experienced-thespian’s bungling their recital. Once again, the cast introduce themselves and announce the character they are to be seen playing, the novelty of the method this time further enhanced by having them interrupt various sexual couplings to do so. Once the set-up has been labouredly established though, it is promptly done away with altogether, and what transpires for the next ninety odd minutes is a series of period costumed sketches (annoyingly constantly interrupted by tiresome, unfunny Laugh-in style segments, during which various members of the cast tell bad jokes direct to camera), in which the performers quickly disrobe to take part in a multitude of fleshy, sweaty, naked gropings -- all soundtracked by much moaning and fervid panting. In this rendering, Juliet (Dee Lockwood) is a red haired, pendulous, horse-faced nympho who does pretty much the entire male cast by the end of the play; while Romeo (Forman Shane) is all the while kept busy servicing her Capulet mum (Mickey Jines). The prince of Verona (played by “Mantis in Lace” director William Rotsler) also has a go with Juliet, but then manages to cram in a group orgy with a bunch of horny servant wenches in a tavern scene that at one point feels like it is going to go on for the rest of your life.
If you’re into lengthy, warts & all sex couplings and can put up with the incessant need to add diversionary comedy routines into the mix, then this is the film for you. Otherwise it serves merely as a footnote to the nudie cutie sub-genre, a late-sixties attempt to revive it that mimics the form during a period when the sexual content of adult movies was beginning to get slightly more explicit, although this one always stays on the right side of the line dividing soft core from the harder stuff. All three films in the set appear with adequate but unspectacular transfers that frequently display their age and often still have projectionists’ cigarette burn reel change markers in the top right hand corner. “Mantis in Lace” and “Kiss Me Quick!” look correctly framed at 1.33:1 but be forewarned that the 1.66:1 framed “The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet” is presented in a non-anamorphic form. “Kiss Me Quick!” is the only film in the set with an audio commentary, but Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video elicits much information from Harry Novak during the course of its brief running time, and we’re furnished with plenty of entertaining anecdotes from Novak’s career of wheeling and dealing in the adult entertainment and independent producers’ market. Trailers are also included.
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