If you're gonna watch an unreleased, thirty-year-old movie, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says it might as well be one with breasts and Sonny Landham.
Our review of Abigail Leslie Is Back In Town / Laura's Toys, published February 26th, 2010, is also available.
The bad girl who was real good
Unlike some DVD releases of supposed "lost" films, Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town is a bona fide unknown. In fact, no hard evidence exists that the film was ever shown in a theater. The only known print of the film has been sitting in a box in the garage of sexploitation master Joe Sarno. Releasing a film to theaters is a big job for one man, even a known commodity like Sarno. But thanks to the magic of DVD, we can finally see the film.
Facts of the Case
Priscilla (Mary Mendum, The Punishment of Anne) is stunned to hear that town tart Abigail (Sarah Nicholson, Misty) has returned to Baypoint. Abigail left after being caught boinking Priscilla's husband, Gordon (Jaimie Gillis, Dr. Butts). Priscilla has never been the same, wandering the beach and flirting with a shy beachcomber/handyman named Chester (Eric Edwards, Great Sexpectations).
Soon after her homecoming, Abigail falls back into her old ways of having sex with Gordon, her high school classmates, Chester's sister, or anyone else who happens to call. Priscilla's Aunt Drucilla (Jennifer Welles, Confessions of a Young American Housewife) urges her to have an affair to get back at Gordon, even offering up her own boyfriend, Bo (Sonny Landham, 48 Hours). But mere adultery is not going to salve Priscilla's psyche. She needs something greater to feel whole again.
What an intriguing DVD! Exploitation fans know Sarno as the master of middle class, suburban-angst softcore. Bottled up housewives and bored husbands are his forte. Sarno flicks are known for being bold (for softcore, at least) yet sensitive to the human plight. We aren't talking deep ruminations on the human condition a la Bergman or Truffaut—but for the late nite genre, Sarno aims pretty high. Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town is literally a time capsule. The film was buried in a box and now, 30 years later, gets its debut.
Assuming you are a typical DVD enthusiast and not a Sarno completist, there are two reasons to see this movie, and both of them can be found under Mary Mendum's sweater. As Peggy Sarno baldly states in the included interview, she liked Mary, but she really loved Mary's breasts. Indeed, Mary Mendum has a flawless form, an exquisite face, and enough acting ability that she steamrolls through every scene she's in. The other scenes in the film aren't bad, per se, but when Mary is offscreen you wish she were back on it. Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town has a strong soap opera vibe; Mary's performance is tethered to that standard, but she is nonetheless captivating (as are many soap opera stars, even when fully clothed).
The rest of the actors range from wooden to decent. Hardcore porn stars rarely get to act. They do in this film, and the result exceeded my expectations even if I wouldn't compare them to seasoned film actors. There's a stilted quality to the line delivery and flat reactions, but there's also a quiet, understated approach to building real characters. Some of the "actors" are merely screen presences, such as the much maligned Sonny Landham, who somehow channels Elvis Presley and Burt Reynolds at the same time. All you Predator fans who wanted to get a better look at Sonny's equipment…well, here's your chance. Sarah Nicholson evokes some of Jean Harlow's gangly charisma. The rest of the cast is serviceable, ready to drop trou at a moments notice.
On one level, Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town is a stilted, poorly-paced, ludicrously scripted excuse to show naughty parts. I can't help but feel compassion for the hardcore stars in this film: They finally get to act, but lo! what wretched dialogue. When Chester was waxing philosophical on the beach, or when Priscilla was having existential conversations, all I could think was "who wrote these clunkers?" Well, Sarno did. But he imbues the plot with enough humanity and character that real themes emerge. Most softcore doesn't even make the attempt, and Sarno is reasonably successful—hence his reputation.
The sex scenes are uneven. Many of them consist of women fondling other women in relatively static positions. Sarno lets the camera linger, and doesn't gussy things up with overwrought writhings or odd camera angles. He gets creative with an inverse breast worship scene between an under-endowed and over-endowed pair of women. And naturally, when Mary Mendum is onscreen, he doesn't have to do anything but point the camera and roll film. At risk of imbuing too much art into the film, the most potent expression of love is when Priscilla and Chester kiss during a lively foursome, revealing their deeply held longing for each other.
Fortunately, the print seems to have held up well. There is definite damage, but it is not pervasive. Otherwise the transfer is crisp and highly detailed, with even color saturation and fine contrast. Reasonably clean monaural audio reveals the naturalistic moans and furniture squeaks while emphasizing the overused "haunting emotion" theme that follows Priscilla around like a cheap private investigator. In general, this is an impressive technical presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You might think that the feature-length commentary between Joe Sarno, Michael Bowen, and Michael Raso is a draw. It seems like a perfect opportunity: living director gives insight into his lost film, guided by a film historian, and backed up with the people who transferred the print.
The reality is disappointing. Best I can tell, they miked Sarno up in the living room with the TV turned up. This has two unfortunate side effects. One, the movie's soundtrack competes with the commentators; the volume is about 50/50, so all comments must be aurally extracted from a rather dominating background. Two, Sarno is the only commentator we can clearly hear. Bowen is barely discernable in the corner, and the other commentator (commentators?) rarely speaks up. Sarno is so loud in comparison that it seems he's speaking directly into your brain.
On top of this, the commentary itself is so vague and formless as to be inconsequential. At one point Bowen asks if Sarno can tell us about the crew on the film. Sarno says something about a fine crew, all professionals, lapses into a lengthy silence, then admits he doesn't really remember their names. It was like the awkward moment when you meet your in-laws-to-be for the first time: So, what does your father do, and what do you want to be…?
The interview is brief, but far more interesting. Peggy Sarno is a hoot, with no compunction about telling it like it is. The trailer vault is exactly what you'd expect. The saving grace of the extras is Bowen's liner notes. They're effusive (how can an unseen film be declared a minor masterpiece?) but informative.
For its retro trappings (gauzy flashbacks, anyone?), fine DVD transfer, relatively ambitious plot, and achingly beautiful leading lady, Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town is worth a look. It is dragged down by a plot that has not aged well and an unlistenable commentary track. At risk of committing critical blasphemy, if the film really were a softcore masterpiece, it would have been released by now. Abigail Leslie Is Back in Town is still an intriguing time capsule into 1970s softcore.
Mary Mendum is to remain in the judge's chambers for further questioning. All other parties are dismissed.
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