Judge Brett Cullum meets movie... sexy movie!
Blurring the lines of erotica and pornography…a look at three films by Joe Sarno.
How far is too far? Legendary erotic exploitation film writer and director Joe Sarno (Swedish Wildcats and Inga) was asking himself this question in the early '70s as he continued to make his movies the way he liked them—erotic and not pornographic. America was asking film to push the limits more and more, thanks to the hardcore success of Deep Throat, which legitimized porn and even gave it a hip status for a brief time. German film producer Chris D. Nebe had lured Sarno into the safe confines of his country to shoot a trilogy of films in English with European casts. Europe's sexual revolution hadn't gone as far as America's yet, so Sarno seemed the perfect filmmaker to usher in a new test of the permissiveness of censorship standards. Together, within two years, they made three films starring Swedish bombshell Marie Forsa. That trilogy of softcore erotica comprises Seduction Cinema's box set release, called the Girl Meets Girl Collection. Are you ready to take a look at the effects of the sexual revolution on erotic cinema? How far are you willing to go?
Facts of the Case
• The first film: Vampire Ecstasy
• The second film: Girl Meets Girl
• The third film: Butterflies
History is sketchy on the details of these three productions; even interviews with the participants lead to a variety of differing accounts of when these productions were started and finished. To make matters even worse, the films were recut and retitled nearly every time they were released for exhibition in a new country. What we do know is this: Joe Sarno made several erotic films in the United States and Sweden. He was known for releases such as Sin, You Sinners!, Sin in the Suburbs, The Sex Cycle, The Naked Fog, and many other titles. Sometime in 1972, Chris Nebe, a German distributor of his films, approached him about making several movies with his production company in Germany. His request was unique in that he would supply Sarno with locales and casts, and wanted Joe to film the performers speaking in English so the distribution to the UK and the US would be more lucrative. Sarno was plagued by increasing pressures to do hardcore pornography in America, so the invitation to come to Europe and be allowed to do what he wanted with films was too tempting to pass up.
By the time the pair started work on the productions in 1973, several factors would ultimately influence the films. Sarno had discovered a barely legal Swedish girl named Marie Forsa who had never acted but had strong charisma, and he wanted to use her as the lead in all of the stories. Nebe assembled a cast of characters from all over Europe, since he was restricted by the fact all of them had to speak good English. Instead of ending up with the typical non-actors that appeared in "nudie" films, he wound up with some ambitious stage and struggling film actors who had never done adult movies before. Nebe had negotiated locales for the movies through his affluent family connections, so each film would have exotic and spectacular settings not usually available to softcore productions. The two men were about to accidentally make three classics of erotica, with a striking lead, pretty solid casts supporting the scripts, high production values, and complex ambitious narratives (at least for the genre of erotica).
The Girl Meets Girl Collection gives us the three movies the two men produced together. All the films are presented completely uncut, and all have uniformly the same quality in the transfers. I've noticed they have much longer run times than what the IMDb lists for their theatrical releases—this is because Sarno filmed copious amounts of nudity and long love scenes, so he would have plenty to cut when it came time to meet with the censorship review boards of each country. He would come in with a film that ran close to two full hours, and leave with a censor-approved version that maybe lasted eighty minutes. Here, you get to see it all. The films are shown in full screen, which is a slight cropping of the original aspect ratio. They were shooting these on the cheap in a 35mm format to be shown in theatres that did not have large screens, so they were never meant to be in a large widescreen format. Still, I did notice some squeezing of the image during credits, which indicates they were in another aspect ratio at one time. The films are not well preserved, so there are plenty of scratches and burn marks, and dirt on the prints. Seduction Cinema and EI studios have cleaned them up as much as possible, but a pristine transfer is not possible with the source material they are working from. Colors may appear washed out, and black levels are going to be off in many cases, since the films have degraded over time—and were never shot or developed in professional studio laboratories to begin with. The work on the DVD set is astounding when you consider all the obstacles they probably faced; in most cases the films look better than they have a right to. The sound mixes are clean and mono, and are only troublesome in spots where they were muffled or botched. Again, blame it on the source prints.
Surprisingly the Girl Meets Girl Collection has a healthy host of extras to keep you occupied long after watching the films. Included on each entry in the trilogy is a commentary from German producer Chris Nebe, paired with different interviewers on each project from the ranks of the Seduction Cinema corporate offices. Rather than giving a scene-by-scene analysis, the commentaries usually wander onto several topics about all three movies. Nebe recalls many stories from the sets, and discusses all aspects of his and Sarno's careers. The commentaries are informative and well thought out, with engaging interviewers who get a lot out of the talkative German producer. Joe Sarno himself appears in small mini-documentaries that introduce each disc's feature. We also get an on-camera interview with Nebe, production stills, and film footage where they discuss how each film originated. Also included is a fourth disc—a CD that includes twenty-seven music tracks collected from the films, complete with accompanying erotic sound effects. It's a nice collection of "whacka-whacka" tracks you will immediately associate with adult films of the era. It's an interesting souvenir of the time, but really only for the giggle factor.
Vampire Ecstasy is the strangest of three films in the collection, but it also has the best production values and the most solid acting. It offers atmospheric Gothic horror with a crumbling old castle and cult of lesbian vampire worshipers, but Sarno is a little out of his element with these themes. The cinematography and music are ambitious and quite nice, and there's certainly interesting supernatural things happening here to keep you entertained. The best performance of the film comes from Nadia Henkowa, who was a professional nurse and a part-time stage actress. She plays Wanda, a cruel lesbian who leads the cult with an iron fist and an icy exterior that never cracks. She would go on to do all three films included in the Girl Meets Girl Collection, but Vampire Ecstasy is her star turn. As an actress she is fearless and completely believable no matter how absurd the plot becomes or how much of her clothing she is forced to lose. Marie Forsa is relegated to a supporting role as a young virgin sacrifice to the succubus once she is revealed.
Vampire Ecstasy was most successful in England, where it was retitled The Devil's Plaything. Londoners raised on a steady diet of sultry Hammer Horror productions found it easy to slip in to the right mood to enjoy a tale of supernatural seduction and a female vampire's reincarnation. The film often plays out like a racier, less competent entry from the Hammer collection, though the English horror studio would soon enter the softcore European craze with films like Lust for a Vampire. There is a peculiar lushness to the film, and a restraint with the love scenes. This is definitely softcore in every sense of the word when it comes to the nudity, and it's also strangely restrained when it comes to the gore. Despite some theatrical scenes of naked women drumming and utilizing phallic props, the sex is sublimated by an aura of ritualism and creepy sadism. On the whole, Vampire Ecstasy gets bogged down with too many balls in the air both in plot and style, and also suffers from the least sexy sex scenes in the trilogy. Yet it should win some fans with its supernatural themes of vampirism mixed with the always tempting images of lesbian devil worshipers.
Girl Meets Girl is a film less concerned with plot than with showing some really steamy sexual situations. The plot concerns a young teenager visiting her aunt. Somehow she ends up sleeping with the entire neighborhood, both male and female. The bulk of the scenes have lesbian overtones, with either two women alone together or two women with a random man thrown in the middle. It all comes off as a little comical, but don't tell that to Joe Sarno or the cast. They mostly try to pull it off with a straight face, and play everything for real. Pretty hard to do that when you are about to do a scene which features a curiously carved cucumber used as a sex toy by two women, but somehow the cast manages. Again the production values are high, and another posh location is provided in Munich by producer Chris Nebe's wealthy family connections. This time we see many stylish, affluent, suburban settings coupled with some great outdoor scenes.
The acting is on par with the rest of the trilogy. Marie Forsa is the lead, and the movie absolutely belongs to her. She shows more charisma than acting skill, and seems to have the easiest time seducing strangers with a coy smile and lack of underwear. Again we see Nadia Henkowa playing her lesbian aunt who seems to like getting on with her household help. Most of the actors are again of varying backgrounds, but they seem uniformly quite game to play both the dialogue scenes as well as the love sequences with conviction. Some of the cast are minor celebrities in Germany, and people familiar with the country will get a kick out of seeing a famous psychic and a talk show host popping up as random conquests of Marie Forsa.
Girl Meets Girl begins to show the transition from a cinematic softcore excursion into the land of pure pornography. Its last hour is comprised entirely of naked scenes with everyone getting in and out of each other's pants at an alarming rate. It's a movie that would be horrific in modern times, given the current sensitivity towards sexually transmitted diseases. But you have to remember this was a movie made in the middle of Germany's sexual revolution and changing censorship guidelines. During the commentary track Chris Nebe admits most of the sex was faked, and the film illustrates Sarno's ability to build a convincing sex scene without penetration. It also displays Sarno's tendency to prefer filming lesbian encounters. The movies are admittedly made for men, so most true lesbians will recognize this is pure male fantasy and hardly realistic. Girl Meets Girl is a man's vision of a girl in the flower of her youth. It's a fable, and a decidedly suburban one. Sarno seems most comfortable when working with these themes, and the entire movie is easy to watch and playful.
The final film in the box set shows some marked changes in tone and content. Butterflies is the most shocking for its extreme sexual content, but also the best suited to the talents of the director and cast. The movie represents a peculiar turning point in the direction of erotic cinema. Sarno had been directing hardcore pornography under a pseudonym in America (despite his protests that pornography bored him in interviews); he also watched as his more traditional softcore efforts flopped in America, since they could not compete against the new "no holds barred" sensation of films like The Devil In Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door. Several changes needed to be made if Butterflies was going to compete in a new market and moral climate. For the role of the lady killer club owner who corrupts the innocent country girl, Sarno recruited XXX star Harry Reems of Deep Throat fame. Everyone ended up getting more than they bargained for with his presence on the set. The cast was not prepared for Harry's method of doing a love scene, which often involved doing the sexual acts for real. He had an athletic and highly stylized approach which didn't reflect the softcore ideal of making things soft and pretty, and instead produced a sweaty, showy hardcore realism complete with full penetration. The end result is Butterflies crosses a line, and in most scenes becomes pornographic. This is ironic, because Reems wanted to distance himself from hardcore fare and saw the film as a chance to become a legitimate actor. Marie Forsa and many of the other cast also had similar dreams of finding themselves becoming film stars for real movies, but Butterflies effectively killed everyone's aspirations of being taken seriously in legitimate screen ventures. They were all about to find out about what it meant to go too far.
If we look at just the story and the acting in Butterflies, it seems a shame Sarno had to result to such hardcore trickery. None of the cast was in danger of being nominated for any acting awards, but Marie Forsa seems much more natural here than in the other films. The girl has a striking presence, and in her final confrontation with Reems she even effects some true emotions that resonate within the scene. She tells Reems "You think I'm just a simple country girl you picked up off the road to have some fun with!," and suddenly we know why Sarno was so in love with Marie. As innocent as she looks, she can show depth and sultriness with ease. You see the dimensions of an actress beginning to form within her, and it's a crime this would be her last leading role. For that matter, Harry Reems also shows depth with his callow, unchanging Lothario. He is the only male to get significant screen time in a Sarno film, and he's so lovable even when he's doing bad things we know why the ladies fall for him. Yet when he has to confront Marie Forsa in that final scene, we see him turn to stone. I can honestly say after seeing this pair in Butterflies that I wouldn't have minded seeing what they could have done with a meatier script and less sex scenes. As it is, though, the sex scenes are so graphic you'll forget any of the acting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Certainly this genre of films is not for all tastes, and I found most judges here at the site have given extremely low marks to any films labeled erotica. They almost never have good scripts, competent actors, or very good production values. Despite being better than most erotica fare, the Girl Meets Girl Collection won't win any new converts for films of this nature. You have to be someone who can appreciate the three films on their own terms. They are relics of the sexual revolution—not quite pornography, but also not quite true cinema. They lie somewhere in a gray area where art and exploitation exist in equal doses. Butterflies blurs that line and crosses it. The films are historic, as few filmmakers can work in this genre anymore. The awareness of AIDS in the '80s, the rise of more conservative moralism, and tighter censorship from the MPAA would kill these films on one side; meanwhile, a successful hardcore pornography industry, and acceptance of adult movies on a more aggressive scale would kill them from the other side. Anyone who views them today will find them either "offensive" or "quaint." I'm left wondering who will be the audience for films like these?
I'm afraid that, as a set, one of the three films will inevitably disappoint the people who end up buying it. They are quite disparate in their approaches to sex on film, and although that makes them interesting from a sociological standpoint, it also makes them either "too much" or "too little" when looked at as a trilogy. All the titles are available separately, and some viewers will be better off with a single title purchase. If you like seductive horror, then Vampire Ecstasy will be your bag; fans of comical softcore will appreciate Girl Meets Girl; and hardcore enthusiasts will be happiest with Butterflies. They each represent different strengths and weaknesses of the genre.
Initially I balked at reviewing a film that flirted so overtly with hardcore material like Butterflies, and wondered if we here at DVD Verdict would be crossing a line. It's an interesting paradox when you consider that movie marked the official death of softcore cinema. The sexual revolution of the '70s killed softcore, and banished adult entertainment from mainstream movie theatres across the country and around the world.
The Girl Meets Girl Collection is an interesting artifact of an era we will never see repeated. By the '80s these movies had morphed into teen sex comedies, since the adults could find more satisfaction in the hardcore market found in XXX establishments. In a way my reservations with the Girl Meets Girl Collection were echoed within the industry. Joe Sarno gave up directing these features for a while, although he is currently mounting a comeback with some "direct to DVD" titles for Seduction Cinema. They look like they are shot with digital video, and they don't have the quaint charm of these three films delivered on 35mm stock. Chris Nebe would also abandon the business of nudie films altogether. His name does not appear in the credits for Butterflies; it was the film that marked his exit from the scene. When taken as whole this trilogy celebrates the moment when erotic cinema went too far and became pornographic. For that reason, the Girl Meets Girl collection is important.
Seduction Cinema has done a wonderful job with this set. Rarely do you see films like this getting respectable releases complete with loving transfers, commentaries, and documentaries. You couldn't find a better company with more passion for the genre to release The Girl Meets Girl Collection. Any other distributor would probably dump these on the market as overpriced bare-bones editions. I wouldn't recommend this title to the prudish or the morally upright, but for the craven fans like myself who find this kind of movie enjoyable the set is the stuff dreams are made of (and I'll resist the obvious type of dream I could mention).
Guilty of bringing an end to the softcore erotica craze of the '70s, and inspiring Zalman King, Brian DePalma, Roman Polanski, and countless other directors who never got over the death of the genre. The makers of the Girl Meets Girl Collection shouldn't have to serve anymore hard time, since they already have, apparently.
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