Monday, June 05, 2006


Sonny Landham and Rebecca Brooke.

1975, Retro-Seduction Cinema, DD-2.0/MA/HD/LB/16:9/+, $19.99, 99m 59s, DVD-0

Active in the "Adults Only" industry since the early 1960s, writer-director Joseph W. Sarno became a unique presence in the business by virtue of his interest in exploring the psychology of sex. Simply put, he wasn't as interested in titillating audiences of men in raincoats with peek-a-boo nudity and juvenile humor as he was interested in using the theaters where such films were shown to tell serious stories of sexual truth and its consequences to audiences of mature men and women.
Many of Sarno's films -- including several made before Pasolini's TEOREMA (1968) -- involve a compelling, possibly supernatural, outsider whose arrival provokes an epidemic of sexual change within set relationships or communities. Others involve magical talismans and secret societies. Any fantasist worthy of the name knows that a degree of realism is necessary to heighten screen fantasy, and beginning with the Swedish-made INGA (1967), Sarno encouraged those of his actresses who were willing to experience genuine orgasm on camera, though he had no interest in showing what was actively taking place below the waist -- even when the advent of hardcore later made this possible.
Like James Joyce with his stream-of-consciousness representation of Molly Bloom pleasuring herself in the climactic chapter of ULYSSES, Sarno's principal fascination was with the interior workings of the female mind in pursuit of sexual ecstasy and, most of all, while in its throes. (Appropriately then, YES! is the American title of Sarno's Swedish film KVINNOLEK, from 1968.) The women Sarno filmed might be attractive or plain, but they all became beautiful in these scenes of exaltation, which can be surprisingly moving to witness. Sarno's films may have been perceived in their day as "dirty" and were not generally attended by mass audiences (INGA was a popular exception), but they were actually similar in many ways to the more sexually descriptive novels that John Updike was writing at the same time (RABBIT REDUX, COUPLES), which habitually made the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list.
If one charts the development of Sarno's themes through the 1960s, they can be viewed as an ongoing narrative illustration of how the sudden free availability of the Pill and sexual tools like the vibrator helped to sexually empower women. But as the inheritance of power usually precedes the wisdom of how to use it, as Sarno's films enter the 1970s, they chart a sometimes bizarre learning curve as his characters set about learning the hard way which sexual barricades need obliterating and which have been instilled in us for valid reasons. Consequently, in the films of this period, we find more sexual experimentation, more Dionysian abandon, ménages à trois et quatre, sex toys and phallic vegetables, mind control and peer pressure, and more questioning of traditional taboos like incest. For all this questing for sexual satori, Sarno's films have a conservative streak. His roads of excess sometimes destroy lives, but (as in this film, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN) they can also lead to palaces of wisdom that are loving and implicitly monogamous.

Filmed in his hometown of Amityville (Long Island), New York in 1973, ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN (the surname is spelled LESLEY onscreen) is one of several "soft-X" melodramas that Sarno made with the same principal cast members in the early 1970s, and one of the best in this group. It stars Mary Mendum, the fetching and fearless actress who also starred in Radley Metzger's handsomely produced S&M drama, THE IMAGE, though she is credited here (as in most of her adult film work) as "Rebecca Brooke." Mendum also starred in Sarno's CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1976, perhaps the best-realized and most sizzling of all his works I've seen), MISTY (also '76, which I haven't seen), and the first of the bunch to be released, the Swedish-made LAURA'S TOYS (1975). In each of these, and ABIGAIL LESLIE too, Mendum stars opposite "Eric Edwards" (real name, Rob Everett) and both seize the opportunity to act as well as perform. Mendum plays Priscilla, a cuckolded married woman fearful of embarking on affairs of her own, and Everett is Chet, a single man trying to free himself from an incestuous intanglement with his sister Alice Anne (Chris Jordan). In their hometown of Baypoint, Chet and Priscilla meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons on the beach, almost half-accidentally, for innocent chat -- their respective sexual baggage preventing them from taking their interest in one another to the next step.

Sarah Nicholson and Chris Jordan.

Enter Abigail Leslie or Lesley (Sarah Nicholson, who later worked in adult films as "Jennifer Jordan"), a sexual provocateuse from Priscilla's high school days who returns to Baypoint many years after being caught en flagrante with Priscilla's husband Gordon (Jamie Gillis). Abigail stands out in the dramatis personae like a compass point; she is discussed with such dread and awe in the early scenes that it's disarming when Nicholson first slides into frame, all but unnoticed. Reminiscing over an old yearbook (appropriated titled "The Triangle") with old classmate Lila (Julia Sorel), Abigail reminisces about everyone's grammar/high school dalliances, gay and straight, and determines to have everyone re-explore them for her own amusement. Beginning with Lila, Abigail tempts various neighbors into her bed in twos and threes, including Gordon, Alice Anne, Priscilla's liberated Aunt Drucilla (Jennifer Welles, giving a sassy and humorous performance) and her Elvis-lookalike lover Bo (Sonny Landham), and eventually, Priscilla herself. Though we see Priscilla engaged in contented sex with her husband early on, it is her startled, laughing orgasm with Abigail -- a woman she dreaded ever seeing again -- that lingers in the memory; it's one of the most surprising such scenes in the Sarno canon.

In the key moment of human confrontation that all Sarno films strive for, Abigail ensures that shy almost-lovers Priscilla and Chet eventually find themselves standing before one another, naked and exposed. Their first kiss occurs in the midst of a multi-partnered entanglement, a satisfying if literal visual metaphor for the necessity of seeing through the distractions of sex to find true love. It's by surviving the gauntlet of Abigail's orgiastic puppet-mastery that Chet and Priscilla, unhappy and repressed, find the ultimate courage to simply hold hands. And it's up to us, as viewers, to decide whether Abigail was finally a cruel or loving participant in their lives.

Thanks to Something Weird Video and Retro-Seduction Cinema, a good deal of Joe Sarno's work has become available on DVD over the years, and Retro-Seduction Cinema's HD telecine transfer of ABIGAIL LESLIE sets a new standard for the quality presentation of his work. According to the liner notes of Michael Bowen -- a splendid job of analytic and historic writing that bodes well for his Sarno biography-in-progress -- this film was barely given a theatrical release and has been unavailable for viewing since. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, made from a one-of-a-kind 35mm archive print preserved by Sarno's son Matthew, is nearly flawless.

A five-minute interview with Sarno and wife/assistant Peggy Steffans is included, too short to be really useful. A feature-length commentary by Sarno, Bowen, disc producer Michael Raso and others, is poorly recorded but worth the effort of listening to. Now 85, Sarno is sometimes less aware of the relevant names, dates and facts than Bowen and Raso, but he discusses his intentions with the film, his rapport with the actors, his casting procedures, and his memories of Amityville, which extend to being a guest in the house later made infamous by THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (the DeFeo killings were committed in that house around the same time ABIGAIL LESLIE was in production). Also included is an aptly-named "Trailer Vault" consisting of no less than eleven different Sarno trailers, including one for the elusive MISTY, which Retro-Seduction Cinema will be releasing later in the year.

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