Saturday, August 26, 2006

Café Flesh

(1982, 75 min.)

Starring Andrew Nichols, Paul McGibboney, Michelle Bauer (as Pia Snow), Marie Sharp, Tantala Ray (as Darcy Nychols), Joey Lennon, Neil Podorecki, Dondi Bastone, Dennis Edwards (as Robert Dennis), Paul Berthell (as Pez D. Spencer), Hilly Waters.

Written by Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream) and Jerry Stahl (as Herbert W. Day).

Directed by Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream) and Mark S. Esposito (uncredited).

In a post-apocalyptic world, the radiation has had an unexpected effect: it has made all but the smallest percentage of the remaining population unable to have sex without getting viciously nauseous. People are now divided into the majority Sex Negatives, and the very minority Sex Positives. The Negatives may not be able to boink but it hasn’t diminished their desire to do so. They subsequently gather in clubs like that of the title to watch the Positives, who are required by law to perform sex acts in public for the supposed benefit of all the rest.

The two most regular of regulars at the club are Nick and Lana (McGibboney and Bauer), the “Blondie and Dagwood of Café Flesh,” as they are described by oleaginous emcee Max Melodramatic (Nichols), a former standup comic who revels in his audience’s misery as he wallows in his own bitterness. (And he’s got good reason to be bitter.) He’s especially miffed by Nick’s elite status in the eyes of Moms (Ray), the club’s owner, and loses no opportunity to belittle Nick publicly, in spite of Moms’ admonitions not to. Nichols’ baroque performance is characteristic of the overall vibe, as is that of Berthell (working under the kicky pseudonym of Pez D. Spencer) as creepy doorman Mr. Joy.

Sleazy “promoter” Silky (Lennon…I think; possibly Podorecki) shows up with a new girl, Angel (Sharp), but no sooner have Nick and Lana made friends with her than she’s spirited off by an Enforcer (Edwards), who reveals that she’s really a Positive. Angel subsequently performs for her new friends, and can’t help telling them afterwards how great it was, and how happy she is that she doesn’t have to hold back any more.

As big of a pain in the ass as Max is, Angel’s sexual awakening goes even more towards inflaming Nick’s increasing frustration, as he deals every day with the unpleasant dichotomy of his need to be intimate with Lana, as they were before the apocalypse, and the fact that any attempt to do so will make him, to use a phrase from bygone childhood years, heave all around.

Thankfully the only sickmaking we get onscreen are a few nauseous gulps before turning off camera. Realistic puking simulations would have done nothing to lighten a film the tone of which howls to us from the grungiest back end of the alley. This may not be the most nihilistic porn movie out there (in spite of what my brethren may think, my experience with this sort of thing isn’t all that extensive), but it’s the darkest one to dance across my eyeballs.

Having been presented with a smut flick bearing characters and a story, is it greedy to wish that they had both been a bit more developed? Case in point: the character of Spike (Bastone), a friend of Nick’s who suffers from a far more familiar brand of post-nuke affliction. His skin marked by radiated rot, he lurks in the background, hidden from the rest by a curtain. He is used sparingly in the narrative and yet both injects a further degree of humanity into the film and plays a fairly significant role in the finale. How much more effective his contribution would have been if his character had been sketched more finely we can only speculate on now. With a running time of only an hour and a quarter, it’s not as if they needed to worry about bloat.

I questioned at first what possible benefit there could be for these sex-starved people to sit around watching others get it on. Then I looked at my TV, VCR and the remote in my hand, and shut the fuck up. A case could even be made that the whole thing is a stab at the porn audience, and their need to experience things vicariously, but I think this idea cheapens what the movie really does set out to accomplish.

The sex scenes are all staged as performance art pieces – a giant rat milkman ravages a housewife while three mutant babies pound bones against their highchairs; an oil executive with a pencil for a head nails a tart on his desk while his naked, pasty-wearing secretary robotically asks if she should take a memo; two women tear off their bikinis respectively representing the American and Soviet flags and 69 each other while warfare rages in the background. This ends up having an odd effect. It’s reasonable to assume that these scenes are meant to be arousing, and they are to a degree, but they’re even more disturbing, what with the nightmarish imagery and allusions to the horror that transformed the world. It seems the director felt that the story was ultimately more important than the audience’s nuts and the busting thereof. It also forces us to feel something of what the screen audience must be feeling. (There are repeated close-up shots of their rapt faces, and many looked oddly familiar to me, though I’m not sure from where. Several sources list Richard Belzer as being among them, but if they’re talking about the guy I think they’re talking about, I’m not so sure. It looks like him but it doesn’t sound like him at all.) They can’t look away from the sex and yet all it really brings them is sickness, horror, and, in Nick and Lana’s case, heartbreak. This is the clearest indication yet that the filmmakers, including co-screenwriter Jerry Stahl of Permanent Midnight fame, truly were trying to make a movie, not just a stroke flick. Apparently an edited version was even given a limited run in non-porn theaters.

But I must admit from a personal angle the real draw for me in watching this was to see the only hardcore performance by legendary, frequently topless scream queen Bauer. Watching Michelle in her assorted horror films, I always suspected there was a ‘fresh-faced girl’ look under all that mugging and garish ‘80s make-up. Who knew it would take a porno for it to finally be revealed to me? Through all the smut and sleaze, Lana comes off as comparatively sweet and pretty. Ultimately she does a not-very-nice thing, but it’s kind of hard to blame her entirely, and her nice girl looks make the ending that much hotter. And, truthfully, that much sadder.

This review brought to you by the giddily-named Alpaca Lips Now!, an Astro-Critics and Zombie's Auxiliary Quilting Bee Round Table.

Co-conspirators (indictments pending):

The roarific Choconado tackles Ultra Warrior.

The enigmatic Deacon Wentworth wrestles with Omega Doom.

The hootin', zootin' Dr. Kobb vivisects Omega Cop.

The klowntastic Kodos points the pie cannon at Target Earth.

And the thoroughly wanton Portrait in Flesh leads on, scores a couple of drinks, lifts wallet and skips out the back door on Warriors of the Apocalypse.

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Friday, August 18, 2006


(1973, 91 min.)

Starring Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui, William Elliott, Allan Arbus, Sid Haig, Barry Cahill, Lee de Broux, Ruben Moreno, Lisa Farringer, Carol Locatell (as Carol Lawson), Linda Haynes, John Perak, Mwako Cumbuka, Morris Buchanan.

Written and directed by Jack Hill.

Our story starts with a bang – literally (ha!). Coffy (the inimitable Grier) tricks drug dealer Sugarman (Buchanan) into taking her back to his crib. She shows us her boobs, blows his head off with a shotgun and then ODs his junkie assistant, Grover (Cumbuka). The next shock comes in the very next scene as we cut to a hospital and discover that this angel of death is, in fact, an angel of mercy, only she’s having trouble concentrating on her nursing, what with her plan to murder every member of the LA drug world and all. See, our heroine has a problem with heroin, not personal usage, but the fact that her sister got hooked and subsequently used by her pushers, although she’s now in rehab, an empty shell. Coffy shares her frustration with childhood friend Carter (Elliott), who’s a cop. He’d like to be more than a friend, but she’s involved with local pol, Howard Brunswick (Bradshaw), who she’s first seen meeting in a restaurant that features a topless girl dancing on a table. Brunswick is clearly a creep from the getgo, although Coffy can be forgiven for not noticing at first, seeing as this was the ‘70s, a time when Smarm, as a dialect, was far more commonplace in public life.

Carter has deeper things than unrequited romance to worry about anyway, since his partner and other fellow officers are hip deep in the culture of corruption, and his refusal to wade in as well earns him a beatdown by a couple of mafia goons (one played by genre favorite Haig). Coffy, being present, gets smacked around as well, though not before getting a shot in with a vase to the head. Haig also takes a few moments to rip open her shirt so we get another look at her chest.

Carter’s prospects for survival don’t look so hot, and Coffy determines to get the Mafioso who sent the thugs, and who is also an integral part of the dope smuggling. (Not that she needed more impetus to get psychotic on peoples’ asses, but this lends the story more pathos, as Carter is the only completely sympathetic character in the piece.) The dude’s name is Vitroni (Arbus, who for some reason employs a Hispanic accent), and word has it he’s into some sick shit. He especially enjoys getting rough with the working girls of a pimp/drug dealer named King George (DoQui). Coffy proceeds to set herself up as one of George’s girls and orchestrates a wild party scene that guarantees that Vitroni will request a one-on-one with her. (She also pulls a switcheroo with George’s dope supply that turns out to have unbelievably coincidental benefits later in the story.) She meets with him intending to kill him, but unfortunately one of the thugs recognized her vase-over-head technique at the party from their encounter at Carter’s, and she is subdued and imprisoned. Things don’t get any more pleasant from there.

This is a thoroughly nasty piece of work from the opening shotgun blast to the closing one. There are only victims and victimizers (a number of characters get to be both). One does get a sense of actual outrage on the part of writer/director Hill at the rampant vice and corruption, and he doesn’t excuse Coffy’s murderous behavior 100% either (he throws her a small loophole when she states that going into that mode is like being in a dream she can’t control). There’s some of the expected racial cynicism, but it’s largely either played for laughs (the only mention of racial harmony comes from the unctuous Vitroni) or merely implied, as in a shocking scene of violence near the end. But, of course, none of that is really the point. The cheap thrills, violent action and copious nudity are the draws, and the movie certainly delivers in that respect. There’s a streak of viciousness on display that may surprise those unfamiliar with the genre, but which enthusiasts will eat up. The party scene, probably the most memorable set piece in the whole thing, is a particular kick, with Coffy hurling girls left and right (and ripping open their shirts in the process), all leading up to the wince-inducing climax when George’s favorite girl Meg (Haynes) grabs our heroine’s hair only to have her hands cut up by the razors Coffy’s hidden in her ‘fro. Plus we get the added bonus of hindsight, allowing us to enjoy such excesses of the era as the garish clothing, the ‘baby, baby’ patois, and Sid Haig’s gigantic grin.

But even if the movie had nothing else, it would have our Pam. She’s not a natural actress, but she is a natural screen presence. She somehow manages to navigate her character through a gamut of scenes ranging from psychotic bitch to soft-spoken lady and you buy it, largely because it’s her. (Not to mention how goddamn sexy she is. There’s one scene where she’s photographed nude through a fish tank that, while I can’t say exactly why, struck me as one of the hottest things I’ve seen in a while.) The movie may be too rough for some folks, but for anyone who’s ever worshipped at the altar of Pam, this is canon. Hill and Grier would essentially remake this movie the following year (and indeed it was originally intended to be a sequel) as Foxy Brown.

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