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.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

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