Monday, April 14, 2014

Seraphim & Erotic Lanterns: An Examination of Roberta Findlay's ALTAR OF LUST & ANGEL ON FIRE

The thing about being a pioneer is that the land you are cutting into is going to range vastly. The law of averages states that for every acre of rich, fertile soil you find, you are also going to discover some barren, rocky land too. This Peekarama double-feature, courtesy of the fantastic folks over at Vinegar Syndrome, showcases two films that are the very definition of this, with the one commonality being that they were both directed by cult film pioneer Roberta Findlay. This particular disc features 1971's ALTAR OF LUST as well as the 1974 feature, ANGEL ON FIRE. 

ALTAR OF LUST stars the fabulously named “Erotica Lantern” as Vivica. A petite and bewigged beauty, she reclines on a shrink's (Fred J. Lincoln) psychedelic paisley patterned couch and begins to tell him of her highly dysfunctional childhood. All was well for little Vivica until her father died when she was only 14. Her mother, besotted with grief, married a gold-digging oaf named Hans (C. Davis Smith). That's right, Hans. While he might have the name of a European pastry chef, Hans is actually one lecherous boar of a man. As soon as his wife dies, he follows a newly adult Vivica, who is resplendent in some really fantastic white go-go boots and ends up raping her in the woods. In a move to make us about as uncomfortable as Ms. Lantern must have been during the making of this scene, the cinematic violation goes on way too long, with the camera steadfastly focused on Hans' pasty-twitchy-man-ass. It feels hateful.

Finally, he finishes and leaves her traumatized in the grass. Abandoning her pig of a step-parent, as well as her dead mother's farm, Vivica moves to the City and almost instantly finds love in the form of Don (a pre-mustachioed Harry Reems). He's handsome, gentle and a wonderful lover, with the two getting serious enough to move in together. This results in some semi-simulated sex scenes that read fairly fun and passionate, including one especially cute and playful shower scene. 

Everything seems idyllic for the saucy lover-birds until one afternoon, when Vivica comes home to find Don in flagrante delicto with another woman, Marie (Suzy Mann.) To say that the couple are nonplussed by Vivica's appearance is a Plymouth Rock-sized understatement. In fact, Marie's instantly smitten and immediately starts pawing and “making nice” with Vivica, who does the sensible thing and walks out. Okay, that's a total lie. Nope, instead our heroine gets starkers and quickly finds that she is crazy about Marie's physical affection. To the extent that Don quickly is downgraded from ultra-lover to nuisance. 

This leads to Vivica's further angst, making her exclaim to her shrink, “Doctor. I'm a lesbian! Can you cure me?” He refuses to make a judgment call, but seems to change his mind by the end of the film when (Spoiler Alert) he decides to remedy her of these Sapphic leanings with some unorthodox therapy. Note, if your psychiatrist says things to you like “Think of me as a man, not as a doctor.” which is then followed up with, “It really works quite well.” get the hell out of the room and find a lawyer stat.

ALTAR OF LUST is one weak cup of tea. That said, thanks to the typically wonderful restoration job by Vinegar Syndrome, the film does look good. Certainly a million miles away from the murkier print in its previous release from Something Weird Video. The colors pop nicely and on top of that, there is some terrific voice over work. For starters, you get to hear the unmistakable dulcet, New York meets New England tones of Roberta's then husband Michael as the shrink. In fact, hearing Michael's voice ask questions like, “Did Don remind you of your father?” is a perverse treat for any fans of his own acting/directing work like The Flesh Trilogy. Roberta also does a good job voicing the eternally confused Vivica, at times out acting poor Erotica Lantern. (What a name, though!) 

ALTAR OF LUST was released in 1971, which was a weird cusp period for sexploitation. Hardcore was increasingly growing strong, starting with Bill Osco's groundbreaking 1970 film MONA, but many softcore filmmakers were not quite ready to take the full plunge. So here you have a weird blend of blatantly simulated sex, shots of erections, a brief unsimulated blow job and some fun with digits. Speaking of the art of physical love, I'm not sure if I have ever seen more un-reluctant simulated lesbian sex. You can almost feel the actresses thoughts, “What? I have to put my head down where? Fine, but I ain't touching it!” It gets even more sad when one of the lady-on-lady love scenes is cross-cut with a much more earthy scene with Harry and a belly dancer. (Though her somewhat fresh looking C-section scar is a bit jarring. To the point where I was yelling at the screen, “Be careful!” when he starts going down South.)

Ultimately, ALTAR OF LUST is more of an interesting relic from an era when softcore was awkwardly transitioning into hardcore. Thankfully, the second feature on this disc is miles ahead of the game.

ANGEL ON FIRE aka ANGEL NUMBER NINE opens up with a love scene between the handsome but highly dickish Stephen (Alan Marlowe) and Carol (Judy Craven). Their afterglow is quickly spoiled by Carol's declarations of love to her monumentally insensitive lover. Things get even more awful for the poor girl when she breaks it to him that she is pregnant, prompting him to yell and throw her out of his apartment. (What a peach!) 

Little does Stephen know that his life is going to be cut short, thanks to George (Marc Stevens) getting distracted behind the wheel while a lovely lass “attends” to him. Stephen gets hit, promptly dies and goes to heaven. It is there he meets Angel Number 9 (Jennifer Jordan), the same woman who was with George just moments ago. She informs Steven that while he was not horrible enough on Earth to warrant going to “the other place,” he was enough of a cad to not deserve Paradise either. Not yet.

To earn entry into Heaven, he will have to return to Earth as Stephanie (Darby Lloyd Rains), a beautiful blonde. Initially resistant, even remarking that “I'd rather be dead than be a woman,” he quickly changes his tune once the gravity of the situation dawns on him. Angel makes love to him and then sends him on his journey. Once Stephanie knows true love and heartbreak akin to what she/he caused so many hapless young women back when she was Stephen, only then can she return to Heaven proper.

Eager to use her new body, she immediately hooks up with a concerned and confused George, direct at the scene of the accident. Despite his constant statements of “You're really strange,” Stephanie's weird behavior is not enough to thwart him from knocking boots with her at his scumpit of an apartment. Afterwards, she goes home and gets further acquainted with her new womanly form. In the morning, she ends up seducing one of her male form's girlfriends, Linda (Day Jason.) She actually manages to convince Linda that she really is the reincarnation of Stephen and after that, they make love. Feeling some goodwill, Linda ends up connecting Stephanie to a successful fashion photographer named Jeff (Jamie Gillis.)

Stephanie ends up falling fast for the moody and darkly handsome Jeff and in no time, he charms her into his bed. Love soon becomes intensely unhealthy codependency with Jeff being an even bigger misogynist than Stephanie was when she was Stephen. The painful to watch downward spiral ends up proving to be too much for our redemptive heroine and she/he gets to ascend back to Heaven. 

ANGEL ON FIRE is a reverse negative of ALTAR OF LUST in that it is a really, really good movie. The story, taking a few cues from the 1964 Tony Curtis film GOODBYE CHARLIE and hence, later on influencing the 1991 Blake Edwards comedy, SWITCH, is smart and plays out like it is driven from both the heart and the mind. For being helmed by a director who has been quoted saying that she would never want a woman on her film crew, ANGEL ON FIRE is a strong, pro-woman film that delves into the true heartbreak of bad relationships. It's not the obvious heartsickness of being in love with someone who will never return your affection, but the deeper sadness of not loving and respecting yourself enough to know that you deserve better. Women were (and still are to some degree) coming from a background where your definition of self was attached to a man. As if you're almost a ghost, all sad eyed until Mr Husband Potential shows up and makes you whole. It's a bit of a generalization but one with large, booming seeds of truth.

 There's also the sexual orientation play, with the former macho man Stephen suddenly eager to break his virginity with a man. As Stephanie, he dives into sex with the lanky-handsome George, even remarking something to effect, “mine was bigger.” Which is a funny touch of bravado, since he/she is saying this to Mr. Marc “10 1/2” Stevens. A lot of guys who are very “fucking A” with their masculinity usually are hiding something, whether it is an insecurity in sexual ability or a deep rooted attraction to the most forbidden fruit for the North American mook: another man.

The cast is top notch with the always wonderful Darby Lloyd Rains, who is best known for her lead turn in Radley Metzger's masterful NAKED CAME THE STRANGER, ruling as Stephanie. She's passionate, likeable and at times, heartbreaking, truly showing the transformation from the assholish Stephen to the redeemed Stephanie. Jamie Gillis is both sensual and frightening as the ultimate spoiled fruit of a man, Jeff. In contrast to our torn heroine, Jennifer Jordan is strong as Angel Number Nine. The supporting cast are all great with industry legend Eric Edwards popping up as Angel Number Ten, looking every inch the male ideal of a seraphim.

Once again, bless the folks at Vinegar Syndrome for not only releasing this historically and creatively important set, but for obviously caring about a type of film that most critics and historians to this day still turn their nose at. Remember folks, cultural revolution is always closer than you think.

© Heather Drain 2014

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