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Monday, September 25, 2017

ALL THE SINS OF SODOM/ VIBRATIONS -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Hardly as lurid as the title suggests, ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (Film Movement Classics) is pioneering sexploitation filmmaker Joe Sarno's visually seductive offering of forbidden sex-infused drama to inquisitive film audiences in the still-restrictive world of 1968 adult cinema. 

It's the work of a filmmaker who's already a master of exceeding the limitations of his budget and resources by sheer talent and imagination alone, crafting a quietly gripping story that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a New York photographic studio with a cast you can count on your fingers and backdrops often consisting only of artfully-lit walls ("limbo sets" as he called them).

Sarno's story is simple, giving him plenty of room to flex his creative skills.  A photographer named Henning (Dan Machuen) seeks a female model who can convey a kind of primal seduction, both evil and hypnotically compelling.  He thinks he's found such a girl in Leslie (Maria Lease), but although her sweet, bubbly personality causes him to fall for her, she ultimately lacks the qualities as a model that he's so desperately seeking.

Enter dark, mysterious Joyce (Sue Akers)--sort of a cross between Raquel Welch and Gina Gershon--referred to Henning by his sisterly agent (Sarno's real-life wife Peggy Steffans) due to what she recognizes in Joyce as an inner core of wanton, narcissistic sexuality and irresistible animal magnetism. 

Henning will be ecstatic over what he comes to regard as the perfect model for his project, teaming her in steamy photo shoots with Leslie, but won't see it coming when Joyce eventually reveals herself to be a negative force in the lives of both him and everyone else she comes into sexual contact with--including the hapless Leslie and another female model, both helpless to resist Joyce's eerily seductive influence.

Much of this takes place in a shadowy world in which the simple studio often looks like something out of a David Lynch fantasy.  Sarno, who disliked hardcore porn, pushes the limits of what would be known as "softcore" or "hard R" while still making each erotic sequence a valid part of the narrative rather than a story-halting intrusion. 

Sex between Henning and Leslie early in the film is in his brightly-lit bedroom and is stark and functional.  Later, under Joyce's wild, earthy, and perhaps even evil influence, the action is strewn with inky shadows and emanates a sort of fever dream quality as various combinations of participants seem helplessly trapped within Joyce's web of desire.

Sarno displays an instinctive eye for shooting the most exquisite arthouse stuff, seemingly without even trying. His cameraman Steve Silverman's razor-sharp, low-budget black-and-white photography here is gorgeous--moody, evocative, dreamlike (the print is beautifully restored from an unearthed original negative)--and Sarno directs with both a confident expertise and a sublime simplicity.  Even when his scenes only involve two or three actors in a stark set, they're a visual indulgence.

He fully exploits the abilities of his actors, who perform their roles here with surprising subtlety, sensitivity, and depth.  This is especially true for likable Maria Lease ("Leslie"), who would go on to have quite a career in movies (DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS) and TV on both sides of the camera.

Sarno's dialogue is terse, realistic, rarely overplayed.  He could definitely go big and loud (VAMPIRE ECSTASY, SIN YOU SINNERS) or comically colorful (CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE) when he wanted to, but this time it's all about taking in faces and moments and losing yourself in them. 

You'll see the ending of ALL THE SINS OF SODOM coming, but it's no less effective for its inevitability, nor is the journey there ever less than a rich cinematic treat for the adventuresome viewer.

Sarno's VIBRATIONS, made earlier the same year as ALL THE SINS IN SODOM (1968) and using the same interiors, isn't quite as dark and serious, but it's a delightfully engaging watch with plenty of sexual angst nonetheless.

Somewhat lighter and brighter (except for some lush bedroom scenes which give us that shadowy look with its stark contrasts and artful compositions), Steve Silverman's black-and-white photography is crisp and beautiful and positively gleaming with a nostalgic late-60s glow.  

Simplicity in set design and story is again the order of the day as Barbara (winsome Maria Lease again) moves into a small New York apartment to pursue her fading ambitions as a poet while earning money typing up manuscripts for other frustrated writers. 

Complications ensue when her irresponsible, oversexed sister Julie (Marianne Prevost) shows up looking for a place to stay as well as some action--including rekindling a long-ago incestuous relationship (a subject Sarno would revisit years later in CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE) that the reserved Barbara now wants no part of.

Meanwhile, buzzing noises and moans of sexual pleasure emanate from the apartment next door, which, according to mousey landlady Edna (Sarno's wife Peggy Steffans again), an enigmatic young woman named Georgia (Rita Bennett) is renting to use as a storage room. 

But it turns out she's using it for intense sexual escapades (with the help of some fast friends including a big, noisy vibrator) which will just naturally come to include hot-to-trot Julie and then, after much agonizing and soul-searching, the timid but love-starved Barbara herself.

Acting honors once again go to Maria Lease as her sadly neurotic Barbara character is put through the emotional mill, no thanks to her perverted fun-girl sister.  She yearns for a normal love life, perhaps with her nice neighbor who's paying her to type up some of his literary tripe and has expressed romantic interest (which slutty sis promptly derails). 

She's pretty much matched by Marianne Prevost as reprehensible but perversely amusing sister Julie.  ALL THE SINS OF SODOM alumni Dan Machuen and Sue Akers return as two of the girl next door's adventurous sex partners, who end up treating the ever-willing Julie like a brand new ride at Disneyland. 

VIBRATIONS has more sex scenes than ALL THE SINS IN SODOM--a lot more--and they're way steamier.  Eventually, the bits of story between them become shorter and shorter until finally the sex scenes themselves become the story.  I'm not sure if the way things turn out constitutes a "happy ending" per se, but it's poetic justice for the sisters.  Especially Julie, who definitely gets quite a buzz out of it all.

Bonus features:
"All the Sins of Sodom" commentary by Peggy Steffans-Sarno
Interview with Director, Joseph W. Sarno
"Vibrations" commentary by film historian Tim Lucas
"Vibrations" mini-commentary by Peggy Steffans-Sarno
Collector's booklet featuring liner notes by Tim Lucas
Trailers from these and other Sarno films

All The Sins of Sodom Trailer

Vibrations Trailer


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