Mistreating women as an art.
Sardu (Seamus O’Brien) and his dwarf assistant Ralphus (Luis De Jesus) run an off-off-Broadway show that appears to be in the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol tradition mixed with a sex show, but is different in one important fashion: it’s real. Yes, essentially, Sardu and his crew mutilates and / or kills naked women on stage to entertain jaded New Yorkers who assume it’s fake … or wish it wasn’t? Regardless, Sardu has delusions of grandeur and believes that he’s more than a simple pornographer / slaver / murderer … that’s not that simple, is it? … and wishes to create the great American sadistic erotic ballet…
What little serves of the plot is about Sardu’s kidnapping of ballerina Natasha Di Natalie (Viju Krem) and critic Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay) to forcibly star in his performance art. Natasha’s athlete boyfriend Tom Maverick (Niles McMaster) is upset when she vanishes and pays off crooked cop – and secret ballet enthusiast – John Tucci (Dan Fauci) to find her. That’s about it really, so the plot hardly bears mentioning as it’s much like a 70s porn film: meat scenes with mediocre filler between the fill’her. In this case, the meat scenes are not sex per se, but are scenes in which women are tortured, often to death. Most people don’t find this particularly sexy, but the fact that you’re reading this means you’re not most people, so, yeah, maybe you do.
You know who really didn’t find this sexy? Women Against Pornography. This cheerless branch of the feminist movement did their damnedest to outlaw porn of any kind by likening it to a form of violence against women, much like rape. Much of this nonsense can be laid at the feet of the horrible excuse for a human being, Andrea Dworkin, who, based on her writings, clearly hated men and thought that any woman willingly having anything to do with men was some kind of traitor to womankind. I can’t tell you how much I hate this woman as she, through her writing an hatred of men, turned millions of men against feminism in any form as she became the dominant force among the sex-negative feminists. Regardless, the protests of the theater did nothing more than ensure that people rushed to see the film. I take great pleasure in this … because I’m an asshole.
The audience of 42nd Street theaters was mostly sleazy men who wanted films that titillated them. Theater owners wanted films that would bring in lots of money while avoiding legal problems buy skirting obscenity laws. Pornography had been more or less legalized by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1973, so that meant that the floodgates had been opened, but most pornographers were careful with their films lest they incur the wrath of the local authorities. New York City was a different beast entirely and the standard of what was allowed in terms of sexual violence was a lot looser than it was in the rest of the country. This film was not technically pornographic because there were no genital shots – thanks to the large thatches covering the actresses’ lady parts, but it’s pretty nasty in other ways … maybe. Regardless, it’s clearly not for youngsters.
Oh, did I mention that I first saw this film when I was about 13? I’d seen the film at the video store many times, but never dared rent it because my parents carefully regulated what I watched – they’re good parents, unlike the woman mentioned on IMDb who “complained the film upset her child” because, apparently, she thought that an R-rated film called Bloodsucking Freaks was appropriate for a child. So, one day I stayed home from school “sick” and rode my bicycle over to the video store and rented the old Vestron Video tape because the day clerk didn’t care about anything. Awesome! So, this was about 1989 and there was no internet and my folks didn’t have cable, so this was my first exposure to anything harder than Revenge of the Nerds, Barbarella or Tarzan the Ape Man. Seeing this film forever altered my perspective on film as it alternately made me sick and hard, something that I would not again experience until I was having sex with a woman who vomited and howled for me to continue.
Well, honestly, showing this film to a naïve 13 year old is probably a bad idea unless you want him to turn out like me … and by that I mean a totally awesome and sexy perfessor of mathematics. Part of the problem is that it might permanently warp their idea of sex, but, much more clearly, because they wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to recognize the nature of this film. You see, this film is done in such an over-the-top fashion in that each of the actors hams it up more than the entire cast of The Room that it’s hard to take seriously; in context anyway. Lots of people who saw this film at the time because of the publicity or because they wanted to be offended found something hideous on screen, something shocking that left them feeling a bit off. The regular habitues of the downtown grindhouse theaters would have seen a film that was a bit more explicit and better-made than usual, but was not otherwise that atypical of the stuff shown downtown.
Surely writer / director Joel M. Reed – or possibly actor Seamus O’Brien as a lot of dialog was reportedly improvised – was playing with the audience when he has Sardu say “this is just a theatrical presentation, a show, which offers no reality – not a fraction of reality – and just allows us – you and me – to delve into our grossest fantasies, far beyond erotica” to the audience in the Theater of the Macabre. Honestly, that’s the key here, that this film is not to be taken seriously; context here is very important in understanding this one. The film was made for jaded theatergoers who’s already seen it all and could see the essential unreality of the movie and simply not take it seriously. Perhaps part of the response comes from the fact that, like a highway safety film, this one is so gory that it evokes nervous laughter from the audience. Of course, for some people, the humorous tone will make it more offensive as the abuse of women must always be serious business.
And abuse of women there is, aplenty. Sardu tries to win Creasy over to his side by trying to jump-start a woman (Jenny Baxter) via her nipples – watch closely to see one of the cables fly off as she convulses. To convince Natasha to dance for him, Sardu shows her a woman (Jennifer Stock) being winched to death on a makeshift rack and another woman (Illa Howe) being caned until she lets go of a rope holding a guillotine blade over her neck. For their own amusement, Raphus and Sardu use the ass of another woman (Joann Sterling) as a dartboard – according to Eli Roth in his sarcastic and unreliable commentary, she was a real masochist, so this might not have been simulated. There are a great many other nasty moments, but the most notorious set piece is when the doctor (Ernie Pysher) – who treats Natasha when Ralphus overuses his enhanced recruitment techniques – gets to torture and kill a young woman (Lynette Sheldon) “in trade” for his services. The scene of the doctor and his pretty patient is notable because it turns the stomachs of Sardu and Ralphus, but it’s not particularly convincing as it’s nothing more than very crude special effects involving a wig, a bald wig, a melon, some fake blood, some oatmeal, a straw and some a cappella opera.
Apparently, Joel M. Reed was inspired to make this film after seeing a sadomasochistic ballet directed by professional choreographer Gyles Fontaine. Well, he also made it because he thought it could be shot on the cheap and make enough money to fund a better film. The film was written in a day – and many of the actors improvised scenes too – then followed by a ten-day – actually, night as the film was shot from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM – shooting schedule, mostly filmed in Gyles Fontaine‘s basement to save money. Since it was 1970s New York City, there were many aspiring actresses who were willing to strip off for some money and a film credit; some sources say that the cage full of naked women were all Colombia students, though the presence of soft-core porn actress Arlana Blue – she’s the one who eats the cock – makes this seem unlikely. Much of the cast is made up of professional and skilled amateur actors, which makes the film work a lot better than many other low-budget films of the time.
While it’s very likely that Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ The Wizard of Gore from a few years before inspired elements of this films, perhaps part of it also came from the Patty Hearst / Symbionese Liberation Army story? For those of you who don’t know the story, rich girl Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the SLA terrorist organization and brainwashed to become one of them. This would have been big news during pre-production and would have been some of the first exposure that most laypeople – hell, most mental health professionals too – would have had to Stockholm syndrome in which kidnapping victims come to love their captors. Of course, this had long been the case in really sleazy pornography – as opposed to the nice stuff – where a female victim of rape or some other violence like sadism – as opposed to proper sadomasochism – gets “all wet” and loves her abuser because that’s how female psychology works … right? Well, yes and no. Some women do end up falling in love with their abusers – it’s not love so much as a deep pathological need – while others do not, but – and here’s a but big enough to please Sir Mix-a-Lot – that’s neither typical nor limited to women as it also happens to some soldiers who have been POWs but not others.
Regardless of the title of the film, The House of the Screaming Virgins, The Incredible Torture Show or The Heritage of Caligula: An Orgy of Sick Minds (I have no idea where that last title comes from), this film has upset a lot of censors. Different areas of Canada banned it, as did Germany, as far as I can tell, no one has ever bothered to try to release it in Australia or the UK. Troma scooped this up and has done a DVD release with, as I said, an unreliable commentary by Eli Roth who was, no doubt, inspired to make his stuff by films like this. The thing about the commentary is that either Eli Roth is fooling around – which means that you can’t trust anything he says – or he’s really so stupid that he doesn’t get that Bloodsucking Freaks is an outrageous comedy for the warped, a sleazy exercise in horror for exploitation and horror fans or a cruel misogynistic example of why everyone with a penis should be slain. So, you could say it’s polarizing.
Trailer on YouTube.