Reviewer: John Carpenter
Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
Blu-Ray Release date: 1/8/2013
Ecstasies of Women 74 Mins/Not Rated * Linda and Abilene 92 Mins/Not Rated * Black Love 74 Mins/Rated X
Widescreen 1.37:1 | 16×9: Yes
Herschell Gordon Lewis is the “Godfather of Gore.” Movies like “Two Thousand Maniacs!” “Blood Feast” and “The Wizard of Gore” are just a few which have stood the test of time and given generations of horror fans something to salivate over. These escapades had enough meat in them to forever corner him in the world of horror. Unfortunately, fans that have been looking to complete an H.G. Lewis filmography have long had a hole in their collections. In the late sixties and early seventies, Lewis went back to his roots and delivered a trio of sexploitation films that have been ‘lost’ for decades. Upstart distribution company Vinegar Syndrome has found them. “The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis” gives the world a chance to finally see “Ecstasies of Women,” “Linda and Abilene” and “Black Love” on Blu-ray and DVD. Horror fans should be prepared to trade in those knives for nipples, because Lewis brings the kink in these features.
The earliest of these releases is 1969s “Ecstasies of Women.” Take all of the polish out of “The Hangover” or the energy from “Bachelor Party” and what is left can be found with Harry (Walter Camp) and his trio of friends. They are all out drinking in a go-go dancing topless bar on the eve of Harry’s wedding. As the friends drunkenly share stories and discuss life, Harry’s mind keep wandering off and reminiscing about some of his earlier sexual conquests. In one story, he meets fashion designer Annette (Jeanette Mills) in a bar. Another tale has him being hit on by a lonely, yet sexually charged beach bunny named Sandy (Vincene Wallace). When he starts to daydream about his experience with Philomena (Sharon Matt), it becomes clear that all of these memories end the same way – with sex in Harry’s boathouse. As the bachelor party continues, it seems the quartet of men may be brewing a new adventure. Summer (Bonnie Clark) and Kitty (Eleanor Riggs) like these guys and are making noises about hanging out with them after work.
“Ecstasies of Women” is rough around the edges, but does have a charm to it. The film is filled with all sorts of issues. There are continuity errors and instances where characters forget names. The dialogue feels stiff and the stories feel a touch redundant. This is a sexploitation film though. Who cares about that stuff, right? Where “Ecstasies of Women” does get things right is that it never takes itself seriously. Intentional or not, there is a good deal of humor laced throughout the feature. The fact that a guy like Harry can continually bed beautiful women after they see his God awful whitey tighties is an onscreen miracle. Some of the laughs feel a bit forced though. Towns with names like Pleasure and Intercourse are a bit heavy handed, but can be forgiven. It isn’t until the tail end of the movie that any type of moral dilemma pops up. This keeps the tone light throughout and will give softcore fans plenty to enjoy without feeling too guilty.
The tone changes completely when “Linda and Abilene” gets rolling. Up front this sexploitation movie seems to have more in common with John Ford than Derek Ford with its Western movie feel. Fans looking for a cheap thrill need not worry. Things heat up as siblings Abilene (Sharon Matt) and Tod (Kip Marsh) begin life on the farm without their recently deceased parents. These newly orphaned young adults keep busy with chores and fairly light conversation until one hot afternoon Abilene decides to strip down and clean off in a creek. While she is enjoying herself in the cool water, Tod can be seen peeping from afar. This seems to unearth a hidden desire in Tod. It becomes clear that both siblings have a sexual desire for one another, but keep a tight lid on things to avoid doing something of which their parents would disapprove. One evening after Abilene heads to her room and (once again) strips down to nothing, she gets spooked. Tod comes to her rescue and the two come face to face with their desires. Is it best to deal with the ever growing sexual tension or succumb to an incestuous relationship? Only Tod and Abilene have that answer.
“Linda and Abilene” is split into three parts: Tod and Abilene dealing with the loss of their parents, Tod and Abilene dealing with their sexual desires, Tod and Abilene in the aftermath of their decisions. While the first two thirds of the movie are pretty one dimensional, the final act does bring a little adventure. As Tod gets to know Linda (Roxanne Jones) in the local saloon, Rawhide (Tom Thorn) overhears their conversation and heads to the farmhouse for a piece of Abilene. Rawhide is a character with questionable morals. Many may connect the dots and recall he was raping Linda during the opening credits. Obviously, his intentions with Abilene are similar. This encounter adds a dimension to “Linda and Abilene” that was sorely lacking. Gone are the cat and mouse antics of brother/sister sex. Now Abilene feels betrayed by her brother. Her comfort blanket is gone. For a film that starts as a Western, and morphs into a softcore sexploitation period piece, this turn of events brings the Western element roaring back. It gives “Linda and Abilene” a little more substance and raises it above the swinging “Ecstasies of Women.”
Rounding out this titillating triple bill is “Black Love.” In a setup similar to the “Schoolgirl Reports” series, “Black Love” wants viewers to believe this is a documentary exploring the sexual dynamic between black people. It is actually a clever excuse for some hardcore pornography. With no dialogue and a narrator filled with scenarios, “Black Love” will take viewers on a journey of how the black community is not only exposed to sex, but how they enjoy it as well. In one scene, a ‘teenager’ stumbles upon a couple having sex…ahem “Black Love” with one another in the front seat of a car. Later a young girl sees how her parents have “Black Love” after she hears strange noises coming from their bedroom. She notices things like the tense buttocks as her ‘Dad’ rhythmically thrusts into ‘Mom.’ The story gets a little less creepy, but equally odd when viewers are exposed to the variety of shapes and sizes people have on a club dance floor. Numerous couples are dancing away, and then agree to go topless to extend the study that black people are short, tall, thin and large. The dancing continues in full monty for a while before moving on to additional tales of foreplay and seduction.
“Black Love” is so ridiculous; it is hard not to like it. Never coming across racist, the movie tries to create and glorify a mystique that black lovers are like no other. The one thing that is blatantly obvious about “Black Love” has nothing to do with the participants, rather the onscreen action. This movie is hardcore. After seeing Tod have sex with blue jeans on in “Linda and Abilene,” viewers will quickly realize that anyone having “Black Love” is going to get buck naked and deliver actual penetration. The movie is not shy about showing different positions and extreme close-ups during the feature. After the modest fare of the other two lost H.G. Lewis films on this Blu-ray, the content of “Black Love” will feel more extreme. It may be a straight up porno, but the setups are just humorous enough to make it worth a watch.
Each of the three films is presented in 1080p with an AVC encoded 1.37:1 Full Frame aspect ratio. Vinegar Syndrome has given this release great care by having each of the features restored in 2K from their original camera negatives. All in all, the results are outstanding. Colors are vivid and alive in each movie which helps support the party vibe in “Ecstasies of Women” and gives “Linda and Abilene” the character it is looking for in the Western world. Most impressive is the level of detail in each of the movies. This may be a bit more than many viewers are expecting or would like to see at times. At first, this detail is fairly innocent. Annette’s hair in “Ecstasies of Women” looks great from afar, but take her outdoors and it looks more like a wig. Then there are the dirty feet of people climbing into bed that is now pretty obvious. Moving into the world of “Black Love,” viewers are going to see the minute details whenever pubic hair pops up onscreen (and there is a lot of it). Without giving too much information, close-up shots also have a level of detail that leaves nothing to the imagination. Considering these films have been lost for so long, this level of quality is very impressive. There are some blemishes throughout the runtime. Scratches will show up here and there along with some other issues. The overall look of each feature is more than sufficient and these flaws do nothing to ruin the experience for viewers.
Each movie comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that works well. There isn’t a whole lot going on in the sound department, so the front speakers are more than equipped to deliver a solid sound experience. Dialogue levels are fine throughout and music, though a bit flat, never overpowers the onscreen action. Most of the ‘issues’ have nothing to do with this release at all, rather the way each movie was originally mixed. Sex scenes sound as if women are having an asthma attack and this is played on a continual loop. Of course none of these sounds match up to what is happening onscreen. One instance in “Ecstasies of Women” has one of Harry’s conquests belting out this painful sounding pleasure before they really even get started with one another. Again, these issues have nothing to do with the actual transfer, but are very noticeable when watching the lost films.
I LOVE that the chapters are broken down by reels. Love it! It is a detail that speaks to the inner movie geek in us all. As for the rest of the features, the disc is limited to a trio of trailers. The trailer (3:56) for “Ecstasies of Women” is playful, yet lengthy. It has an Alfred Hitchcock vibe as Harry talks to camera while with women and sets up the movie. It shows far too much, but is a fine delivery with a nice hook. The trailer (5:21) for “Linda and Abilene” shows everything and should only be viewed after the feature. When the trailer (2:31) for “Black Love” rolls around, it shows just how beat up the print actually was. Filled with all sorts of nudity, this is a snapshot of how the film looked before Vinegar Syndrome took all of the loving care with each title.
Outside of the extras found on the Blu-ray, this release comes with a DVD copy, a lab card reproduction for each movie on the disc and an informative ten page booklet with notes about the transfer and a nice piece written by exploitation guru Casey Scott. His insight gives more depth to each of the features by exploring behind the scenes stories and showcasing an obvious affection for the Herchell Gordon Lewis catalog.
If you haven’t yet heard of Vinegar Syndrome, you better get them on your radar. Not only is their first release filled with three lost Hershell Gordon Lewis films, each is given the care and attention that few companies would provide for lesser known titles such as these. While “Ecstasies of Women,” “Linda and Abilene” and “Black Love” may not live up to the quality of Lewis’ higher profile titles, fans of his work will nonetheless be pleased with the fact that they are finally available. Some may nitpick and balk at the overall lack of extra features. The lab cards, booklet and overall quality of these films more than makes up for missing featurettes or commentary tracks. Considering Vinegar Syndrome is dedicated to the exploitation film fans in the world, “The Lost Films of Hershell Gordon Lewis” is an amazing way to kick things off. Snap up a copy from Diabolik DVD (LINK) and support a new voice in the Blu-ray/DVD world. I am off to make some sweet “Black Love” to this release while waiting for the next Vinegar Syndrome disc to come out.