Late 1960’s New York City. A place containing all the urban promise of opportunity, fresh connections, hidden secrets, Midwestern-rooted demons and uprooted repression just itching to burst out right under your black kitten heels as you walk nervously across its wet, oil-slicked pavement. It is this energy, emotion, and aesthetic that are at the root of Joe Sarno’s Black & White features, All the Sins of Sodom (1968) and Vibrations (1968).
Tawdry titles coupled with one of the most notable American auteurs of incorporating Eros with art in cinema may seem like a sweetly titillating combination. To some degree it is, but like the most beautiful boy-girl with the most hidden emotional damage at the party, there is more than meets the eye here.
All the Sins of Sodom is a film centered around Darrell Henning (Dan Machuen, if IMDb is to be believed), a noted photographer whose current book project is driven by capturing images of women who possess the pure evil and animal magnetism of biblical Sodom. Seems reasonable. He is initially smitten with the charmingly gamine Leslie (Maria Lease), who vacillates between brazenly wanton and insecure to a level so vulnerable it’s tangible.
Now, Henning is a bit of a ladies’ man. Your typically sleazy and alarmingly hirsute photographer whose art is just as much about visionary passion as it is feeding his trouser-id passion. Leslie becoming part of his landscape for longer than a fluid-stained night is unusual, with even his agent, Pauline, asking why he is using his newest model again? He muses about how her expressiveness invokes qualities shared with “…Eve, Salome, and the priestesses of Sodom.”
Possessing an overly florid soul, Henning reveals that he is the son of preacher, which sheds quite a bit of light on his art and his view and treatment of women. There are few poisons as potent as religious repression, especially when your father figure comes from the “all women are bad” school of dysfunction.
The poor kid never had a chance.
Knowing her client’s highly specific aesthetic needs, Pauline sends along a new model, Joyce (Sue Akers), his way. Though fresh off the street and in between homes, she still instantly rejects Henning’s initial offer of a handout. Impressed with her work ethic, he offers her his spare room in his studio to sleep in until she can get her feet back on the ground. No strings attached. The whole enchilada. Something he surprisingly sticks to. Well, for a while at least.
The young artist grows anguished, with his newest batch of photos with Leslie garnering the brutal response of “they stink!” Leslie is visibly desperate to give him what he wants, though directions like “More evil!” are not terribly helpful. Joyce tries to sleep in the spare room while this hot mess is going on. Despite (or more realistically because) of Leslie looking wounded, she and Hennng end up banging while a sleepy Joyce wakes up at the sound of people climaxing. Cuddling a large teddy bear, she simply rolls her eyes and smiles. This dark-eyed waif may have something on the ball. A woman with self-esteem and standards feels like an antidote to a guy like Henning.
The next day, Henning tells Pauline about Joyce staying at his studio. The agent is aghast. The young woman that he describes as simply a “homeless little girl” is referred to as a “daughter of Satan” by Pauline. This is the same woman that referred Joyce to him, which is admittedly wonky. Also, “daughter of Satan?” Spoiler alert, but while Joyce has some dark inclinations and is bizarrely cunning, she does not sacrifice any live animals or sport fashionable hooves at any point. It’s a pulp-level description that is alternately a bit much and a bit fun.
Speaking of pulp-tones, Henning reunites with Sonia, a former model, current air-stewardess and newly married lady to a “nice guy.” None of the above that does not include modeling deters either one of them from immediately adding a new layer of DNA to his studio floor. While they are re-connecting, Joyce greets and immediately seduces another model, a beautiful and slightly older blonde. The former looks upon the woman with primal need and something a touch unearthly.
The artist-obsession is at a fever pitch, with Henning’s photographing Leslie for over four hours, with zero happy results. That is, until he gets the bright idea of having Joyce join in and touch Leslie. The latter is simultaneously put off and physically excited, a storm of duality that is beautifully handled by Lease. After this, we see Joyce back in her room, playing with a stray vibrator that looks TERRIFYING. The 1960s were a frightening decade for many reasons. War, strife, assassinations, and “personal massagers” that look like the modern equivalent of performing instant female circumcision. No, Joyce, no!
The combination of the two girls makes the ticket for Henning, who proudly shows the results to his agent, whose response is begging him to send Joyce away. Okay. If Joyce is some devil woman (TM Cliff Richard), why did she send her his way in the first place? Also, Henning has several years on Joyce and is a successful photographer with his own, albeit humble place. If anyone should be warned, it should be Joyce that she’s living with a horny damage case that needs some A-grade therapy.
Leslie ends up voicing her discomfort with Joyce’s presence during their shoot, but ends up going along with it because of love or more accurately, “love.” Things take a turn for the improbable when Joyce approaches Henning, saying that she is going to leave because of how badly she wants him. Sweet baby Jesus. If this man was the love child of Alan Rickman and David Bowie, then maybe I would understand. Maybe, but a decent looking though average jamook with religious-daddy baggage coupled with the sexual respect of a roadie for Ratt minus the charisma and access to coke? It’s easier to buy Joyce as the hot bastard daughter of the dark one than Henning having the sacred powers of dickmatation.
So, yes, I’m calling shenanigans. At least Ike Turner made good music.
Luckily, this is Joe Sarno and the man was arguably at his best when he went dark. Henning pushes Leslie’s boundaries further, while Joyce’s manipulative streak becomes bolder and borderline nihilistic. The model she had seduced earlier reappears, fearful of Joyce and her own sexuality, remarking about how she spent four years with a shrink before vainly declaring, “I like boys!” Modern viewers may be a little jaded with seeing a lesbian love scene in erotica since it has been commonplace in heterosexual-aimed films of the genre since the beginning. But the reveal of her years in therapy for loving women is so smart on Sarno’s part. It shows so much sad and unneeded torment on the model’s part, especially when you realize that it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. It is beyond heartbreaking to think about anyone suffering simply because of being who they are, which is still very much happening now.
“You’re pushin’ too hard, you’re pushin’ on me/You’re pushin’ too hard, what you want me to be/You’re pushin’ too hard, about the things you said/You’re pushin’ too hard every night and day/You’re pushin’ too hard, you’re pushin’ too hard/On me…”
“Pushin’ Too Hard” The Seeds
Henning keeps needling Leslie and Joyce, all in the twin pursuit of finishing his book and dream three-way sexual load. He succeeds but at a great cost, with Leslie running back home to the Midwest and Joyce exacting some poetic revenge on the self-centered artist. If karma exists, then it has a beautifully twisted tango with Sarno’s protagonist, with zero sugar and nice resolutions for any involved, especially Henning.
All the Sins of the Sodom is a beautifully stark work of Sarno’s and one of his best. It blends Sarno’s trademark earthy approach to eroticism and his eternally refreshing focus on female pleasure, with an equal aim on human dysfunction and mal-intent. This is reality and while lovemaking can be a true and beautiful form of human connection, it can also and is often, twisted in one’s own pursuit of stunted subconscious psychotherapy. Henning is not a devil but a self-absorbed creature of a religious repression and hints of a father with severe issues with women. While we’re not given much insight into Joyce, we can only wonder what damage she suffered in her developing years to use sexuality more as a scheming-pawn in a game with no winners than a means to enjoy mutual physical and emotional pleasure with another consenting partner.
The film sports some gorgeous black & white cinematography complete with perfectly executed chiaroscuro lighting. The visual style employed here is so sweet in its sophistication. The cast is good, with Maria Lease being especially a standout, displaying both raw emotion, arousal, confidence, and fragility. She’s a powerhouse and should be a bigger name whenever actresses of this era of cinema are discussed. If her IMDb is to be believed, her career is insanely varied, including directing episodes of the USA Network early 1990’s TV show, Silk Stalkings, as well as some adult features, including the notorious roughie, Expensive Tastes (1978) under the nom-de-porn, Jennifer Ray.
The second feature here, Vibrations, was also released in 1968 and sports a number of the same cast members and again, that lush black & white cinematography. While the latter is some evocative frosting for All the Sins of Sodom, it’s the star here, along with some great peeks into a New York City that is long gone thanks to the erosion of age and cold-hearted gentrification.
Unlike All the Sins of Sodom, Vibrations features a more empathetic protagonist in the form of Barbara (our girl Maria Lease), a writer making her main scratch by typing out and editing other writers’ works. Her life soon gets rattled when her older sister, Julia (Marianne Prevost, who is incorrectly credited as playing Joyce in All the Sins of Sodom on IMDb, though she does have a striking resemblance to the angsty blonde model that was seduced) in that film, reappears in her life, needing a place to stay. It’s a tense family reunion but despite Barbara seeming disgusted with her sister, she allows her to live with her for a little while.
Tension is indeed the name of the game, with allusions to the two sisters having an incestuous past floating quickly to the surface. In the center of this mottled-sexual-familial-mess, is the strange next-door apartment. One part storage unit, containing possessions of the late father of the tenant, Georgia (Rita Bennett), and another part swinging-sex-torture pad, complete with sounds of late night moaning and humming from the same terrifying-looking luscious apparatus that was utilized in the previous film. All of these beckons to Julia like the horniest siren song. (Seriously, why did vibrators in the 60s look like mutated sandblasters? Between that and a reference to “riding the seesaw” early in the film, there should have been a prequel made in the 1970s about Georgia’s dad, played by, who else, Jamie Gillis. To quote Martin Scorsese’s character in Taxi Driver, “Now that you should see!”)
Julia’s repeated attempts to try to seduce Barbara end badly, with the latter clearly feeling a mix of temptation and disgust. The bewigged older sibling has an itch that seriously needs to be scratched and ends up investigating Georgia’s storage-unit/love-pad. This leads to one of the biggest issues with this film. The actress playing Julia, while very pretty, has the most irritating facial tics during her many, many scenes of physical arousal and pleasure. Her exquisitely formed face shakes with all of the sensual eroticism of rickets. When we’re not seeing her getting sandblasted and doing the sexy version of the St. Vitus Dance, we see her walk around the city. The city shots, like everything else here, are beautifully filmed, but there are only so many scenes of a person walking aimlessly from a distance needed in a film.
Vibrations builds to a climax (pun is firmly intended) that results in a fine, razor wire twist, making it one of Sarno’s best endings, giving the viewer some chewy pregnant pause to think about regarding at least one of the main characters.
There are two standout stars at play in Vibrations: the cinematography and Maria Lease. Lease creates another riveting and authentic performance here as the haunted Barbara. This is a character I wish was delved into more in the film, especially due to Lease’s smart performance. The ability she displayed in All the Sins of Sodom is magnified three-fold here, with a turn that illustrates guilt, sexual curiosity, and repulsion. Not just due to her incestuous past but also at her sister’s continued lack of boundaries, including sexual assault. Conveying arousal with shame entails a lot of gray area with emotion and Lease does this spectacularly. On a side note, Peggy Steffans, Sarno’s real-life wife, is a lot of fun as a nosey washerwoman who is serving some grungy Amanda Palmer realness here.
Joe Sarno was a true-blue pioneer and a man that belongs in a special league of filmmakers whose works were often promoted and classified as sexploitation and later on, pornography, but in their truest essence, were and are arthouse. This is not a statement riddled with any shame towards sexploitation or legal erotica, mind you. Not at all and the films that have the bleed-over factor are even better. Filmmakers like Michael Findlay, the Amero Brothers, Gerard Damiano, Radley Metzger, Cecil Howard, Stephen Sayadian, Walerian Borowczyk, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and, of course, Joe Sarno are all striking artists and should be celebrated as big, bold, and full-hearted as possible.
Film Movement, in conjunction with Something Weird Video, have made a massive step in the right direction with this lush Blu-ray release. In addition to both films looking near pristine, there are some terrific supplements, including commentary with Peggy Steffans, plus an informative and effusive commentary track for Vibrations courtesy of Video Watchdog’s own Tim Lucas. There’s even a lovely booklet included, with smart liner notes from Lucas, sealing the deal for all film preservationists and Joe Sarno fans alike.
Vibrations and especially All the Sins of Sodom are moody twins, rich with hints and examinations at how complex and riddled with ghosts humans can be when it comes to relating to each other, physically and otherwise. There are few saints and devils in this life, but there will always be plenty of spectres.