Wicked Pictures’ 2005 hardcore, found footage compilation, Motel 69, opens with the following text scroll:
“This footage was confiscated from a sleazy motel owner that was busted spying on his customers. We were able to get our hands on over 100 hours of raw video. We compiled some of this footage for your enjoyment. Enjoy :)”
Unlike the Netflix documentary Voyeur (2017), which profiled a real-life motel owner who spied on his guests via cameras hidden in ceiling vents, Motel 69 is entirely fabricated—which is confirmed by the disclaimer at its end, stating that all events and characters are indeed fiction. This opening scroll does more than just establish the film’s found footage framework though; it also places judgment on the motel owner, referring to him as “sleazy” and it employs the use of an emoji. This attempt at both sensationalizing the fictional source of the content as well as being playful is indicative of the audience for the film as well as how the industry got to this place in the mid 2000s. The act and/or subject of voyeurism has long been commonplace in erotic cinema, from keyhole stag films like A Free Ride (1915) to a mainstream erotic thriller like Sliver (1993), watching has been synonymous with both fetish and technology as well as the intersection of the two.
This article will look in depth at the 2014, theatrically released, found footage thriller Lucky Bastard and the aforementioned, video released, hardcore compilation Motel 69 and discuss how they relate to, build from and break down the stereotypes of fetishistic voyeurism in erotic content through a found footage framework. To do this, the article will start with the tropes of the mainstream, 1990s erotic thriller genre and move into adult, hardcore content of the 2000s—particularly in the realm of reality and/or revenge porn—and move towards placing this found footage erotic cinema in the current socio-political space of social media and how it infers mainstream depictions of contemporary sexuality in addition to posing a potential threat to those who incorporate technology in their personal sex lives.
Hidden Cameras and Sex Tapes As Found Footage In the 90s Erotic Thriller
The erotic thriller as commonly considered—noir tinged, sex fueled tales of aberrant passion and its intersection with crime—has existed since 1980, if Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is considered as the first entry in the genre. But defining the genre and tracing its rather erratic history in the industry is more difficult than expected. Nina K. Martin, in her book Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller (2007), offers a litany of issues as to why the erotic thriller genre is difficult to pin down, primarily related to its melding of various other genres including melodrama, romance, the Gothic and noir (Martin, 18). She also argues for a distinction between mass released, studio produced titles like Body of Evidence (1993) and Fatal Attraction (1987) and the much lower-budgeted, direct-to-video (DTV) titles like Night Eyes (1990) and Animal Instincts (1992) (Martin, 16). For the purposes of this article, this distinction will not hold; the erotic thriller will refer to the genre at large, regardless of mode of distribution or space of viewing (i.e. a public theater space or the home).
Though the genre can be argued to have existed since 1980 with De Palma’s aforementioned Dressed to Kill—which kicked off the “golden age” of the genre according to Linda Ruth Williams—it wasn’t until Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction seven years later that it really took hold in Hollywood (Williams, 3). Leading up to that, there was a smattering of erotically charged crime films (which could also comfortably fit under the equally abstract genre of neo-noir) like Body Heat (1981), Against All Odds (1984), Bedroom Eyes (1984), and Jagged Edge (1985) but none had the staying power of Lyne’s blockbuster, which would pave the way for Zalman King’s Two Moon Junction the following year and open the floodgates of DTV erotic thrillers leading into the 1990s, changing the landscape of how erotic content was consumed in the home by couples and women (longreads).
Unlike hardcore porn, which had a helping hand in making home video as ubiquitous as it was by the 1990s, the softcore film was targeted towards couples and single women, as well as the men who may find the video sleeve art sensational. Martin posits in her book that the erotic thriller is a “Women’s Genre”, even placing it alongside Molly Haskell’s defining of a “woman’s film” (Martin, 35). And it’s easy to see why when looking at the narratives of, especially, the DTV titles in the genre which usually feature a female protagonist played by the likes of Shannon Tweed or Joan Severance. Along with the democratizing and diversifying of the genre, moving from largely theatrical spaces to the home and traditionally male driven stories to female, the technology followed. Porn has long been tethered to the home video format, with Peter Alilunas extending that to other technologies in his book Smutty Little Movies (2016), “Examples of pornography appear alongside new technologies nearly as soon as the technologies are unveiled and, in fact, predate “technology” itself, stretching back to the realm of cave drawings and folk art.” (Alilunas, 32).
Of course, the genre didn’t remain entirely DTV going into the 1990s. The genre’s magnum opus, Basic Instinct, took both the country and the world by storm in 1992, leading to mass protests and major box office returns. But the genre would only last another three years in theaters, thanks to the disastrous release of the expensive and NC-17 rated Showgirls – which would be made by the same director as Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven. In the midst of what was taking place in multiplexes, DTV erotic content was experiencing its twilight with films like Mirror Images (1992), Animal Instincts (1992), Die Watching (1993) and Lipstick Camera (1994)—all of which involved an intersection between voyeurism and technology, either peddling in surveillance tech or home video.
Both hidden/surveillance cameras and tape media lend themselves well to the notion of “found footage”, though there doesn’t exist—at least that this writer could find—an erotic thriller that uses the established found footage framework, from this era, it could be posited that the surveillance footage and/or created/discovered sex tapes exist as found footage within the narratives themselves. This would set it apart from its horror genre contemporaries wherein the found footage framework implies possession or some other innate terror that has been documented – typically set within the confines of what Caetlin Benson-Allott refers to as “faux horror” in her book Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens (Benson-Allott, 2013, p. 168). These feeds/tapes usually exist for malicious means; either as evidence of a crime (the sex tape in Body of Evidence) or to establish the voyeuristic tendencies and subsequent criminal acts of a, usually male, antagonist (the wall of security camera monitors in Sliver). Even when incorporated for the pursuit of consensual sexual activity or highlighted as an otherwise harmless sexual aid (the couple-created sex tapes in Animal Instincts), the voyeurism in question is considered aberrant once new technology is involved and the fetish can be documented and shared—even if exhibition is desired.
In Philip Noyce’s studio produced erotic thriller Sliver, Sharon Stone’s character Carly has a telescope in her fancy Manhattan apartment which she uses to casually spy on her neighbors having sex. At a gathering she hosts in her place, partygoers comment on it, taking turns peeping while making comments like “They’re really doing it!” and “Beaver!”, adding a juvenile innocence to what is clearly a pronounced act of voyeurism. That Stone’s character has such an old school, and visibly phallic, means of carrying out her fetish renders her otherwise innocent in the narrative whereas William Baldwin’s antagonist Zeke is painted as an utter creep, holing up in his six million dollar, made in Osaka video feed lair where he watches anyone in the building at their most intimate.
When Stone’s character is brought into this lair, she demands to see the feed of her own apartment – at this point they have been seen to be sexually involved – and he shows her. Irate, she accuses, “You watch them. You watch these people.” He replies, “So do you, with your telescope. I just have better technology.” The technology here is what renders the voyeurism as an act of found footage; these feeds aren’t just live, it is later shown that he records certain camera feeds as well and saves them for future use; he states “Sometimes I just let it run on record in one apartment for a while, like my own soap opera. I don’t even have the time to watch most of what I record. It’s amazing what I find on some of these tapes.” This idea of an overwhelming amount of content is something that can be appreciated in both a binge-watching culture of 2019 as well as the current landscape of disseminated adult content via webcam, such as live feed community sites like Chaturbate, whose interface resembles the wall of monitors in this video lair.
Likening these feeds to a “soap opera” establishes that this act isn’t solely about viewing sex either, he shares with her information about various people that appear on the screens; family troubles, indiscretions, illnesses, etc. The vast majority of the sexual images on screen are tapes which he is a part of, including one of the two of them, which results in her sitting and gyrating on his lap as they watch a recording of themselves having sex which slowly fades out, alluding to it inspiring another such encounter. He later erases that tape with the push of one button, something possible in the analog days of 1993, which isn’t executable in films that will be discussed later on in this chapter.
As Sliver reaches its climax, Stone’s character ends up locking herself in the video lair, watching him move about the building. When he approaches the locked door, he yells “You’re watching me aren’t you? You’re looking at me. I can tell. I can feel it.” He acts for the camera, for her. She then destroys the monitors, shooting each one as well as the control console, shouting at him, “You like to watch, watch this!” We see him stunned, silent and she says “Get a life.” and the credits roll. This found footage in Sliver isn’t used for the purposes of blackmail or discovered as evidence of murder, but it is seen as aberrant and criminal – despite the crime of the story having nothing to do with it, specifically. Stone’s character’s telescope may make her an active voyeur and its shape may imply masculinity (as does the gun she wields in the film’s final minutes), but without the six million dollar tech, her fetish doesn’t carry weight. It is, after all, the nineties and watching strangers fuck from hundreds of feet away is as about illicit as a keyhole stag film.
After Showgirls sounded the death knell of the studio produced erotic thriller – at least for a while – audiences needed to get their voyeurism fix elsewhere; either via the DTV content that had been being churned out regularly on VHS for years, soon to move to DVD, or through the increased amount of hardcore pornography available via the internet, with speeds for downloading still images and video only increasing through the end of the decade and into the 2000s.
Motel 69 and the Ethics of Reality Porn
This section begins with the pre-credit scroll from Motel 69, a 2005, found footage framed compilation of hardcore sex scenes that run with the conceit of being discovered sex tapes recorded by a motel owner. This framing is only plausible – albeit largely unbelievable – due to the ubiquity of small, easy to install, surveillance cameras and other recording devices in the 2000s. Beyond the technology – which exists, in this instance, as the “how” – this framing is situated, though not narratively, in a culture (especially in America, where the film was produced and largely distributed) steeped in social media, where photographic documentation of our daily lives is not only accepted, but expected. This social media connection is the “why”.
Though the internet came into existence in 1991, it wasn’t until web 2.0 in 1999 that the internet became what we currently know and experience it as daily (van Dijck, 2013, p. 5). The early-to-mid 2000s saw the start of what would be termed “social media” platforms with MySpace in 2003, Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, allowing those inclined to share pretty much anything about their lives. Though these apps were multimedia heavy, the first majorly photo-heavy platform, Flickr, started in 2005. Jose van Dijck writes in The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, “The functions of exhibiting, collecting and storing pictures online were an integral part of Flickr’s interface. The site enabled users to tag favorite photos, make “sets” or collections of photos that fall under the same heading and display them as slideshows or embed them in other websites” (van Dijck, 92). With the ability to add any photos, relatively unmoderated, it was only a matter of time before porn invaded Flickr – and it was not always consensual or legal.
In an article for Wired titled “How Porn and Family Friendly Photos Coexist on Flickr,” published in 2007, Terrence Russell details how Flickr implemented a ratings system for the public to mark their own photos as “safe”, “moderate” or “restricted” based on levels of explicitness. For content legally created and disseminated, and with consent, this would be a great system – but Flickr did not implement any additional moderation beyond this. In a 2011 article for The Atlantic, titled “Of Course Flickr Has a Porn Problem,” writer Adam Clark Estes details the business troubles associated with this as advertisers did not want to run on content not marked “safe”, but only users are signaling this, resulting in ads placed over pornographic content. However, the more disconcerting issue brought up in this piece is a legal and ethical one: the distribution of child porn and revenge porn via social media and the internet at large.
The threat and subsequent impact of child pornography is outside of the reach of this chapter, but the overwhelming issue – and crime, in some territories – of revenge porn is pertinent to the conversation on reality porn and the concept of found footage erotic content. Revenge Porn has unfortunately become ubiquitous enough in our society that it is now included in the Merriam Webster dictionary, which defines it as “sexually explicit images of a person posted online without that person’s consent especially as a form of revenge or harassment”. As of July 2019, all but four states in the US have revenge porn legislation, with NY becoming the 46th state to enact a law that month according to a Wired article titled “New York’s Revenge Porn Law Is a Flawed Step Forward”. The flaw, referred to in the article’s title, regards the requirement that to be considered “revenge porn”, the material has to be shared with the intent to harm, which is not always easy to prove. The article states that “The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s research has shown that about 80 percent of non-consensual pornography actually gets shared as impersonal entertainment and by strangers, rather than a vengeful ex.” Which leads to the opportunity for images uploaded to sites like Flickr without the subject(s)’ consent to be rather high and the ability to prosecute similarly low.
What does this mean for “found footage” entertainment? Obviously the footage contained within something like Motel 69 is staged and features paid actors who are performing with consent, as is anyone in a found footage horror or faux snuff film like August Underground. The psychological impact of revenge porn is hard to ignore; in a 2019 Teen Vogue article titled “Revenge Porn Can Haunt You For Years,” one anonymous victim details her financial struggles with paying for lawyers and the impact it had on her marriage. another victim had to change her name after repeated Google searches just resulted in explicit, non-consensual photos across various sites. Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who fights revenge porn, blames Google’s legal policies for the impact on victims beyond that of the perpetrator. In an article penned by Goldberg for the New York Post in 2019 titled “How Google Has Destroyed the Lives of Revenge Porn Victims,” she details how reliant on Google searches new jobs, new schools and most other facets of popular life can be and that Google will only delete child pornography and materials infringing on copyright from their searches. In a way, this resembles the plot of a 90s erotic thriller; a couple makes a sex tape, the tape is shared by a scorned lover and used for blackmail or outright humiliation — but the internet and social media, especially, have made this reality and far more pervasive than any type of shared content could have been in an analog era.
Motel 69 offers up the conceit of watching security camera footage of couples who did not know they were being recorded. The opening scroll suggests this material has been shared for the viewer’s enjoyment, not much unlike that of most non-consensual porn as argued above. The framework of this video isn’t vindictive, it is meant to be a fun look at the intimate lives of a bunch of different couples staying in the same motel. It is shot with small cameras, mostly static and tucked away in weird corners of rooms – like security cameras would be – with some voyeuristic POV shots included as well; a type of shooting that is very common in hardcore porn, especially with cameras becoming smaller and easier to hold for long periods of time. The idea here being that not only are you watching, but you are doing so as the “sleazy motel owner” himself.
There’s a few ways to look at Motel 69 in terms of provenance. The opening scroll tells us what this footage is meant to be, but it has obviously been edited down from the over one hundred hours of raw video that the mysterious editors handled. There is also no identification placed on the motel owner as he does not appear in the film. In one rather strange sequence, a male and female performer are having sex on a couch and it is shot via the already established security cameras and then cuts to a POV shot from the male character’s vantage point. If the viewer blinks, they would miss a very subtle shot of this character reaching into the couch to pull out a small camera and what the viewer then sees is from the POV of this character.
But where did this footage come from? Did the motel owner somehow confiscate this found footage and include it in his own batch of voyeur tapes and then splice it together? Narrative and continuity are certainly not a major concern for Motel 69, the concern is sex and it is here in ample doses, but what this sequence allows is for the sex to be shot closer than it has up until this point. This is the second to last scene of the video and the POV camera allows for something we have yet to see up until now: a close-up money shot. As much a staple in heterosexual hardcore cinema as there can be, the moneyshot or cumshot is a pause in the action for a climactic ejaculation; everything halts and the male lead is finished – or finishes himself – onto the flesh of his female co-star. One of the hallmarks of the industry, this is nearly impossible to feature in hidden/security camera hardcore content due to needed camera proximity but Motel 69 pulls it off, continuity be damned.
Motel 69 is not revenge porn, it’s a work of fiction and it does not even offer up a malicious angle for its existence, but it does help perpetuate the idea (or ideal, for certain porn consumers) of pornographic content being disseminated without consent. And this is a large trend in the industry at large thanks to what is often referred to as Reality Porn, unlike Revenge Porn, there’s no Merriam-Webster definition but Wikipedia defines it as “…a genre of pornography where staged scenes, usually shot in cinema verite fashion, set up and precede sexual encounters.” This is an apt description for Motel 69 which has its faux security camera angle, but it really became popular thanks to a company named Bang Bros, which started the now famous web series BangBus where young women (paid performers) were seemingly coaxed into a van and then paid to have sex with a male performer before being kicked out to the side of the road. Industry focused site Rabbits Reviews ran a profile of Bang Bros titled “The Reality Running Behind Bang Bros Network” and argue that “There are many keys to the site’s overwhelming success, but the most pivotal was the feeling of reality. It felt real. The crew hit upon a formula that compelled porn fans at the time to wonder about its legitimacy. Are these people actually fucking random strangers that they meet?”
Adult cinema has through the years pushed the boundaries of technology while also using that technology to challenge how we think of ourselves sexually even if that meant becoming the target of conservatives in America. Linda Williams, in her book Screening Sex, states “The panic over internet porn suggests how ready the public was – perhaps even how primed it had already been by earlier film images of the addictive, perverse embrace of the small screen – to blame pornography as the evil invader of the privacy of the home (Williams, 2008, p. 308). Reality porn came around in a post-reality TV surge where shaky camerawork implied truth, and scripted dialog-with an unrecognizable face-was accepted as actuality.
If the post 2000s surge in found footage filmmaking can be traced back to 1999’s enormously successful, and now iconic, The Blair Witch Project, so too can reality porn. Although the more likely inspiration for Bang Bros would be Girls Gone Wild, which got started in 1997, the idea of a group of people palling around in search of one particular thing – in this case nubile women who would have casual sex with a stranger for pay, as opposed to a legendary witch – was easy to latch onto in the early 2000s. In a culture immersed in the ongoings of the characters on The Real World, allowing that type of reality – however actually fabricated – into something as explicitly intimate as hardcore porn only made sense. After all, porn is watched by the same people who watch MTV, right?
Including pornography in a reality obsessed culture was eventually going to lead to viewers wanting to be a part of it; either in sharing their own, self-produced sex tapes via websites like Pornhub or interacting with their favorite pornstars via social media apps and, in some cases, actually getting to perform with them due to some reality porn programs that saw fit to cast fans alongside known actors. Laurence O’Toole attempts to define porn as an “endless quest for the sexual ‘truth’” in his book Pornocopia in which he claims that “there are some who criticise porn for not showing real life problems, such as floppy dick or premature ejaculation” (O’Toole, 1998, p. 22-23). That however, is where the lucky bastards of the fan communities enter.
Lucky Bastard and the Fan Culture of Reality Porn
The 2013, NC-17 rated, found footage thriller Lucky Bastard was released theatrically in the US but only in two theaters: one in LA and one in NYC. It could be argued that this extremely small theatrical release was due to its low budget and decidedly DIY origins but the NC-17 has long been a scarlet letter in the American film industry, and despite its thriller categorization and contemporary webcam angle, it saw very little play in theaters albeit did get review coverage in major publications like Variety and the Village Voice.
Lucky Bastard opens with the following text:
“Lucky Bastard was a pornographic website that invited fans to have sex on camera with pornstars. The following footage is believed to be the last video shot for the site. Permission forms were signed by the participants. The material is therefore legal to present.”
Note the lack of playfulness that was present in the opening scroll to Motel 69-no “enjoyment” alluded to, no smiley face emoji present; Lucky Bastard presents itself as hard crime footage and remains cold throughout. It does, unlike Motel 69, present more of a narrative as a result of its genre trappings.
The crux of Lucky Bastard is that a young fan, Dave G (Jay Paulson), applies to the show to have sex with pornstar Ashley Saint (Betsy Rue) under the pretense that his brother recently passed away due to cancer and he needs to heal. We learn that the show basically exists to humiliate the “lucky bastard” who can’t perform under pressure with experienced porn stars – not unlike the tossing of the amateur women out of the Bang Bus – via show creator and director Mike (Don McManus). Consent is given by all participants, as mentioned in the opening text, much like any of the reality porn mentioned previously. However, that does not keep consent away from being an issue in the narrative.
Following its opening text, Lucky Bastard briefly shows crime scene footage of dead bodies out of context, which is a preview of the film’s eventual climax. Shortly after this, the film begins proper: a door to a large house opens and at the doorstep is the pornstar lead Ashley, who has seemingly arrived to shoot a scene. It turns out, though, that she was unaware that this interaction would be shot for the site. She states, “I would really rather do my paperwork before we start shooting so could you please turn this off?” When the man behind the camera says they use everything for the show, she responds, “Turn the fucker off or I’m not signing anything!” They make it look like the camera is off but it stays on, sans consent. The “permission” stated in the opening has already been voided.
What follows is a rather problematic sequence wherein the audience is led to believe that we are watching Ashley arrive at the house to shoot a scene. While there, she hears another young woman screaming in agony and opens the door only to find her tied up and being forced to have sex, face down on a bed with a muscular man holding her down. After attempting to stop this, they hold her down and rape her until she says “Stop, that’s my butthole!” at which point the male rapist laughs, as does she. The twist here is that the rape is fake and it’s all part of a different show in which young women are seemingly raped but are not, in actuality. It’s an ethically confounding way to start the film—both in downplaying sexual assault but also raising an eyebrow to the legitimacy of anything we see going forward.
As Lucky Bastard begins its narrative focus, we are introduced to Dave G, whose brother, it turns out, didn’t die of cancer but instead committed suicide. He’s referred to as a creep by Ashley, who repeatedly tries to end the contract and not do the sex scene due to being uncomfortable but is begged, and eventually forced, to do it. Dave G, however, is not up to it and prematurely ejaculates on camera – resulting in everyone on the crew laughing at him and turning against him. It is revealed that this is what is meant to happen; the show exists to humiliate the “lucky bastard” who can’t perform with the pornstar. After being convinced to leave the set, against his will, he ends up brutally killing his driver and returning to the set to torture and kill everyone but Ashley. What starts as found footage, adult industry fan service becomes something decidedly darker and borders on the webcam thrillers similar to Unfriended (2014) and CAM (2018).
Unlike those two films mentioned above, Lucky Bastard doesn’t offer any sort of respite or resolution. The threats in both Unfriended and CAM are hardly humanized – they primarily exist within the confines of a computer screen, even if being referenced to as being the actions of someone behind that computer – but Dave G is very much a human character, even if he acts more like the Terminator than anyone flesh and blood. Unlike revenge porn, the revenge and humiliation of Lucky Bastard are separate acts – the humiliation inspires the revenge, not vice versa. Rather than being blackmailed and/or having footage sent out to humiliate as an act of revenge, Dave G kills those who humiliated him sexually via the internet (even if the program had yet to air, the potential for it to was enough for his actions to be inwardly justified).
The found footage of Lucky Bastard builds from the surveillance culture of 90s erotic thrillers, particularly Sliver, as the majority of its narrative takes place within a former reality TV house loaded up with eighteen cameras. But it also traffics in the more explicit terrain of Motel 69, referencing the adult industry and being set in it but never showing hardcore penetration. The result here is a more genre forward entry in found footage erotica but one that also plants itself more firmly in the culture of the consumption of the content in which it references; it is as much a product of its surroundings as it is perpetuating them.
Towards a Newfound(footage) Erotica
The 90s erotic thriller is all but dead. The closest that the industry gets to the genre now are foreign imports like The Handmaiden (2016) and Stranger By the Lake (2013), which have more progressive portrayals of sexuality than most mainstream American cinema does. Sex is largely absent in American films circa 2019 post-Fifty Shades of Grey, but the internet has largely filled that gap. Reality Porn is still going strong thanks to major brands like Nubile Films who have series like Driver XXX and Bounty Hunter Porn and sharing of amateur content via social platforms has largely increased with Reddit’s “gone wild” /r/ subreddits and post-Tumblr adult content ban moves towards Twitter and other spaces resulting in a saturation of user generated and disseminated pornographic content. The ability to interact with performers has also increased thanks to spaces like Only Fans or Many Vids, both of which offer the ability to subscribe to monthly videos and photo sets and interact one-on-one via webcam.
When approaching found footage as a genre, the blueprint of films like The Blair Witch Project tends to be a guiding principle; but the concept of footage that is found points to many directions that can’t be contained by form or method. The landscape of erotic content, especially that which exists by and for the internet, is relatively uncharted and constantly changing and evolving. This is the wild west of found footage: an ever growing, nearly limitless, resource of the lost and found. The unfortunate reality is that it is not always legal and/or consensual, and sometimes telling reality from fiction is even more murky than the woods of Burkittsville, MD – but that may very well be the attraction of the found footage genre to begin with.
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