As much as the mainstream and adult film businesses are separate entities, the two certainly share their similarities with marketplace trends ultimately dictating the outputs of each respective industry. The home video revolution of the 1980s was a double-edged sword for the adult industry. While the advent of video certainly made hardcore films cheaper to produce and in turn easier for viewers to procure, the ensuing viewing trends as a result of the easy access also led to a considerable lack of quality control. Along with opening a brief window for adult films to mingle with the mainstream and receive legitimate coverage in very mainstream outlets, the uninhibited and permissive nature of the ’70s to mid-80’s “porno chic” or “golden age of porn” also extended to the creative side of things. Quite often the hardcore sex caveat also meant creative freedom in virtually every other area as well. More than novelties with the gimmick of unsimulated sex, several of the films and filmmakers of the “porno chic” era such as Gerard Damino with The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), Jonas Middelton with Through the Looking Glass (1976) and Stephen “Rinse Dream” Sayadian with Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982) to name but a few, were already beginning to think beyond the concept of mere sex films. Fusing sex with other genres like horror, fantasy and surrealism, these select works occupy their own spaces in the general canon of cult cinema, not simply in adult films. Cafe Flesh even took the hardcore film into the realm of the midnight movie alongside the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1969) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).    

The 80’s video boom, while undoubtedly a financial boon for the adult industry, again signaled a creative downslide with the instant gratification of home video shifting industry priorities. As the idea of adult movie theaters began to exit the picture with VCRs becoming more prevalent, many adult film producers also began to do away with any notions of actual filmmaking. While some directors adapted to the video era, for an artisan filmmaker like a Sayadian for example, what the industry became as the ’80s progressed was not necessarily a creatively welcoming or appealing place. The actual cinematic adult affairs of the 70’s golden age such as the likes of the aforementioned The Devil in Miss Jones, or the hardcore efforts of Radley Metzger under the “Henry Paris” name for another example, gradually became phased out along with the theaters. In somewhat of a strange parallel to how the blockbuster became the mainstream studios focus post-Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), stifling the funding and distribution of more interdependently-minded and challenging material, the narrative-free, all-sex adult video became the dominant product of the adult industry. The few crew members that were left experienced the differences first hand. “All the standards slid down”(1) said photographer Barbara Nitke who shot stills on over 300 adult sets throughout the ’80s (1). “…once producers got into the idea of saving money and releasing the movies straight to video cassette” Nitke continued, “they started slashing budgets down to nothing. They felt that quality didn’t matter as long as they covered all the bases of sex scenes they felt their audiences wanted.”(1) 

The creative hit wasn’t unique to the American adult industry either as Europe also experienced a similar phenomenon. French hardcore pioneer José Bénazéraf for instance went from decently budgeted theatrically distributed hardcore fare like Bordel SS (1978), which went the extra mile with period costuming and cars, to spending the 80’s delivering cheaply produced sex videos. Ironically a good portion of these videos were made for American distributor Caballero and barely made it past the hour mark. That said, the ’80s did see a handful of industry-changing, narrative driven adult features with the emergence of filmmakers such as Gregory Dark. Redefining the look of adult films and performers with revolutionary titles like Let Me Tell Ya ’bout White Chicks (1984), New Wave Hookers (1985) and a pair of Devil in Miss Jones sequels, A New Beginning (1986) and The Final Outrage (1986), Dark became the leading figure of the adult avant-garde throughout the ’80s and moving into the ’90s. Much like it was for the mainstream film industry, the ’90s was a time of transition for the adult industry. For as much as the studio blockbuster had overtaken the mainstream by the ’90s, the film ecology still had enough variety, along with the 90’s indie boom, allowing for lower and more mid-budgeted films to exist in the marketplace alongside the big “event” movies. Similarly, the all-sex video only grew in prevalence as the ’90s progressed with the rise of the gonzo genre. Yet for a time, the ’90s also saw a resurgence of highly original narrative features made with the same temperaments as some of the golden age films.          

The beginning of the ’90s even saw Sayadian dust off the “Rinse Dream” moniker, returning to the fold with a pair of Nightdreams sequels in 1991 and the Party Doll a Go-Go! (1991) and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West (1993) videos, contorting the definition of the new adult video as Cafe Flesh had previously done with adult celluloid. Dark also continued down a similar path with three New Wave Hookers sequels in 1991, 1993 and 1995 respectively, becoming even more experimental and confrontational in the second half of the decade with videos such as Snake Pit (1996) and Shocking Truth (1996). Andrew Blake’s fantasy-based House of Dreams (1992), as well as Michael Ninn’s heavily Sayadian, influenced cyberpunk sci-fi adult hybrid Latex (1995), which even had a PC game released in conjunction with it, also proved incredibly successful [i]. Running parallel alongside Sayadian and Dark during the first half of the ’90s in the upper echelon of outre adult film was actor-turned-director John Leslie. Born John Nuzzo, Leslie was an established veteran of the industry by the time he turned to directing. Renowned for not only his Italian good looks but also for his legitimate acting skills, Leslie was one of the most loved and respected performers of the golden age, having performed in films such as Fiona on Fire (1978), Dracula Sucks (1978) and Insatiable (1981) among many others. Having been a performer since the early ’70s, Leslie made the decision while standing in line at the airport waiting to depart for Europe for a shoot, as remembered by Leslie in the documentary After Porn Ends (2010), to give up his main role in front of the camera and focus on directing. 



Although now a longstanding practice in the industry for veteran performers, Leslie was a pioneer in being one of the first adult performers to make the successful move behind the camera. Beginning with Nightshift Nurses (1988), Leslie proved himself not only prolific, shooting up to thee features a year, but consistent as well. Shooting on video, with three major exceptions, as had become the industry standard by the time Leslie began directing, Leslie nevertheless sidestepped all the shortcomings associated with the format. Giving each of his features a distinguished polish, Leslie’s early features also distinguished themselves with elements of genre crossover. Leslie was particularly adept at crime and noir-based storylines with films such as Goin’ Down Slow (1988) and Second Skin (1988), the latter a hardcore take on an early Bénazéraf-esque scenario starring Leslie’s longtime best friend in the industry Jamie Gillis [ii]. Leslie even helmed a triple-X take on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), Strange Curves (1990) as well as Anything that Moves (1992), an adult variant on the mainstream, Demi Moore-led Mortal Thoughts (1991). Leslie also did his share of lighter or more comedic works like Top it Off (1990), Hot Scalding (1990) and Slick Honey (1991). Leslie’s most notable feature work however came in the form of several oddities that bordered or crossed over into the fantastical and surreal, and even into horror. Unlike Sayadian or Dark, Leslie wasn’t intent on subverting the adult video from the inside. In fact, Leslie tended to favor a more classical directorial style, only becoming more visually experimental in the mid-90s. Similarly, Leslie also tended to adhere to the structural beats of the typical adult feature. However, like in Sayadian’s and Dark’s features, Leslie’s more fantastique narratives were anything but typical, nor were many of Leslie’s other bizarre directorial touches.

Notable Leslie works such as Mad Love (1989), Laying the Ghost (1991) and Fresh Meat: A Ghost Story (1995) formed a sort of loose trilogy around sex and the supernatural while The Catwoman (1988) and its companion film Curse of the Catwoman (1991), as their titles indicate, feature the concept of werecats. While the concept in the original was more metaphorical, the idea was much more literal in Curse of the Catwomen with the appearance of an actual panther as well as Leslie directing the performers to literally manoeuvre themselves as cats at certain times. Laying the Ghost, already an odd premise with the spirits of two pirate brothers sexually haunting the new female residents of a home, is made all the more surreal with Leslie’s addition of a sitcom laugh track whenever the ghost brothers appear on the screen and the leading man Joey Silvera’s screaming 99% of his dialogue [iii]. Setting a new standard for the medium, Leslie steered the adult film into realms that could legitimately be classified as “Lynchian” in Dog Walker (1994) with a surreal LA noir atmosphere ala Lost Highway (1997), Leslie himself even appearing as a proto-Mystery Man-esque figure known as “The Fortune Teller”. The laugh track from Laying the Ghost reappears in Fresh Meat: A Ghost Story, Leslie’s most experimental and challenging feature. A transitional, fourth-wall-breaking fusion of the supernatural, sex and surreal video, Fresh Meat also marked a turning point for Leslie. Closing out the chapter on Leslie’s consistently fascinating and original narrative features, the more raw video look of Fresh Meat also looked towards the more first-person, gonzo style videos Leslie would make his main directorial focus until his 2010 passing.

Along with his outlandish plots, Leslie’s output up until the mid-90s also sounded decidedly different from other adult films of the time. Whereas the early 90’s Rinse Dream videos stood out on account of the retro psychedelic dance party sounds of Double Vision, Leslie’s features grooved to the jazz and blues of piano and organ maestro Bill Heid. A Pittsburgh based musician, Heid became an entirely self-taught pianist and organist after catching the music bug at an early age (2). Finding some of the early rock ‘n’ roll a bit too square (2), Heid really took to jazz and early rhythm and blues, amassing a large collection of rare vinyl while at the same time amassing an even larger number of hitchhiking mileage across the US, landing himself in the Guinness Book of World Records (2). “I approach this thing like total war and have been lucky to have avoided a day job for almost 31 years”(3) joked Heid in anticipation of his official debut album This is My Rifle in 1996. Heid’s adeptness at the blues, as the man himself attested, resulted in easy avoidance of the 9 to 5, much more desirable opportunities such as playing with blues deities like John Lee Hooker (3) or being invited to play an hour-long set with Muddy Waters after just meeting the man presenting themselves instead. Heid’s jazz talents also earned him a spot with the U.S. State Department’s now-defunct Jazz Ambassadors program, performing gigs in Southeast Asia and Africa (2). Heid also lived and performed in both Japan and China, three years in the former and nearly two in the latter.  

Heid’s relationship with Leslie dated back to Leslie’s pre-adult industry days as a professional musician playing the harmonica and singing in a band initially known as the Brooklyn Blues Busters (2). Heid recalls sitting at a baseball game and seeing an ad placed by the band, then called “The Blues Busters”, having changed their name since relocating from New York to Ann Arbor, Michigan in the Chicago Tribune (2). Although the ad was specifically for a drummer, Heid responded anyway, inquiring if the band might need a pianist (2). Following phone calls with Leslie himself and sending the band homemade tape recordings, Heid officially became a Blues Busters member (2). Heid described Leslie’s playing as “in the styles of Littler Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Jimmy Reed”(4), Heid referring to Leslie after his passing as “one of those rare, lifetime friends” with a “love and devotion to hip music”(4). Leslie and Heid’s bandmate, bassist Johnny Ace, also a Muddy Waters alum [iv], echoed Heid’s sentiments regarding Leslie’s devotion to the music. As Ace eulogized Leslie: “John was totally into the music! I would say he was obsessed, but in a good way… John had great ears. The music was in his heart, body and soul.”(4) Heid’s time with the Blues Busters was fairly short as the band would go their separate ways in 1973. However, the friendship formed between the members, particularly Leslie, Heid and Ace, remained as strong as the three’s collective love of music. Following his move to San Francisco, Leslie attempted to find band gigs prior to his start in adult films, though didn’t quite gel with the west coast music scene. Ace blamed Leslie’s good looks, saying “John was just so confident and good looking that he’d intimidate a lot of insecure musicians”(4). Leslie’s eventual success in adult films “didn’t surprise me or anyone else that really knew him”(4) according to Ace.

Staying connected throughout Leslie’s adult star days, Heid remembers Leslie thinking long term, Heid stating in 2019 Leslie once telling him “Look, eventually as I get too old to be in these films as an actor, since I love blues and jazz and the stuff that you play and what we played in our blues band, I want you to do musical scores.”(2) “I’m no Jerry Feilding or Jerry Goldsmith or David Raskin or one of these great genius filmmaker guys..”claimed Heid, “…so I would play the blues.”(2) Heid’s soundtrack collaborations with Leslie began with Leslie’s debut feature Nightshift Nurses, Heid subsequently totally over twenty soundtrack credits for Leslie. Heid later joked Leslie’s direction for the music could be rather vague, Leslie typically telling Heid and his band something along the lines of“Well, you’re going to see something kinda odd happen… so just give me four and a half minutes of like a funk vamp, or give me a blues or play a nice soft ballad or whatever, and I would submit these things.”(2) Heid’s scores for Leslie represent a fairly wide variety of the jazz and blues stylings Heid had mastered. For a film like Goin’ Down Slow for instance, Heid composed a laid-back, slow to mid-paced title theme evoking smokey 1940’s nightclub blues perfectly suited to the film’s classic crime influence. Bad Habits (1994), one of Heid’s final collaborations with Leslie, features moments of erratic free jazz reminiscent of Chet Baker’s scores for Bénazéraf; Le concerto de la peur (Night of Lust, 1963) and La nuit la plus longue (The Longest Night, 1964). The main vocal theme of Anything That Moves, while still rooted in R&B, has a distinctly more contemporary (by 1992 standards) sound and feel while both Catwoman features saw Heid eschew his usual jazz and blues entirely in favor of icy synthesizers and pulsating jungle percussion, the former even getting an energetic synthpop closing credits theme.   

Made during the height of Leslie’s early 90’s directorial hot streak, Chameleons (1992) stands apart as not only a crown jewel in Leslie’s filmography but for the adult medium as a whole at the time. Along with Anything That Moves and Dog Walker, Chameleons was lensed on 35mm, which was becoming rarer and rarer in the adult business. Awkwardly subtitled “Not the Sequel”, like Curse of the Catwomen, Chameleons is a companion or parallel film to an earlier Leslie feature, The Chameleon (1989). One of Leslie’s most offbeat concepts, the original Chameleon was essentially a romantic drama about a strained relationship between stars Tom Byron and Tori Welles turned fantastique with Welles’ character of Diana’s ability to inexplicably assume the physical appearance of anyone she desires, affording her the luxury of endless sexual partners. Revisiting the concept in Chameleons, Leslie expands upon the body-hopping idea with a chameleon couple, Claudine (Deidre Holland) and Reynaldo (Rocco Siffredi) becoming entangled with the relentless Casey (Ashlyn Gere). Following an encounter between Claudine and Casey at a swingers club, Casey begins to crave the chameleon experience at any cost, despite the draining of the life force of the person whose identity is being appropriated. Chameleons is certainly one of Leslie’s most genre influenced films yet despite the horror and sci-fi potential of the Body Snatchers-esque story, Leslie curiously treats a good portion of the film like a deranged supernatural chamber drama. As in Leslie’s other features, even the most idiosyncratic detail is treated with complete sincerity by Leslie and the ensemble cast. One of the finest Leslie ever assembled, with the force of nature Gere particularly inspired and in-tune with Leslie’s unorthodox narrative. Heid’s score for the original Chameleon was one of his finest, portions even recalling Manfred Mann’s brilliant score to Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969). Similarly, the score for Chameleons feels as inspired as Gere’s performance, both musically and stylistically.

Playing out like a collage of all the sounds Heid brought to Leslie’s work, the Chameleons soundtrack was recorded by Heid on piano and keyboards along with Heid’s seven-piece band featuring Walt Szymanski II on trumpet and flugelhorn, Scott “E Dog” Peterson on tenor and baritone sax, Randy Gelispie and Johnathan Knust handling drums, Alex Rogowski on guitar, Steve Wood on second tenor sax and Kurt “Herr Kronk” Krahnke on acoustic bass. Opening to the tune of “Love Has Made a Fool Out of Me” during the credits, the track is a slow, smooth jazz and R&B torch song featuring the vocal contributions of singer Misty Love, written by both Leslie and Heid. The title theme from the original Chameleon returns, sans Heid’s vocal from the 1989 track, in “Chameleons”. A jazz scorcher with more than a hint of lounge, there’s also a trace of Latin jazz in the track via the main piano melody foundation laid down by Heid and especially Szymanski’s trumpet. The star of the title track, Szymanski really smokes with Peterson and Wood’s tenor and baritones given plenty of space to cook as well. Even more explicit in its Latin influence featuring sparse Spanish vocalizations is “Todo el mundo” with Szymanski’s spirited trumpet again taking center stage, Heid switching from acoustic to electric keys. Striking many different timbres, Heid himself a musical chameleon, are tracks such as “Zero in the Kitty”, “Goodbye Ernie”, “Itadakimusho” and “Naze Kana?” with Heid stripping back the band and favoring atmospheric, at times fairly eerie synthesizer somewhat reminiscent of his synth tones on the Catwoman soundtracks and light hand percussion. The full band as well as the vocals of Misty Love return to close the film out with “Burn That Bad Boy Down”, a more upbeat R&B jam with Peterson creeping in with touches of low-end woodwind and Szymanski again providing memorable trumpet leads. 

 

Heid’s gig scoring Leslie’s films paid well, Heid earning “some decent royalty money from it…”(2),  Heid saying in 2019 “I never got money from America. It was primarily western European counties. France was always good to me.”(2) France was always good to Leslie and his films too, Dog Walker even airing on the Canal+ channel during the decade. France is also a key factor in Chameleons standing out among Heid’s scores for Leslie. Released on cassette tape only in France in 1992 as “Femmes Caméléons”, Chameleons has the distinction of being Heid’s only score for one of Lesie’s films to receive a physical release of any kind. Featuring all the previously mentioned tracks, curiously omitting two pieces heard in the film, “Beating Volkswagons” and “Patches”, the tape itself is a particularly arcane piece of lost 90’s physical media. Officially licensed though France’s SACEM, or  Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music), the tape also features a VCA copyright. VCA of course being the production company and distributor of Chameleons, one of the biggest producer and distributor of adult films at the time. Yet the Chameleons tape remains the only cataloged “VCA” musical release of any kind. Even more mysterious is the “Anaïs International”[v] logo adorning the tape as the tape is also the only cataloged release to feature an Anaïs International logo. Despite the official French licensing, Heid recorded the music specifically for the film with no intention of commercial release outside of it, as was the case for all of the music Heid recorded for Leslie with the exception of a few instrumental bits Heid used on later recordings. In fact, Heid himself was completely unaware of the existence of the Chameleons tape until February of 2022.

With Leslie taking the gonzo route, music became nearly an afterthought in his films. Leslie’s passion for music however again remained throughout the rest of his life. “He still had so much music in him… it had to come out”(4)[vi] reflected Johnny Ace after Leslie’s passing. The music came out in the form of the John Leslie Blues Band lead by Leslie on vocals and harmonica featuring Ace on bass. The band would release their lone album In the Kitchen in 1998, itself now an obscure item like the Chameleons cassette. Heid composed his final original score for Leslie in 1994 for Bad Habits, coincidentally Leslie’s last feature for VCA. It was after his years scoring Leslie’s films did Heid begin a commercial recording carer with the release of the aforementioned This is My Rifle. Heid has subsequently released twelve albums in the time since, titles like Wet Streets (1999) and Dark Secrets (2000) representing some of the best in 90’s/2000’s jazz and blues. Heid’s music also wound up in some much more mainstream places such as TV ads and PBS as well as the Matt Damon-led film Takers (2010), much to Heid’s surprise as he’d learned after the fact he’d only receive payment should the film air on cable (2). Years have passed however since Heid’s music for Leslie could be heard on even a premium Euro cable channel like Canal+ bold enough to air a Leslie feature. Regrettably, adult films from the ’90s have yet to receive the cult revival those of the ’70s and ’80s have benefited from. Thus, Leslie’s early features and Heid’s music contained within remain hidden on DVDs released in the format’s infancy by a long-defunct adult company. Their obscurity deprives both a new generation of cult and genre film fans that embrace and acknowledge adult films, as well as the cult jazz and soundtrack crowd, works like Chameleons, perhaps Leslie and Heid’s finest genre shape-shifting collaboration. 

[i]. Ninn would coincidentally direct the fifth New Wave Hookers film in 2000 following Dark’s departure from the industry to focus on music videos.

[ii]. Gillis was of course known as one of the godfathers of the gonzo and “pro-am” genres with his revolutionary series of On the Prowl videos which began largely as a result of Gillis’ frustration with the lackluster quality of scripted adult films of the time.  

[iii]. Laying the Ghost is also unique in being the lone Leslie feature from this period not scored by Heid, but rather by Sayadian’s main early ’90s musical collaborators Double Vision who provide a score quite removed from Heid’s jazz and blues as well as their own work with Sayadian from the same year in both Nightdreams sequels and Party Doll a Go-Go! videos.

[iv]. The Blues Busters’ beginnings are in fact rooted in Muddy Waters with the group being formed by Waters’ harmonica player Paul Oscher while Waters was recovering from injuries sustained in a serious car accident.

[v]. There existed for a time an “Anaïs Records”, a French jazz label whose output, save for two albums, consists entirely of records by brothers Philippe and Louis Petrucciani, sons of renowned pianist Michel Petrucciani who became one of the most celebrated pianists in jazz while battling the genetic condition osteogenesis imperfecta. Any relation to Anaïs International is highly unlikely though, as Anaïs Records ceased operation in 1991 while the Chameleons cassette was released a year later.

[vi]. A true renaissance man and artistic chameleon, along with being a filmmaker, actor and musician,  Leslie also added painter and, by accounts of all his close friends, gourmet chef to his list of talents. 

1. “American Ecstasy: The Photography of Barbara Nitke and The Golden Age of Pornography”. https://web.archive.org/web/20140527071231/http://atomiclegdropzine.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/american-ecstasy-the-photography-of-barbara-nitke-and-the-golden-age-of-pornography/. February 4, 2014.

2. “SongPo 2019 Ep 8 – Bill Heid, Jazz Piano and the House that Porn Built”. https://www.mixcloud.com/SongPoRadio/songpo-2019-ep-8-bill-heid-jazz-piano-and-the-house-that-porn-built/. 2019.

3. “Bill Heid”. http://theatreorgans.com/grounds/artists/heid/index.html. 1996.

4. Ace, Johnny. Heid, Bill. “For My Dear Friend John Leslie Nuzzo: January 25, 1945 – December 5, 2010”. Golden Gate Grooves Issue 8. January 2011.