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Home / Film / Home Video / No Values, No Ideals and No Morality – The Exuberant Excesses of Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in America

No Values, No Ideals and No Morality – The Exuberant Excesses of Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in America

Commencing in an amiable, almost playful style indicative of the other films in the Black Emanuelle series, Aristide Massaccesi’s Emanuelle in America (1976)—which he directs under his usual pseudonym of Joe D’Amato—on the other hand possesses a distinctly different attitude as it attempts to comingle the usual softcore antics alongside explicit hardcore sex and some truly jarring violence. Steeped in salaciousness, this now-infamous film made its Blu-ray debut earlier in the year thanks to Mondo Macabro—in a brand-new 4K transfer, no less!—which most certainly necessitates an additional, more serious look at this still-unforgettable film.

The beautiful Javanese-born Laura Gemser returns as the titular Emanuelle in what was to be her third appearance following Adalberto Albertini’s original Black Emanuelle (1975) and Massaccesi’s rather tepid Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and, once again, her easygoing—and copiously nude—interaction as an ambitious, globetrotting reporter remains the foundation of this film as well. Taking into account that it does take place in ‘America’, the film rightly begins in New York City, where Emanuelle (Gemser) lives and works with Bill (Riccardo Salvino), a fellow reporter, but in her spare time, she also moonlights as a part-time fashion photographer. Following a colourful—and flesh-filled!—photo-shoot which plays-up the carefree spirit of Emanuelle’s hedonistic world (highlighted by plenty of Massaccesi’s lively, off-kilter camerawork and Nico Fidenco’s extremely catchy score), Emanuelle is then held-up at gunpoint by one of her model’s boyfriends, a self-professed ‘saviour’ who believes Emanuelle (quote) “corrupted” his girlfriend. In what turns out to be an almost self-referential theme, this crackpot is convinced that the world has (quote) “No more values, no more ideals and no morality left!” a sentiment which is certainly echoed repeatedly throughout the film as Massaccesi pushes the limits of what is deemed ‘acceptable’. As with Emanuelle’s erstwhile abductor who succumbs to her libidinous flirtations, the viewer is also compulsively drawn into the film’s ever-increasing—almost pathological—spiral of perversions. 

Gathering some pertinent info from Joe, a neighbourhood boxing coach and one of Emanuelle’s most trusted informants, she learns of Erik Van Deeran (spaghetti western vet Lars Bloch), an illegal arms dealer who also operates a high-end brothel outside of San Diego. Armed only with her smoldering sexuality and trusty hidden camera, Emanuelle documents her findings, including one girl’s, um, ‘unhealthy infatuation’ with a horse belonging to Van Deeran (“Since she’s met that Pedro, she’s lost her head!”), a brief—albeit jaw-dropping—indication that this Emanuelle film may well be a little, er… different! Of course, Emanuelle also partakes in a number of extracurricular activities herself, including going skinny-dipping with most of Van Deeran’s girls (a sequence highlighted by oodles of voyeuristic underwater photography!) and a soothing steam with an uncredited Lorraine De Selle, who would appear opposite Gemser years later in Bruno Mattei’s and Claudio Fragasso’s women-in-prison twofer, Violence in A Women’s Prison (1982) and Women’s Prison Massacre (1983). After befriending Alfredo (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser’s real-life husband), an Italian Duke and one of Van Deeran’s esteemed guests, Emanuelle coordinates her escape via Alfredo’s car trunk and is subsequently whisked away to his Venice home, where she meets his wife, Laura (Paola Senatore). In spite of Laura’s belief in marriage (“Matrimony is a wonderful institution, Everyone should try it at least once!”), monogamy be damned as Alfredo and Laura—almost instinctively—involve Emanuelle in a casual ménage à trois. Then, later that night at the kinky couple’s luxurious home, a full-blown orgy ensues with a typically decadent flare. Of course, being an intuitive soul, Emanuelle quickly learns of a (quote) “delightful club for single women”: a sort of stud-farm in the Caribbean where bored, wealthy women get to indulge their sexual fantasies. In between the usual roleplaying games (“Me Tarzan! You Jane!”), threesomes and non-simulated sex acts, which shutterbug Emanuelle voyeuristically snaps away at, the film takes a markedly different direction when she glimpses a couple watching a horrifyingly brutal snuff film, a development which certainly goes far beyond the pale of the film’s more traditional softcore trappings.

Obviously disturbed, Emanuelle is convinced she recognizes one of the girls in the film from a previous newspaper article (“Prostitute Found. Possible Revenge Killing?”), so she vows to expose those involved, but is warned of the inherent dangers associated with infiltrating this group. As her editor tries to dissuade her, he asks, “Are you sure it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill porno film?” But Emanuelle remains steadfast in her convictions, and she eventually comes in contact with a corrupt U.S. Senator (ex-peplum star and Mr. Argoman himself, Roger Browne), who openly espouses the merits of starting another war so that the (quote) “young people of today” can get their heads screwed-on straight. Upon taking Emanuelle back to his… um, ‘uniquely-decorated’ apartment, which features all sorts of BDSM-inspired artwork hanging on the walls (“Suzanne’s School of Punishment”), he entices her with a ‘regular’ blue movie. Canny as ever, however, Emanuelle responds by saying, “I thought someone like you would have something sensational, and not phony like that!” Sure enough, the pervy politico proceeds to screen the very same 8mm film that Emanuelle had seen back in the Caribbean. After having sex with the Senator (“That was fantastic!” he exclaims), Emanuelle continues to probe for answers by feigning interest in the filmed brutality she just witnessed (“It’s the raw horror of it that excites me!”). And it is here that Massaccesi, via his typically sly sense of humour, provides an ingenious touch as he toys with this urban legend. “You can’t get that kind of simulation from a professional actor!” points-out Emanuelle, but this is exactly what Massaccesi actually achieves. By deliberately scratching and damaging the film, it’s made to appear like some rough-hewn, amateurishly-shot act of depravity, which even features seasoned Italian F/X gurus Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani providing the gruesome handiwork.

The term ‘snuff’ was in fact coined earlier in the decade, but by 1976, the term began to gain traction, no doubt precipitated by the shrewd exploitation extravaganza Snuff (1976), a severely-reworked version of Michael and Roberta Findlay’s unfinished film Slaughter (1971). After being acquired by notorious producer Allen Shackleton, he took the unfinished film and tacked on a new ending which supposedly showed the ‘real-life’ murder of an actress. Directed by Simon Nuchtern, these flatly-shot scenes certainly captured the sleazy vibe of such an illicit endeavour, but the tawdry gore F/X were not very convincing at all; Shackleton’s marketing, on the other hand, was pure genius. Bestowing it with one of the most memorable exploitation taglines, “The film that could only be made in South America… where Life is CHEAP!” Shackleton took everything one step further, allegedly hiring fake protestors to artificially generate controversy and hopefully up the marketability of his modest production. If the rumours are true, his shameless chutzpah worked like a charm. While it’s never been substantiated if Massaccesi actually ever saw or even knew of Shackleton’s little exploitation marvel, he too utilises the South American backdrop to further accentuate the “life is cheap” theme. 

Following being drugged and forced into sex once again by the slimy Senator, Emanuelle travels to some unspecified (presumably Latin) country, where she witnesses first-hand many of the atrocities she’s already seen occur on film. Like the 8mm film-within-a-film itself, these supposedly ‘real’ scenes of torture are once again presented with the very same vertical scratches, jump-cuts, buckling and other imperfections, which leads the viewer to believe it may just be a vivid hallucination or nightmare. “What was it? A Dream? A Nightmare? I saw something horrible!” exclaims Emanuelle. “No, my dear, it wasn’t a dream, nor a nightmare, just a little powder… LSD,” replies the Senator, to which Emanuelle confusedly replies, “So nothing was true?!” Yet when she returns to New York convinced she didn’t get the story, Emanuelle is both shocked and surprised when her editor shows her an envelope filled with actual photos of this clandestine torture dungeon. “It has to be a first! It’s the scoop of the century!” cries Emanuelle. However, much to Emanuelle’s anger and dissatisfaction (“Other girls are going to get dragged into it, and we’ll become accomplices in this whole filthy business!”), her usually-overzealous editor is ordered to bury the story in the archives.

In spite of the incriminating photographs, which should provide irrefutable truth about the existence of this illicit torture-for-profit operation, it’s never made explicitly clear as to whether Emanuelle did or didn’t actually witness the making of a genuine snuff film, which, to a certain degree, helps keep the mythic nature of these films securely shrouded in mystery, but it’s also an outspoken criticism against various media outlets and their suppression of the truth, especially when it involves certain powerful individuals. Soon after, for Emanuelle in America’s utterly baffling conclusion, our heroine and Bill escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the big city to a remote tropical paradise (“Goodbye, editor! Goodbye, camera! Zoom lens! Highly-sensitive film! Wide-angle lens and darkroom!”), only to then become entangled in a tribal ceremony where she is revered as one of the tribal chief’s new wives. “This is your celebration!” exclaims Bill, in what can only be a reference to Nico Fidenco and Armonium’s superb title track, “Celebrate Myself”; a piece which, in hindsight, feels like a respectful—and fitting—nod to Laura Gemser herself. However, as with Haskell Wexler’s counterculture masterpiece, Medium Cool (1969), Massaccesi also gets all self-reflexive, and while his approach is not as direct or nihilistic, it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking finish just the same as he exposes this tribal village to be nothing but a sham—an expertly-designed set which even reveals the film crew preparing for the next set-up. 

In light of Emanuelle in America’s bleak subject matter, it all ends on a positive, optimistic note and only solidifies the notion that virtually anything (e.g., the realistic snuff footage) can be fabricated by a manipulative media, and much like Robert Forster’s character in Medium Cool, Emanuelle is also disheartened by her work and the limited opportunities she has to do some good in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Coming across like an open indictment of the rich and powerful, Emanuelle in America gives the viewer plenty to ponder upon. It has far more on its mind than mere sexploitation, and not only addresses the rise of ever-more-explicit and obscene pornography, but, more importantly, an ever-changing, voracious consumer culture that wants it all, as well as the media’s equally insatiable thirst for ratings. In the end, Massaccesi—as well as Emanuelle herself—had nowhere left to go within the milieu of the franchise, and in spite of Massaccesi’s very prolific career, he never made another film that had quite the same impact.

Available on home video in numerous differing edits on both VHS and DVD, Mondo Macabro’s new, uncut 4K transfer looks outstanding. Taken from the film’s original camera negative, detail is superb with nary a blemish in sight, but at the same time, it retains a healthy amount of film grain and is very filmic in its appearance. With MM’s new transfer, you begin to appreciate just what a talented craftsman Massaccesi truly was.

Special features begin with an astute, fact-filled audio commentary from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson and Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck, which covers everything from the convoluted history of the entire E(m)manuelle franchise; lots of detail about the cast and crew, which also includes plenty of background info on Laura Gemser and composer Nico Fidenco; the film’s release history and its indirect connection to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1981) are just a few of the other topics discussed. Highly entertaining and well worth your time! In Joe D’Amato Totally Uncut The Erotic Experience (62 mins), the legendary director speaks candidly during a career-spanning interview filmed in 1999, which also features a generous amount of film clips from his substantial filmography. Author David Flint is up next with his visual essay, Emmanuelle: From 2 M’s to One: The Story ofE(m)manuelle (35 mins) where he covers everything from the original source novel and its author, Marayat Rollet-Andriane, to her brief career as a mainstream actress, and just about every spin-off/rip-off and variation that was made in the wake of its success, including plenty of info on Massaccesi’s own ‘unofficial’ contributions to the mythos. Lastly, the always enjoyable Mondo Macabro highlight reel of upcoming and currently-available product finish off the extras.

A wonderful release, and an excellent addition to Mondo Macabro’s ever-expanding catalogue dedicated to “The Wild Side of World Cinema”. Emanuelle in America is currently available as a Limited Red Case Edition (1500 copies), which contains an excellent, nicely-illustrated booklet with writing from Diabolique’s very own Heather Drain, plus a set of postcards and reversible artwork courtesy of Justin Coffee and Silver Ferox. A definite must-own, for sure!

About Dennis Capicik

Dennis Capicik is a lifelong fan of movies. He is the co-founder of the old school ’zine Sub-Terrenea and has also contributed to Video Watchdog, European Trash Cinema, Giallo Pages, Killbaby! and the original incarnation of Monster! He is also a regular contributor to the re-vamped Monster! and Weng’s Chop. He also runs the movie blog Unpopped Cinema.

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