Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Red Roses of Passion (1966)

by Pete "Patchouli and Damp Basement" Risley

Probably readers here are already familiar with some of the movies of Joseph Sarno, the adult film director whose work ranged from '60s sexploitation to '70s Swedish softcore, and finally and inevitably into the hardcore realm. Though Sarno was once best known for hyped softcore items filmed in Sweden, especially 1970's Inga, his movies that are most praised these days are noir-ish B&W sexploitation dramas from the '60s, and include Moonlighting Wives, Passion in Hot Hollows and Sin in the Suburbs.

Often set on Long Island or in NYC, Sarno's '60s films differ markedly from the work of his contemporaries in the sexploitation field like Russ Meyer and Barry Mahon. Their work exemplified the sensibility found in “men's magazines” of the era, not just Playboy, but the lurid adventure magazines like Argosy, True and sleazier ventures with titles like Stag and Male, and were aimed fundamentally to please an audience of lascivious “raincoat men” who frequented grindhouses in venues like New York's Time Square.

In contrast, Sarno's movies definitely involved sex, but within stories about tangled relationships, odysseys of self-discovery and often of self-destruction. Sarno said in interviews more than once that his works were character-driven, and that the sexual content in them focused on "the female orgasm." Ironically, given his later association with Sweden, Sarno's best work seems in some vague sense--dare I say it--comparable to that of Ingmar Bergman, though given the necessities of the category he worked in, he seems not so much a “poor man's Bergman” as, well, a raincoat man's Bergman. I mean that as a compliment, more or less. Though I never saw a Sarno movie in a theatre, I’ve watched several on home video, some repeatedly, so put me among those raincoaters in spirit.

Sarno died in 2010. Many of his works have long been made available by the folks at Something Weird Video, initially as mail-order VHS tapes, and in the last decade, some have been marketed in DVD format in cooperation with the Image Entertainment company, while some others are available as DVD-R directly from Something Weird. Among the DVD-Rs is my own favorite of all the Sarno movies I've seen, an oddity titled Red Roses of Passion.

This may, indeed, be the strangest of Sarno’s pre-softcore films. It tells the story of Carla, a young woman who lives with her widowed and straitlaced Aunt Julie and goody-goody cousin Tracy. Aunt Julie disapproves of Carla's mildly wanton behavior with the horndog boys she dates, sometimes making sudden intrusions into Carla’s room when she’s entertaining a suitor in a state of partial undress. Why can’t Carla go out with nice fellows like Tracy’s blah boyfriend, frets Aunt Julie, to Carla’s rising exasperation.

In need of a distraction, Carla is intrigued when her friend Enid hooks her up with a Tarot card-reading fortune-teller, Martha, portrayed with much primping, pouting and finishing-school elocution by a lovely actress named Helena Clayton. Martha, it develops, is the leader of a pagan cult of women, of which Enid is a member, who hold evening get-togethers called “Conversations with Pan” in a dark-curtained, candle-lit room, while dressed in sheer negligees. At Martha’s urging, Enid convinces Carla to come along one evening to check out the goings-on.

It turns out that the main attraction for the participants, even more coveted than the “wine of Delphi” they imbibe, are the mysteriously alluring long-stemmed red roses they elegantly caress themselves and others with during these ceremonies, which seem to drive them into a state of sensual euphoria. One favored celebrant gets to be tied to a column and caressed with roses by all the others, resulting in great orgasmic signifying. Meanwhile, repeated close-ups of a single sinister eye peeking out and darting around crazily from behind clutched curtains near the flower-fest tell us that all is not love and aromatherapy with Martha’s little cult.

Carla isn’t sure she wants to join up after seeing the “priestesses of Pan” behave like Siamese cats in a catnip patch, but when Martha offers to help her settle Aunt Julia and Cousin Tracy’s hash with some witchery, she’s eager to give it a try. The result of this causes Carla to feel some remorse, but she soon learns that ending the game entails some prospects she hadn’t bargained for.

Red Roses features a number of players familiar from Sarno’s other films of the period, though Ms. Clayton, familiar to me only from lesser performances in a few other ‘60s sexploitation pictures by other filmmakers, among them Nymphs Anonymous, pretty much owns this one. The B&W cinematography is, by my judgment, excellent, especially in the wonderfully gothic sensual-occult ceremony scenes. The soundtrack may be old retread movie music, but it’s dramatic and works well. The print on the Something Weird DVD-R, is pretty splicey, especially at the beginning of the film, but I expect it’s the only one in existence.

Editor's note: Pete Risley is the author of the crime novel Rabid Child, published in 2010 by New Pulp Press, and it is certainly one of my favorite first novels, and simply one of the better books I've read in the past couple of years. It is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither are many of you. Please visit to learn more. -Love, Jimmy