Grindhouse Meets Art House in FLESH GORDON, or When Is the Last Time You Talked to Your Mother About Porn?

Posted on: Apr 24th, 2013 By:

FLESH GORDON (1974); Dirs: Michael Benveniste, Howard Ziehm; Starring Jason Williams, Suzanne Fields; Cineprov Presents on Sunday April 284, 7:30 p.m.; The Plaza Theatre, Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When is the last time you talked to your mother about porn?

Yeah, OK. That’s a weird question. Let’s back up for a little context.

This Friday, the Plaza begins a run of one of the weirdest relics of the 1970s, softcore porn spoof FLESH GORDON. If you’ve ever doubted the commitment and film credentials of the new Plaza ownership, it may be time to suspend your disbelief, because I honestly don’t know another theatre in the city brave enough to put a softcore title on the screen just because they can. And GORDON is more than just a silly porno. It’s a genuine oddity, a movie with a unique role in film history and a gateway into that bizarro time in the 20th century when it was cool to watch porn.

When film projectors were invented over 100 years ago, the first bulb wasn’t cool before people found a way to use it for porn. Many of the earliest films we know about were skin flicks and erotica, because, then-as-now, that’s where the money was. But porn was always an outsider in the entertainment business, buried and segregated by strict, sometimes-draconian interpretations of obscenity laws. Porn was the film industry’s dirty secret, the seedy cousin nobody wants to talk about.

An unusual and powerful combination of events radically reshaped the porn industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Sexual Revolution of the 60s became a point of cultural pride for the many young people living through civil unrest, a way to fully distinguish themselves from the conservative generation of their parents. For some, freer sex equated to progress, and that notion led to some strange experiments in the name of moving forward. This shift in the culture caused a general relaxing of local and federal obscenity laws, which in turn opened the door for wider distribution of porno publications and, eventually, the opening of theaters exclusively and proudly devoted to pornographic films. All of those screens needed content, and a batch of eager filmmakers rushed into the new market, filmmakers with big ideas inspired by a larger trend of European art films which happened to be arriving on American shores at about the same time, sexy films like BLOW-UP (1966), PERSONA (1966) and the arthouse thrillers of Roman Polanski. Those films had blurred the line between smut and art in a way that seemed to point to a number of possibilities: if films with sex could be art, well, then sex films could be art, too!

This resulted in an extremely brief, but intensely weird trend dubbed by some as “porno-chic.” The trend began in 1970 with Michael Benveniste’s MONA THE VIRGIN NYMPH, the first major narrative hardcore porno film, and the first porn movie to receive widespread release in America. The success of MONA brought more attention to porn, and within two years, the genre had its first real “masterpieces” and mainstream box office smashes with BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR (1972) and the phenomenon DEEP THROAT (1972). As if the world hadn’t gone topsy turvy enough, porn films became the talk of mainstream film critics and big-city intellectuals, and many felt as if they couldn’t keep up with the water cooler conversation unless they were up to date on the latest stag flicks. Some porn stars—most famously Marilyn Chambers—threatened to break out of porn and into Hollywood.

It was into this environment that FLESH GORDON arrived. FLESH was an attempt at a big, mainstream porn comedy, co-directed by the father of porno-chic himself, MONA director Benveniste, but by the time FLESH was released, the trend was already slinking back into the shadows. FLESH takes as its target the original FLASH GORDON serials of the 1930s (not the more-famous FLASH GORDON film, which came six years after its porno progenitor) and places its hero on the planet Porno Mongo, ruled by the evil Wang the Perverted. Flesh’s mission: to stop a sex ray that could turn all of Earth into sex fiends. (A similar story, it turns out, to 1968’s BARBARELLA.) To give you a window into the film’s sense of humor, when Flesh and his crew arrive on Porno Mongo, they are attacked by a large, throbbing monster. It’s called, of course, a Penisaurus.

So it’s not high art, but FLESH GORDON is more of a pleasure for film fans than a pain. While we may look at porn parodies today as hopelessly cheap and shlocky, nobody told the FLESH GORDON crew that they weren’t making a real film. The movie has a goofy sense of humor that gets it through the creaky plot, and it features incredibly-cool and inventive special effects, including a series of stop-motion critters designed and executed by future industry legends like Mike Minor (STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE [1979]) and one of the all-time great movie monster makers, Rick Baker. FLESH GORDON exists at that one narrow crossroads in film history where porno ambitions met mainstream talent, and it provides a glimpse into a different direction that American movies might have gone. Despite the tendency of porn to exploit its stars, there’s nothing mean-spirited in FLESH GORDON’s softcore spirit. The film is packed with nudity from end to end, but often feels more like admiration than exploitation, more Russ Meyer than Chuck Traynor.

There’s some confusion as to the different versions of FLESH GORDON available to the public. For many years, the only version of the film available was a heavily-edited 72 minutes long, and rumors persisted of a longer hardcore cut. But when the restored, uncut version appeared years later, it remained softcore. (This uncut version is the one playing at the Plaza) Co-director Howard Ziehm has stated that there were hardcore scenes filmed, but that they were nabbed by police in an obscenity-law sting and have been permanently lost. This is probably for the best. Part of the fun of FLESH GORDON is the way that, despite its rampant nudity and bawdy sexuality, the film somehow retains its gee-whiz innocence. Penetration tends to ruin that illusion.

The moment of the mainstream porn film was basically gone by the time FLESH GORDON arrived, but the film’s legacy is still felt today. GORDON was the first porn spoof, and its success in, frankly, getting away with it blazed a trail for decades of porno spoofs that have become the most famous version of the form. If you’ve ever sat around wondering what the “porn name” of your favorite mainstream film would be, you owe a debt, however small, to FLESH GORDON. Sadly, today’s pornos have give up on the clever titles and funny rebranding in favor of just putting “parody” right in the name. I know it’s porn we’re talking about here, but come on. “Batman: The Porn Parody?” Where’s the fun in that?

So how did I wind up talking with my mother about porn? Well, I realized that Mom would have been in her 20s at the peak of porno-chic. Surely she knew about it. Was she aware it was going on? Did she *gasp* see DEEP THROAT? I approached the subject with some caution and, after some explaining, she agreed to answer my question. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Son, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Thank you, Mom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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The 2012 Buried Alive! Film Fest Unearths a Weekend of Horror Treasures, New and Classic at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Nov 8th, 2012 By:

Buried Alive! Film Fest; Friday, Nov. 9 7 p.m. – 11 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 10 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule here; Tickets $20 (all access, both days), $5 per programming block, available at Plaza box office.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre, the Buried Alive! Film Fest (BA!FF) returns the weekend of November 9-10 to once again delve into all things horrific and fantastic.

The festival was founded by local horror fiend Luke Godfrey, whom you’ll know as the co-creator of Chambers of Horror (Atlanta’s only adult Halloween attraction) and the award-winning film series Splatter Cinema, as well as being the head undead behind Zombie Walk Atlanta. Buried Alive! Film Fest has proven year after year to be one of the many reasons that Atlanta is recognized as among the horror capitals of the world, and this year proves to be no exception as Festival Director and filmmaker Blake Myers has loaded the schedule with the weird, the wonderful and the outright outrageous.

The festival launches Friday night at 7 p.m. with a suite of shorts under the umbrella “BIZARRO: A Journey Into the Gory.” The program opens and closes with, respectively, two celebrated selections from the 2011 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival: Thomas Nicol’s THE WINDOW INTO TIME and EDGAR ALLAN POE’S “THE RAVEN” from Christopher Saphire and Don Thiel (which was selected by Guillermo del Toro at the HPL Film Festival as one of his favorites). In between, we’re treated to a wide variety of short bursts of terror ranging from a mysterious plunge from London’s streets into the wilderness of Jonathan and Richard Chance’s TIMESLIP to the stop-motion animated skeletons of Theo Pingarelli’s DOPPELGANGER and IDLE WORSHIP.

ABED, directed by Ryan Lieske.

Following the shorts program, the short film ETHEREAL CHRYSALIS sets the stage for the opening double feature of ABED and MANBORG. ABED is based on the controversial short story of the same name by two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author Elizabeth Massie. The film was written and directed by filmmaker Ryan Lieske (CLEAN BREAK, DOWN TO SLEEP, which screened at the 2010 and 2011 BA!FFs) and co-produced by Fangoria scribe Philip Nutman, who also was an associate producer and co-wrote the screenplay for JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. Though the movie places us in the midst of a zombie uprising, it primarily centers on the building horror and desperation developing between two living characters: Meggie, whose husband was lost early on, and her mother-in-law who is intent on bringing some normalcy back into this world at any cost. MANBORG, on the other hand, is an over-the-top tribute to blood-soaked 1980s sci-fi/action flicks like ROBOCOP and TERMINATOR. The movie, in which a dead soldier finds himself resurrected as a cyborg killing machine, is the latest insane creation from the collective known as Astron-6, was directed by team member Steven Kostanski and won “Best of Fest” at the 2012 Boston Underground Film Festival.

On Saturday, buckle your theater seatbelts (they make those, right?) for a day chock-full of tasty morsels you won’t want to pass up. It all starts at 4 p.m. with a shorts program dedicated to “Serial Killer and Alternate Universes.” An international smorgasbord of horrific delights awaits you; from the quiet terrors of SILENCE (from Italy’s Angelo and Giuseppe Capasso) to the agoraphobic serial killer of HIM INDOORS (from the UK’s Paul Davis). That’s followed by a delicious selection of “Rotten Peaches,” featuring four short films from local filmmakers.

The poster for Javier Chillon's DECAPODA SHOCK, which screens during Friday's 7 p.m. shorts program.

Saturday night’s feature is a real NAILBITER. The Grand Jury prizewinner for Best Feature Film at Shriekfest 2012, Patrick Rea’s latest feature depicts a woman and her three daughters seeking refuge from an oncoming tornado in the basement of a seemingly abandoned house. However, they soon find that someone—or something—is upstairs and is intent on keeping them trapped below deck.

The festival closes with a real treat for even the most casual of horror film fans: a screening of Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece SUSPIRIA. Jessica Harper stars as Suzy Banyon, a newly-arrived ballet student at the celebrated Tanz Akademie of Frieburg, who finds herself ensnared in the machinations of a coven of witches under the leadership of Madame Blanc, played by Joan Bennett. Bennett, best known to horror fans as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard from television’s DARK SHADOWS (and its first big-screen adaptation, 1970’s HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS), returned to the screen after a seven-year absence for this, her final feature film, and brought with her that role’s association with gothic romanticism which was so integral to the series. SUSPIRIA is simultaneously strikingly beautiful and brutal, evocative both of fairy tales and of the hyper-violent gialli of Italian cinema. And it features what is perhaps one of the greatest (if not the single greatest) musical score (composed and performed by the Italian band Goblin) to ever accompany a horror film. In fact, the film is unimaginable without it. (Ed. note: Read our Retro Review by Andrew Kemp here)

A mere $20 for all of this? (And only $5 for each individual block of programming?) It’s the best bargain in town for anyone remotely interested in horror as a genre, much less the hardcore genre fanatic. Tickets are available at the Plaza box office, so stop by and get yours as soon as possible.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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