When you become an honorary member of the cult of fringe film, you become privy to certain facts and insights that the average bear does not have. Scratch that, since they could have access but are willfully blind in a world dominated by “reboots,” interchangeable “stars” who look and act like their parts were put together in a factory run by Abercrombie & Fitch. It's sad but then again, it is all the more reason to dig, delve and preserve the nooks and crannies of art and expression that *Insert White Teethed Entertainment TV Host* fears to tread.
One of these badly kept secrets is that for years, many a “straight” (terrible word) and “legitimate” (hate that word even worse, especially as one who was born illegitimate!) film editor, cinematographer and yes, director, cut their proverbial teeth in the adult film industry. Most who have been somewhat outed, like Wes Craven or Troma founder and head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, skirt around the topic and will, unless locusts start swarming the skies, never participate in any future releases of works like “Angela The Fireworks Woman” or “The Divine Obsession.” The really sad irony is that both of these men have made “legit” films that were way worse than their adult work. Craven produced “Dracula 2000,” a vampire film that made you feel defiled for wasting your time and money more so than anything featuring literal ejaculation.
A filmmaker you cannot lob any of that criticism on is one William Lustig. The man who has directed such films as the tormented and still controversial Joe Spinell classic, “Maniac,” the 1983 action film with Fred Williamson and Robert Forster, “Vigilante” and the “Maniac Cop” series, got his filmmaking feet wet with adult film. Unlike guys like Craven and Kaufman, Lustig is fully out and honest about his time in adult and the films he directed under the “nom de porn,” Billy Bagg.
Thanks to the always stellar folks at DistribPix, there is now a DVD release of the two straight films that “Billy Bagg” directed: 1977's “The Violation of Claudia” and the following year's “Hot Honey.” (He has also been attached as producer and possible co-director of the 1976 gay feature “The Headmaster,” starring “Violation of Claudia” and “Hot Honey” actor, Jamie Gillis.) However, having these two titles in print and featured together on a nice DVD release is not the big coup. It's close enough for science, however, the true coup is that they managed to nab Lustig himself to supply commentary track and endorsement. So out of his brethren of mainstream filmmakers who dipped their toes into adult film waters, Lustig is one of the, if not the first, to have not only claim his early work but appear on supplemental materials. That is what we call testicular fortitude.
Now, that bit o'nerdliness aside, let's get to the meat in the sandwich and ask, what about the films themselves? It's a worthy question that merits a worthy response, so here we go!
“The Violation of Claudia,” despite its roughie-sounding title, is more rooted in sensual exploration than any true violations. (So never fear, your souls will gather terribly little dirt while watching this.) The film centers around the titular Claudia (a very young Sharon Mitchell), a beautiful and sheltered wife for a successful and much older businessman, Jason (Don Peterson). Living a pampered but boring existence rife with sexual frustration and a neglectful husband, she spends her time getting tennis lessons from the handsome and somewhat wolfish Kip (Jamie Gillis.) Noticing something off with his student, Kip and Claudia go to lunch together where she vents to him. Unexpectedly, he offers his services, stating that “...girls work for me. Girls like yourself.” Claudia rebuffs him. For the time being, since you know that said violation has got to come in place sooner or later.
She goes for a post-workout massage. Her masseuse is tapped-out wrestler style by Kip, who ends up giving her an internal and wholly consensual massage. Afterwords, he writes his number of the bottom of her tennis shoe and leaves. The next morning, Jason is even more of a neglectful dickbag, missing the fact that Claudia actually says to him, “I hope your plane crashes.” Later that day, she picks up a young hitchhiker, only to bring him back to her condo and seduce him by the fireplace. Once that is done, Claudia is left alone with her thoughts and she ends up giving in and calling Kip.
Meeting him at an apartment, Claudia watches a session, arranged by Kip, between Lisa (Crystal Sync) and a client (Roger Caine). Between being smitten with what she sees and the ministrations she receives from Kip and, later on, Lisa, Claudia has now become the New York version of a “belle du jour.” Her entrance into escort work involves a weird, nebbish middle aged man (Waldo Short) who makes a sundae on top of her. But when she comes home early one afternoon, she finds Jason with the most unexpected amoreuse, revealing that the titular “violation” is less physical and more of the heart in one creative twist.
“The Violation of Claudia” is a film that hints at a bigger picture but is structured by its own minimalism, right down to the lack of color in Claudia's life. Her sexual fantasies take place in a rather spartan, white room and she seems to be continually surrounded by bare, neutral toned spaces. It's as if the only color in her life is the sex itself. When Kip gives her his number, it is akin to a lion giving the caged bird the key. In this respect, Mitchell and Gillis are a great pair, with him not only being a little bit older but carrying this air of a seasoned sexual charismatic, in contrast to her younger, softer and more repressed housewife.
The film has a very dreamy look in parts and possesses, albeit in a stark uptown-NYC sort of way, a feminine feel about it. This is largely thanks to cinematographer Robert Lindsay, who would go on to lense not only “Hot Honey,” but Lustig's horror classic and interminably infamous film, “Maniac.” The music is serviceable enough. The only real downside is that it is a thin-feeling movie, that hints at so much that could be further explored. The weird distance between her and husband, especially given how barely utilized at all Don Peterson is, not to mention more of Claudia herself. The film is blessed to have the twin powers that are Sharon Mitchell and Jamie Gillis, so getting to see these two get a little more non-flesh material to chew on would have been mind blowingly good. But given that this was Lustig's first big film directing gig at the wee age of 22, it is way better than it should be. It's a fun film that hints at darker things without fully delving but still offers enough for the above and below the waistline to keep a viewer interested.
Lustig's next film, 1978's “Hot Honey,” is nearly a photo-negative of everything “Violation of Claudia” was. While the 1977 film featured a somewhat believable character put in a series of occasionally wild but quasi-feasible situations with a thread of sympathy and sensitivity, “Hot Honey” is more like a horny, skunk-weed-laced raunchy letter to a porn-mag editor kind of experience. This is less of a statement of criticism and more of a knowing nod of the head with an “oh yes” as one grabs a can of a less than respectable drink of choice.
“Hot Honey” has a cute opener, with the titular Honey (Heather Young) on a date with her boyfriend, ultra-mook Johnny (Jack Hammer, a pseudonym that is even more dumb than a can of creatine paired with a Toby Keith album). They walk through the city, including Times Square featuring marquees promoting “Jaws 2” and Bob Chinn's “Candy Stripers.” The pair are mentally challenged and happy, as they admire the city's neon lights, arcades and a side that has sadly long since been murdered by gentrification. Afterwords, they go back to Johnny's place, where he tries to get friendly with Honey in a very Roman hands sort of way. Still a virgin, despite being well into her mid-late 20's, she rebuffs him and then they end up breaking up, after he has declared that “his balls are killing him.” Luckily for Johnny, his medical condition is temporary, since as soon as Honey is out the door, he phones up Bette (Robin Byrd) and quickly, the easy going dirty blonde is all up in his business like a Mormon missionary at your front door .
Meanwhile, Honey goes home to her wheelchair-bound brother, Michael (Jamie Gillis) and his gorgeous but tough nurse (Serena). She barely walks through the front door before Michael grabs her by the wrist and starts asking, “Where have you been?!?” She jerks her wrist away, declaring herself a “big girl” now and walks off to her bedroom. To let off some steam, Honey, under the covers, starts to commune with herself, while the film goes between that and Johnny and Bette tearing the paint off the walls.
The next morning, Honey goes to visit her good friend, Sara (Lisa Marks,) right after the latter's husband has shagged her rotten and left for work. The two have a little girl time, do a really awkward dance rehearsal (!) and then precede to bond in the ways of Sappho in an assortment of rooms and movement. For a “virgin,” Honey's pretty quickly down with some loving.
“Hot Honey” plays out a like a DeSadean tale...that is if the Marquis was a horned-up truck driver thrumming on yellow jackets, spicy ranch chips and back issues of Nugget. Speaking of which, while Honey is busy with Sara, Michael's Nurse starts to chide him for being an “asshole” and constantly being mean to his grown sister, to the extent of wet blanketing any chances she has had for any real relationships. This all makes some actual sense until the Nurse starts busting out the leather gear and you realize that out of the elements that rule in the world of “Hot Honey,” logic is not a strong one.
If that isn't clear to you then, it will be by the time Honey arrives and starts watching the S&M session at hand. Most of us would be like, “Ew that's my dickhole brother,” and go for a two hour walk. Not our heroine. She keeps watching until the Nurse notices and invites Honey to help “punish” Michael. Naked. Go ahead and cue up Clive Clemmons because things are about to get inappropriate, with Honey losing her long battled over maidenhood to her brother, who has suddenly very good use of his legs.
After this, whatever questionable decision making skills Honey had are out the window, since she immediately goes back to Johnny's apartment and tells him that, “I realize how much I love you and how much I need you.” They do what they do, but in a weird twist, Honey has one more surprise for her physically strong yet slightly mentally/soul-impaired lover.
“Hot Honey” is the brain damaged but having a good time all the way sibling to the more serious, slightly angst-ridden “Violation of Claudia.” Which is all the more reason why it is great that this double bill even exists. The cast all look like they are having a great time and you get the insidious ear worm of the “Hot Honey” theme stuck in your head for good measure. It sounds a bit like Lou Reed, if Lou gave up having any artistic credibility and got funky all at the same time. The scene with Jamie Gillis, Serena and Heather Young is compelling as it is head-scratching in its oblivious dysfunction. It is borderline DeRenzian in its ebullient wrongness.
DistribPix, doing what they always do, have done a beautiful job of bringing these two films to DVD. Both prints look good, the packaging, including reverse sleeve-art, is eye catching and the extras are cherry, with the best by far being the commentary by the director himself, Mr. William Lustig. He's fairly engaging and has some fun behind-the-scenes stories, including some involving Sharon Mitchell, as well as “Hot Honey” starlet, Heather Young. His moderator, “Drive” and “Bronson” director Nicholas Winding Refn, does a fine job of keeping the conversation moving and fresh.
For those of you who are fans of Lustig's later work and are curious about his film directing origins or are just interested to see two slices of New York City adult cinema from the late 70's, do check out this beautifully put together double feature presentation. Then try, just try, to get the “Hot Honey” theme out of your head.
Copyright 2015 Heather Drain