Satan Was A Lady

Last Wednesday night I finally started filming my first feature, Lesbo-A-Go-Go. The idea floated to the surface five years ago while my friend Gregor and I tore through a six-pack watching Doris Wishman’s 1966 anti-classic Another Day Another Man. The moment the strip club theme tune hit the screen, I was hooked. An hour later, the script was practically written. Our tribute to the genius of Doris became the story of a young innocent girl trapped in a downward spiral of drug addiction, degradation, delirium and ultimately damnation. Predatory lesbians, good girls going bad. And most of all: sex without sex. A fake ’60s sexploitation film where porn is in the mind’s eye.

It took five years to start pre-production. Then, just as the cameras were about to roll, I heard the devastating news: Doris had died in August.

The first night of filming went exactly the way I planned it: we recreated a ’60s lesbian club called “The Furry Oyster”. There were go-go girls, an all-girl band (well, almost) on stage, and an audience full of girls in short skirts and tall boots swinging their hips in the name of Exploitation. True to the spirit of Doris we shot hand-held in black and white with no sound (we shot only the back of the actors’ heads so we didn’t have to synch the lips in post), and believe me the budget was as non-existent as you could get. I suspect this: Doris was standing in the corner, all five feet of her, with a crooked smile across her features, watching the insane adventure unfold.

Why a tribute to Doris? She is, to paraphrase a famous quote about someone else (was it John Waters? Russ Meyer?), a gutter-level Fellini, a nutcase, an original, and, in every sense of the word, a true American auteur. She maintained total artistic control over a project from the script to the final edit, and was at her most creative piecing together each mini-masterpiece of sleazy wonder out of rag-ends of celluloid and the dubious performances of half-baked hams. The sharp-eyed filmmaker knew exactly what she wanted, then hammered out exactly what she could afford. The result is a priceless catalogue of over 25 films imbued with something that is so rare these days: character. I never met Doris, but I feel like I’ve been swimming around in her head for years.

Wishman’s films clump together into three categories: the nudist camp films, the “roughies”, and what I call the “loopies” – gimmick exploitation movies with a hook so twisted you can hang a shop window full of roast duck off them. The nudist camp films came about almost by accident, as Doris trained as an actress in New York in the ’50s (alongside Shelley Winters, who she always maintained was nowhere near as good an actress as Wishman was) before going to work for master producer and distributor Joseph Levine, the man who introduced Steve Reeves as Hercules and the Italian toga muscle epics to America. Doris then married and moved to Florida, but she was tragically widowed after only five months and needed a distraction. It proved to be making nudie films, now “Garden Of Eden”, the first film to revel in topless nudity (albeit shot in a naturist camp in a sterile travelogue fashion) to be considered legal by the courts. Wishman’s first was Hideout In The Sun (1960), and was quickly followed by Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls (1962), and her first gimmick film, Nude On The Moon (1962). Filmed in under a week in Florida’s Coral Castle, the plot has two astronauts landing on a remarkably lush lunar surface to find a civilization of naked women. All have headbands with spring antennae, which allow them to communicate telepathically – that also saves time having to synch lips with recorded voice-overs! All the stock nudist camp clichés are here – volleyball, sunbathing, standing in front of strategically-placed shrubs – but are wonderfully turned on their heads by the film’s ludicrous premise.

Doris returned to New York in 1965 to start making much grubbier, mostly black and white melodramas for the grind house circuit. Known as “roughies”, these sordid, sleazy tableaux display little flesh on the screen (for legal reasons in those pre-hardcore days) but the scripts suggest much more nastiness: lesbianism, drug addiction, sexual blackmail and murder are alluded to, and Wishman’s specialty is to let the depravity sink in on a subconscious level. Best films from this period are the back-to-back classics Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965) and Another Day, Another Man (1966), but there are more to recommend – A Taste Of Her Flesh (1967), Too Much Too Often! (1968), Indecent Desires (1967), the list continues.

The Amazing Transplant

By 1970, Wishman’s brand of sexploitation soap operas had a quaint anachronistic feel now hardcore pornography was breathing down the backs of grind house patrons across the country. It was time for a change of tact. Despite a brief stab at soft-core sex comedy, the plain unwatchable Keyholes Are For Peeping, Or Is There Life After Marriage? (1972) starring faded ’50s Jerry Lewis imitator Sammy Petrillo, and a hardcore feature with Annie Sprinkle that Wishman denied ever making, (1976’s Come with Me My Love aka The Haunted Pussy, Wishman billed as “Luigi Manicottale”), Wishman’s final decade of her career is remembered as her “gimmick” phase, with a series of films that don’t exactly qualify as sex films, or for that matter fall into any recognizable category other than “Doris Wishman” movies. 1970 saw The Amazing Transplant, the story of a man whose friend’s penis is grafted onto him only to find himself unable to stop raping women in gold earrings. Let Me Die A Woman (1978), an obscenely exploitative shockumentary on transsexuals (“Twelve months ago…I was a man!”), features the ugliest transgender cases Wishman could find, and the greasy surgeon narrator at one point starts tapping a patient’s groin in shocking close-up – with a biro! All framed, of course, with Wishman’s spotless intentions and tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, which turns the grotesque proceedings into a carnival of the perverse.

The freak show angle is hard to shake when Wishman’s bad taste masterpieces Deadly Weapons (released 1973) and Double Agent 73 (released 1974) loom into view like a pair of Arctic icebergs. The two films were conceived with their central gimmick first, and the scripts as almost an afterthought. The gimmick, of course, was the Meyer-esque cartoon-like figure of Polish burlesque dancer “Chesty Morgan” (real name Lillian Wilczkowsky), a stripper with a reportedly whopping 73-inch bust. In the two Chesty films she is a wonder to behold under her plastic-looking ash wig, her “acting” consisting of a heavy-lidded pout or wide toothy come-on smile, depending on the mood of each scene. Which invariably calls for Chesty to whip out her moneymakers and massage them, air them out (her bra support straps are larger than most corsets), or frame them for the camera in gratuitous close-up. To be fair, Ms Wilczkowsky was never destined for acting greatness, but the story goes Doris was so frustrated with Chesty’s lumpen delivery on-camera and prima-donna antics off-camera that she scrapped plans for a third Chesty adventure, tentatively titled Crystal.

Deadly Weapons is the story of an exotic dancer whose husband is killed by gangsters. One by one she tracks the mob down and smothers them between her frightening cleavage. For the Wishman student the film delivers on every promise – awkward zooms, ragged montage, pointless cutaways, a self-written manual of camera angles designed to cause delirium rather than exposition, and a library of stock music stolen from ’70s German car commercials. Wishman’s immediate follow-up, Double Agent 73, is equally as loopy, and reworks Chesty’s “character” as a spy with some unusual equipment. As I said before, the film neither makes the grade as a sex movie OR as a low-rent Bond adventure. Instead it exists in that strange gray area of exploitation cinema that belongs uniquely to Doris.

The film opens with a government spy (“Agent 99” – I’m sure the joke’s not lost on Doris) breaking into the house of crime boss Ivan Toplar (or “Mr T”) looking for a microfilm, proof of his involvement in a large heroin ring. He is discovered by one of Mr T’s henchman, a wiry brute with what looks like an enormous purple scab on his face – 99 sends a patchy message to HQ about a scar before Scab-Face runs him over in his car.

Double Agent 73

Cut to Chesty as Jane Monet, Agent 73, sunning her top-heavy torso beside a pool at a (Florida?) resort when she gets the call from HQ. Find Toplar, the Chief insists, and find the man with the scar. Cut to a hospital bed, where Chesty lies recovering from an operation – we are told in flashback, with Six Million Dollar Man sound effects – to implant a spy camera in her left breast. A nurse walks in to check on the dressing: “My, you’ve put makeup on. You look real pretty”. Chesty suspects the nurse when she tries to offer her a mickey finn disguised as medication; pretending to be asleep, she sneaks out in her hospital gown, breasts swinging past her navel, while the nurse is on the phone to Scab-Face and strangles her with the phone cord. Chesty then takes a photo for evidence – she lifts up her left breast, and “flash”!

Chesty then hunts down Toplar’s associates and dispatches them in disturbingly inventive ways. One turns up at Chesty’s apartment while she is enjoying a topless drink – she knocks him off his feet, crams ice cubes down his throat, then finished off her cocktail. Another, so drunk he thinks Chesty is his Russian girlfriend, chows down on one of Chesty’s mammaries only to find them coated with poison. Meanwhile Chesty’s girlfriend comes to stay at her apartment, and is mistakenly dispatched in the shower by Toplar’s assassin; Doris the mischievous auteur manages to recreate the shower scene from Psycho on $1.98 and a jar of cranberry sauce. Scab-Face is straight on the phone with the failed assassin: “Mr T is awful mad… And you’d better not muff it next time or it’s curtains for you!”

On her usual feature film budget of around the $50,000 mark (not cheap by porno standards but a skidrow sum anywhere else) Doris comes into her own as an innovative filmmaker, and the moments in Double Agent 73 when her wild “no-budget” inventiveness kick in are pure Wishman gold. To simulate a nightclub Doris stands Chesty and her co-star in front of an enormous sheet of tinfoil and starts shaking the backdrop like a maniac to get that “drunk on a spaceship” feel. Then there’s a scene where Chesty is interrupted by a mobster clicking away in his office. The subsequent fight must have been damaged at the film lab; what follows is slowed down to a frame-by-frame crawl, accompanied by a similar slowed-down drone on the soundtrack, of the same two shots in a bizarre loop. Chesty then reaches her car and the mobster follows her, at which point the film is wound up to double speed. The effect, to say the least, is surreal.

Wishman’s career in the ’70s was shaky at best, but took a nosedive after the abject failure of her 1979 gore film A Night To Dismember. Lost by the lab, she pieced the film together over three years and released the resulting mess direct to video in 1983. She then disappeared for 20 years while she licked her wounds and pined over a sour deal that saw her entire film catalogue sell for a pittance. Wishman fans finally tracked her down in Florida and encouraged her to start making movies again on the much less expensive Betacam. The result was Satan Was A Lady, released in 2001 to enthusiastic reviews by long-time admirers like drive-in guru Joe Bob Briggs. Wishman was back, and had two more projects in post-production: Dildo Heaven, a soft-core comedy (and rumoured to be a musical!), and Each Time I Kill with B-52s singer Fred Schneider and cameos from John Waters and Linnea Quigley. Then came the sad news: Doris had succumbed to lymphoma on August 10th 2002.

Our Lesbo-A-Go-Go feature should be finished early 2003. If you ever get to see it, you’ll notice two captions at the finish. One, superimposed on a gutter-level shot of a dying drug-addled hell bound Sugar, will read “The End”. The second will say, simply, “For Doris”. Wherever she is (hopefully NOT Dildo Heaven, for her sake) I hope there’s a video machine – sorry, Doris, the budget won’t allow us to blow it up to 16 or 35.