“What’s inside a girl? Ain’t no hotter question in a so-called civilized world.”
– The Cramps, “What’s Inside a Girl?” (1986)

“You know the money shots in porn films? Well, this was just a different substance: it was red”
– Director Roberta Findlay on the relationship between pornography and horror1

“Roberta is a pioneer, a ground-breaker” declared Joe Bob Briggs on the DVD commentary for the 2004 home entertainment re-release of Roberta Findlay’s 1987 horror film Blood Sisters. As Briggs noted, Roberta Findlay was hardly the first woman filmmaker behind the sexploitation camera – Doris Wishman predated her comfortably – but with her husband Michael, Roberta Findlay’s association with the 1964 film The Body of a Female launched what he identifies as “some of the weirdest, sleaziest, most perverted” films of the era.2 Beginning her career making so-called ‘roughies’ for the grindhouse circuit with her husband Michael in the 1960s, Mike Watt has defined this notorious subgenre as “ill-tempered ‘nudies’, with an equal amount of violence and sex throughout the running time. S&M, bondage and general slapping around were par for the course with the nudity in these”.3 After the controversy surrounding the Findlay’s 1976 ‘real death’ hoax Snuff, Roberta moved between horror and pornography until she retired from filmmaking when her 1989 punk-comedy Banned failed to be picked up for distribution. Simply, said Roberta, “there were no more video companies left to sell garbage to.”4

Roberta Findlay

Blood Sisters

After The Sin Syndicate (1965), Take Me Naked (1966) and the Yoko Ono-fronted Satan’s Bed (1965), Michael embarked upon what are no doubt his and Roberta’s most famous roughies from this period: the Her Flesh trilogy (The Touch of Her Flesh (1967), and The Kiss of Her Flesh and The Curse of Her Flesh, both from 1968). Hugely successful on the grindhouse circuit, these films in particular are as close to canon as roughies get. The Findlay’s roughies were significant, not only because as Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford noted “they were a married couple who made extreme, sexually motivated movies”5, but also because in their status as “an intense study in S&M sinema as it veered towards hardcore, the Flesh series defined sleazoid aesthetics for a generation of moviegoers.”6

Roberta Findlay

The Curse of Her Flesh

The mythology surrounding Roberta Findlay as a kind of forgotten woman auteur is tempting as a site for retrospective canonisation, but the reality of her practice makes such missions difficult to say the least. While many of her hardcore films were made under male aliases, according to Gerald Peary in 1978, an unnamed American film critic announced at an international conference on psychoanalysis in Italy that Findlay’s own name appearing on Angel Number 9 was “an obvious pseudonym,” as the film clearly could only have been made by a male director.7 Molly Haskell, however, strongly disagreed: in her 1975 article “Are Women Directors Different?”, she argued Angel Number 9 must have been directed by a woman simply because of its reference to pregnancy. For Haskell, this is a “no-no in sexploitation movies, a definite downer to Don Juan fantasies of quickie, no-fault sex”.8 Yet this kind of utopian vision of Findlay’s practice seems to fly in the face of the basic economic realities that drove Findlay’s work as a filmmaker. Unhesitatingly, time and time again, Findlay stated explicitly: she did it for the money.

In this light, when E. Ann Kaplan asked in 2003, “is the gender of the filmmaker more significant than the values or political perspectives a film espouses?”9, Roberta Findlay is a curious case study. Broader debates about women’s filmmaking have a tendency to be framed as emphatically progressive simply because the very act of women directing movies subverts the dominant auteurist paradigm of the white straight male director. Yet Findlay herself has rejected attempts to revive her status as a feminist filmmaker. Declaring in the 1970s “no interest in women’s lib”10, she has since belittled the ‘rescuing’ of her reputation as any kind of feminist innovator. “I did that once,” she told J.R. Taylor. “It was so embarrassing. I went out around ’88 or ’90 with some X-rated film…under the pretence – their pretence – that I was some kind of artist/feminist. Nonsense. I don’t know why I did it. It was very silly, but if that’s what I’m supposed to be, fine, as long as I get paid.”11 As for the cult following surrounding her earlier work in particular, Findlay has hardly brimmed with pride on that front, either: “People who like those old movies seem to have deep psychological problems.”12

Roberta Findlay

Even a solid, conclusive list of Roberta Findlay’s filmography is difficult to pin down. She herself has struggled to recall what tasks she performed on what films, but Briggs at a guess suggests that in one capacity or another, her output probably figures around the fifty film mark.13 Findlay appeared both in front of and behind the camera, with Taylor noting her openness in acknowledging she starred in a sex scene in Michael’s 1966 film Take Me Naked, while at the same time adamantly denying she made a cameo as a cleaning woman in her hardcore Raw Footage (1977). A look at her IMDB actor profile lists a stream of uncredited performances or ones credited as “Anna Riva,” but also indicates someone who was clearly hands-on when it came to the nuts and bolts mechanics of low-budget filmmaking: editing, composing, camera operating as well as directing. But some of the work that her name is so closely aligned with – the Her Flesh trilogy in particular – Findlay herself has stated that from memory she herself had very little to do with them:

My husband was making those films, and I guess I knew about them. I’m not in them. I was in school. I wasn’t quite married to him yet, but I left home at 16 and moved in with Michael, and he was making these pictures. I don’t even know if I was on the set. Maybe I did voiceovers. I would say if I had done anything more. I don’t mind talking about this. It’s just that people expect me to be something I’m not.14

Landis and Clifford, however, suggest a more traditionally collaborative relationship between the husband and wife team:

Mike directed and edited the films, Roberta did the photography…Mike was always the lead. Roberta did everything from voiceovers to playing floozies and masochistic victims. Roberta’s female co-stars were one-shot transient strippers who generally disappeared after the filming. Mike essentially wrote the films, although some scenes are semi-improvised.15

This kind of authorial haze around Roberta stands in striking contrast to mainstream film culture, where individuals generally clamour for recognition. The legend of Roberta as a driving creative force behind these films came, Taylor suggested, simply from the fact that after Michael’s death in a helicopter accident in 1977, a mythology began to emerge around her as a woman responsible for distinctly ‘unladylike’ films. For Taylor, Roberta became “the focus point of freaks who’d really like to know a femme mind who could come up with such sickness worthy of Her Flesh. As a result, Roberta quickly lost interest in cultivating a fanbase.”

***

Roberta’s filmmaking career began when she met Michael. A lover of Joan Crawford movies, Peary describes her as a dedicated cinephile who fell in love with movies – and her soon-to-be husband – when she was seventeen years old, studying music at the City College of New York and the Manhattan School of Music. As part of the Theodore Huff Film Society, Michael and Roberta belonged to a community dedicated to b-grade cinema of the 1930s and 1940s in particular.16 Initially attending the Huff with Michael because she was “in love with Michael and…felt that anything he did was fabulous and spectacular,” she described the movies that she saw as mostly “wacko…a kind of word for it was ‘very esoteric'”. Both Roberta herself and, she suspected, Michael, felt excluded from the discursive pretensions of the group, so he began his own film society with a focus on European silent films. Roberta would record musical accompaniments that were played at screenings.17

While passionate about music, Roberta knew that a career as a concert pianist was unlikely, and – when Michael offered her the prospect of a career in film – it seemed a natural choice. In Roberta’s own words, “I have to do something or else I’ll have to work all the time”.18 So she began making movies. But she was unquestioningly a young woman driven by a love of art: interviewed by Gerald Peary in her first career overview in 1978, her favourite films at that time included The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), I Married a Witch (René Clair, 1942) and Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil (1958). 19

According to Roberta, her first steps into adult film were simply because she was nervous Michael would “succumb to his leading ladies” if she wasn’t around, leading to her job as a “movie girl” and roles in his early movies such as Hold Me When I’m Naked (1966).20 But her passion was for photography. For Briggs, “Roberta Findlay was primarily a cinematographer, and so sometimes you do find these beautiful images in her work even if the narrative stuff around them is a little shabby”.21 As Roberta noted on Blood Sisters, “I’m nuts about lighting, so I spent most of the time cutting down lights”. Talking about “painting with light,” she noted that “we were always very, very careful about lighting.22 Identifying herself from the early days on her work with Michael as a “cameraman”23, the gender fluidity of how she perceived her work on film is telling regarding her personal politics: less attempting a radical gender political reclamation of supposedly traditional male roles, for Roberta, it was simply what the job was called.

The decline in the popularity of roughies with the rise of hardcore in the late 1960s saw Roberta and Michael move towards horror.24 They were still producing hardcore films in the early 1970s, attempting to avoid legal problems by framing their films as quasi-documentaries with a surface veneer of ‘educational’ value25 (an old exploitation trick leading at least back to producer Kroger Babb’s Mom and Dad in 1945): Peary noted the Findlay’s happily dropped the charade and moved to more explicit “‘fuck-suck’ hardcore”26 when they realised such pretences were no longer needed. Roberta has claimed her first film as both director, screenwriter and editor was a now-lost movie of unclear date called Erotikon.27 By her own account, Michael surrendered control to her of the Belgian-made project simply because she learned French in high school and could run the show better than he could. Featuring Bela Bartok on the soundtrack, Roberta has described it as a hardcore art film: “it was my own film and I was very proud of that picture”.28

Roberta Findlay

Altar of Lust

In 1971, she also made The Altar of Lust, re-released in loving detail by boutique cult restoration/distribution company Vinegar Syndrome as a double with Findlay’s Angel of Fire (an alternate name for Angel Number 9) in 2014. Findlay described The Altar of Lust as

a hard-core feature with a very slim script and no sync sound. I was the producer and the director and the cameraman and the editor. It was the first picture I had ever done all by myself. I don’t know what possessed me. I had nobody to turn to. Then I wrote another script, produced and directed it, and cut it. Again, it wasn’t much. It was just a stupid series of loops, later retitled The Doctor Knows Best.29

Yet in a market flooded with hardcore material, Michael and Roberta’s horror film Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) seemed like a logical way to make money when hardcore pornography was no longer the guaranteed cash-magnet it had been previously. Then came The Slaughter, a film that according to Roberta herself was shelved “because it was so awful”.30 As she tells it, Michael intended the film to be a loose retelling of the Manson family murders with a strong ideological bent “because in Argentina, there are these German Nazis living there”. She continues, “this Charles Manson character makes a speech about killing all these German people. And he asks if that isn’t the same thing as the Israelis supplying guns to the Arabs. Now, I never understood what that meant”. Neither, it seems, did the Motion Picture Association of America, who told Michael and Roberta in no uncertain terms that the film was “disgusting,” and that they “couldn’t be making films about Charles Manson that were favourable to him”.31

Roberta Findlay

Shriek of the Mutilated

The Slaughter would have vanished completely if not for distributor Allan Shackleton who in 1976 decided to tack a supposedly ‘real’ murder of a woman crew member onto the end of The Slaughter and release it under the provocative, taboo-breaking title Snuff. Much has been written about the Snuff controversy and the role it played in the then-mobilising anti-pornography feminist movement in the United States.32 Snuff, from this perspective, was evidence of a very real market-value of screen depictions of violence against women, a claim not weakened with the revelation that Shackleton’s promotional campaign was an elaborate hoax. From Shackleton’s perspective, the hoax was a great financial success, but the Findlays saw little of the profits: Roberta said she made nothing from Snuff, and that Michael made no more than $1500.33

Roberta Findlay

By this stage, Roberta and Michael had separated. According to grindhouse producer and director John Amero, “Roberta sort of walked quietly in Mike’s shadow,” he told Landis and Clifford. “After the divorce she became very assertive. She had learned the business and became a hardcore director”.34 As for why she turned to directing in a more dedicated manner, by 1978 Roberta herself was still unclear. As she told Peary, the decision probably was closely related to her and Michael’s separation: “I left Michael. I don’t know why but I just left. I don’t know why to this day. And I started making films myself. I went to a film distributor and said ‘I can make you a film really cheap, and I’ll make you a lot of money.’”35

Roberta Findlay Roberta Findlay Roberta Findlay

As a pornographer, Roberta Findlay worked hard and her output was prolific. Aside from to Honeysuckle Rose with John Holmes in 1979 and Glitter with Shauna Grant in 1983, Findlay directed a steady stream of films including Teenage Milkmaid (1974), The Clamdigger’s Daughter (1974), Teenage Milkmaid (1974), Anyone But My Husband (1975), From Holly With Love (1978), Mystique (1979), and of course, Angel Number 9. Findlay’s last hardcore film Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy (1985) reunited her with Grant, but in circumstances many both within and outside the industry do not recall fondly. Born Colleen Marie Applegate, Grant was a cheerleader-turned-runaway from rural Minnesota who – after working with key industry figures including another woman pornographer, Suze Randall – made over thirty adult films between the age of 18 and her death at 20. Despite earning a number of nominations at both the Erotic Film Awards and the Adult Film Association Awards (the latter found her seated next to Francis Ford Coppola), Grant resigned from the industry, unhappy with her chosen career path. She struggled with substance abuse issues, and her lifestyle took its toll. She fatally shot herself in the head on 21 March 1984.

Roberta Findlay

As Briggs noted, Roberta’s hardcore swansong was “pretty controversial within the porn industry”. Combining archival footage of Grant’s hardcore work with home movies from her youth, the film was structured around a quasi-journalistic investigative core question, “Did pornography kill Shauna Grant?”. Intercut between this archive material was ‘interviews’ with many of Grant’s colleagues, who combined dialogue with explicit hardcore performances. Franklin Mark Osanka and Sara Lee Johan pulled few punches in their consideration of Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy:

Heartlessly crass and cynical porn industry cash-in on Shauna Grant’s suicide directed by that veritable wellspring of humanity, Roberta Findlay. See porn actors and actresses talk about their memories of Shauna while they’re fucking and sucking each other. See these same lowlifes gamely attempt to squeeze out an honest emotion only to fail miserably. Hear Shauna being showered with such touching compliments as “she had that wet-behind-the-ears innocence that never failed to arouse a crotch.” There’s even a mock interview with a female ‘psychiatrist’ who analyzes Shauna’s unwillingness to deep throat pecker as being an indication of her sexual inhibition, before doing a raunchy, incestuous role-playing number with creepy George Payne. 36

For Osanka and Johann, so offensive was Findlay’s ‘memorial’ that “the only thing this lacks is a scene of Ron Jeremy screwing poor Shauna’s exit wound on the morgue examining table”.37 Yet for Grant’s colleague and friend Kelly Nichols, the loss of Grant was both personal and real. “Shauna was the first publicized porn death. There were a couple of earlier ones, but this was the biggie because porn was just starting to get more accessible through the VCR”. She continued, “It just had tabloid written all over it. And Shauna was a beautiful girl. She made great print. Any time a girl dies, it’s like a little piece of us dies. It feels a little like, if we’re not careful, that could be us.”38 It was in this climate that Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy was Findlay’s last hardcore movie.

Roberta Findlay

So where to next? Noting that the only real difference between horror and porn was the colour of the bodily substances involved,39 returning to horror seemed a logical progression. With Walter Sear she turned an eye towards making cheap horror films for the then-burgeoning straight-to-video market in the early-mid 1980s.40 More trash than treasure, Findlay’s latter horror work is unflinchingly unredeemable as it fluctuates between the banal, the ludicrous and the sometimes outright offensive, yet there is something in its audacity that is – for certain audiences – thoroughly captivating. The Oracle (1985) combines a haunted house trope with a flimsy marital melodrama angle, Prime Evil (1988) tackles the satanic cult subgenre while her last horror film – 1988’s Lurkers – employs the ghost story model as its starting point. But even by Blood Sisters (1987), Findlay held no pretences to what motivated her to make movies: her “inspiration” was that she didn’t get “caught out on her tax”.41 This time adhering to the sexy-sorority-hazing-ritual-meets-unexpected-supernatural-complications trope, Blood Sisters is arguably the weakest of this period of Findlay’s work but – as Brian Albright claims – it features the notable curiosity of staring film critic and noted Dario Argento expert Maitland McDonagh as one of the eponymous sorority sisters.42 Less a typical horror film than a visceral action movie, Findlay’s 1985 film Tenement is the most memorable of her directorial output during this era. A brutal, vicious film set in an isolated South Bronx apartment building, a feral, blood-thirsty rampage through the eponymous building. Tenement is a grotty, unforgiving film that feels ten years too late – a grindhouse classic that came out in the midst of the VHS era – yet it is driven by such an intense spirit of exploitative pluck that it remains one of Findlay’s most unforgettable and powerful movies.

Roberta Findlay

With the failure to secure distribution for 1989’s Banned – a film screenwriter Jim Cirile envisioned as “a punk-rock All of Me43 – Findlay stopped making films, and now over 25 years later it seems highly unlikely she will go back. Roberta Findlay refuses to fit into any kind of auteurist framework: her filmography (itself an unstable concept) and the drastically different production contexts in which she worked deny such an orthodox approach. But if depravity is an art form, Findlay excelled. As Joe Bob Briggs noted, “sleaze was her strong point,” while for Taylor, as key figure in American extreme exploitation, Findlay was involved in myriad ways “with masterpieces of oppression that Abel Ferrara would envy”. Yet even this attempt to elevate her name to the status of a more familiar auteur seems to fly in the face of Findlay’s own relationship to her filmmaking career: she never wanted adoration, to provoke audiences to think about the world in new ways. While hardly tasteful as such, Findlay’s films were marked by an undisguised frankness about her motivations that challenges the frequently essentialised discourse surrounding women directors as necessarily ‘progressive’. Findlay was always clear on this point: her films were not intended to open our hearts or minds, but our wallets.

 

Endnotes

  1. Taken from the featurette A Blood Sisters Reunion on the 2004 Media Blasters home entertainment release of Blood Sisters (Roberta Findlay, 1987).
  2. Joe Bob Briggs, DVD commentary on the 2004 Media Blasters home entertainment release of Blood Sisters (Roberta Findlay, 1987).
  3. Mike Watt, Fervid Filmmaking: 66 Cult Pictures of Vision, Verve and No Self-Restraint (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2013), p. 24.
  4. J.R. Taylor, “The Curse of Her Filmography: Roberta Findlay’s Grindhouse Legacy,” New York Press, 20 July 2005, accessed 30 March 2008 http://www.newyorkpress.com/18/29/film/JRTaylor.cfm.
  5. Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), p. 29.
  6. Ibid., p. 37.
  7. Gerald Peary, “Woman in Porn: How Young Roberta Findlay Finally Grew Up and Made Snuff,” Take One, September 1978, p. 28.
  8. Molly Haskell, “Are Women Directors Different?”, The Village Voice, 3 February 1975. Cited by Peary, p. 28.
  9. E. Ann Kaplan, “Women, Film, Resistance: Changing Paradigms” in Women Filmmakers: Refocusing edited by Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, Valerie Raoul (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 15.
  10. Peary, p. 30.
  11. Taylor
  12. Taylor
  13. Briggs
  14. Taylor.
  15. Landis and Clifford, p. 29.
  16. Peary, p. 28.
  17. Peary, p. 29.
  18. Peary, p. 29.
  19. Peary, p. 29-30.
  20. Peary, p. 28.
  21. Briggs.
  22. Interview from A Blood Sisters Reunion.
  23. Peary, p. 28.
  24. Briggs.
  25. Peary, p. 28.
  26. Peary, p. 29.
  27. A title which, considering Findlay’s early interest in European silent cinema, seems to be a curious reference to Mauritz Stiller’s 1920 film of the same name.
  28. Peary, p. 30.
  29. Peary, p. 28.
  30. Peary, p. 30.
  31. Ibid.
  32. For more information, see my previous article: “Snuff Boxing: Rethinking the Snuff (1976) Coda,” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia Film Journal. 5.2 (2009) http://cinephile.ca/archives/volume-5-no-2-the-scene/snuff-boxing-revisiting-the-snuff-coda/.
  33. Peary, p. 30.
  34. Landis and Clifford, p. 43.
  35. Peary, p. 30.
  36. Franklin Osanka and Sara Lee Johann, Sourcebook on Pornography (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1989), p. 87.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne, The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry (New York: Regan Books, 2005) p. 364.
  39. Findlay interviewed in A Blood Sisters Reunion.
  40. Many of which were released on DVD in the mid 2000s by Shriek Show/Media Blasters. See: Watt, p. 24.
  41. Findlay interviewed in A Blood Sisters Reunion.
  42. Brian Albright, Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews (Jefferson: McFarland & Co. 2012), p. 246.
  43. Watt, p. 66.