Saturday, 23 April 2011

Review: The House of Orchids (1982, Derek Ford)

The House of Orchids aka For Members Only, Sexo Intimo, High Society Club (1982)

The House of Orchids was one of several films born out of Derek Ford taking busman’s holiday trips to Europe after the bottom fell out of the British film market at the end of the seventies. Ford’s initial foray into European filmmaking was Erotic Fantasies (1978) aka Symphony of Love, a wild mishmash of scenes shot by Luigi Batzella and scenes shot by Ford- all scored to out of copyright classical music-and resulting in a film that almost defies description. Later in 1985 Ford got a gig in Sweden working as assistant director on Blood Tracks, a horror film cheapie that also features Ford in a Hitchcockian cameo, popping up as a location scout for a heavy metal band.

The House of Orchids is the only Ford film from his European period that he had total directorial control over, and one of the least seen of this bunch. Theatrically screened in Italy in November 1983- and later released on video in Italy and Germany- the film looks to have never made it to English language territories, despite an English dubbed version being advertised in Variety in the early 1980s and later shopped around for distribution under the saucy re-title “For Members Only”. Ford actually shot the film in 1981/82, in-between having to relinquish the directorial reigns of Riding High in 1981 and being fired from Don’t Open Till Christmas in 1984.

The House of Orchids sees Ford swap his usual haunts of Soho and Maldon, Essex for Venice, Italy. The scenery might be noticeably different, but Ford’s song remains the same and The House of Orchids features all the usual Fordian themes of swinging, respectable middle-class types being tempted into leading hedonistic double-lives and the moral repercussions of such a move.

The “House of Orchids” of the title turns out to be a swing club catering to the well-to-do women of Venice. The mysterious club issues invitations to selected women that include a code to open the club’s electric doors. Entirely run by futuristic movie type mod con devices, The House of Orchids appears to have no staff or any occupants bar the invited females. Once inside the club, pre-recorded messages encourage the women to strip off, bathe in the club’s pool and recount their problems, which begets sexually themed flashbacks. The reoccurring theme to the women’s tales of woe is male figures that have gradually become the bane of the women’s existence. Dena is a meek bookshop owner whose life is controlled by her ill, bullying father who issues verbal abuse from his deathbed and makes her life miserable. Susie Randall is a vivacious sex bomb frustrated by her relationship with a Howard Nelson type bodybuilder who prefers pumping iron than anything else and barely bats an eyelid when she interrupts his weightlifting by parading nude in front of him. Sandra Ross is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who is fucking his secretary. A phone call between Mrs Ross and her husband ends with her screaming “bastardo” down the phone. Out of all the Orchid women Marisa has it worse, a flashback finds her making love to a stud whilst being watched by an elderly creep who is hidden behind a two-way mirror. Afterwards the old man forces her to grip money between her teeth, then in a shocking moment punches her straight in the face. Susie- the most inquisitive of the bunch- begins trailing the other women home from the club and doing her own investigation into their problems. Hooking up with Dena, Susie lures her away from her dull bookshop job and her evil father, and takes her on a gondolier ride of sexual discovery.

Catching the eye of a shop assistant, Susie enjoys an impromptu sexual encounter with the man in a backroom of the store while Dena watches on. Initially shocked by this type of behaviour Dena soon loses her inhibitions leading to a memorable scene in a glass making factory, where Dena ends up nude on a table and having a glass replica made of her bust by the factory’s only too willing to help male workforce.

Evidently Ford shot the film around the time of the Carnevale di Venezia (indicating a late February shooting schedule), an event akin to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Whether or not this was merely just good timing or pre-planned, Ford takes full advantage of the atmosphere with long shots of the festivities acting as great spectacle, giving the film the appearance of a bigger budgeted production than it probably was. The on-going festivities also add unexpected character to nothing-special dialogue scenes, in which revellers casually walk around in the background wearing face masks, dressed as clowns or sporting skull faced spectre disguises. Compared to the exquisite Venice exteriors the House of Orchids club itself is a tacky wonder to behold. Essentially just a sauna boasting an ugly 1980s colour scheme and excessively decorated by fake plants, it resembles a bargain basement garden centre rather than a sex hang-out for the very wealthy. In fairness one scene in the film does find Susie complaining about the overkill of plastic plants in the place, indicating that the cheapness of the club set was an intended effect.

Inevitably The House of Orchids club changes the lives of all the women who enter through its doors. For Sandra there is a positive outcome, when Susie coerces Sandra’s husband into watching Sandra stripping behind Marisa’s two way mirror, reigniting his long dormant passion for his wife and saving their relationship in the process. For others there is a tragic price to pay for entertaining this world, including the blood-splattered demise of one of the women.

The House of Orchids is the long lost Italian cousin of Ford’s earlier films Suburban Wives (1971) and Commuter Husbands (1972), in which Ford’s sympathies rested entirely with his female characters, and whose narratives generally saw sexist men having the tables turned on them. Male characters are notably side-lined further in The House of Orchids and either serve the purpose of one scene sexual encounters or only register on account of their vileness, the sickly father, the adulteress husband, the old fart who punches Marisa in the face. Even a more traditional male love interest for Susie- introduced towards the end of the film- makes little of an impression compared to the deepening bond and sexual tension between Susie and Dena which remains the film’s real focus.

These unusual takes on gender roles, especially coming from a male director working in the sexploitation field, is likely due to the influence that Ford’s wife Valerie M. Ford had on his career. An active collaborator in Ford’s on and off screen sexploits, Valerie participated in both Derek’s swinging activities as well as acting as wardrobe mistress, make-up lady and assistant on his British films. While Valerie doesn’t appear to have been directly involved in The House of Orchids, their relationship no doubt gave Ford a female perspective on the sexually offbeat circles the Fords moved in, lending a touch of authenticity to the female characters and their encounters with the dare club environment that is depicted here. Ford displays a good eye in regards to his casting. His stars- Sonia Otero, Marina Miller, Ibis Gardner and Elisabeth Ray- are all stunningly beautiful women and good enough actresses to cause you to emotionally invest in their characters’ mixed fortunes. Quite an achievement, considering that Otero was mainly known as a nude model for the likes of Playmen and only had a couple of Italian exploitation films under her belt, while the other three leads appear to have never acted before or since.

At the same time The House of Orchids does offer further fuel to the theory that the more Derek Ford’s career went on the more he began to treat the cinema as his own private swing club, with the resultant films being a means to document and play out his off-screen fetishes. The swinging concept at the centre of The House of Orchids certainly appears to have fired off Ford’s imagination and none of the sex scenes in the film are what you would call vanilla in tone. Aside from her glass making excursion, Dena enlivens a dinner for Susie’s male friends by stripping off, being blindfolded by Susie and laying naked on the dinner table, offering herself up as the main course. By far the funniest scene in the film is allocated to Sandra who finds herself being tied to a bed by a male admirer. When her husband calls her up on the phone both she and her male friend take it in turns to casually chat to her hubby whilst they make love. His rage on the other end of the line only adding to their passion. The fact that the Ford oeuvre wouldn’t have been that well known in Italy gives him the opportunity to indulge in a bit of self-plagiarism here as well, by revisiting scenarios from his earlier films. Susie steals the show at a swinger’s party by performing a spirited dance/striptease routine that recalls a similar exhibitionist’s display at a party in Groupie Girl. Sandra gets dirty phone calls from an unseen man- a la the masochist housewife in The Wife Swappers- who encourages her to go with passing men. Plus, in a charming throwback to the days of the sex education film, Ford opens the film by having its plot related to a bunch of bored students by their professor. A man whose blackboard explanations and scholarly appearance invite obvious comparisons to The Wife Swappers’ inept, cue card reading host.

In retrospect The House of Orchids seems like a crossroads in Ford’s career, on one hand the ample female nudity and sex scenes make this a logical extension of his earlier British films. On the other hand, having female characters as the leads and shooting the film from their perspective points the way forward to Ford’s later career as an author of books aimed at a female audience. Ford’s books Panic on Sunset (1988) and The Casting Couch (1990), clearly being targeted at an over 40s bored housewives demographic with their sub-Jackie Collins mixture of sex, scandal and Hollywood gossip.

Ford remains something of a tragic figure of the British sex film era, never finding critical acceptance or reaping great financial rewards during his prolific career. Going off the memories of friends and associates, as well as the Hollywood preoccupations of his books, it looks to have been a point of frustration for Ford that his career never progressed to A-List films. Ford’s friend retired porn actress turned erotic illustrator Paula Meadows is of the opinion that deep down Ford was a disappointed man who felt he’d never achieved his full potential. Passing away in the mid-1990s Ford never lived long enough to see his forgotten films dusted off, screened at the NFT and tentatively embraced by the intelligentsia, accolades currently being bestowed on such fellow travellers as Stanley Long, Pete Walker and Arnold Louis Miller.

Perhaps it is just as well then that The House of Orchids and Ford’s demented horror opus “Attack of the Killer Computer” (1989) have recently resurfaced on the film collector’s circuit. Viewed together they represent a real return to form from Ford and make the case that he wasn’t quite the spent force that the below-par “What’s Up” films or the hackwork nature of the majority of his 1980s and 1990s output would suggest. For all his mainstream aspirations both these films offer up evidence that Derek Ford was at his most entertaining as a filmmaker when working in unabashed exploitation mode and –like the heroines of The House of Orchids- pursuing his obsessions for good or ill.

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