Friday, 23 August 2013
Review: Sex Farm aka Frustrated Wives (1973, Arnold Louis Miller)
“Come on doll, move your arse” is the ungallant first line of dialogue you hear in this film, spoken over an establishing shot of an abode that is the epitome of 1970s middle class suburbia. Terrain that the British sex film would make its own during that decade, along the way mythologizing British suburbia as a place of wife swapping parties, of husbands who are having it away with their secretaries, leaving them incapable of satisfying their wives back home, who instead turn to milkmen, window cleaners and door to door salesmen for their sexual needs during those lonely hours of 9 until 5. Such was the sex film potential of the ‘burbs that even that most metropolitan of sexploiteer, Arnold Louis Miller, was lured towards it and tempted away from the bright lights, big city London-centric sleaziness of his earlier films; Secrets of a Windmill Girl and West End Jungle.
As far as suburban British sex films go Sex Farm eschews the misery drenched believability of Anthony Sloman’s Not Tonight Darling and puts its foot down firmer on the comedy peddle than Derek Ford’s Suburban Wives and Commuter Husbands, even if in the end Sex Farm does swerve out of control and becomes as uneven as the genre ever got.
A peek inside the house seen in the opening shot reveals the expected marital dysfunction behind the comfortable exterior. Robert (Australian actor Tristan Rogers) is into ass fucking his wife Diane (Amber Kammer) and thinks of himself as God’s gift; strutting around their bedroom praising himself. “You know I’m great, quantity and quality, that’s me” he tells Diane, who is turned off by his sexual demands and narcissism, and finds comfort in munching her way through a chocolate box (not incidentally a sexual euphemism, chocoholism is Diane’s comedy trait in the film). Elsewhere Diane’s friend Cheryl (Hilary Labow) is having her own early morning quarrel with husband Tom, albeit for different reasons. Cheryl’s problem is the lack of attention she has been getting from Tom. Evidentially Tom is a ‘once a week if you’re lucky’ merchant, leading her to accuse him of being past it, as well as becoming suspicious that his sexual prowess is being drained away elsewhere “why you lousy bastard, you’re having a bit on the side aren’t you”. These early, argument filled scenes breathe life into a claim once made by Ray Davies of The Kinks that “I’ve got nothing against suburbia other than it destroys people”.
With Robert busy at work, and Tom mysteriously called away, Diane and Cheryl decide to team up for the weekend and visit a health farm in the hope of getting up to a few extra marital affairs of their own. Initially it looks as though the pair might have made a bad mistake and that their weekend is likely to be summed up by the film’s aka title ‘Frustrated Wives’ rather than its ‘Sex Farm’ one. Dr Schroeder (Gordon Whiting) rules the health farm with a Teutonic iron fist, confiscating food and booze from the women as they enter the farm, then locking it away in a glass cabinet full of similar contraband, which proves to be a mouth-watering sight to chocoholic Diane “look at all those confiscated choccies”. The No-Fun ethos of Schroeder appears to have spread to the predominantly elderly and female residents, one of whom Mrs. Pelham (Marjorie Summerville) has a touch of the Mary Whitehouse about her, taking one look at these two newcomers through her thick rimmed glasses and judging them “not our type at all”. Although in retrospect this introduction to Mrs. Pelham is a deliberately deceptive one, given the big shock involving this character that awaits later on in the film.
Fortunately there is some half-way decent male talent lurking about the place in the form of Frank and Charles, two married crumpet chasers who’ve been lured to the health farm for similar reasons as Diane and Cheryl, and spend the weekend trying to pull both women, as well as Schroeder’s ditzy secretary (Claire Gordon). In the 1950s and 60s Gordon had a prolific if minor league acting career, you might remember her as the student who gets Michael Gough’s mad scientist hot under the collar in Konga. In 1968 she married satirist William Donaldson, a relationship that the tabloid press would later have a field day documenting, with the red tops alleging that the couple regularly indulged in cannabis use, held sex orgies, socialised with famous DJs and that Donaldson sent pornographic photos of his wife to contact magazines. Maybe living a life that sounds like the plot of a British sex film leads one to appear in a few of them, as that is exactly what Claire Gordon did, making a full frontal film comeback in this as well as Suburban Wives and Commuter Husbands. Sex Farm certainly gives Gordon more to do than her two Derek Ford films, but at the same time validates Ford’s decision not to press her too much as an actress in his films. Gordon’s unnamed Sex Farm character is obviously modelled on Marilyn Monroe complete with Xeroxed little girl lost mannerisms and speech patterns, a shtick so routed in 1950s America that it feels extremely awkward transplanted to these very British, very 1970s surroundings. A couple of years later British sex comedy actress Suzy Mandel would channel Monroe to more spectacular effect in TV’s The Love Boat and the Amero Brothers’ Blonde Ambition, resurrecting Monroe’s Some Like It Hot character Sugar Kane for the latter. Sadly Gordon is just a little too knowing in her dumb blonde moments and her attempts at being sexy feel similarly forced. As a result you never really buy into her character as being a real person, ditto the actor playing Dr. Schroeder, who appears competent, but insists on pitching his performance at an amplified level that is way over the top even for a comedy. Schroeder takes in just about every ranting, dictatorial German cliché going, running about the health farm shouting ‘raus raus’ or proclaiming ‘o mein gott in himmel’ at rule breaking outrages. All that is missing from the character is a monocle to fall out at impropriate moments.
Slightly better value for money is the health farm’s French chief (Patrick Tull) who hates preparing dull health food meals as much as the residents hate eating them. In a scene that sees him and Diane unleash their pent up carnal and culinary desires, she strips off and he devours food off her naked body. A proto 9½ Weeks piece of food flavoured foreplay made funnier by Amber Kammer’s very real and unscripted looking reactions to having tomato sauce squirted over her boobs and trifle dropped on her, followed by her equal amusement at her co-star making both a meal of her and his French accent.
Man-eater Cheryl meanwhile has her lustful sights aimed in the direction of Jim (Barry Rhode), the farm’s sports instructor who hides his muscular body under the supremely unsexy armour of a vest and a pair of NHS glasses. There is more than a touch of Howard Nelson about this character, who is decidedly more comfortable leading out of shape old folk in exercise routines than he is being sought out by the opposite sex. Some of his dialogue could have come directly from the mouth of Mr. Vanderhorn himself “I’m a man of sports… I need to abstain from all sorts of things for the sake of my body”. Sentiments that don’t wash with Cheryl who responds by hiding the Vanderhorn clone’s glasses, his search for which ends with him on top of a now naked Cheryl. Subsequently rendered rampantly heterosexual, the sports instructor wastes no time in putting the moves on Diane, seducing her whilst she is using one of those bum shaking exercise machines (probably not the technical term for this device) so popular in sexploitation films of this time and immortalised by Tom Chantrell for this film’s very own poster.
Alan Paz’s script suggests aspirations to be both Jackie Collins and Talbot Rothwell, thus female bottom pinching and double-entendres sit alongside laugh out loud dialogue aimed at puncturing the egos of full of themselves 1970s men. Robert’s secretary -after being screwed by him on the office floor– tells him he’d be better off pursuing a career at the general post office as “if letters came as quickly as you do, postal delays would be a thing of the past”. Contradictory impulses fuel this film. Pushy displays of heterosexuality can result in men being put down, called a “bastard” or patted on the alpha male back, depending on Sex Farm’s ever changing mood. Personable as its heroines are, the film isn’t above turning against them either. The aforementioned female bottom pinching sees Mr Williams, a repulsive cigar chomping Northerner, constantly grapping Diane’s ass and crotch in gym class, advances missed by the short sighted instructor who gets the wrong end of the stick and ends up accusing Diane of acting neurotic in class. A routine repeated ad infinitum during the scene, which becomes uncomfortably malicious in the way it encourages you to get off on Diane’s distress and regards her as a cry baby and party pooper.
To further rock this uneasy boat Sex Farm includes a couple of subplots that are played as straight drama and so stick out like sore thumbs amidst the silly stuff. Lesley (Gillian Brown) a fragile housewife is using her stay at the health farm to come to terms with her sham marriage and suppressed sexual feelings for other women. “I wanted to get away from my husband, l loathe him, when he touches me and everything, it’s disgusting” she tells Diane and Cheryl who are prepared to lend her a sympatric ear... if nothing else. As if to validate Lesley’s hostility towards men, we also get to see Robert’s relationship with his secretary turn sour after he eavesdrops on her badmouthing him to a co-worker (although why Robert should get his nose put out by this when she has said worse to his face is anyone’s guess.) Robert’s response is to lure the secretary to his house, slap her about a bit and rape her, but it turns out she likes this sort of thing, and Robert forcing himself on her causes him to go up in her estimation… so that’s alright then. A few years earlier this type of behaviour would have resulted in characters’ careers and social standing being destroyed in films like ‘The Wife Swappers’ but perhaps sensing the consequence free, comic hedonism that lay ahead for the British sex film no one suffers for their actions here. If anything Cheryl and Diane’s trip to the health farm, Tom’s weekend affair with a female petrol pump attendant and Robert’s rape of his secretary are shown to refresh these characters and their relationships… détente is established between the two couples before the end credits and as they say in fairy tales “…they all lived happily ever after”.
Miller’s previous film ‘A Touch of the Other’ aka House of Hookers, had the feel of unfulfilled sexploitation, with potential skin flick elements largely kept on a leash, possibility due to having relatively mainstream performers Kenneth Cope and Shirley Anne Field playing the leads. Here though Miller has no qualms about delving into X-rated territory with both Amber Kammer and Hilary Labow going topless right from the outset. Their casting suggesting a grab for a big bust fetish audience, with both ladies being amply endowed in that department. Neither are any great shakes as actresses, Kammer in particular is mesmerizingly bad, single handily subverting the tone of several scenes by delivering double-entendre laced dialogue without the remotest hint that its meant to be comedic, and is so stilted in her first scene with Tristan Rogers that rather than an opening dramatic punch to the film it feels like you are watching a parody of a soap opera. Modern viewers however might be distracted from Kammer’s acting by her uncanny resemblance to Victoria Coren (try to watch the film in the same light now that I’ve planted that wicked thought in your mind). Its not just the expected cast members that are baring the flesh here, overweight actor Patrick Tull has plenty of it to show in his role as the French chief, leaving on only his chief’s hat for the scene where he fucks Diane on a table. In a greater surprise elderly actress Marjorie Summerville takes off her clothes and lives a bit in the film too, when her character Mrs. Pelham gets a topless rub down from a jack the lad masseur. Given the Whitehouse-esque traits exhibited by this character earlier in the film one wonders if ol’Miller wasn’t having a bit of fun at the expense of the British sex film’s No.1 nemesis before he hung up his sex film hat for good (Sex Farm was Miller’s last feature film before his Global-Queensway company turned to making documentary shorts). Miller might actually have overestimated the British censor’s tolerance to sex and nudity here as Sex Farm found itself initially being rejected outright by the BBFC and as a result received only a limited release in London. It wouldn’t be until 1976 that a cut version of the film was granted an X-certificate for general release, it was this version released on videotape in 1979, with the climatic orgy (scored to Cliff Twemlow’s DeWolfe composition ‘What you put into it’) and the rape scene showing signs of a tussle with James Ferman’s scissors.
Of late there has been a remarkable about turn when it comes to interest in Arnold Louis Miller’s films. Once a barely remembered footnote to the career of Michael Reeves and director of curiosity rousing but impossible to see nudies, these days Miller gets to have his films screened at the BFI Southbank and you can the buy the likes of Nudes of the World, West End Jungle, Primitive London and London in the Raw on DVD. The latter duo released by the BFI, an achievement that on its own pisses over Matthew Sweet’s typically negative 2005 prophecy that this strand of British cinema are “films that will never be released on DVD by the British film institute”. Far from being the ‘forgotten embarrassment’ that Sweet likes to damn the British sex film as being, Miller’s films are not only enjoying a new lease of life but can claim to have had an immediate influence over other artists and filmmakers. Clips from West End Jungle have found their way into a Marc Almond music video, and that Miller film looks to have provided the visual blueprint for the black and white, early 1960s segments of Michael Winterbottom’s recent Paul Raymond biopic. Old sexploitation films never sleep when it comes to finding new ways of parting the British public from their money either, and dedicated followers of fashion can now buy their own Primitive London CD soundtracks, T-shirts and mugs, a trendy London boutique even bears the name of that 1965 Miller epic. Lovely as it is to see a 90 year old retired filmmaker like Miller suddenly being appreciated on account of a career that offered him few crumps of praise while it was active, the critical establishment still seem a little more cautious about letting films of Miller’s ilk in from the cold than the general public do.
Lofty reappraisals of Primitive London and London in the Raw -at first glance evidence of the genre being finally embraced by the intelligentsia – often exhibit an unwillingness to accept the material for what it is, and adopt a delusional approach of over-interpreting and over-intellectualising these films, seemingly born solely out of a need to justify these films as being ‘worthy’ of both the writers themselves and for highbrow consumption. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for taking British exploitation cinema seriously, but when you have people making borderline ‘Room 237’ type claims, such as insisting scenes from Pete Walker’s Frightmare are ‘really’ about women’s fear of abortion and public menstruation, you can’t help feeling that they’re reading a bit too much into these films, and become suspicious of their reasons for doing so. Call me a swine for sniggering but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen people make fools of themselves in print by pointing to a scene in Miller’s London in the Raw -in which beatniks take glamour photos for girlie magazines and eat cat food out of poverty- as a revelatory moment that shines a light of truth on the British counterculture’s hither too secretive reliance on the commercial world of pornography to stay afloat- when in reality all they’re watching is a bunch of youthful actors Miller hired to play beatniks for the afternoon and filmed them eating cans of tuna with cat food labels stuck on them.
Predictably a degree of cherry picking from the genre exists in these circles, with films that don’t lend themselves as easy to being rethought as profound, sociological statements getting the cold shoulder. To these people the words ‘George Harrison Marks’ and ‘David Sullivan’ produces the same reaction that the sight of a heroic Peter Cushing brandishing a crucifix gets from a Hammer Vampire…but hey if the intelligentsia isn’t ready for Come Play With Me, fuck ‘em….for some reason Confessions of a Window Cleaner has become the real favourite whipping boy for this crowd, resulting in a film enjoyed by millions of average cinema goers, that sold all over the world and represents a true British success story, being written off by the likes of Dominic Sandbrook as a cultural embarrassment and dubbed the nadir of British cinema.
Sex Farm then will prove a little harder piece of the Miller oeuvre for this crowd to digest than those earlier films of his. Everything the genre’s detractors find disreputable about these films, cheap production values, gratuitous nudity, comedy descended from equally frowned upon forms of working class entertainment…the music hall….the seaside postcard, are all alive and well and living at this Sex Farm. Phoney ‘fans’ of the genre, you know the type who seem to have a mental block on praising any examples of it outside of Cool it Carol and Eskimo Nell, and who use the latter as a stick to beat the rest of the genre about the head with, will find much to sneer at and ridicule here, for Sex Farm can’t hide what it humbly is, nor can it be dressed up to be what it isn’t. Take it or leave it, there is no middle ground with this one, if you truly understand the genre’s soul then Miller’s sex film swansong is yet another curtain raiser on a time where the sight of women baring their big bristols on the silver screen whilst delivering gloriously trashy dialogue like “while that mouse is away this pussy will play” was a box office crowd pleaser. For those dedicated to seeing this period concealed from the history books the mere existence of a film like Sex Farm will give them many a sleepless night.