‘X’ploder: Herschell Gordon Lewis’ THE ECSTASIES OF WOMEN (1969)

‘X’ploder: Herschell Gordon Lewis’ THE ECSTASIES OF WOMEN (1969)

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Not a drop of blood is spilled in this late-career Herschell Gordon Lewis exploiter, one of the few films he would produce at the turn of the decade before exiting the industry for direct marketing success after 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, but 1969’s The Ecstasies of Women is soaked in the same low-rent schlock appeal that drew so many of us to Lewis in the first place. Dismally written, indifferently photographed and directed in only the most rudimentary sense of the word, Ecstasies has few legitimate perks beyond its generous (if tame) helpings of skin, and those are packed away among interminable stretches of conversational padding.

Still, so numbing as it can be Ecstasies remains an oddly watchable affair, propelled however lethargically by some alchemical blend of barrel-scraping performances, time-killing filler, inappropriate lounge scoring and decidedly un-sexy heavy petting. Enjoy may sound a strong word for a film that’s just no damn good, but as I sit here with the show on repeat for the third time I can’t help but be struck by one simple fact: I actually like it.

The plotting here is strictly par-for-the-course – dopey and once-divorced all-American lingerie salesman Harry is looking over the edge of the proverbial abyss, with the grim promise of a fresh marital commitment staring back up at him. Bride-to-be Trudy (unseen for Ecstasies‘ brief duration) promises to put a stranglehold on Harry’s bachelor shenanigans, and it is with his beloved career and hip houseboat (‘Brothel’ sign included) on the line that Harry ventures to a topless joint, his gaggle of well-imbibed middle-aged cohorts in tow, for one last bender before Trudy lays down the law. As the drinks flow and the clothing goes Harry drifts in and out of memories of conquests passed, reminiscing on the good ol’ days on his way to a probable alcoholic stupor. With his vows veritably crumbling before he’s even had a chance to make them it wouldn’t take much to lead Harry astray, and the hazy-eyed allure of young go-go Summer Frenzy is just enough. Trudy, you say? Who the hell is Trudy?

Despite its lascivious implications Ecstasies isn’t a very sordid affair, and in contrast to the boundary-breaking character of so many of its contemporaries it can all seem rather quaint. Most of its salacious thrills are strictly of the waist-up variety, and as for the sex, go-getter Harry would have to have been endowed with a yard stick for any of the featured bump-and-grind to make real biological sense. Lewis, taking his usual dual turn as both director and cameraman, frames what action there is in a gonzo handheld style that boosts the excitement level a touch, if only because it occasionally catches a glimpse of more anatomy than may have been intended, but there’s only so much that can be done to improve the erotic appeal of such dull bed-rolling. The audio mix certainly doesn’t help. Each of Harry’s encounter’s sounds to have been post-dubbed with the same heavy panting, looped ad infinitum.

If Ecstasies’ ecstasies offer even a hint of thrill (beyond those of the casual “look, breasts!” variety) it’s a boon owed almost entirely to the torpid dramatics that surround them, in which Lewis’ handheld proclivities dissolve into endless static master shots. Lewis takes the fall for the writing here as well, a mostly plotless array of cancerous one-liners and pseudo-humor that would have been as well served by flag semaphore as by actors. For his part one-run star Walter Camp does his best with what he’s given, but even the promise of ample flesh-to-flesh contact doesn’t seem enough to keep his disillusionment with the material from showing. Camp might have made a passable independent leading man had he been given a proper opportunity, but Ecstasies‘ ramshackle production appears to have marked both the beginning and end of his cinematic ambitions. His friends, including ’60s sexploitation regulars Forman Shane and  James Brand, fair worse all around, proving either too ill-prepared or too disinterested to get their character’s names straight, much less their lines.

Of course even a production so lowly as The Ecstasies of Women can hold its unexpected surprises, and at least a couple of the eponymous starlets operate at levels well above those of their rather dreadful sexual counterparts. Russ Meyer alum Vincene Wallace (Vixen!) makes for Harry’s most memorable ex-love, a saucy redhead named Sandy who plucks Harry from an afternoon of sun-bathing and takes him for a one-time ride before tossing him aside like so much rubbish. With Sandy’s introduction Lewis’ otherwise lamentable writing takes a blessed turn for stranger, more satisfying pastures. Wallace’s confident man-killer couldn’t care less for Harry’s cornball approach, which put us on the same page from the start, but when she began extolling her love of fruit juices and wheat germ I felt my cold critical heart suddenly stirring back to life. How could I not lend my undivided attention to a woman who instigates intercourse by asking her partner for his thoughts on potato juice? As though that weren’t enough Wallace is also the subject of the film’s single most inspired directorial turn, a gonzo shot of Sandy moving in for a kiss that would have been better suited for a horror film than a sex picture. It reminded me of the rape-hungry demon forest ranger from Equinox, and the abrupt (if brief) shift in tone it afforded did not go unappreciated.

While Wallace’s turn won over my more bizarre sensibilities it was Eleanor Riggs, as bar maid Kitty, who really stole whatever heart I had for Ecstasies. Riggs looks to have been another one-shot performer (there are plenty of them among the film’s cast), but beats the rest handily on the dual fronts of talent and charisma. With a wholesome smile and a playful demeanor Riggs accomplishes the near-impossible, appearing to actually enjoy the awful dialogue Lewis concocted for her and effectively selling her role in the process. In a production where standards were so low that simply remembering your lines put you ahead of the competition Riggs’ was the last sort of performance I expected, and her one-off turn goes at least some way towards explaining why I just can’t hate this picture.

Even given its questionable sexual politics and singularly exploitative purposes there remains a certain intangible innocence about The Ecstasies of Women, and its distinct blend of amateurism and stupidity keeps even its more perverse elements from feeling in any way scandalous. Emerging at a time when the genre was creeping ever onward towards the rougher, harder, and grimmer, Ecstasies is a bright, colorful, dumb throwback to simpler cinematic times, and full of enough unintended guffaw-worthy moments to keep its utter lack of titillation from mattering. Yes, it’s terrible, but I think I ultimately liked it more than anything I saw in a theater this year. At just 75 minutes it’s certainly shorter.

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‘The Ecstasies of Women’ is out now from Vinegar Syndrome as part of their The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis Blu-ray / DVD triple feature (which includes ‘Ecstasies’, plus ‘Linda and Abilene’ and the mega-rare hardcore docu-sploiter ‘Black Love’). VinSyn’s restoration of the film looks lovely, and the release comes highly recommended to those with a taste for this sort of thing.