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In the 80s, I saw a cable broadcast of a heavy-breathing melodrama called Abigail Leslie is Back! It turned out to be a surprisingly coherent lowbudget soap opera that spoofed overheated women's pictures ... with, as they say, a little sex in it.
The 80s alternate cult cinema book Incredibly Strange Films introduced us to a lot of previously unheard of filmmakers, many of whom are common names today. One of them was Joe Sarno, an adult skinflick writer and director with a reputation for sexy movies that actually had plots and viable dramatic structures to go with their exploitation content. His pictures never resembled anybody else's trashoid softcore sex films. Yet his sub-cultural soap operas had to wait for decades to see anything resembling critical analysis. Sin in the Suburbs is an early effort that's said to be one of his best.
Something Weird touts this double bill as starring "two Olgas and one Ilsa," a reference to later cult roles by Audrey Campbell, Alice Linville and Dyanne Thorne, here billed as Lahna Monroe. It isn't necessary to associate these early "hypocrisy in the suburbs" films with later "roughie" exploitation. They're good on their own.
Sin in the Suburbs
1964 / 88 min.
Starring Audrey Campbell, Alice Linville, W.B. Parker, Lahna Monroe, Neil Bogart
Produced by Burton Bradley
The most shocking thing about Sin in the Suburbs is how basically good it is. It has more in common with John Cassavetes' gritty dramas than the exploitation tradition. It covers a taboo subject and has smatterings of nudity, but for the most part is a straight intimate drama that takes itself seriously.
Sin in the Suburbs has a surprisingly modern style - scenes tend to be one-angle masters with no coverage and no camera moves, and Sarno places his camera wisely to record carefully blocked dramatic interaction. There's a lot of making out but the focus is on the personalities of the characters; there's a deep concern for their problems. Unlike Hollywood gloss or exploitation trash, these people seem to operate in the real world we all can recognize.
The screenplay precisely pegs the unease of 50s-early 60s suburbia that the culture barely acknowledged. The housewifes aren't just bored. With their husbands gone all day, there's something completely unsatisfying about their lives. The sleazy Talman couple (who may be an incestuous brother and sister) float their swapping scheme as a moneymaking proposition, which is the real key to the show. With everyone desperate to keep their jobs and houses and stay solvent, the Talman's solution to sexual frustration is a marketed consumer product just like everything else.
Joe Sarno claims that Sin in the Suburbs was based on research. It goes beyond Peyton Place by showing just how mundane lust can be. The dramatics stay fairly simple, with a predictable subplot in which the cheerleader daughter finds out her mother is taking lovers. Emotionally shattered, she falls into the lesbian clutches of Yvette Talman, who seems to have a sexual angle for every problem. There's precious little sexual activity in the film and almost no nudity - but the emphasis is on ever-present sexuality. Even though some of the actors are less than proficient, the wife-swapping in the film is uncomfortably credible.
Sin in the Suburbs really takes off in the "exchange party" scenes where Sarno manages an eerie mood with just some robes and off-the shelf masks. The demon-masked Lou (see the box cover above) provides the formal discipline as partners pair off by number, and we're struck by these people so desperate for a thrill, they're willing to hide their identities and couple with complete strangers. They tell themselves they're doing it to keep their marriages together, but the swappers are simply addicted to their own lusts. Everyone already seems to be alcohol-dependent, and the same kind of denial is at work in their sex lives.
Oddly, Lou calls the sex act "exchanging identity," and when we see a roomful of disembodied masks waiting for their pairings, Sarno's direction expresses their alienation in unforced but poetic images. The conclusion wraps up the story with a predictable but effective dramatic finish. People going to nudie theaters to see Sin in the Suburbs must have been shocked to see a real movie instead of exploitation trash.
Sin in the Suburbs has a lively commentary with Frank Henenlotter and Mike Vraney, hosting Joe Sarno, his wife Peggy and David Friedman. Careful listening is required as some speakers are definitely not on-microphone. Sarno requires a lot of prompting to remember details, but once they get him going he has a lot to say. The hosts keep things focused; not only is Sin properly placed in its historical niche but Sarno comes out with plenty of comments about competing names like Barry Mahon, and tales of legal battles against local censors. Henenlotter sums it up - most exploitation pictures were trashy excuses to parade naked females, whereas Sarno was a real filmmaker.
Frank Henenlotter raises the similarity between Sin in the Suburbs and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut with their masked sex parties. He also points out the censorship that still prevails, with Warners bowdlerizing Kubrick's movie for American audiences.
Mike Vraney becomes somewhat defensive about the condition of the print, which has numerous splices but basically plays well. With the negative missing and less than twenty prints ever struck (these films were apparently distributed in travelling carnival fashion) we should be grateful this one survived at all. Vraney expresses his biggest pleasure - reuniting these marginal filmmakers and their lost work.
This similar followup two years later repeats the concept of The Exchange but enlarges the view to more couples entangled in their own sexual taboos. Besides the immature wife who strays because her husband is never home (Stella Brittin), her sympathetic girlfriend (Patricia McNair) in the same situation sincerely seeks a solution for her unhappiness. There are no "bad" ringleaders this time around, just another coffee-serving housewife (Pat Davies) who arranges wife-swaps the way another suburban woman would promote a sewing club.
Alcohol plays a less-important role, and nobody has small children or even talks about having them. Again, a grown child figures into the story for the finale but is only one of a half- dozen odd subplots. Only for group parties do the particpants wear masks and pretend that their identities are concealed; most of the swapping is on a couple-by couple basis and is disturbingly credible.
The Swap complicates the social comment by detailing the business relationships that are "causing" the marital unhappiness, mainly the men ignoring their wives to concentrate on work. The wives don't have jobs, even though none of them have kids to take care of. This time around the script shows how the swapping just makes things worse - the client's power over his business vendors now extends to his wife, who orders the 'subordinate' wives to arrange swaps to her liking. When Pat Davies complains, her husband asks if she's ready to sell her house and move. Resentments form and the players are more desperate than ever. This added realism takes the place of the visual weirdness in the first film.
Along with Sarno's direction, most of the acting has improved, with only a couple of exceptions. Sarno's spare shooting style concentrates on faces, and some of the actors are as good as those seen in Cassavetes' psychodramas. The only difference is the formal script; there is no improvisation and nobody has the freedom to cut loose as Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel do in Faces.
The Swap doesn't have the quite the edge of Sin in the Suburbs; the earlier film seems a more clandestine affair intended to subvert the hypocrisy of society (and Hollywood). I doubt these pictures made anybody rich, even director Sarno. Sleaze film fans also prefer the earlier film to see their trash-movie stars the Olgas and Ilsa in earlier roles.
The Swap is mastered from the negative and as such looks picture perfect, much better than Sin. Although the main credits are blocked to fit a 1:66 or 1:78 aspect ratio, this picture is also presented flat.
As is the custom with Something Weird product, there's an extras gallery with a generous helping of lurid trailers themed around wife swapping and a lame but harmless Sarno short subject called A Sneak Peek at Strip Poker. The sexploitation art gallery is a general selection, when the films we've just seen have primed our curiosity for more info on Joe Sarno.
Something Weird chief Mike Vraney admits that his DVD business model required him to first release the films most likely to be popular, which explains why nonsense like Nude on the Moon came out four years ago and these Sarno pictures waited until now. I've reviewed an occasional Something Weird exploitation double bill just to make sure I wasn't missing something, and Joe Sarno is the first of their rediscoveries that really seems to be worthwhile. I'll probably go back and re-read the chapter in Incredibly Strange Films, and I'll be looking for more Sarno DVDs in the future.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sin in the Suburbs & The Swap and How they Make It rates: