It has been said, by those in the know, that the difference between softcore and hardcore pornography is penetration plus intent. Most film fans agree that a XXX title is only in it for the money...shot and can't wait to showcase the latest position or possible performance parameter. Softcore, on the other hand, is the adolescent angle toward sex: full of snickers and peeking, but with very little of the actual mechanics for making babies...or scandal. After the risqué rebellion of the 1960s and the broadening of censorship standards at the hands of the grindhouse gang (don't you ever let anyone tell you that the exploitation market was not important to mainstream moviemaking) the 1970s saw a flood of wishy washy wantonness. For every brand new adult title that opened at the arthouse, a far tamer treat pulled into the local passion pit. Indeed, the drive-In needed the ersatz sex film to foster its heavy petting potential after horror took a holiday and sci-fi went kid-vid. From so-called classics like Flesh Gordon to oddball abominations with weirdo names like Can I Do It 'Til I Need Glasses? it was a regular T&A fest in outdoor theaters across the nation. And this idea traveled well internationally, were standards were almost always looser. The clear exception was Australia, which was far more puritanical in its anti-smut stance before Fantasm came along. Often touted as the first Downunder sex romp, this combination of comedy and the carnal is now considered by many to be a ripe, raucous cult classic. And indeed, there is a great deal to admire about the Kiwi concept of copulation. From its wealth of old school porn stars to its sensational, erotic vignettes, this movie is a fine marital aide. But as a work of cinema, it has a few obvious flaws.
Dr. Jurgen Notafreud is a renowned expert on female sexuality and he honors us with an 87-minute dissertation on the basics of sexual fantasy. Moving from the oblique (all woman want to be raped) to the bleeding obvious (fantasy functions as a means of showing a hidden aspect of the subconscious) Dr. Notafreud decides that the best way to illustrate his lecture is to...illustrate it. Using a vignette format and a pluckish, giddy manner, he walks us through ten twisted tales of the feminine mystique. Each one has a name and in order of appearance, they are: "Beauty Parlor", "Card Game:, "Wearing the Pants", "Nightmare Alley", "The Girls", "Fruit Salad", "Mother's Darling", "Black Venus", "After School" and "Blood Orgy". In between each sequence, Dr. Freud offers up his observations on the mind, the body and the constantly carnal connection between the two. That's all there is to this Australian-made sex farce. And after taking a look at it, there is not really much else needed.
Let's get one thing straight right up front: Fantasm is just not funny. No matter how hard it tries, no matter what it attempts, there is very little to laugh at in this film. Perhaps it thought its humor stemmed from the naughty naiveté that most people have toward nudity and sex. Indeed, it is easy to see ten year olds tittering like drunken dwarves at Fantasm in between visits to the bathroom for some "quiet" time. This movie is every adolescent male fantasy flustered by too much man ass and some very obvious full frontal self-esteem reducers. This is about as close to hardcore as one can get and still feel relatively shame and sin free. Within the 10 "fantasies" we witness, some very bold things occur for the mid-70s (or post-modern) mindset: men being raped by strap-on tools, inferences of incendiary incest and John Holmes' overly large log. Sure, Uschi Digart is here for the full-figured ride with Candy Samples, aka Mary Gavin traveling abreast of the Teutonic titan. Fan favorite Rene Bond gets ramrodded by a big black boxer, and Serena gives her "soul" – along with something else beginning with "s" – to the Devil. From a standard food-based free-for-all (Jeez, whip cream and cherries can be dull) to the most bizarre visit to the beauty parlor ever (where the old fashioned phrase "shave and a haircut" takes on a whole new connotation) Fantasm puts it all on the screen for us to drown and dwell in. And in between all the pork product, we get creepy, cold lectures on female sexuality from someone's idea of a continental quack.
Indeed, this Dr. Ruth before the sex change is one of the least interesting things about this movie. Actor John Bluthal, perhaps more famous as the blind beggar without a license for his "minkey" in the Return of the Pink Panther, tries his damnedest to enliven the far too subtle Jokes from the John diatribes he is given, looking all throughout the lines for any hint of wit. Though it may sound strange today, most of what his Dr. Jurgen Notafreud says sounds like advice given out nightly by Dr. Sue Johanson on Talk Sex. How something this dated can now become salient professional guidance seems so outright odd that as Bluthal makes his precognitive pontifications, a modern audience experiences some amazing moments of mental disconnect. Like looking through a crystal Ben Wa ball to see the future of friggin', and coming up with a few of the more outlandish ideas possible, Fantasm is like a repeat performance of The Second Sex for the raincoat crowd. So it is almost impossible to locate those ribald ribticklers that Playboy and Hustler made famous in the platitudes of this film. But Bluthal's acting is another issue altogether. There is a subtle slapstick approach to his performance, amazing little minor moments (a glass is dropped, he is caught playing the organ) that occasionally cause you to smile. And he has a daffy Professor Irwin Corey by way of the Berlin branch of Masters and Johnson persona which kind of works. But as our lame linking verb to all the arousing action here, Dr. Notafreud is notafun.
Frankly, no one will probably care that Bluthal is here at all, since there is a great deal of sizzle and sensuality in the actual 'scenes' featured in Fantasm. If you like your porno borderline audacious, with just a hint of hardcore and lots of loving camera angles, this is one flesh feast that will really gird your groin. Our first fantasy focuses on a trip to a hairdresser's salon, and is more cabaret than copulation. But our next insightful stopover is a swinging poker party where men bet their brides (and their accompanying wifely duties) on each hand. Before long, one poor sucker is seeing his spouse sharked by every dude dealt a card. We next witness a lonely housewife as she dreams of ass raping a cross-dressing weirdo. And if that wasn't bizarre enough, the sexual battery approach is broached again soon afterward. Those who enjoy Rene Bonds work will love her here. She is both aggressor and victim in this relatively sleazy scene. Our first half of humping ends on a decidedly "uplifting" experience as the Germanic glamour gal herself, the one and only (or should that be TWO and only) Uschi Digart gets down and Sappho in a sauna. Frankly, this is a VERY HOT scene, and not because of the steamy setting. Uschi is both forceful and frail here, allowing costar Maria Lutra to equally match and manipulate her. Though it is FAR too short (the scene cuts just as a certain numerical issue is being explored), it is sequences like these that make the affection for softcore so understandable.
The next pentalogy to perversion begins with another certified smoker, as Hispanic honey Maria Welton gets good and lubed up for an imaginary date with super-shaft John Holmes. Allowing us several full frontal glimpses of his famous member, Holmes and Welton work overtime with the grease and the groceries (various fruits are violated) to really ratchet up the raunch. And boy do they succeed. By the time they take to the pool, you'll need to cool off as well. Lovers of oversized hooters, who thought Ms. Digart
was more than a mouthful, will take one look at Candy Samples, a.k.a. Mary Gavin, and scream "Yes please!" (or in the alternate, a Henry Graham like "Please don't let them out!"). Under the sort-of sick setup of a mother 'greeting' her returning war veteran son, there is some weird-ass dialogue here (Sonny boy gets a 'Nam flashback just as Mommy is rubbing her soapy skin bags all over his back?!?) and not enough intimate interaction to really sell the situation. The next sequence is equally underdeveloped. Supposedly the story of a hooker, but mostly playing like a bad striptease routine, there is nothing really to recommend this uncharacteristic detour in the debauchery. Thankfully, the next scene more than makes up for the dumb dancer dung. Someone called Roxanne Brewer, sporting chest-nuts the size of an underdeveloped nation (and carrying the unsane ability to "bounce" them without her hands) gets a chance to display her powers for a teetering old teacher in the typical "Don't Stand So Close to Me" come-on. Roxanne's rack is very fetching. The rest of the scene is rote.
Our final installment of Fantasm fun is a Serena helmed hump-a-thon about Devil worship and sins of the flesh. The natural red head (one of the few performers here with matching cuffs and collar) is loud, brash and over the top as she takes a sticking and keeps on ticking. One of the reasons why this movie works so well is the fact that it utilizes professional porn stars, actors and actresses able to successfully sell onscreen sex with flair and gusto. Had producer Anthony Ginnane picked up some horny hillbillies off the street, or given some unknown upstarts their chance at corporeal immortality, Fantasm would be a flaccid failure. Thanks to the skill of such erotic experts, almost all the installments here are hardening. But bed basics alone do not make for powerful pandering. There needs to be someone at the helm who understands how to translate the passion and the proclivity over to the audience. Luckily, director Richard Franklin (better known for Patrick, Road Games and Psycho II) using the nom de plume of "Richard Bruce" had more than enough mainstream chops to keep this movie from looking like a low budget lark. There is big production value here, carefully crafted mood and atmosphere that really heightens the sensuality and realism of the randiness. All implied embarrassment aside (Franklin still pseudo-"disowns" this film and is never featured face-on discussing it. In the extras, he is in silhouette) the director has made one of the more fascinating and frisky R-rated softcore sensations of all time. While not all of it works, and there are times when the movie pushes the boundaries of acceptability (there is some incredibly minor fellatio shown) Fantasm is still a great bit of risqué business.
And perhaps, that's what's best about this time capsule throwback. It is unbelievably interesting to wallow in the standards of skin and sex appeal from almost thirty years ago and see how well it matches up to today's demented ideas. While Fantasm explores fetish, and envisions a few "unusual" elements, it is all done under the idea of safety and fantasy, not the camcorder clarity of the new millennial gonzo grotesque. From the horrible fashion statements made by the cast (someone should really sue the permanent industry for the toll it took on hairstyles during the Me Decade) to the then-new notions of what's naughty and what's nice, Fantasm will floor you with its perversion and its peculiarity. Certainly there are better examples of this type of movie in the exploitation genre (Something Weird Video puts out frolicsome flesh feasts like these in their sleep) and people who prefer the supermodel motifs of modern pornography (read: breast implants and lots of plastic surgery shape shifting) will view the warts and all individuals getting their groove on with a very jaundiced eye. Still, the attention to detail and the authenticity in the aardvarking is what makes this movie a must-see. The stupid sauerbraten crap comedy really never succeeds, and there is nothing really novel or new about the clip compilation approach taken. But Fantasm does deliver on the level of delightful diddling. And that's all anyone coming to a softcore sex film wants, anyway.
Grainy, dated and feeling very old-fashioned, Synapse Films release of Fantasm looks surprisingly good for a foreign film made nearly 30 years ago. Franklin shot in 16mm, and the print was later blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution, so the telltale fog of tiny gray flecks is understandable. The print shows very few age defects or negative damage, and is being presented for the first time completely uncut (most territories excised some footage to pass individual ratings boards). The 1.66:1 transfer is far from pristine – colors are slightly faded and there is a washed out look to the soft focus facets – but overall, this anamorphic widescreen image is professional and pleasant. It's too bad that Franklin felt uneasy making this type of movie. His framing and compositions are excellent, really giving this film a cinematic flair.
There is not much to be said for the audio portion of this DVD. The Dolby Digital Mono is relatively hiss free and clear. It is never hopelessly distorted or tinny, and allows us to easily understand Notafreud's foolishness, as well as the fantasy sequence voice-overs. The musical score is pitch perfect mid-70s sex film fun, with lots of over-orchestrated embellishment and wa-wa pedal perversion. Though the single channel mix doesn't give it the randy respect it truly deserves, the overall aural package presented by Synapse is excellent.
There are three major bonus features on this DVD, and two of them are mandatory viewing. First up, producer Anthony Ginnane livens up the proceedings with a thoroughly engaging, incredibly informative DVD commentary. Apologizing for Richard Franklin (who could not participate), Ginnane is a veritable encyclopedia about the intricate details of this production. He informs us that the sex scenes were shot in the US over 11 days, using a "fantasy a day" mentality (the crew would shoot five installments, take a day off, then shoot the rest) while "Dr. Notafreud" was filmed in Australia. The movie was banned in the Australian territorial "state" of Queensland (Ginnane says it STILL hasn't played their in its entirety, calling this portion of his homeland the "Deep North", in deference to the US equivalent of the Deep South) and is hugely successful in Canada (go figure). He has nothing but praise for the porn professionals involved (all of whom were paid less than usual since there was none of their "typical" talents required) and is especially proud that with John Holmes and Mary "Candy Samples" Gavin, you got the extremes of both male and female physicality. Though he tends to drift off toward the end (he is a real motormouth at the beginning), Ginnane's narrative is still a very astute lesson in movie production, and the problems and pitfalls inherent therein. It is a perfect compliment to this film.
Equally charming is the "Fantasm Penetrated" featurette, a 20 minute look at the making of both films (sadly, the DVD of Fantasm Comes Again has no such 'Making-Of'). Franklin does make an appearance here - kind of - as he is featured in "witness protection program" shadows to discuss his participation. It is odd that he goes for the darkened profile approach, since he seems very happy and proud of the movie he made. Both men cover areas Ginnane discussed in his commentary, but it's nice to hear the anecdotes and reminiscences again. Along with a tantalizing trailer from the time, and a wonderfully energetic insert essay by Chris Poggiali, this is a nice little DVD presentation that fans of the film will really appreciate.
If you are of a certain age, something like Fantasm really brings back the memories: you and your buddies piling into a parent's moldy station wagon, rolling papers in your wallet, stash of 'smoke' stuffed down your pants and 12-pack of near beer boasted under a seat. As you pull up to the drive-in ticket window, a couple of pals climb under some blankets. The cranky old coot with her bifocals dangling from a silver change sees them anyway, and forces you to pay full admission price (DAMN, there goes some munchie money!!!). You find a place near the snack bar, get the speaker from the stand (or if you were lucky, tune the AM radio to the proper station) and as the ads for local merchants blazon across the huge outdoor screen, you put fire to the briar and lose yourself in a sweet smoky fog. By the time the feature presentation makes its appearance, you are waking and baking and just being young, never once finding it odd that you are part of a group of undersexed guys, without dates, sitting in a passion pit watching a softcore sex film together. Like a right of passage or a quaint coming of age, movies of the Fantasm ilk were the teenage boy equivalent of Truth or Dare, with the way you responded to the flopping flesh and bouncing butts a clear indication of your level of cool. If taken as something other than a tawdry testament to a certain time and place, Fantasm doesn't fair too well. But as an example of sexual expression at the beginning of its future broad based bonanza, it's a blessed bong hit of a hoot. You will definitely get a buzz from this film – it just may not be in the place you expect.
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