The first volume of Black Emanuelle's Box has come about twenty years too late for me. If you had handed me these DVDs when I was 14, I'd have thought it was the greatest thing in the world, like, ever. I've seen a few more boobies since then, though--one or two of them in real life, even--so it's a little hard to, um, well, get excited about softcore porn movies from 1977. Maybe if there was a special feature on the discs where I could have the picture scrambled so it looked like a blocked Cinemax signal, I could manufacture a little nostalgia for the days where any nakedness, even when all abstract and cubist a la an illegal cable feed, was unique enough to sit through.
Because there is a lot of nakedness in the Black Emanuelle movies. A lot. The first movie of the set, Joe D'Amato's Emanuelle in Bangkok (1977), has a nude scene practically every five minutes. Laura Gemser, the titular (sorry) star of the series, is a beautiful woman, so it's not exactly painful to endure her constant disrobing. Unfortunately, it's not exactly erotic, either. For all the action Gemser is getting, including a bubbly massage where another woman rubs herself up and down on top of her, she doesn't seem to be all that thrilled to be there. Her gasps of ecstasy come off more like burps of ennui. "Ho-hum, another camera set-up, another sex scene. Let me know when we break for lunch."
Having a lead actress who couldn't care less about her own simulated orgasms is not a good thing when the movie is intended to be an "erotic classic." (The vintage box art claims "X Has Never Been Hotter!"--except the meal has had thirty years to cool.) Emanuelle in Bangkok is not a movie that you watch for the plot, and what little plot there is--Emanuelle is a photojournalist who has traveled to Thailand to take pictures of the king and ends up involved in some intrigue or another--moves along at a tortoise-like pace. There's no choice but to keep the story thin when you have to halt its progression every other scene because your main character has lost her clothes.
Besides, that story line goes out the window midway through, when Emanuelle leaves Bangkok for Casablanca. Not before being gang raped by a group of the king's agents, one of whom then turns around and gives Emanuelle advice about how to get out of trouble. I know that erotica is often dark, but it doesn't really play well with me to see a woman abused, stand up and brush it off, and then head over to the airport to use her body to bribe her way out of the country as if nothing has happened at all. I guess it's all part of her journey to discover herself and her body, or whatever. At one point, it's implied by one of her more worldly lovers that Emanuelle needs to learn to truly open up, to experience full orgasmic pleasure. This is an outside anomaly that doesn't really pay off. In fact, later, Emanuelle falls for a young girl, and someone else tells her not to open up too much. Rather, the point is the rather banal sentiment that one must live in the moment. Emanuelle, then, is the ultimate symbol of freedom, drawing the sexuality out of everyone she encounters. Which is perhaps why she comes off as a hollow object rather than an actual person. She need not have a consistent personality as long as she doesn't remain clothed.
Granted, my assessment may be overly serious for a film that is not meant to be serious at all, but this is the contradiction I am stuck with. If they are going to stick an alleged story in between the sex scenes and claim to be erotica rather than porn, then I will watch Black Emanuelle's Box, vol. 1 as such.
Things don't improve much in Emanuelle Around the World, also released in 1977--though, someone did learn the fine art of tease, as it actually does get better before it gets worse. Directed again by Joe D'Amato, the first third of Around the World picked up a sense of humor somewhere. It opens as Emanuelle gets her freak on with a truck driver in a fancy bed in the back of a moving truck. The action then quickly moves to India where the intrepid reporter is sent to investigate a guru (George Eastman) who promises the secrets of the ultimate orgasm. A couple of scenes of orgies at a tantric training school are hilariously over the top, and naturally Emanuelle is able to get the better of this holy shyster when she gets some private tutoring.
For those chasing the sex element, Emanuelle Around the World does get more explicit, with more contact in the sex scenes and more lingering on them--which may have to do with those sequences getting a little less frequent. Along with the explicitness, however, the movie also adopts a new reprehensibility in the form of a fake social consciousness. Emanuelle meets a handsome diplomat (Ivan Rassimov) who talks to her about abstinence and world hunger, and his influence causes her to team with a busty reporter (Karin Schubert) from another paper to bust up a gang of white slavers. One alternate title for this film has been Emanuelle: Why Violence Against Women?, but it's also been called The Degradation of Emanuelle. There's degradation aplenty.
Emanuelle Around the World is pretty much exploitation at its most base. It takes a particular kind of crassness to make a movie about exposing the evil of violence against women just to show violence against women. The rape, beatings, and implied bestiality in this movie are intended not to be illuminating or horrifying, but titillating. This isn't my idea of a good time. And let's not even get into the good old-fashioned racism that rears its ugly head when the slavers' trail leads to Hong Kong.
The final movie in Black Emanuelle's Box, vol. 1 is Sister Emanuelle (1981), directed by Giuseppe Vari. Having renounced her carnal lifestyle, Emanuelle has joined a convent where she works with the other nuns to rehabilitate wayward girls. When a particularly headstrong nymphette (Monica Zanchi, who contrary to the marketing copy looks nothing like Kirsten Dunst) is sent to the sisters to curb her wanton ways, she becomes a new source of temptation for Emanuelle, who hasn't yet lost her taste for wickedness. Sister Emanuelle doubles up on its fetishes, perhaps best represented by the panty-revealing catfight between nun and schoolgirl when Monica first arrives at the convent. Naturally, Monica's ability to find action all over the place, even when sequestered inside a holy order, is going to draw Emanuelle out her new habit and back into her old ones, but should anyone really care by this point in the series? The sex scenes are exactly the same in all of the movies. Closed-mouth lip-locking, roving hands, bites and kisses up and down the body--I could choreograph my own Emanuelle movie at this point. There's that little to it.
I suppose from a character standpoint, Sister Emanuelle is the best of the lot, as it's the only film here that has writing that stays consistent and an actual story arc. It's still not very good, though. None of these movies are. I realize saying so will probably earn me a lot of grief, particularly these days when suddenly everyone is a "grindhouse" expert and the romanticizing of bad cinema is riding high on a pop-culture wave. You can spare reminding me that quality storytelling isn't really the point of the Black Emanuelle series, because even I've already acknowledged that. As far as I'm concerned, these movies only had one job to do, and if they had done it right, there'd be no blood left in my head for thinking about everything else these passionless crapfests lack.
The movies in Black Emanuelle's Box, vol. 1 are cleaned up fairly well, with nice colors and mostly clean pictures, but they aren't perfect. An hour or so into Bangkok, for instance, a purple line runs down the screen for about thirty seconds. Around the World has the worst transfer, with regular appearances of dirt and debris. Sister Emanuelle is somewhere in the middle.
The movies are all in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
There are both English and Italian audio options. The original language is Italian, and I sampled both possibilities to see if there was a big difference, including watching the English subtitles while listening to the English track. While the dialogue does tend to be drawn out and differ somewhat from the subtitles, the choice between both languages is kind of neither here nor there. The Italian audio was also dubbed in later, so the lips rarely match, anyway, and it's not like anyone in this movie speaks in poetic sonnets.
The tracks themselves are mono, and sometimes they are a bit tinny.
All the movies come with their original theatrical trailers, but each DVD also has bonus features of its own.
Emanuelle in Bangkok has a twelve-minute documentary featurette centered around an interview with director Joe D'Amato. Shot in 1995, it was one of the last public appearances of the filmmaker, and he discusses what compels him to push the envelope in both his horror and sex films.
Emanuelle Around the World puts its focus on the music of the series, and it includes both an interview with composer Nico Fidenco (13:30) and a soundtrack CD entitled Black Emmanuelle's Groove. For me, the score was the one thing I actually liked about these movies. Fidenco has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that plays in tandem with and sometimes goes against the ridiculousness on the screen, bursting the bubble if the film maybe gets a little self-important or ironically noting how bad the in between scenes of "story" and "character" can be. His use of odd vocal sounds, including whistling and humming, sometimes reminds me of Ennio Morricone (who was a contemporary, and according to the interview, was at RCA at the same time as Fidenco and they were both influenced by Tiomkin). Since this is a two-disc set, Emanuelle Around the World has a double case with a hinged inner tray. It also comes with an insert card with the track listing and images of the soundtrack albums the music is taken from--Bangkok, Around the World, and the very first in the series, Black Emanuelle (Emanuelle Nera).
In case you didn't quite get enough of Sister Emanuelle, the DVD has "deleted and alternate scenes." There are four in total. The video quality of these is really fuzzy and the audio is Italian only. The first three all involve instances where penises were cut from the film, and from what I could tell, the "flashback" and "bondage" scenes were exactly the same. The final deletion involves more direct contact between Monica and her stepmother, as well as a banana. These were all elements in various international cuts of Sister Emanuelle and are probably more explicit than anything that remains in any of the three features.
All three of the Black Emanuelle movies come in individual cases inside the "black box" referenced in the set title. Printed on glossy paper, the box has a front cover with a window cut through revealing an image of Laura Gemser from the shoulders up. This windowed cover is actually held closed by a tiny piece of Velcro and opens out to reveal the rest of the photo and Gemser's naked torso. The set also comes with six sturdy postcards of original movie posters, two for each film.
While the three films housed in Black Emanuelle's Box, vol. 1 might have been scandalous for the late 1970s, there's really very little to recommend them now. For movies about a world-traveling nymphomaniac, I found them surprisingly absent of sexiness. The actress who plays Emanuelle, Laura Gemser, is beautiful, but she lacks the talent to portray even ecstasy with any conviction. Add to that the stomach churning morality of Emanuelle Around the World, and this DVD collection ends up not just being boring, but it borders on the reprehensible, as well. Skip It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.