That Tender Touch, the new release from gay-themed Wolfe Video, is probably not meant for me. This late-60s drama of forbidden attraction between two middle-class women shows its age with an overwrought, play-to-the-peanut-gallery visual style, a somewhat blinkered view of same-sex desire and, most obviously, a mise-en-scene that exemplifies the worst excesses of the era. Wolfe seems to acknowledge these defects in their pitch to the target audience, calling it a "rediscovered camp gem" that is a "classic example of the lesbian exploitation genre, or what we like to call Dykesploitation!"
Terri (Sue Bernard, who you'll no doubt remember from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Marsha (Bee Tompkins) are two young, single women living together in a small apartment. We barely make it through the opening credit sequence (over which is played the hilariously melodramatic title song) before we see the first hints of Marsha's nascent attraction to Terri. While the latter remains oblivious to her friend's feelings, she's having some bad luck in her own love life; the men she dates are boors and mashers who won't keep their hands to themselves. One night, Terri dreams of Marsha, and wakes up overcome by arousal. She slips into her surprised roommate's bed and they consummate (mostly off-screen) their attraction.
Flash forward to some years later: Terri is hosting a party with her new husband, Rob in their suburban home. Marsha, who seems to have been out of the picture for some time, arrives uninvited, hoping perhaps to renew their relationship. Despite an initially chilly reception, she convinces Terri and Rob to let her stay with them for a few days, during which she attempts to re-ignite their old passion. As you might expect from this sort of thing, tragedy results.
It would be pretty easy to pan That Tender Touch, but I found it to be a rather charming, if severely outdated, relic of its period. Most viewers will get some easy chuckles from the proto-70s clothes, hair and sets - I know I did. But there are other points of historical interest in this film as well. We too often forget that exploitation films were not exclusively of the horror, action or sci-fi genres, but also sometimes attempts at more mainstream Hollywood fare; in this case, bombastic domestic melodramas.
That Tender Touch tries to ape this style as well as it can and, if the result isn't entirely successful, its not a crashing failure either. Director Vincent seems to have understood the ways in which the visuals can accentuate the themes of the story - for example, during Marsha's final, tearful confession of love for Terri, the camera zooms out to reveal some flower arrangements in the foreground. Earlier, in moments of anguish, Terri appears to be visually overwhelmed by the appliances, design and other accoutrements of her tacky house; various domestic gadgets hem her into one corner of the frame or, sometimes, block her out entirely. There are other such tricks scattered throughout the film, such as a mirror motif, no doubt designed to comment on the duel natures of the characters, the split between their public and private selves.
None of this is done with overwhelming skill or subtlety, mind you (and, what's worse, all of this mannered artiness clashes with the more 'realistic' cinematography tricks that litter the film - lens flares, sudden shifts of focus, zooms and so forth), but effort counts for something, and its nice to be reminded that there was a time when even cheap little exploitation directors understood a thing or two about their craft.
Those of you who have any kind of hang-ups about image quality might want to skip this one, as the source print is so badly scratched up that its sometimes hard to tell if the video quality is any good or not. Even so, the full-frame (1.33:1) image is certainly watchable, and Wolfe has done an admirable job of keeping things looking reasonably sharp and attempting to preserve the vivid color scheme of the original.
As with the picture, the source material is in such bad shape that the soundtrack is almost not worth worrying about. There are plenty of pops, hisses and crackles here to accompany the dialogue and effects, none of which seem to have been recorded with any great care in the first place (in one scene, the noise of a tiki torch burning in the background actually drowns out a conversation). Everything is more or less audible, and that's about it.
Wolfe has included a very sharp-looking, glossy reproduction of the original press kit, which will be of particular interest to those who wonder how this film was publicized and sold. Sadly, that's it - there are no extras of any kind on the disc itself.
That Tender Touch doesn't really work as a dramatically interesting narrative, but it does work on a few other levels: as a window into how gay desire was thought of in the pre-Stonewall era, as a demonstration of the debt that even grindhouse films owed to classical Hollywood style, as a vintage sexploitation vehicle, as fodder for you and your friends' MST3K/Beavis and Butthead routines. If you feel that you fall into any of these categories, this is worth a look. However, given the lack of extras, particularly on a disc that seems like fertile soil for some context-providing documentaries or commentaries, I think one look is about all you'll need.