Radley Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet (1970) belongs in that tiny window of movie-going that lasted from roughly 1969-1975, when both art house movies were chic focal points among the cultured classes and sexually-explicit movies aspired to click with those audiences and gain critical acceptance. Today this West German-Italian co-production in English seems almost quaint, a proto-Emmanuelle type of pretentious if earnest would-be art film, part Twilight Zone-type fantasy (complete with twist ending), part giallo-like Italian psychological thriller.
Few will find it as erotic as audiences certainly did when it was new, though co-star Silvano Venturelli has an undeniably sensational body. Instead, the picture is best enjoyed as a cultural artifact of its era. This review can't explain its time-specific impact any better than the film's original trailer (included on the disc, and accessible via YouTube), which in the style common to art house releases quotes various critics and trendsetters - in this case heaping upon it some pretty hilarious, over-the-top praise: Just get a load of what Bernard Drew of the Gannett News Service had to say: "Each season [Metzger] comes forth with a new blessing, and this year's crop of kisses is called The Lickerish Quartet." Or Bob Salmaggi (Westinghouse Broadcasting System): "This lustful tapestry borders on the power of illusion, the quixotic movement of time, and the quirks of fantasy." And, like they say in Sullivan's Travels, a little sex. I wonder what these same critics thought when Metzger, using the name Henry Paris, switched to hardcore?
The movie was originally rated "X" in the U.S. but, confusingly, this Cult Epics release is R-rated, running 87:46, though this might be some sort of error as this version includes full-frontal male and female nudity, as well as graphic if simulated sex scenes. In any case, alternate footage from the shorter, "cool version," with the actors more discreet in their lovemaking, partly clothed, etc., is included as an extra feature. The image is fairly strong, despite a couple of splices and minor damage here and there, and there's a goodly number of useful supplements.
The film begins with a never-named family watching a scratched-all-to-hell, black and white 16mm stag film. These jaded aristocratic types - a wife (Erika Remberg), her adult son (Paolo Turco), and his stepfather (Frank Wolff) - make all sorts of smart-alecky remarks at what they see on screen, feigning bored disinterest.
They then take in a nearby carnival, where one of the daredevil motorcyclists on the "Wall of Death" attraction is a dead ringer for the blonde in the stag film, although this young woman's hair is dark. In any case they invite her back to their vast castle where the visitor (Venturelli) denies ever appearing in films of any sort. When they run the film for her the stag movie actress's face now is completely obscured throughout, puzzling the family. Eventually though, the visitor seduces each of them one-by-one, slowly revealing their various psychological/sexual hang-ups (impotence, guilt, childhood trauma, etc.) and the film becomes increasingly abstract.
The Lickerish Quartet's pretentiousness mostly takes the form of flashbacks and flash-forwards, usually in black and white, in which the main characters freely drift in and out and blur with yet more unidentified people. They even spill over into the stag film itself, anticipating the film-within-a-film-within-a-film twist at the end.
Just as the characters in Lickerish wonder aloud what the actors in the stag film must have felt like cavorting in front of the cameras for all the world to see, I couldn't help wonder - and in a weird way admire the bravery of - established stars Frank Wolff and Erika Remberg and their willingness to appear full-frontally nude and in (simulated) sex scenes. San Francisco-born Wolff got his start with Roger Corman and Monte Hellman in movies like Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) but soon after moved to Europe, where films like Salvatore Giuliano (1962), America, America (1963), Once Upon a Time in the West (1967), and Caliber 9 (1972) established his reputation. Remberg was a big star in Germany during the 1950s and early-'60s who occasionally made English-language film and TV appearances. Her best remembered film in that capacity is probably the deliriously sadistic Circus of Horrors (1960); The Lickerish Quartet was her last movie role.
The picture is not very erotic by today's standards unless one finds Wolff's hairy, flabby body and/or Remberg's stretchmark-scarred tummy alluring. Remberg, in her brief nude scene, also wears an enormous flesh-colored bandage on her left breast (hiding what?). Venturelli is beautiful in a very early-'70s sort of way but clearly no actress. Wolff and Remberg's voices are heard in the English version while the other two were dubbed. In one of the extra features, recordings of the live tracks are played, and Venturelli can barely get the words out.
But the film is well made for what it is. The musical score, by Stelvio Cipriani, is unusually good, and the art direction and costumes, both by Enrico Sabbatini, are just over-the-top enough to be visually striking yet still believable. One set of a library is like B-movie Ken Adam, and good use is made of Balsorano Castle in L'Aquila, Abruzzo, the main location.
Video & Audio
The Lickerish Quartet is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Color is strong and the image is reasonably sharp though there is some minor damage here and there in the form of a few splices, etc. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (English only) is okay. The entire film was relooped during postproduction and has that hollowness one associates with English-dubbed Italian films from the era, but it's not bad. There are no other subtitle options.
Supplements include an audio commentary track with Radley Metzger and historian Michael Bowen; "Mind Games - The Making of 'The Lickerish Quartet," an 11-minute featurette that includes rare behind the scenes footage/outtakes; the aforementioned "Cool Version Love Scenes"; "Giving Voice to the Quartet," with more about the looping of the various actors; and trailers for several Metzger titles, including this one.
A cultural artifact more than it is great- or even erotic cinema, The Lickerish Quartet is definitely interesting, but of limited interest and for those intrigued by this era of "respectable" erotic film. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.