Although he was a producer on the mainstream hit 9 1/2 Weeks, most people probably remember the name Zalman King in relation to his Showtime series, "Red Shoe Diaries", which made him into something of a myth. Those unfamiliar with 9 1/2 Weeks or Two Moon Junction could have been forgiven for thinking of King as more of a brand name or figurehead than a man as his name became associated with the softcore porn industry. Pleasure or Pain is a patently ludicrous addition to his library that ended up being King's final directing / screenwriting effort before his death in 2012. Thinking of the film as the guy's swan song won't make the movie any more entertaining, but the final product is so oddly mechanical and removed from naturalism that it's often hard to believe there was a single guy steering the ship, a blend of Roger Corman and Mr. Skin.
The "story" concerns Victoria (Malena Morgan), a young woman who designs jewelry for a living. We know this because King shows her standing in front of a mirror in some random shop, arching her back and jutting out her bustline to a degree that appears painful, straining to see the giant necklace draped over her chest. While she works on a future chiropractor bill, a man named Jack (Christos Vasilopoulos) lays his eyes on her. He's a handsome guy who does something or other, whose strongest personality trait is the "crisp white shirt" Victoria mentions while reminiscing about him. Within a minute (movie time, although, probably in-story time too), they're boning in some weird room in his house that apparently only contains a single chair, and just a bit later (a bit containing several more sex scenes), he asks her to marry him. She's kind of interested, because they have great sex (repeatedly), but, she wonders, what if the sex is too good? These terrible fears are realized as she peels back the layers of his decadent lifestyle, which involves a number of women, including his longtime assistant, Isobel (Kayla Jane).
"Flimsy" doesn't begin to describe Pleasure or Pain's overall aesthetic. Movie critics like to make jokes and use common turns of phrase, but this genuinely feels like a movie cliche Mad Libs page, filled in with sexy adjectives, and expanded to feature length. The film is bookended by scenes of Victoria going on some late-night radio show to tell her story, which is a thing that I increasingly suspect has never actually happened in reality. As she explains it, the camera lingers on Victoria, delivering dialogue that hits the ear with an "uncanny valley" version of wistfulness or regret (the phrase "chuckles inwardly" was probably invoked, and is executed poorly). As a director, King values visuals over logic; the aforementioned "single chair" empty room in Jack's house being a good example. Later, after Victoria and Jack are married, Jack meets a string of women in a hotel room, but King shoots Jack through a bedroom door looking into a hallway with a couch that the women sit on instead of just placing them both in the same room. Scriptwise, characters frequently offer up bold-faced exposition without a hint of finesse or subtlety.
All of this silliness converges with the story itself, which is simultaneously straightforward and simple, yet entirely baffling. Victoria's basic conflict is that Jack was a womanizer, and she's concerned about his sexual prowess and history. Her initial solution is to bring Jack to that hotel and allow him to meet a bunch of women for sex, sex which she occasionally drops in to participate in, which makes no sense. Her real anger, though, is centered on Isobel. Although the first 40 minutes only feature about two minutes of Isobel and she's hardly seen doing anything but being nice and talking on the phone, Victoria devolves into a catty cliche, making pithy remarks about Isobel's attitude, outfits, and personality that rarely match up to what's on screen. It's not surprising that a film where the entire marketing appeal is naked women might be sexist, but many unnecessary quirks like this leave a bad taste in the mouth, the worst being a scene of Jack violently tearing off Victoria's clothes and chasing her down a precarious staircase before forcing himself on her while she repeatedly screams for him to stop, only for her to start enjoying it after a second.
As Pleasure or Pain drags on, it twists itself into an increasingly overheated melodrama sprinkled with bits of Eyes Wide Shut (during which King himself makes a cameo appearance). King keeps the frequency and variety of sex scenes up (which actually go a little farther than the average softcore), but the story is so uninteresting that it's hard to imagine it keeping the viewer's attention in-between. Occasionally, a moment, line, or visual will be ridiculous enough for a bit of flabbergasted laughter, but there's not a shred of substance here. As a drama, Pleasure or Pain has nothing to offer, as a romance it's lacking in spark, as a thriller it's flat and unengaging, and as a softcore porno in the year 2014, it hardly has any reason to exist. The packaging may remind the viewer that King was a man, a man who has since passed away, but the film on the disc inside of that packaging is pure reheated product.
Pleasure or Pain arrives on DVD with artwork from the Eyes Wide Shut material at the end, which frankly only makes up a tiny portion of the film's running time. The image makes the movie seem more exotic and unusual, even though most of it is pretty simple. The single disc release comes in a cheap DVD case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, Pleasure or Pain is generally adequate at best in both areas. So much of the film takes place in dark or low-light areas, making the image appear murky, with artifacts swarming about on the edges. The image is actually too soft for much banding to be a problem, but it implies manipulation of the image, as if the film was shot entirely in soft focus or perhaps some sort of digital smoothing was applied to make sure Morgan's skin appeared flawless at all times. A couple of group scenes and the occasional distant orgasmic screaming are all the audio really has to deal with, as well as the occasional unmemorable music. It sounds fine but rarely feels like it's taking advantage of the full 5.1 experience. No subtitles or captions are provided.
Only one: a "Zalman King Tribute" (5:34), which plays like almost a backhanded compliment, beginning with footage from 9 1/2 Weeks and continuing through King's career to the time when he directed what looks like a reality TV program. Hmm.
A trailer for Pleasure or Pain is also included, which somewhat arrogantly claims King "paved the way" for 50 Shades of Grey. Wasn't Twilight or anything, no sir, definitely King.
Skip it. Unless you're some sort of Zalman King connoisseur, there's nothing particularly remarkable or fresh about the man's final film.
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