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Savant Review:

Special Edition

Mantis in Lace
Image Entertainment
On screen title: Lila
1968 / Color / 1:37 full frame / Dolby Digital Mono / 87 m
Starring Susan Stewart, Vic Lance, Pat Barrington, Stuart Lancaster, Steve Vincent, M.K. Evans
Cinematography Laszlo Kovacs
Production Designer
Written and Produced by Sanford White
Executive producer Harry Novak
Directed by William Rotsler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The classiest proprietor of so called 'sleaze' movies has to be Michael Vraney, whose Something Weird Label offers up excellent quality in its selection of marginalized exploitation films,  1 while providing some unusual cinematic insights (Savant thinks) with his choice of extra content.  Mantis in Lace is a notorious sex 'n slaughter show from the low-rent stable of Harry Novak films, which originally played only in 'adult theaters' that, before the '70s explosion of hardcore porn, often showed legit European art next to domestic exploitation fare.


Lila is a stripper with an LSD problem.  She picks up men from the Sunset Strip club where she works, and takes them to a neglected warehouse to make love.  Unfortunately, LSD flashbacks cause her to have violent hallucinations and confuse her one-nights with various vegetables and fruits.  She stabs and hacks them to bits, disposes of the bodies, and then goes back to dancing in the club, until another luckless male hits on her.

As a movie, Mantis in Lace (titled on-screen as Lila) is cheap quickie with a hook - the 'bad' girl who works as an exotic dancer is also a drug-crazed murderer.  About 60% of the running time is padded with strip acts that are the film's obvious reason for being.  Cameraman Laszlo Kovacs is the cinematographer, and like Vilmos Zsigmond, he seems to have gotten his start and learned his trade by shooting whatever low-budget movies would hire him to run film through a camera.  Mantis looks very attractive, especially in this practically flawless transfer; its competent photography places it way above the competition in that regard.

As most of the effort is expended in the simple strip numbers, the direction is practically nil, and the feel of the movie is provided by Kovacs' hand-held camera.  Lila's warehouse 'pad' is obviously the corner of a soundstage, and there's a single scene in a bartender's apartment.  Two detectives are interspersed worrying about their inability to catch this newest serial killer, but their scenes exist only to keep the strip numbers from bumping (grinding?) into one another.   As Lila, 'Susan Stewart' can't act at all, but her thespian competition is zilch and the scripted lines are painfully stiff.  The psych-out murder scenes are achieved by projecting rock concert light-show patterns on the nude Lila and her hapless victims; her hallucinations are literalized by showing her embracing clumps of celery, smashing cantalopes with her meat cleaver, etc.  It's pretty crude but gets the job done.  Like everything else in the film, the vegetable motif is repeated without development.  The finish comes with an ironic but lazy law 'n order resolution which resolves next to nothing.

Mantis in Lace is a 'special edition', to which Savant's initial response was, "Yeah, sure it is."  Nude on the Moon had tossed in a barely-related short subject to round out its short running time.  But here Vraney has included a mountain of extras chosen both for appropriateness and (methinks) subversive editorial comment.  First off is an endless (100 minutes!) outtakes selection, that appears to include every bit of film shot for Lila, scraps, even, that didn't make it into the final cut.  Savant bets that one could re-combine them with the movie itself and reconstitute the original daily rolls, if one wanted!  The endless stage waits and bum takes soon becomes tedious, but lowbudget filmmakers will be intrigued to see how little waste there really was.  Also included are the usual trailers and a (slightly depressing) collage of print ad mats from a wide range of Harry Novak fare, mostly for titles far trashier-looking than Mantis in Lace.

The brilliant extra, however, is the drug-educational film that Mr. Vraney has included, LSD: Trip or Trap?, a shock drama made to be shown in classrooms.  I think the use of these awful movies was discontinued decades ago, but in the late '60s we high-schoolers were shown one every other week, sometimes in 'special assemblies.'  Trip dramatizes the horrors of making the wrong choice and using restricted substances with a terribly directed and acted drama.  It's insulting in its obviousness and crude to the point of being propagandistic pornography itself.

My generation pretty much decimated itself with drug abuse, so these movies were obviously made with good intentions.  But like the Red Asphalt and Signal 12 car-wreck horror films that taught safe driving by traumatizing teens with the sight of dismembered corpses, the drug film here pulls some really low punches.  With the possible genetic side-effects of LSD a totally unknown factor, closeup photos of hideously deformed babies are thrown at us, inferring that 'drugs could do this'.  In practice, the tough kids who drag-raced or dropped acid were so completely beyond the influence of anything in school, that they laughed their heads off at the sight of faceless corpses, or a baby with one eye on its forehead.  The rest of us sheltered straights who were still part of the program were terrorized.  These supposedly educational movies were like a puritan punishment for sins we'd never committed.

This choice of extras has value beyond the fact that Mantis in Lace uses LSD as a cheap excuse to display bushels of bouncing female flesh.  The parallels between the conservative child abuse of the 'educational film', and Novack and Rotsler's sleazy feature are very interesting.

Both have a veiled contempt for their audience.  The 'upstanding' educational film assumes that kids are pliable dolts who need shock treatment to get their attitudes and behavior back in line.  There's a real breakdown in communication when the ruling generation thinks it has to speak to its children through atrocity movies.  Similarly, Rotsler's exploitation movie knows it can shovel any rubbish onto the screen as long as it delivers the shabby goods its audience has paid to see, female nudity.  Even though the sex content of Mantis is extremely tame, its implied message that every human need can be bought and sold makes this pioneering softcore porn movie the vanguard of commercialism's reach into every base human need.  Society is alienated from its own sexuality?  Needs direction and purpose?  Give 'em raunchy sex movies.

Both 'genres' are arch-conservative. Right-wingers assign sex movies and permissiveness to the same Godless chaos they think liberalism represents.  A semi-underground movie like Mantis is instead a product of a repressive society - it could only exist in an environment full of taboos both good and bad.  The Carnival comes to the Church town to give it a break from the status-quo, right?  Sex movies were a puritan pressure valve - where I lived, nice people simply denied their existence.  The educational film, on the other hand, was made by the harsh, puritan authorities as a paternal warning to wayward youth.  Yet it's willing to use the exact same forbidden content (real gore, real sideshow freaks) as a bludgeon against its own children.  No wonder my generation left the congregation.

The softcore porn movie is more ethical. Mantis in Lace knows it has an audience (presumably of lonely men) who want to see forbidden content.  It panders, but delivers the goods in a fair contract.  That's the American way.  On the other hand, the educational films subjected their captive audiences to blatant, psychologically damaging propaganda.

Forced to watch these films in 1968, Savant felt victimized and 'made dirty' by them.  I never felt that my curiosity about pornography was unhealthy, but the educational films smacked of a crude attempt by the establishment to control my mind.  Just another bad move by our 'teachers' that made so many of us split from the program.

The DVD-buying public for Mantis in Lace hasn't changed since 1968.  There are always going to be lonely guys who want to see the naked babes, and that's fair.  Something Weird Video has its socially subversive role to play, and the intelligent extras added to this special edition show that Mr. Vraney has a very healthy perspective on his arcane stable of forbidden movies.  Yep, they are sleazy.  But when compared to today's sleaze that flows calmly at us from all directions, there's a vital honesty, even innocence to these relics that society seems to have forgotten.  I'm actually proud to have the DVD of Mantis in Lace - hidden away in my closet!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mantis in Lace: Special Edition rates:
Movie: Fair to Poor, but with redeeming social content!
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Exploitation art, Strip extras: Alice Goes to Acidland and Girl in a Cage, educational film: LSD: Trip or Trap?, alternate Psychedelic murder sequence, 100 minutes of outtake footage, trailer, radio spots, other Something Weird Trailers.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 27, 2001


1. As Savant reported after meeting him at a convention last fall, Mr. Vraney started Something Weird Video after being offered the entire contents of a vault-ful of unclaimed or rights-less film for only a few dollars per can.  In that vault were acres of 'trash' cinema: nudies like Nude on the Moon, exploitation and gore movies, and lowbudget 'adult' films that were not necessarily hardcore but definitely weren't exhibitable on any 'respectable' screen. Return

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