Sunday, 9 May 2010

Passion in Hot Hollows (1969)

Joe Sarno, who passed away a few days ago, was arguably the most interesting and provocative of all the sexploitation directors of the 1960s. Passion in Hot Hollows gives a fairly clear idea of why so many cult movie fans regard Sarno as being so much more than a mere director of skin flicks.

Sarno’s special talent was for taking an apparently innocuous and respectable setting, and exposing its seething underbelly of forbidden passions and sordid sexual shenanigans. His usual target was suburbia, in movies such as Sin in the Suburbs, but this time he turns his attentions to that most beloved of American icons of clean living and decent family values, small town America.

Two decadent city types, a man and a woman, arrive in a sleepy little town. The woman’s sister runs the local hotel. The two are not exactly overflowing with sisterly affection. The arrival of the bad girl from the city awakens all kinds of sleeping sinful desires among the local citizenry. And Norma Sue is a very bad girl. She’s also very much aware of her sister Jean’s sexual hang-ups. As a teenager Jean used to spend a lot locked in her bedroom with a favourite rag doll, engaged in frenzied self-pleasuring. Jean has never come to terms with her sexuality at all, but Norma Sue’s arrival will unlock her darkest lusts.

The sounds of Norma Sue and her rather creepy boyfriend having sex arouses Jean in a way she hasn’t been aroused since those blissful days with her rag doll. Norma Sue suffers from terminal boredom, a crushing ennui from which she can only find relief by coming up with variations of sexual kinkiness, and by inciting others to the same kinds of activities. Having her boyfriend seduce Jean, and then seducing her sister herself, sounds like it might be a way of finding at least temporary relief from her boredom.

At the same two good old boys who spend their time hanging out outside the town’s only store are indulging in some sexual adventures of their own. One of them finds that bedding an attractive young widow is more entertaining than working (although working is something these two guys have very little experience of). His wife isn’t thrilled, but she’s more annoyed by his chronic inability to earn a living. Pretty soon both the wife and the young widow have been drawn into two different circles of sexual hijinks.

1960s sexploitation movies rely more on suggestion than on anything that is actually shown. The sex scenes would hardly rate a PG rating today. And that’s why Sarno enjoyed this genre so much. He had little interest in the mechanics of sex. It was the psychology of sex that fascinated him. In the sex scenes the ficus is mainly on faces, especially the women’s faces. Sarno was interested in what they were feeling, not what they were doing. Passion in Hot Hollows is an object lesson in the Sarno technique. It’s highly erotic in an overheated and dangerous and rather disturbing kind of way, and it achieves this effect without really showing anything explicitly sexual.

As the games of bed-hopping become increasingly adventurous the atmosphere of tension and danger increases. But it’s not physical danger. You’re not going to see any outbursts of violence. Damage will be done, but the damage will be entirely psychological and emotional.
This movies demonstrates the kind of mastery of the art of atmospheric lighting that you’d expect from a prestigious art movie or a classic film noir. The black-and-white cinematography is superb.

Sarno always had a knack of finding very capable casts and getting extremely effective acting performances from his players. This film is no exception. Cherie Winters as Norma Sue and Uta Erickson as Jean are particularly good. Sarno’s sexploitation movies required real acting, and they required a certain subtlety in the acting.

This is part of a Something Weird Joe Sarno double-feature, paired with Flesh and Lace (which isn’t quite as good but still has some superb moments and is still very much worth seeing). It’s one of their best double-features, and you get Joe Sarno and his wife Peggy on a commentary track for Passion in Hot Hollows.

This is stylish intelligent film-making, and must have been rather bewildering to the kinds of audiences it would have attracted in the 60s. They’d have been expecting a basic sex movie, and what they got was the kind of skin flick that Ingmar Bergman might have made, had Ingmar Bergman decided to make skin flicks.

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