Pets is a movie that at first glance seems like a piece of classic exploitation sleaze, but in fact there’s quite a bit more going on here. It’s trashy certainly, but it’s smart and provocative as well.
Writer-director Raphael Nussbaum based this 1974 movie on a play by Richard Reich. Neither the play nor the movie were appreciated by critics who just couldn’t get past the obvious exploitation elements.
Pets charts the adventures of misadventures of a young woman named Bonnie (Candice Rialson). As the movie opens she’s being beaten up on by her brother. She runs away from him and hooks up with a feisty black woman, Pat (Teri Guzman). They accept a lift from a middle-aged sleazy businessman type in a convertible. He thinks he’s in for some fun and games with a couple of willing hotties but when Pat produces a gun from her handbag and orders him to drive off into the woods he discovers that they’re actually going to have fun and games with him. Only it’s not going to be fun for him at all.
While Pat takes his keys and drives off to rob his house he and Bonnie are engaged in a battle for psychological dominance. Bonnie feels kind of sorry for him but that doesn’t stop her from raping him. She just wants to know how it feels to be in top for a change. But Bonnie’s moment of triumph doesn’t last long, since Pat takes off with the guy’s money and leaves her stranded.
Bonnie is rescued by a female artist, Geraldine. Geraldine can’t wait to get Bonnie naked so she can paint her. It soon transpires that art isn’t the only reason Geraldine wants to get Bonnie naked. They drift into relationship, but it’s an uneasy one. Bonnie feels that Geraldine wants to control her, and since Geraldine has plenty of money and Bonnie has none there’s some justification for Bonnie’s feelings that Geraldine wants to own her. And it’s obvious that while Bonnie is willing to be gay-for-pay she really prefers sex with men. Bonnie’s desire for some male company comes to a head when a burglar breaks into their house. Geraldine captures him at gunpoint, but while she’s off calling the cops Bonnie allows him to scape. Only she doesn’t really help him to escape. She hides him in her bedroom. Now she has a pet of her very own.
Predictably things go badly wrong and Bonnie finds herself on the street again. And again she finds a rescuer, and again the rescuer isn’t motivated by purely selfless motives. Victor Stackman (Ed Bishop) is the very wealthy owner of the gallery that exhibits Geraldine’s work. He’s been trying to get the artist into bed with him for quite some time, but now he finds the idea of bedding Bonnie even more enticing. He finds Bonnie so attractive and so fascinating that he wants to keep her as a pet. Literally. Our heroine just keeps getting herself into the same situations.
The movie is all about dominance and submission, both psychological and sexual. Every relationship is a power struggle. What makes this more than a simple exercise in sexploitation is the complexity of the characters and of their relationships. The power balances constantly shift.
Bonnie seems to both enjoy and resent being dominated, and she’s more than willing to turn the tables and enjoy being on top. Geraldine appears to be the dominant partner in her relationship with Bonnie but it’s a clear case of the master (or mistress in this case) being enslaved by her obsession with her slave. Victor likes to think of himself as an alpha male but it’s obvious he’s spent most of his life being dominated by women. Bonnie is a likeable character, but she’s no angel and she’s also never presented as a passive victim. It’s possible to feel some sympathy for everyone in the film, even Victor. Those who behave badly have some motivation for doing so, some weakness or some hurt that they’re compensating for. No-one is presented as a mere villain or a clear-cut hero.
The promotional campaign was very much targeted at a grindhouse/drive-in audience. That was probably a sound commercial decision but unfortunately it’s one of the reasons this film was overlooked by the art-house crowd. In fact it has enough nudity and kinkiness to please the former audience and enough wit and intelligence to please the latter.
Code Red warn that their DVD release was sourced from a very dodgy theatrical print (the only one they were able to obtain) and that there are picture quality issues. They’re not kidding there, but in a way in makes the movie even more enjoyable - it adds a nice touch of sordidness!
Pets is an intriguing, highly entertaining and very clever movie. It’s trash art that works equally well as both trash and art. Highly recommended.