Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Satan Was a Lady (2001)

Directed by Doris Wishman
Starring Honey Lauren, Glyn Styler, Edge
Rated R

"Next time, take your entertainment somewhere else!"

Sexploitation legend Doris Wishman had already made Satan Was a Lady once before, in 1975. That version starred Annie Sprinkle, and was mostly wall-to-wall groping. Pretty unremarkable stuff, really, for a maverick like Doris, who forged her career on jaw-droppers like The Amazing Transplant (said transplant is an evil penis!), Let Me Die a Woman (sex change antics), and Nude on the Moon (the moon is full of...nudists!). But clearly, she saw something in this title, and after a very lengthy sabbatical from filmmaking - 17 years - she chose it for her comeback vehicle. At that point, Wishman was nearly 90 years old, well over the median age for sick kicks. Would Satan Was a Lady show a more mature, mellower side of the notoriously rough and raunchy filmmaker?

No, it would not. In fact, Satan picks up exactly where Wishman left off - it's clunky, sleazy fun with sanity-defying camera angles, random cutaways, absurdly gratuitous nudity, and brain-freezing dialogue. Like all great outsider artists, Wishman's vision never faltered, not even after fifty years' worth of criticism. Doris Wishman made Doris Wishman movies, and to hell with you if you didn't like it. Satan Was a Lady is most certainly a Doris Wishman movie.

It's still up in the air as to whether Wishman was a feminist or a misogynist. Either way,  forceful, scheming, sexually-liberated women often figured into her storylines, and that's definitely the case here. Satan stars the imposing Honey Lauren as Cleo Irane, a dominatrix-slash-stripper with an impressive pile of curly red hair and a Jayne Mansfield-esque figure who loves only one thing: a seriously ugly fur coat that taunts her from the window of a local boutique. Cleo decides to get that fuckin' coat, no matter who she has to hurt - or mutilate, or kill - along the way.

Honey Lauren has had a very busy career in two very different acting worlds. Her resume is stuffed with both low-budget exploitation (the Vice Academy series, The Hidden II, Pleasure in Paradise) and a fistful of soap opera episodes. Satan Was a Lady neatly utilizes both. On the one hand, she's frequently topless. On the other, she's acting her brains out, spewing out melodramatic bits of tongue-twisting dialogue during life or death battles with obvious non-actors and an incessant soundtrack of garage-jazz that drowns out nearly every exchange. It is a rare treat to see someone take absurdity so seriously, especially when she's tits-out and wearing a slash of blood-red lipstick that even Divine would think was a little too gaudy.

The very first shot of Satan Was a Lady features both the boobs and the lipstick. Cleo, clad in a leather biker- vest and nothing else, whips a client into a bloody mess. Just another day at the office. After her session, we get a glimpse into her miserable life.

Cleo lives with a wig-wearing Beetle Bailey lookalike named Ed (Glyn Styler) and a broken-legged cat. She's clearly never going to get ahead with Ed around. He's a deadbeat musicians who plays at the local strip club, and then spends all his earnings on whiskey and gambling, So, she hatches a scheme to get some quick cash. She heads over to visit one of her clients, John (the singularly naned Edge, a deadringer for Mr. Burns from The Simpsons) at his office, and tells him that if he doesn't give her $25,000, she'll send photos of their latest tryst to his wife. Then she splits.

Cut to: seedy club, where a girl reverse-strips. Which is, if nothing else, is a novel approach. Cleo's in her dressing room, topless, kissing herself in the mirror, when Jake, the owner of the club, comes into to sexually harass her.

It should be pointed out that we never see Cleo do anything in the club, so her presence there is a little puzzling. Meanwhile, Ed gets up on stage to do one of this amazing 60's loner folk tunes, Come Cry With Me.  And then Cleo goes home with some drunk fucker in the bar, waits until he passes out, and then empties his wallet and splits.

Meanwhile, Ed has a super-obnoxious rehearsal with a new guitar player. Cleo comes home during Ed's practice and gives him an awesomely disgusted stare. Then the camera cuts to the thermostat on the wall, for no reason at all.  And then to a painting on the wall.  Cleo storms out her bedroom in her bra- and later, topless - and that's pretty much the end of rehearsal. Ed tries to get a little something going with Cleo, but she tosses all of his clothes out of the room, and tells him to "Take his entertainment somewhere else!" Haha, what?

Then she gets the dough from John-the-john, and goes home to tell Ed she's quitting her job to become a real dancer. He takes this as a cue to bone. But then he just goes back to playing his guitar on the couch. Sex does take a lot of effort.

So Cleo goes to the club and quits. Jake, naturally, calls her a two-bit whore. And then a really out of shape stripper does her routine for the three customers in the joint.

And then Ed/Glyn shows up and does You Killed My Love, one of the greatest songs of all time. Of all time!

While this is happening, Cleo stalks the stripper and stabs her in the face outside of the police station. "You're not so pretty anymore!" She shrieks, leaving the girl disfigured and bleeding to death on the sidewalk.

So that was weird.

And then Ed goes out gambling with his buddy, using Cleo's ill-begotten loot. She should have hid it better, man.  Of course, he loses it all playing dice.  Cleo is forced to try and extort John for some more cash. She heads over to his office, and his mousy secretary Lotte (Laudet Torres) tells her she's pretty, so that's nice.

Then she seduces John's son, Brett (Hans Lohl, a psycho-eyed, Ed Wood grade 'actor'). And then she goes home and stabs Ed in the heart. While she does this, the camera cuts to weird pictures of people with big eyes on the wall.

So, she moves in with Brett, and they spend their days eating pizza and having awkward conversations at sidewalk cafes. On a leisurely stroll home, Cleo stops once again to admire the hideous fur coat in the window of the boutique. She's already killed several people just to get this coat. Seems like it would have been easier to just steal it.

To further this end, Cleo invites Lotte out for coffee to seduce her into a blackmail scheme, but she wont bite.
So then she goes over to see Jake to ask him for some dough. He gives a good one in the chops, so she slaps his eye out.  That's what it looks like, anyway. Then she calls John's wife and tells her that her husband's been having an affair with some chick named Denise. She does not take the news well. And then she goes home tp see Brett, who gives her that ugly fuckin' coat. She responds by taking off her top. Seems fair. Unfortunately, their love-making is cut short when Brett gets a call that his mom just had a heart attack. He rushes over to the hospital - Cleo declines to join him - and argues with dad.

Mom survives - just barely - and Brett goes home to find Cleo packing. Turns out Denise is her dominatrix alter-ego! In a sudden surge of consciousness, she admits everything to Brett, including making the phonecall. So he strangles her. And then she clocks him with an ashtray. And then John shows up. Things get ugly from there.

If you squint a little, Satan Was a Lady looks, remarkably, like a David Lynch film. Or at least one of David Lynch's hazy daydreams. It's filled with impossible characters doing strange and terrible things to each other for no valid reason. It's a sleazy slice of neo-noir that is cobbled, every step of the way, by Wishman's insistence on filming everything from the wrong angle, on jamming every moment with too-loud music and pitting real actors against local numbskulls, on cutting away to virtually anything at all, and with painting her protagonist as a heartless monster who will do virtually anything to get her way. Despite all the false moves - or perhaps because of them - this wobbly, woozy mess still works. She's not a legend for nothing, after all. The story is suitably tawdry, the sets non-existent, and casting is insane, but brilliantly so - Glyn Styler is a revelation as wig-wearing, booze-swilling cad Ed, the Edge looks like the angriest man in the world, and Lauren is a towering, man-killing glamazon that chomps the scenery like Tura Satana with a hormonal imbalance and a really bitchin' perm. It all add up to a singular sort of bad fun, the kind that only the mighty Doris Wishman could provide. Say what you will about her, but the lady had balls. While it is not as outrageous as some of Wishman's stuff - you can't really get much more over the top than her Chesty Morgan films - Satan Was a Lady is a fitting swansong for the grand dame of sexploitation.

- Ken McIntyre

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