New To Blu: Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series: Volume 3 - Reviewed

Joseph W. Sarno has been referred to as “the Chekov of Softcore,” a pioneer of the sexploitation film subgenre who was delivering adults only cinema to audiences since the early ‘60s. He would direct a great deal of hardcore sex films under various pseudonyms during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but is best known for his early ‘60s pre-pornographic films that include Inga and Sin in the Suburbs. Along with Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, he is one of the few sexploitation filmmakers to receive critical attention and recognition. Most of the ‘60s softcore films focused on nudist camps, Sarno chose to explore “the sexual dimension of adult relationships” way before many mainstream films were able to do so. Film restoration and preservation organization Film Media has been restoring his films, collecting them in its critically acclaimed Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect series. Newly restored from the original film elements and presented for the first time to home entertainment in high definition are Deep Throat II (1974) and Pandora and the Magic Box (1965), along with two bonus films , A Touch of Genie (1974) and The Switch (1974) compiled in Volume 2 of the Sarno Series.

Pandora and the Magic Box is Sarno’s earliest comedy, which was made in 1963 but not released until 1965. It’s an amusing spoof on the then popular sword-and-sandal subgenre and the Greek story of Pandora that is the adult equivalent of movie like The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962) and shows like The Munsters (1964-66) and The Addams Family (1964-66). Hosted and narrated by Aphrodite, the story follow Theseus and his two companions as they are ordered by King Minos to find the rightful heir to the throne of Crete. They are joined by Pandora, the king’s loyal servant. Zeus is also in the mix, as he enlists Theseus to protect a wooden box that is full of trouble. 

The end result is an enjoyable and zany romp that is filled with silly one-liners that are reminiscent of Henny Youngman and other stand-up comedians from the era. Theseus (William Donaldson) and his two sidekicks are kind of like a less violent version of The Three Stooges and have a decent rapport, although they are nowhere near as funny as other well known comedic groups from the era. Donaldson as Theseus is a hard actor to really pin down, coming off almost as a hybrid combination of bot Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is zero nudity in this, unless you include women wearing see through garments and pasties to cover their nipples. Other than that, Pandora contains mild sexual humor and one-liners. 

Contrasting Pandora and the Magic Box is Deep Throat II, the softcore sequel to Deep Throat. Deep Throat was one of the first pornographic films to contain a plot, character development, and moderately high production values. The film was a major success, grossing $1 million in its first seven weeks of release in 1972. It continued its dominance, still ranking in the top 10 highest-grossing films, as ranked by Variety, 48 weeks after its initial release. The total gross is still debated, with some reports claiming it earned nearly $600 million. A more accurate number is believed to be somewhere between $30 and $100 million. 

With its immense popularity, it was a given that there would end up being a sequel. The producers at Bryanston Pictures wanted a softcore comedy, which Sarno more than delivers. This silly satire on politics, porn, and spy films is reminiscent of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, but with much more nudity quirky sex jokes. 

If you’re a fan of the golden age of porn, then this softcore comic romp is perfect for you; it features the legends Jamie Gillis, Tina Russell, Marc Stevens, Georgina Spelvin, Harry Reems, and Linda Lovelace. It also has a terrific performance from Chris Jordan, who appears in A Touch of Genie and The Switch, who stars as the head of the Russian spy ring. 

The first of the bonus movies is the the 1974 genie spoof A Touch of Genie. It’s a fun softcore riff on the genie subgenre, if there is such a thing, and is akin to a poor man’s version of a Woody Allen film from that era. 

Melvin Finelfarb is the proprietor of an antique shop, who also happens to be a frequent attendee of the New York City porn theaters. He finds an urn and ends up releasing a genie through his masturbatory rubbings of the genie’s urn. Amara (played by Chris Jordan who is billed as Karen Craig) grants Melvin five wishes, who promptly uses them to become famous male porn actors in recreations of some of the sex scenes Melvin is fond of. Meanwhile, Amara has hopes that one of his wishes will include having sex with her. 

Genie is a surprisingly fun softcore film that Tim Lucas described as “nothing less than the Little Shop of Horrors of smut.” 

The second bonus feature is The Switch, which is a softcore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been spoofed and reimagined by a variety of directors and Sarno puts his own spin on the story. Maria Mendum is Dr. Shirley Jekyll, whose amino acid experiment turns her into Cheri Hyde, a raging nymphomaniac whose desires only grow stronger with each turn.

By far the most graphic movie in this comedic collection, it also contains a rather horrific conclusion. It contains many of the same cast members as Confessions of a Young American Housewife and Abigail Leslie’s Back in Town, and features a fine performance from Mendum and an appearance by Sonny Landham (Predator, 48 Hrs).

Overall, Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series Volume 3 is an fine continuation into the director’s filmography that features four of his lesser known works. While the comedic element may not appeal to all of his fans, it’s nonetheless an interesting collection of comedies from the prolific director.  

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