Norman Warren’s debut feature film is a fascinating slice of Sixties sex, sin and sensationalism.
Norman J. Warren rose to fame during a frenetic five year period in the second half of the 1970s, when he made some of the nastiest, sleaziest and most entertaining low budget horror films around – Satan’s Slave, Prey, Terror and Inseminoid. But a decade earlier, he’s started his career with a couple of sexploitation films. Nothing unusual there, but unlike Pete Walker and others, Warren didn’t much care for the genre (although his horror films are not exactly lacking in gratuitous nudity) and so dropped out early on.
The first of these films was a frankly ridiculous melodrama called Her Private Hell, made for infamous producer Bachoo Sen. This film tells the tale of Marisa (Lucia Modugno), an Italian model who comes to London to work and finds herself in with a bad lot. We first see her employer Neville (Robert Crewdon) contemptuously leering at her as he denies her a changing room (“she’ll have to get used to it”), which might’ve set alarm bells ringing right away with less gullible girls, but Marisa strikes a pose, takes her clothes off reluctantly (she’s supposedly a fashion model, so again: alarm bells) and then – for reasons not made entirely clear – moves in with photographer Bernie (Terence Skelton) – who also has two other girls living with him. Maybe that’s what the modelling world was like in 1967.
To cut a long, and often incoherent story short, there’s a lot of jealousy, hints of criminal activity and the shock when incredibly tame nude photos of Marisa appear in an equally tame looking skin mag from ‘the continent’. It seems that Neville has been selling nudie shots, using the fashion studio as a front for his nefarious activities. Things come to a head, then fizzle out inconclusively.
Shot in crisp black and white, Her Private Hell looks surprisingly good, and as a slice of watered-down Sixties decadence, it’s not without its moments. Warren does a solid job as director – the film certain belies the tiny budget and even survives the casting of people who couldn’t speak English and so had to be re-dubbed later. And it’s one of the last gasps of British (s)exploitation’s serious dramatic pretensions – in the 1970s, softcore sex was strictly a knockabout comedy affair.
As a sex film, it seems tame even for the time – there’s only a smattering of nudity and even less sex, while the moralising tone and air of seediness make it seem like a bland version of the ‘roughies’ coming out of America at the time. This version had most of what little nudity there was (a few tame topless scenes, included here as an extra) cut by the censors, hypocritical and out of touch as ever (they’d passed pubic hair in ‘serious’ Swinging London movie Blow Up a year earlier, but were still butchering allegedly less important films for showing far less). So as erotic cinema, it’s a non-starter, and the claim that it was Britain’s first narrative sex film seems dubious given the existence of earlier melodramas like The Yellow Teddybears, which surely qualify for that title just as much as this.
As a 1960s time capsule, Her Private Hell is certainly of value – it’s probably no more representative of Sixties reality than anything else made at the time, but the look, feel and morality of the film are a fascinating snapshot of what people thought – and perhaps hoped – the permissive society would be like. But for fans of either Warren or British sexploitation (or both), it’s more a curio than anything.
Regardless of how good the actual film might be, as with all BFI Flipside releases, this new edition is pretty essential stuff. Aside from the unlikely but very welcome appearance of the film in a new HD transfer – and honestly, whoever would’ve expected that this film would ever appear in a pristine version from the BFI? – it’s packed with amazing extras. There are two short films from Warren – Fragments, from 1966, previously appeared on the essential Norman J. Warren box set from Anchor Bay, but Incident, shot in 1959 but not completed until 2007(!) makes its debut here. Both show an art house, French New Wave influence and it’s intriguing to think about what Warren might have done if the breaks had taken him in the direction of ‘respectable’ cinema rather than exploitation. Also included are the afore-mentioned topless scenes from the US version and silent screen test footage with Udo Kier! That’s right – the mighty Udo was tested and rejected for this! There’s also a nice featurette with new cast and crew interviews.
The main extra – certainly the most important – is the cracking half-hour documentary Anatomy of a Pin-Up, a 1971 look at the world of Penthouse models. It includes appearances from cult movie stars Francoise Pascal, Julie Ege and Katya Wyeth, and shows Penthouse head honcho Bob Guccione in full flow, as well as featuring amusing vox pops and some predictably barking rubbish from the ghastly Barbara Cartland. It’s a battered old print, but fascinating and wonderful – arguably worth the price of the disc alone. Add to this a 34-page booklet that includes contributions by David McGillivray, and you have quite the package.
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