Although predictably dismissed by critics, the resurgence of American softcore erotica in the 1980s and through to the Nineties is one of the more intriguing and unexplored genres of cinema. Emerging in the wake on Nine and a Half Weeks, these films were soft focus erotic romances aimed largely at a female audience (one that, perceived wisdom would tell us, wants erotica, not porn) and they were churned out en masse. Erotic thrillers and erotic dramas (but never, it seems, erotic comedies) filled the video shops where X-rated hardcore movies would never be seen, became cable TV mainstays and rarely troubled the consciousness of the mainstream film journalist, who if he (and it would inevitably be a ‘he’) acknowledged their existence at all would do so with a smirk so self-conscious that you began to suspect he protested a bit too much, too embarrassed and ashamed to admit that the films had turned him on. The phrase “it’s not sexy, just boring” was the most often used at this time, and of course it sounds like the excuse the it was – I recall attending a press screening of Madonna’s genuinely poor Body of Evidence, where middle-aged male critics giggled like schoolboys throughout the sex scenes, before heading off to tell everyone who dreadful and unerotic the film was. They were fooling nobody.
Certainly, a lot of these films were entirely disposable, sloppily made and easy to dismiss. But there were also movies that managed to transcend what might have seemed to be the genre limitations – some of Greg Dark’s films, the surprisingly good Business for Pleasure (1997) and a handful of others prove that the erotic drama / thriller was not automatically disposable – at least no more so that the other genres that have traditionally routinely dismissed by snobbish critics, like horror.
The maestro of the erotic film in the 1980s and beyond was Zalman King, and for all the dismissal of his work, he actually made good films, at least in the technical sense. 1988’s Two Moon Junction felt like his masterpiece – the one he’d been working towards, a glossy, ambitious drama that seems as though it has been torn from the pages of a romance novel (notably, male lead Richard Tyson looks exactly like the sort of character you see posing on the front of modern erotica aimed at women). So of course, it’s lightweight melodrama in the story department, but you can’t help but be impressed at the production values and King’s slick direction. At a time when the porn industry is trying to work out a way forward to stop hemorrhaging cash to tube sites, they could do worse than to look to films like this, sold as erotica but with mainstream production values and a solid narrative.
Not that the story is exactly complex. Southern belle April (Sherilyn Fenn, a year before Twin Peaks) is due to marry rich boy Chad in the coming together of two grand old families, much to the satisfaction of matriarch Belle (Louise Fletcher). But April is unsure about the whole thing – it seems more a marriage of convenience than one born of love, and when she lays eyes on fairground worker Perry (Tyson), her heart gets all a-flutter and her loins start aching. Perry is quite the opposite to her limp husband to be – he’s rough, crude and manly, which in the tradition of the bodice ripping novels that this film emulates, makes him one step away from being a rapist, or at least a persistent sex pest. Seeing her interest, Perry forces his way into April’s life, and before long the pair are having a passionate affair.
The plot meanders off at this point into fairground life (diminutive Herve Villechaize appears as the fairground boss) and April’s unconvincing friendship with Perry’s ex, Patti Jean (Kristy McNichol), as she explores a world far removed from her own. But Belle has discovered the affair and is determined that nothing will stop the wedding, leading her to ask the local sheriff (Burl Ives) to lend a hand in getting rid of Perry.
It’s pure Mills and Boon stuff, but it’s done with a surprising sense of style. King directs with a real flair for the visual, and his sex scenes – which are fewer than you might expect – are suitably glossy and sometimes ridiculous. Certainly, you can see this film causing hot flushes among the sort of people who excitedly read Fifty Shades of Grey, but the beautifully lit, slick moments of passion, backed by pounding music and music video lighting, are probably not going to inflame more seasoned fans of sexploitation cinema. The one exception might be an early moment with Fenn masturbating in the shower – it’s one of the less explicit moment (the act is shot from the waist up, of course) but has a certain sexiness and subversion to it, as she uses a peephole to spy on naked men showering in the next room. Perhaps its effective because this is the first time we see Fenn naked, or perhaps because it’s the only point in the film that seems to show genuine desire (and desire born out of frustration at that). Viewers might also note that it’s the only point of frontal male nudity in the film, though to be fair, it’s not exactly a case of double-standards – you’ll wait most of the film to see Fenn completely nude, and then it’s only for a couple of minutes. That might surprise people, given the way these films are described and sold (I’ve actually seen Two Moon Junction referred to as ‘pornography’!), but the fact is that there is relatively little sex or nudity on the film. A lot by mainstream movie standards, perhaps, but definitely less than you’d expect here.
Performances are solid, if unremarkable – Fenn looks fantastic, of course, even if her blonde hair is a constant distraction, but her character has little to do given that she’s the lead of the film. Tyson is suitably sleazy – you have to question why April would be in love with such an unlikeable bastard, but that’s the nature of romance fiction I suppose – the allure of the Bad Boy. Of course, the film is stolen by seasoned veterans Fletcher and Ives.
But while critics might scoff at the clichéd story and thin characters, the fact remains that this is a very watchable, very slickly produced melodrama – one that isn’t time at the self-styled intellectual elite. At times, you suspect King wants to be making Gone with the Wind, and he certainly captures the genteel, repressed southern atmosphere well. Ultimately though, he delivers the film his audience wants, and he does so with more style than you might expect.
King is a director who deserves reassessment. You suspect that it’s not just the fact that he made erotic films that has caused critics to ignore him, but also the fact that he made them for women – ‘women’s directors’ have rarely been taken seriously. It’s a pity, but for anyone who wants to go beyond the dull canon of approved cinema – and I hope if you are reading this, you do – then his oeuvre is worth exploring, and this is a good place to start.