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600full-the-ecstasies-of-women-poster

With some directors, you never know what you’re going to get from one production to the next: they might try out a few new techniques, opt to shoot in a completely different format, attempt a genre they’ve never tried before, move on from “popcorn movies” to “prestige films”…with some filmmakers, it’s all about shaking it up, constantly moving and evolving in order to prevent falling into a rut. The progression from the first film to the thirteenth? The difference between fish with legs and early Homo Sapiens. And then, of course, there’s Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Across a career that’s spanned over five decades, Lewis (the original “Godfather of Gore”) has been responsible for some of the most amateurish, inept and flat-out mind-boggling films to ever screen in actual theaters (grindhouses count, folks). Touching on everything from “nudie-cutie” movies and soft-core sexploitation flicks to outrageously splatterific horror films and impossibly wrong-headed treatises on social mores, Lewis has jumped genres with reckless abandon, even if he’s still most famous for his gore epics like Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). Indeed, the only constant in his impressively broad career has been the excruciatingly bad quality of his films.

You see, for all of his passion, drive, inherent chutzpah and genuine innovations (in almost every way, shape and form, the world had never seen anything like Blood Feast, especially in the dawning of the ’60s), ol’ Herschell is a truly terrible filmmaker. To a one, his films are characterized by non-professional actors doing their best to maintain character, poverty-row sets, an inability to do anything with the camera but set it in one place and hit “record,” some of the worst sound recording in cinematic history, the appearance of lights and equipment in every other shot…you name it, Lewis has done it. As writer, director and cinematographer of his films, Lewis is a true auteur, albeit one more closely aligned with Ed Wood than, say, Orson Welles.

For all of this, however, one fact remains plainly evident: despite their endless shortcomings, Lewis’ films have another common denominator…they’re (usually) a tremendous amount of fun. As someone who grew up on his gore films (I’m not ashamed to admit that Two Thousand Maniacs! is one of the greatest horror films of all time, regardless of the quality), Lewis has been a go-to of mine for some years now. Despite this, however, I was woefully ignorant about his other films, particularly the soft-core adult films that were liberally sprinkled throughout his career. Of these films, a couple were considered “lost” to the world at large until they popped-up several years back. The Ecstacies of Women (1969) is one of those films. It is, of course, absolutely terrible.

In a nutshell, The Ecstacies of Women concerns Harry (Walter Camp) and the bachelor party thrown by his friends, Gene (William Vickers), Fred (James Brand) and Ted (Forman Shane). As the guys hang out at a strip-club and ogle the awkward dancers (there really is no other word to describe them), Harry entertains the others with “wild” stories about his numerous sexual conquests, all by way of “purging his system” for his upcoming nuptials.

The pattern is so simple that it’s basically a loop: the guys sit around, conversing in ways that could never be considered natural (everyone seems genuinely drunk, for one thing, which might explain a lot) before Harry puts his head back and seems to go into a coma. This, of course, is our cue that we’re about to move into the “adults only” portion of the program. If anyone out there thinks things get better from there, let me remove all doubt: they get much, much worse.

All-in-all, we get several different vignettes involving Harry and his random conquests. Harry picks up a woman (Jeanette Mills) in a bar, takes her back to his houseboat to “model lingerie” (he’s a traveling lingerie salesman, dontcha know) and proceeds to grope her into orgasm. Harry gets picked up by an aggressive health-freak on the beach (Vincene Wallace), takes her back to his houseboat and proceeds to grope her into orgasm. Harry gets picked up by an aggressive teenager (Sharon Matt) while parked at a stoplight, takes her back to his houseboat and proceeds to grope her to orgasm. Finally, we get the piece de resistance as Harry, Gene, Fred and Ted take a bunch of strippers back to the houseboat and proceed to grope them into orgasm. Harry decides to run away with Summer Frenzy (Bonnie Clark, who seems to be on heroin for the entirety of her performance, at least judging by her slurred speech, unfocused eyes and baffling “performance”), leaving his unlucky (very, very lucky?) future spouse in the lurch. The End.

Lest it seem from the above description that there’s an overwhelming sense of repetition to what we see, let me clarify it: the whole film is, essentially, the very same scene played out, multiple times, with slightly different people. Each of the “dream sequences” lasts for about 20 minutes (most of which are awkward dialogue scenes that don’t seem improvised so much as dropped from the sky, like bird shit) and features Harry dry-humping and pawing his nude conquests. For variety, Harry sometimes wears his tighty-whities during the “action,” while other scenes give us glorious shots of his pale, pimply ass. There’s never any sense of “realism” to the scenes, which mostly involve Harry fondling bare breasts until over-dubbed heavy breathing indicates a sprint to the finish-line.

There’s absolutely nothing sexy, titillating or, to be honest, particularly interesting about anything that happens. In fact, The Ecstacies of Women might be the single dullest film that I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, regardless of the “adults only” designation. As with all of Lewis’ films, the camera-work is as basic as it comes, the non-professional actors constantly flub their lines and talk over each other (one amazing scene features the guys trying their damnedest not to crack up as one “actor” manages to call everyone by the wrong name, several times) and the whole thing looks about as ugly as could be expected.

We could talk about the film’s representations of women, the sex-positive natures of the encounters (at the very least, everyone seems to be having fun, although I’m not quite sure how) or the ridiculously “groovy” catchphrases that must have made this hopelessly dated the week after it came out. We could put a little thought into it but, really: who the hell would we be kidding? The Ecstacies of Women is pure crap, through and through, the kind of oddity that no one could possibly take seriously. In certain ways, the film is absolutely critic-proof: who goes into a Herschell Gordon Lewis film (especially one of his skin flicks) expecting anything more than what’s been presented here?

While I can usually find at least something to recommend in a film (satisfying curiosity, if nothing else), I find myself at a complete loss here: unless you’re a Herschell Gordon Lewis completist (or Mark Hansen, as his pseudonym reads here) or the kind of person who prizes non-acting, tone-deaf dialogue and unattractive people pretending to have sex…well, friend…there’s just not much for ya here.

To quote Harry’s immortal final words: “Gang, goodbye. Goodbye, gang.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

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