You’d never know from looking at the DVD cover, but One 7 Movies, a tiny and obscure distribution company, has quietly (and possibly unwittingly) issued the first-ever uncut North American release this month of cult director Joe D’Amato’s bizarre Italian porno classic Sesso Nero (retitled Exotic Malice for this particular release). D’Amato was the auteur scuzzball behind such sexual abominations as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and Porno Holocaust, and Sesso Nero was his first-ever pornographic film. It stars two of his regulars, Annj Goren and Mark Shannon. Laura Gemser, tragically, is absent.
People bitch a lot about how disgusting and weird modern straight-to-video porn has become, but there’s plenty of Golden Age, shot-on-celluloid, story-driven porno that’s equally deranged, like that movie Harry Reems was in that fetishizes B&E rape, or that other movie that notoriously screened in Times Square and won first prize at the Wet Dream Festival where a Danish woman fucks a pig. Extreme Associates may be getting occasional shit from the government these days for their nipple-twisting, controlled burns, and aggressive spankings, but I’ve seen ‘70s pornos with underage schoolgirls getting impromptu punitive vaginal piercings that bled on-camera. Obviously a lot of these movies cater to specific tastes or merely exploit the freak-show potential of taking hardcore porn in strange directions thematically, but some directors from this period had an actual interest in using the hardcore format to explore sexuality and related issues in an expressive and personal way, and the overlap and confusion of porn’s flash-in-the-pan crossover potential with the permissiveness of the new Avant Garde in the early ‘70s helped give birth to a unique breed of Gothic, existential porno issuing primarily from Europe that was devoured ravenously by American audiences.
Of all the really badass ‘70s and ‘80s exploitation directors who have retained a significant reputation for their work in this mode, Joe D’Amato is widely recognized for being the most frank, artless, and pointlessly fucked up. He wasn’t exclusively a hardcore director, and a lot of his movies, like Anthropophagus (which still hasn’t been released uncut in North America, unbelievably) are legendary just for being really gross. Others, like Porno Holocaust (which landed a North American DVD release three years ago) are legendary for combining truly wretched, seething, Italian-style gore effects with hardcore sex, and in many cases, a bitchin’ electro-funk soundtrack.
D’Amato is not as innovative or passionate about his work as, say, Jess Franco had the capacity to be, but Sesso Nero does, at least, attempt to be an extension of softcore films like Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead, which uses sexuality as a vehicle to explore related concepts like physicality, intimacy, and mortality (Virgin was made shortly after the unexpected death of Franco’s lover and star actress Soledad Miranda, and has been interpreted as a metaphysical and psychoanalytic elegy to her).
Like its key softcore predecessors, Sesso Nero deals with existential themes about death, regret, and masculine virility. It’s about a guy named Mark who finds out from a doctor in an echoey flashback that he has some kind of obscure penis disease, which will make it necessary for him to eventually have a surgery that will leave him impotent. To cope with this, Mark has left his home in New York and flown to a distant, exotic country that is never named, where many years ago he had an intoxicating affair with a woman named Majra, who is now dead. Mark has been given narcotics to blunt the pain of his illness, and he begins a gradual slide into self-destructive, hallucinatory addiction. He starts to see Majra following him, then he starts following her, and eventually he becomes lost in a netherworld of bizarre, surreal sexual depravity involving Majra and a cast of other figures, some imaginary, some real, and some ambiguous.
If you’ve seen a D’Amato movie before then you pretty much know what you’re getting, and if not then I guess there are worse ones to start out with. The film is plotless and technically inept, but in an endearingly unselfconscious way. There are long periods of boring, unnecessary talking and many of the sex scenes are brief and mechanical. It’s weird to admit, but despite or because of its flaws, the movie achieves a highly affecting atmosphere that made me homesick for other, similarly fumbling and meandering Eurotrash staples (Franco’s Female Vampire in particular). It’s inaccurate to say that I recommend it, but I’ll definitely watch it again myself.
The original title of Exotic Malice is Sesso Nero, which means “black sex” in Italian, and not seeing the Italian title anywhere on the DVD cover gave me instant reservations about the distribution company. It’s not like I personally care that the title was changed, but D’Amato fans are so rabidly completist that the only possible explanation for the omission is that One 7 Movies just didn’t realize they could make more money off the release by plastering D’Amato’s name all over it. Sure enough, the disc is totally stripped down, and the print is grainy and dinged-up, with some dodgy sound and an occasional jerky reel transition. I guess for a movie like this it doesn’t matter very much. Maybe shitty print quality is even a good thing. The only special feature is a blurry deleted scene of a woman masturbating with a freaky, enormous ‘70s vibrator that looks like an electric hand mixer.
Honestly, for what you’re paying, the DVD is probably worth it, especially if you’re a fan of either vintage Eurosleaze or classic porn. The print isn’t pristine, but it’s in pretty good shape considering it’s forty years old and unrestored, and there are plenty of hardcore scenes if that’s what you’re interested in. And the Nico Fidenco score is fucking glorious.