Vinegar Syndrome serves up a Blu-ray/DVD combo double bill of rarities from oddball Hollywood producer Albert Zugsmith: Russ Meyer's version of FANNY HILL and Zugsmith's own western THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER.
Duped out of what little money she had by her more worldly friend, orphaned Fanny Hill (Leticia Roman of Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) wanders the set-bound streets of London in search of work. Dropping by Mrs. Shaw's employment agency, she is only just saved from being sold into prostitution by kindly Mrs. Maude Brown (Miriam Hopkins, THE SAVAGE INTRUDER) offers to take her on as a "companion". Fanny is too naïve to realize that Mrs. Brown is a brothel keeper and that her twelve "nieces" are prostitutes, despite much innuendo and the amorous attentions of "cousin" Dinkelspieler (stage director Helmut Weiss, FROZEN ALIVE). When Fanny accompanies her "cousins" to a party arranged by the "Admiral" (Alex D'Arcy, BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE) to celebrate a naval victory, she meets and quickly falls in love with Charles (Ulli Lommel, later director of THE BOGEYMAN and THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR among others) and he quickly proposes marriage and seeks Mrs. Brown's approval. Thinking about her pocket book, Mrs. Brown drugs Charles and has him shipped off to Barbados, leaving Fanny to think she's been abandoned. Mrs. Brown tries her best to sell the girl's virginity, but ridiculously naïve Fanny manages to inadvertently maim her suitors (including KISS ME MONSTER's Chris Howland as a masochist). When Mrs. Brown discovers that Charles is on his way back to London in search of Fanny, she tries to marry the girl off to aristocrat Hemingway (Walter Giller, THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE) if only to get her out of the way temporarily as she has bigger plans for the girl.
FANNY HILL was a co-production between Hollywood producer Albert Zugsmith (TOUCH OF EVIL) and German producer Artur Brauner (TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE), and was the first film adaptation of the novel 1748 John Cleland novel, which had only just been published in America in 1963 – by Putnam rather than Grove Press who had gained a lot of notoriety for the obscenity charges against a number of their classic and contemporary publications – and immediately banned for obscenity (the ban was overturned in court in 1964). Despite being low-budget, FANNY HILL is still one of for-hire Russ Meyer's best-budgeted films (although Zugsmith is rumored to have directed some or all of the film). Made in less permissive times, there's only a miniscule glimpse of nudity with more emphasis on bulging cleavage, double entendre, and undercranked scenes of Fanny being chased around by amorous would-be suitors in setpieces that anticipate THE BENNY HILL SHOW. It's not so much entertaining as historically interesting. Like most of the supporting cast, leads Roman and Lommel are dubbed while Hopkins and D'Arcy dub themselves. The scoring of Erwin Halletz (SHOCKING ASIA) features vocal and instrumental variations on "London Bridge is Falling Down". A more fleshy adaptation followed in Sweden in 1968 helmed by Mac Ahlberg (better known stateside as cinematographer of memorable 1970s and 1980s American exploitation and horror films including HELL NIGHT and DOLLS), as well as a Cannon adaptation directed by Gerry O'Hara (THAT KIND OF GIRL), and a 2007 BBC miniseries. The Fanny Hill character popped up in a number of (sometimes name-only) sexploitation films from the sixties onward including Ahlberg's AROUND THE WORLD WITH FANNY HILL, THE NOTORIOUS DAUGHTER OF FANNY HILL, FANNY HILL MEETS LADY CHATTERLEY, and the like (feminist writer Erika Jong even wrote a novel adaptation from Fanny's point-of-view).
Troy Donahue (IMITATION OF LIFE) is THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER in Albert Zugsmith's painfully unfunny western farce. When the "Terrible Seven" – the satanic Colt Steele (German Robles, THE BRAINIAC), Reverend Algernon (Pedro Armendáriz Jr., GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN), midget Oscar the Mooch (Tun Tun), Big Sam (Carlos Rivas, TRUE GRIT), Whip (Raul Prieto, THE REVENGERS), Boone (Félix González, SANTOS VS THE RIDERS OF TERROR), and pan-wielding cook Cookie (Elizabeth Campbell, WRESTLING WOMEN VS THE AZTEC MUMMY) – ride into town, the sheriff (Emilio Fernández, THE WILD BUNCH) decides to visit his sister in Pasadena and quickly deputizes bumbling divinity student Phillip P. Phillips (Donahue). Meek Phillip is quickly overrun by the gang who swiftly take over the town, but uses what little wits he has to rally the town into running the bad guys out of town. During Phillip's wedding – with the town all in attendance and without arms – the gang return and Phillip is killed trying to rescue his bride-to-be Margie (Sabrina, BLOOD OF THE MAN-DEVIL). Because of his spotless record on earth, St. Peter sends him back allowing him to save his girl and the town at the possible expense of losing his halo.
Vinegar Syndrome describes THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER – shot in Mexico at Churubusco Azteca studios – as a "mind-numbing blend of surrealism and slapstick comedy done as a self-aware parody". Mind-numbing is right, as actors mug for the camera, repeat ad nauseum various slapstick gags when they might have been funny once (including the device of having Phillip killed and sent back to earth repeatedly), and engage in undercranked comic setpieces that are sloppily choreographed and overlong. Presumably the intended audience were juveniles or pot-smoking youths, or perhaps older audiences looking for something less gritty than spaghetti western imports and Clint Eastwood's post-Leone American westerns (as far as unfunny western comedies go, you'd be better off with Mario Bava's ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK). I would have much preferred to see Zugsmith's Mexican-lensed adaptation of Vivian Connell's THE CHINESE ROOM (which also featured Campbell and Robles).
Apart from the spliced-in opening credits and end card, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded widescreen (1.85:1) monochrome image of FANNY HILL looks wonderful apart from some jittering at reel changes. The less visually interesting color film THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER – shot by Gabriel Figueroa (who photographed Luis Bunuel's Mexican films), and also framed at 1.85:1 here – looks better than the film deserves with saturated colors popping out of the sunburnt sets. Audio on the Blu-ray is lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVDs, and in better condition on both than the optical track-sourced audio on some of the company's other discs. As with some of Vinegar Syndrome's other combos, the supplementary material is present on the DVD only and not reproduced on the Blu-ray. This one is actually a three disc set with FANNY HILL and THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER sharing a Blu-ray but their standard-definition versions are given their own disc with the extras supplementing THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER.
In "The Zugsmith Connection" actor-turned-filmmaker Ulli Lommel (11:31) recalls auditioning for Meyer and getting the role because his English was the best (he grew up in the American part of Berlin). He cites the Zugsmith-produced TOUCH OF EVIL as one of his favorite films (he also speaks highly of Meyer's oeuvre), as well as Douglas Sirk's WRITTEN ON THE WIND (Sirk was a favorite director of Reiner Werner Fassbinder with whom Lommel also worked later). He recalls the conflicts between Meyer and Zugsmith (Zugsmith wanted more comedy while Meyer wanted more sex), which led to Meyer getting fired. Lommel preferred Meyer's approach, and that Hopkins performed as if the comedy were beneath her (which he commends her for), and that Roman was concerned that he would make her look old (she was twenty-four at the time and Lommel was nineteen). He met Zugsmith again years later when he had finished THE BOGEY MAN, and credits (or blames) him with getting Carradine for the film (as well as writing and typing the additional scenes). His also reveals that his subsequent film editor Dick Brummer had cut several Meyer films, and that Brummer told him of Meyer's dislike of FANNY HILL. Lommel doesn't hold back when discussing Zugsmith, Roman, and Carradine, but he also refers to himself as "Ed Wood the Second!"
Also interviewed is Emerson College film historian – with an emphasis on exploitation and adult cinema – Eric Schaefer (20:14) on Meyer and Zugsmith. He gives an overview of Meyer's career (starting with cheesecake photography before moving to nudie cuties ("moving pinup" films lacking educational pretense), and what distinguishes his work from other low budget sexploitation at the time (the women, the technical attributes, and the tongue-in-cheek tone), and his more dramatic turn. Schaefer also gives us an overview of Zugsmith's career as a Hollywood producer at Universal and MGM. At the time he met Zugsmith, Meyer was apparently having trouble with his business partner wife and his recent films were not doing as well, so he took the opportunity to go German and direct FANNY HILL as a hired gun. Zugsmith had turned from producing to directing with films like COLLEGE CONFIDENTIAL and CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER; and that his own creative ego clashed with Meyer on the set (Zugsmith reportedly did not like the final product either). Schaefer identifies the "slapsticky" moments in the film with Zugsmith, as evidenced by the greater emphasis in THE PHANTOM GUNSLINGER (he admits to not having seen much of Zugsmith's mid-career work from the late sixties and 1970s); and describes him as more of a dabbler than an auteur, an adept producer whose directorial efforts could at best be described as "interesting". He also discusses the "brand name" of FANNY HILL, and how middle-class audiences would more likely have heard about it through the obscenity case rather than having actually read it (and the reason that Zugsmith would decide to do a film adaptation of it). Video quality of the extra is a little iffy, but it's a talking head interview and the audio is fine. (Eric Cotenas)
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