The Savage Stack - A WOMAN’S TORMENT (1977)
There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The forty-seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is Roberta Findlay's feminist act of XXX terror, A Woman's Torment...
Roberta Findlay was initially never paid for the first XXX picture she ever helmed. Back in the early '70s, the way a director operated in the adult industry was that a financeer would set the budget (usually a few thousand dollars or so), the "artist" behind the camera would collect a flat fee, and then that producer would own the film outright, usually selling a few prints to all-night venues in The Deuce (such as The Lyric or The Empire). In '74, Findlay made Angel on Fire - a no budget fuck flick revolving around degradation, reincarnation and revenge, with a color palette that would make Dario Argento swoon. When she went to collect her check from the money man, she received a punch in the eye instead. Such was life for a woman trying to make her way in the world of rough and tumble sexploitation pictures. It'd take the threat of a lawsuit for the producer to finally pay her.
Before wading into the cum-filled pool of porn (under such pseudonyms as Anna Riva and Robert Norman), Roberta and her late husband, Michael, were one of the most influential duos to ever work in softcore smut. Except they weren't. Try and find Findlay today and she'll likely avoid your questions about her days making such filthy thrillers as the Flesh trilogy (Touch of Her Flesh ['67], The Curse of Her Flesh ['68], and The Kiss of Her Flesh ['68]), the final two she co-wrote with her starring spouse. To her, these weren't revered pieces of trash art; they were just trash, rediscovered years later by a cult of fetishists who worshipped at the altar of Something Weird Video and its founder Mike Vraney. To the Findlays, these pictures were just a way to make a living that was better than hustling 42nd Street like the rest their NYC compatriots, or getting a straight nine-to-five day job.
Which is why A Woman's Torment ('77) is such a special entry inside her filmography. Shot and released five months before her husband would be tragically killed in a helicopter accident (where he was decapitated by one of the chopper's rotors), it's a feminist take on desire and a tortured femme reclaiming her sexuality, after it'd been conquered by the men who surround her. At the time, Roberta was seperated from Michael, having dropped out of school and moved in with him at sixteen years of age. Her next decade was spent toiling away in the sex industry, mostly making movies that were catered toward degenerates in trenchcoats, looking to either rub one out in a dark auditorium, or solicit a prostitute to aid them while their pictures played on the tattered screen up front. A Woman's Torment isn't so much a statement of purpose as it is a rejection of past, combining the lo-fi gore of Shriek of the Mutilated ('74) while predicting her scuzzy solo future in exploitation (with hellish slices of NYC insanity such as Tenement ['85]).
Like many pornos, A Woman's Torment barely has a plot, though Findlay (who wrote and directed the picture under the nom de grime, Robert W. Norman) structures her story rather similarly to Matt Cimber's unnerving psychadelic psychological thriller The Witch Who Came From the Sea ('76). Only instead of being haunted by memories of childhood abuse, central madwoman Karen (Tara Chung) has been taken under the wing of her well-to-do sister Frances (Crystal Sync) and her ladder-climbing hubby Don (Jeffrey Hurst). The two bicker about what to do with the grown woman - who's gone mute since staying with them - and have even turned to their psychologist chum Otis (Jake Teague) and his shrill, unsatisfied wife Estelle (Jennifer Jordan) for advice. Upon hearing the mere mention of commitment, Karen flees to an abandoned beach house on Fire Island, where she endures a series of gnarly sexual encounters that push the voices in her head to finally lash out through her murderous hand.
As graphic as the violence is in A Woman's Torment, it's the sex that really tells the tale in Findlay's odd, Polanski-esque shocker. We first meet Otis and Estelle mid-coitus, as he pumps away on her and she begs him to slow down, so that she can cum, too. Instead, he simply speeds up and unloads on her stomach, not the least bit worried about his wife's needs. Similarly, Don passionately fucks Frances after the two throw a party and he discovers she and Otis are having a fling behind his back. But his smooth lovemaking only seems to be in service of male oneupsmanship, and we suspect he'd only be using her like his friend did, had her extramarital activities never been discovered. Karen's first fuck comes from the fingers of a local power lineman (Michael Gaunt), whom she enjoys until he decides its his turn to put his member in her, a moment of heinous sexual violence that causes him to receive a knife in the back.
The sex is arguably uglier than the murder in Findlay's angry XXX horror hybrid, as each man only views their better halves as objects of pleasure to be possessed, and Karen's madness is born from their obsessive need to dominate and discard. Even when she meets with Otis for "therapy", we learn he's simply there to try and take advantage of the frantic, fearful beach dweller, who finally speaks because she's lulled into a illusion of safety. Findlay left filmmaking after directing Banned ('89), and genuinely believes anyone who enjoys her movies is "mentally disturbed." One can't help but wonder if A Woman's Torment is at least partially a celluloid extension of this hatred for her industry and its audience while she was inside of it, believing that the product she was crafting was only to be consumed by callous perverts, and that the women she photographed were so much more than receptacles for fleshy knives, each stab taking a piece of their feminine spirit.
A Woman's Torment is available now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.