Exploitation TV: Volume Fifteen

On the latest edition of EX TV, we take a trip to the old frontier for three oddball Westerns.

For cinephiles, the definition of home video label Vinegar Syndrome’s name is something like a secret handshake. The disease it references consumes celluloid. When film stock starts to degrade, it releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in (you guessed it) vinegar. This phenomenon became a plague during the 80s, chewing up prints of pictures improperly stored in hot, humid conditions. In many cases, where reels of smaller films were scarce due to budgetary restrictions, one bad case of vinegar syndrome could rob the planet of an artist’s work. 

According to a ‘12 study conducted by the Library of Congress, only 14% of nearly 11,000 movies made between 1912 and 1930 exist in their original format. Around 70% were lost completely. Coming in at a close second in terms of casualties is the Exploitation Era. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as many of the weirder, more obscure movies made during these decades of disrepute are pictures we’ve probably never heard of in the first place. Thankfully, the Bridgeport, Connecticut boys at VS own a private archive, from which they’ve been pulling and scanning prints of overlooked horror, exploitation and smut cinema from all eras. To make it easier on all us degenerates, they’ve even established a streaming service, where you can log in and watch all the back alley oddities they’ve been uncovering and preserving, so that true vinegar syndrome doesn’t rob us of any more great trash art. 

For the fifteenth installment of EX TV, we're jumping on a horse and headed to the frontier for three idiosyncratic Westerns...

Hard Breed to Kill [1967] (d. Rafael Portillo, w. Antonio del Castillo & Rafael Portillo)

Rafael Portillo was a South of the Border matinee workman, cobbling together jangly little slices of schlock in order to make a buck or two at dive theaters around Mexico City. Pictures like The Aztec Mummy Against The Humanoid Robot ('58) and Face of the Screaming Werewolf ('64) - for the latter of which he just directed the lycanthrope scenes - are just as chintzy as they sound, but contain a certain level of handcrafted charm that isn't a far cry from lo-fi 42nd Street knock-offs of Hammer Films. Narco Satanico ('68 / '84) is a pieced together action/witchcraft hybrid whose shot-in-different-decades method of production owes a debt to both Bond and Black Sex Magick. In short, Portillo was a pure entertainer, never approaching anything remotely pretentious as his work even landed on regional TV, bearing monikers like Attack of the Mayan Mummy ('64).

Keeping that cinematic lineage in mind, Hard Breed to Kill ('67) falls right in line with the rest of his filmography, as it comes off as Portillo's approximation of the spaghetti Western, right down to Rafael Carrión's Morricone-aping drum and guitar score. This being a Mexican knock-off and all, we're treated to a rather threadbare plot about a gang (headed by Slim Pickens and The Wild Bunch's ['68] Emilio Fernández) shooting a rancher (Fernando Casanova) before kidnapping his wife (Julie Edwards) and high-tailing it out of the United States. What they don't know is that this particular homesteader was raised by Apache Indians, and is going to be taking a few scalps on his quest to get his girl back. To be truthful, that all sounds much more exciting on paper than it is in practice, as most of Hard Breed to Kill is spent hanging out with the bickering bandits, while their tracker poisons the water supply and quietly kills them in their sleep. Yet it's neat to see another culture riffing on another culture riffing on another culture, elevating Portillo's languid Western to a "three shades removed" level of trash cinema that's more curious than it is compelling.

Linda & Abilene [1969] (d. & w. Herschell Gordon Lewis)

One title in a string of "nudie cutie" softcore pictures H.G. Lewis made for producer Thomas Dowd (operating here under the moniker J.H. Wells) - a run that included Goldilocks & The Three Bares ('60) and Nature's Playmates ('62) - Linda & Abilene ('69) combines half-assed Western ambiance with taboo-pushing provocation. Todd (Kip Marsh) and his sister Abilene (Sharon Matt) are orphans stuck on a ranch together, sexual inexperience beginning to bubble over as they stare at one another's bodies. At night, the siblings writhe in bed, wondering what it'd feel like to run their hands over each other's private parts, all while library volume smooth jazz plays. This goes on for roughly forty minutes - Todd spying on Abilene as she bathes her soft, round girlish form in the creek - before the two consummate their desires in a fit of unerotic dry humping. Poor Sharon Matt gets completely naked, while Kip Marsh keeps his jeans on, the camera haphazardly drifting away as the same canned sounds of ecstasy are repeated ad nauseam on the soundtrack.

For such a noted "wizard of gore", Lewis - who filmed Linda & Abilene under regular pseudonym Mark Hansen - wasn't a very good pornographer. In fairness, he was mostly hamstrung by obscenity laws, thanks to an era where even showcasing nudity could get your movie confiscated by Vice Squad. Linda & Abilene drifts and floats, achieving an almost dream-like lull of adolescent horniness, until Todd snaps out of it one afternoon and realizes his new incestuous hunger has led to the farm falling apart. The movie's final third is oddly moralist, as he meets and beds a loose woman (Audrey Cromm), while a rough cowboy named Rawhide (Larry Martinelli) invades the homestead and rapes Abilene. Lust seems to beget further lust, and everyone's ashamed of what they've done by the end (until lesbian Linda [Bambi Allen] comes along and sparks a different sort of passion in Abilene's loins). It's a noble attempt at injecting any sort of story arc into what's an otherwise lazy, leering piece of period smut. Nevertheless, Lewis still keeps the entire thing oddly watchable, thanks to his camera's obvious love of this strange, promiscuous playacting.

The Pussycat Ranch [1978] (d. & w. John Christopher)

With '70s adult cinema, there are instances when you can easily tell that the person who helmed the picture is a scene lifer, based solely on how much more they're interested in emphasizing elements outside of sex. Such is the case with The Pussycat Ranch ('78) - a giddily silly XXX cowgirl comedy - as John Christopher (who churned out twenty-four hardcore titles between '73 - '84) tosses broad, gong-scored gags with a near ZAZ sensibility. Billy the Kid (Eric Edwards) and his sidekick Snake (Joey Silvera) ride up on the titular sin shack, where Ma Bell (Molly Malone), Candi (Samantha Fox), Randi (Daisey Mae) and Andi (Colleen Anderson) will do just about anything to keep Dastardly Don Juan (Marlowe Ferguson) from collecting on their matriarch when they can't make the mortgage. Hi-jinx and jack-hammering ensue, as everyone becomes a goofy outlaw, more horny Looney Tunes than dusty-dicked homesteaders (that come complete with a gonzo theme song).

Only when Christopher is called upon to deliver the actual fucking - which is roughly every five minutes or less - it's a lot hotter than most of the macro-lensed, zooming close-up bush bonanzas that filled the screen at your average dive theater in the Deuce. Angles are meticulously chosen and actually flattering to the (often multiple) participants' forms. Each actor is in shape and well groomed. A mostly vanilla routine of positions are employed, until a random kink or three are indulged. In short, the sex in The Pussycat Ranch is actually sexy, then scored with an uptempo barrage of funk and soul that's brilliantly curated and cranked way up in the mix (though not enough to completely drown the performers out). Just as the hi-hats become overwhelming, one of the women shout out "do me like a horse" or "I hear you're the fastest shooter in the West", and your laughter interrupts any sort of arousal. When so much porn from this (or any) era is such an utter slog, it's somewhat remarkable that you come across one that's genuinely entertaining beyond fleeting titillation.

Tune in next week for three more picks from your new favorite channel. In the meantime, log in to Vinegar Syndrome’s streaming service to embark upon your own filthy adventures.