The Savage Stack - THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA (1977)

Bill Lustig's first XXX feature helped the exploitation king learn the ropes of the picture business.

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 next few entries (seventy-eight through eighty-one) are going to be a somewhat modified iteration of the Savage Stack. Fantastic Fest 2018 starts today! To celebrate, I wanted to pen a string of articles honoring the filmography of Bill Lustig, whose landmark 1980 slasher Maniac is being presented via its new 4K restoration. So, I'm counting backwards to 1980 with some of my favorite works from the grindhouse king.

The fourth and final installment covers Lustig's first foray into XXX filmmaking, The Violation of Claudia...

Bill Lustig credits his start in the picture business to Peter "Savage" Petrella, who was a friend of his uncle, former middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta. Petrella came to Lustig family gatherings when Bill was a kid, and directed exploitation and porno during the '60s and '70s. He also was a mobster, whose life was saved by Bill's “Uncle Jake” one evening when a man came into their favorite drinking hole on a mission to kill him. Savage and LaMotta ended up absconding to Cuba together to make The Runaways (1965), before Savage helped write the fighter's memoirs and get Raging Bull made with Martin Scorsese at the helm*.

After trying and failing to produce straight films, like wise guy comedy Cauliflower Cupids (1970), Savage inserted himself into New York's booming porn scene with Hypnorotica (1973). These clandestine DIY ventures fascinated a young Lustig, who always looked forward to talking with Petrella at his clan's gatherings about whatever movie he'd just caught down in Times Square. Knowing the kid wanted to get his hands dirty with a camera, Petrella invited Lustig to work on the Hypnorotica set as a PA when he was only seventeen years old. That was the first of over twenty X-rated movies Lustig cut his teeth on as a teenage workman, earning between $30 – $50 a day while performing jobs like gaffer, best boy, and key grip.  

Those days were an adventure for Lustig, who recalls having flings with women who hung around the shoots – such as Andrea True, who'd score a disco hit with "More More More" – and who educated himself more thoroughly by actually making movies than by studying cinema at NYU. After directing scenes of Savage's Sylvia (1977), the scrappy utility player decided it was time to craft his own XXX feature. Raising $35,000 via investments from family and friends, Lustig set out to make The Violation of Claudia (1977), albeit under the nom de smut Billy Bagg. 

The Violation of Claudia is Bill Lustig's cum-stained play on Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967), starring Sharon Mitchell as the titular bored housewife looking for a life more thrilling than the pump-and-dump existence she shares with milquetoast silver fox husband (Don Peterson). After a vigorous fuck session with her tennis coach (XXX legend Jamie Gillis, whom Lustig worked with on both gay and straight shoots), the backhand champ coaxes her into entering the seedy world of prostitution, where her wildest desires are set ablaze, and her morality is torn asunder at the hands of several studs. 

Sharon Mitchell was a rising adult star when she appeared in Claudia, having already developed a rather devastating heroin addiction. After appearing in literally hundreds of films (and directing several of her own), Mitchell kicked drugs and took a brief hiatus from the peep show industrial complex, knowing it was going to cost her life if she continued (in '96, a male stalker assaulted, raped and nearly killed the icon). Mitchell obtained her Master's and Doctorate degrees from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, before founding the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM) – an organization that provided information and STD testing to workers in adult entertainment – in '98. As Lustig puts it, Mitchell is "one of the most fascinating women who ever lived”, who re-entered her old profession and continued to perform until ’01. 

After shooting Claudia in five days – a shoot sixty percent longer than what the director had to film his next feature, the far more hardcore Hot Honey (1977) – Lustig cut the movie himself in his tiny office on 49th Street. During the day, he was driving an auto parts truck, commuting from his parents’ home in New Jersey to Manhattan at the end of each shift so that he could work on two separate edits of the picture. The first cut was a softer "couples movie" iteration for married folks not wanting to wander into one of the Deuce’s "Adult's Only" theaters. The second was a traditional XXX splice, with all the penetration and sticky fluids intact. 

Though its soft-focus aesthetics and trio of locations (including a swanky townhome interior) showed that Lustig had an adequate command over visuals (all accented by Michael Karp's dreamy score), it's really the production and release of Claudia that went on to define the grindhouse auteur’s nature as a guerilla artist. After Command Cinema and Cecil Howard – who was known for Fantasex (1976), and would go on to produce the Babylon Pink pictures – gave Claudia a decent regional rollout, Lustig soon took over the movie’s distribution and began delivering prints himself. The young pornographer even handled foreign sales, traveling to Milan and sharing a booth with one of the agents who'd help turn John Carpenter's Halloween into the most successful independent movie in cinema history. All told, Lustig ended up banking $50,000 on Claudia, after splitting profits with his investors, before leaving porn behind and pouring everything he had into his grimy slasher treatise on masculine obsession, Maniac.  

The Violation of Claudia enjoyed its grand, red carpet premiere at 49th Street's World Theater, which Lustig has playfully dubbed "the Radio City Music Hall of porn." This isn't an unfair assessment, because if your XXX movie played in the grubby picture palace, it usually meant that it'd go on to become a hit nationwide (starting with Deep Throat's notorious smash rollout in '72). Mitchell even brought her parents to the gala, utterly unashamed of the line of work that she was in. Yet beyond birthing another slice of sleaze into a mainstream already hugely accepting of pornographic films, Claudia was the announcement of a major talent on the 42nd Street stage. Bill Lustig had arrived, and three years later, Maniac would tear audiences to pieces. 

*Petrella also appeared in Scorsese's Taxi Driver as one of Travis Bickle's late night fares. 

The Violation of Claudia is available now on Blu-ray, courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome. See you lucky perverts at Fantastic Fest!