Slippery When Wet (1976)

Even though technically he already got his hardcore bearings by directing 1973's at the time unattributed Sleepyhead and the following year's A Touch of Genie (which still played most venues in a watered down version though), simulated skinflick Maestro Joe Sarno didn't really take the porno plunge until 1976 when the homegrown grindhouse marketplace economically allowed no other option than full color penetration.  Never once looking back over his shoulder to glories past, he totally immersed himself in the increasingly intimately explicit nature of the adult industry that had been his bread and butter since the early '60s, albeit with rapidly decreasing enthusiasm as time progressed.  Shot back to back (to back...) with at least three additional projects (of which only The Trouble With Young Stuff remains readily available, the other two - Hot Wives and The Honey Cup - still languishing somewhere down the Distribpix vaults), Slippery When Wet belies it silly come on of a title by emerging as something of a minimalist masterpiece, constricting the action to just a couple of sets with a mere handful of exterior shots thrown in for good measure.

Adjusting to the fledgling format's limitations in terms of time and budget, Sarno (adopting the "Karl - sometimes Erik - Andersson" moniker as a nod to his Scandinavian cycle of sex epics that encompassed The Seduction of Inga and Daddy, Darling) shows a knack for turning these creative constraints to his advantage.  Since "opening up" the plot was not a possibility, he would zoom in even closer on characters and their invariably troubled relationships to the exclusion of almost everything else, a technique that had served him well on several of his most successful softcore sagas like Sin in the Suburbs, Vibrations and Passion in Hot Hollows.  In the process, he would trump practically all of his contemporary fellow fornication filmmakers by effectively making sex the whole story with the expected explicit scenes furthering (by actually "telling") rather than interrupting the narrative as had too often been the case thusfar.  As such, Sarno perhaps unwittingly produced the perfect porn template without any need for flashy production value many of his aspiring acolytes would turn to in the hope of ever elusive mainstream recognition rather than flesh out the form as a standalone genre in its own right.

As in most of his work before or since, Sarno predominantly focuses on female characters, something that was already quite revolutionary in the previous decade when carnal cinema's "couples audience" was not even yet the germ of an idea.  After all, the specialized theater circuit was hardly conducive to attract female patronage, catering quasi-exclusively to the needs of lonely guys in search of a cheap thrill.  Therefore, while women were undoubtedly central to the erotic epics that unspooled before their hungry eyes, they would also inevitably be "victimized" to some extent at the hands of men to psychologically compensate for the social and sexual inadequacy that was perceived as being most of their customers' lot in life.  To his credit, Sarno would buck that dispiriting trend right from inception with serious studies of both female psyche and sexuality, inextricably linked, subject matter he brazenly brought along as he ventured into more graphic territory.

Predating the couples film craze - which proved more of an empty hype than anything else (an allegation deserving a dissertation all to itself...) - by at least half a decade, Slippery may actually appeal more to women than it does to men with its strongly female-centric narrative and sex scenes, not exactly bashing guys along the way but rendering them largely obsolete nonetheless or incidental at the very least.  Close chums ever since college, three women from varying walks of life have kept in touch even though unbeknownst to them there's plenty going on that could forever drive them apart.  Former golden girl Ellen (C.J. Laing) is married to Don (Jeff Hurst) but immediately withdraws from him right after climax, caught up in frustrations she's unwilling to admit, so he turns towards her hot to trot best friend Kate (Hope Stockton) who's harboring secret lesbian longings for her erstwhile sorority sister but will accept her husband as a temporary pacifier instead.  Tellingly, though equally married, we never get to see Kate's much complained about husband, "Martin", just another in the film's line-up of increasingly disposable male presences.  Inbetween boyfriends, erotic artist and mutual friend Stella (Annie Sprinkle) inadvertently proves the catalyst as all three carnally convene at her swanky bachelor pad and masks are dropped.

As in all of Sarno's best films (including the likes of All the Sins of Sodom, Baby Love and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town to cover the entire spectrum of his stupendous sexual back catalogue in both time and geography), the conflict is propelled forward by an outsider to the story's central unit, in this case Southern white trash "model" Chris, hellbent for whatever reason to disrupt the deceptively calm surface by forcing the former friends to come to terms with their suppressed desires, shattering the status quo along with their hipocrisy.  Outrageously portrayed by the massively underrated Crystal Sync, Chris comes to dominate proceedings right from the moment she takes up unrequested residence at Stella's place, alternately observing and manipulating.  She has her work cut out for her.  Apart from Ellen and Kate's unrealized attraction, there's Stella's own set of sexual hang-ups in strong contrast to her publicly projected image of the bohemian free spirit.  All too rarely called upon to act, although it could be argued that she lives her life as if it were performance art, Annie Sprinkle shows unexpected range and dramatic depth, cast against type as a closet prude.  Anyone familiar with our Annie knows this must  take some acting ! 

The same can be said for consummate wild child C.J. Laing, a porn performer whose disinterest for drama as superfluous and dishonest has been widely reported, most recently in Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne's excellent 2005 tome The Other Hollywood.  Rarely bothered to provide anything beyond the fevered fucking that had compelled her to enter the industry in the first place, only a handful of dedicated dirty moviemakers seemed capable of eliciting an actual thespian performance out of her, with results that surpassed most people's expectations.  Roberta Findlay certainly did with Anyone But My Husband, as did Radley Metzger for Barbara Broadcast, and Sarno makes three, again by casting her as the exact opposite as to how she was publicly perceived.  Fleeting fan favorite of under a dozen titles and employed as enticing eye candy in most, Hope Stockton probably provides the biggest shock of all as the compulsively conniving Kate, an increasingly touching character once her motives are revealed. 

The men, by directorial design, can only pale by comparison.  A Chuck Vincent regular going from R to X and back again between 1973's Grace's Place and 1987's Slammer Girls, the extremely hairy Hurst has a potentially thankless role as the ineffectual husband, coveted for what rather than who he is, yet still manages to bring a bruised machismo to the table, making the character more vulnerably appealing than Sarno  probably intended.  As the campy Chris's kid brother Dougie who literally can't get a word in edgewise and drawn into Stella's expanding coterie of copulators, the notorious Sonny Landham has been reigned in to the brink of immobility even though he figures rather touchingly in the film's conclusion with Annie.  Relieved from the constraints of characterization, Roger Caine on the other hand seems positively liberated, performing with uncharacteristic rigidity as the obliging model for Annie's upcoming (and, sadly, never glimpsed) masterpiece : a collage of Chris sitting naked and spread-eagled as Mother Earth in a field of fertile stiff pricks !

Scored by the eerie solitary guitar of cult musician Jack Justis, legendary in legit circles for his contribution to the original Broadway cast album of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar and a Sarno regular on both sides of the explicit fence, the sex kicks into high gear right from the start, both increasing and intensifying characterization.  As in his simulated work, the director concentrates - almost exclusively, in fact - on female pleasure, never more so than with the extremely expressive Stockton whose face turns flushed and inside out at the moment of climax, a cherishable sight to behold indeed.  Sync's forceful initiation of Annie with the use of an obscenely large salami sausage has gained considerable notoriety yet plays out far less outrageously than its description would lead one to expect, precisely because neither actress breaks character throughout, keeping viewers interested as to their dramatic evolution...even while their nether regions are being invaded by deli meats !  Forever under the radar, unsung Ursula Austin pops up all too briefly and wordlessly as Stella's ex-husband's sister, perusing the artist's sketchings of penii for a cheap thrill, just in time for a spirited threesome with Sync and Caine.  An early submissive in C.J.'s mode, if never a serious rival in the distinction, she was the star of Joe Davian's twisted Fetishes of Monique but rarely rose above single scene support in more middle of the road fuck fare, Doris Wishman's genuinely oddball horny ghost story Come With Me, My Love a/k/a The Haunted Pussy a rare exception. 

Directed by Joe Sarno (as Karl Andersson). Written by Sarno (uncredited). Produced by Mark Hanson. Music by Jack Justis. Starring C.J. Laing (Ellen), Annie Sprinkle (Stella), Hope Stockton (Kate), Crystal Sync (as Christa Anderson) (Chris), Roger Caine (Jeff), Sonny Landham (Dougie), Jeffrey Hurst (Don) & Ursula Austin (Stella's ex-sister-in-law). Running time : 102 minutes.