Pandora’s Mirror (1981)

Personal best of Shaun Costello’s comparatively big budget period as “Warren Evans” with Hot Dreams being the only serious competition, Pandora’s Mirror also stands as the most accomplished Twilight Zone type adult film ever made.  It achieves a perfectly sustained eeriness right from its entrancing opening frames through deliberate pacing and exceptionally beautiful cinematography, credited to one “Palo Coeli” – though it probably meant to say “PaOlo” – which is the same name that turns up on the director’s uneven Beauty with lovely Loni Sanders and Jamie Gillis as Beauty and Beast respectively.  Topping it off is the filmmaker’s by now exceedingly familiar record collection bringing instant class to the soundtrack with Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo theme (by far the most magnificent movie music ever composed), a couple of Mike Oldfield tracks from his Tubular Bells album in addition to slightly less traveled selections like Pino Donaggio’s music from Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the traditional Woman of Ireland rendered popular by Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, not to mention Costello’s own Midnight Desires which contains something of a rough draught for the encounter both intimate and intricate it so indelibly accompanies.

Desperately trying to escape her nagging frenemy Liz (the stupendous Sandra Hillman, future fetish photographer Roy Stuart’s girlfriend, whose only other appearances occured in Larry Revene’s witty Wanda Whips Wall Street and Cecil Howard’s starladen Foxtrot), pretty and apparently well to do Pandora (Veronica Hart) rushes into the nearest antiques store, only to stumble across an absolutely gorgeous standing mirror which inevitably captures her interest. Though the shop owner (character actor Frederick Foster, who had bit parts in Costello’s Beauty and Afternoon Delights and whose somewhat hammy style suits the material to a tee) attempts to convince her the looking glass is quite worthless and not even for sale, Pandora feels compelled to return on her own and gaze into the mirror as it magically reveals its history. Conceived as a present by an elderly Civil War era nobleman (Foster fulfils small parts in each of the movie’s erotic episodes, a ploy rarely undertaken with similar success) to his neglected youthful spouse Lydia, poorly portrayed by taut Tiffany Clark whose tan lines seem mighty strange for the period.  A frame carved from an oak struck by lightning going a long way to explain its enchanted nature, the mirror inspires irresistibly lustful intentions in all who stare into the reflecting surface. For ants in her pants Clark, that means a trio of drunk and horny Dragoon soldiers, played in curious harrr! pirate brogue by the aforementioned Roy Stuart, chubby-cheeked curly top Marc Valentine and Rod Pierce (a second string stud who essayed his sole male lead with out of the blue aplomb in Chris Covino’s underrated Babe with Tara Aire), giving the wench the magnificent mauling she has clearly been pining for.

1930’s Hollywood provides the setting for spoiled screen siren Veronica Barrett (another showstopper from carnal camp queen extraordinaire Marlene Willoughby) initiating new make-up girl Patty Boyd sent over by the studio with the aid of her latest in a long line of fiancés (dependable Dave Ruby, particularly memorable as an overworked pump jockey longing to be a midnight cowboy in Ron Sullivan’s overlooked Nasty Girls), Cuban butler (one shot Jack Houston, sincerely struggling for wood) and chauffeur (Bill McKean, the weaselly little guy who was elbow deep into Tiffany Clark in Gerard Damiano’s The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue as well as Hart’s significant other at the time). Broadway in the ’70s plays backdrop to naive chick from the sticks Bonnie LeMay “from Grand Rapids, Michigan” (bleached blonde Hillary Summers, who could do clueless without being cloying) whose “I’ll do anything” audition for predatory patron of the arts Barbara Mellon (Celeste Bon) has her strutting her stuff sensually on stage with macho matinee idol Bob Randall (Ron Hudd) as the sophisticated-seeming Bon in her single blue movie appearance tantalizingly tears into lesbo plaything Kandi Barbour, the girl with the strangest looking nipples in porn.

Finally, Foster takes innocent ’80s wife Alice (ethereal Merle Michaels, really looking the part), wearing white gloves and shoes complementing a demure floral print, down to a very different kind of wonderland, the notorious Hellfire Club, notoriously erected on the leftover set from the albeit temporarily equal rights-shattering gay S&M club scenes taking up most of William Friedkin’s sleazy shocker Cruising. Michaels is all but fed to the wolves as an impromptu orgy gets underway, instigated by Queen Annie Sprinkle, who has rarely looked more stunning, and performed with contagious gusto by the likes of Robin Sane sporting a bizarre two-tone hairdo, the ubiquitous Ron Jeremy, rotund fornication filmmaker Carter Stevens and sweetly submissive Diane May, best remembered as Bobby Astyr’s accomodating dental assistant from Afternoon Delights.  Usually, clusterfucks require something of a road map to keep track as to who’s doing what to whom but Costello wisely keeps the action focused around the butter wouldn’t melt Michaels as performers join or leave the fray of which she remains the shining center.  Small wonder then that he personally considers it the most effective erotic encounter he has ever shot.

While Pandora becomes increasingly caught up in the mirror’s sexual history, her boyfriend Peter (an uncharacteristically subdued Jamie Gillis) seeks solace with the conniving Liz who practically devours him in one of the most absolutely astonishing displays of undiluted animal lust I have ever witnessed.  Totally destroying his carefully cultivated bad boy persona, Gillis seems stunned into serene silence as the incredible hot Hillman (proving, cue sexist remark, that plain girls really do just try harder !) dives face first into his rectum, digging for truffles in an all time analingus knockout.  Granted, the competition in this particular discipline may be less than fierce, at least in non-niche oriented, for lack of a better term mainstream porn, but still… Pandora gets to fulfill a fantasy of her own with musclebound hunks George Payne and Jerry Butler she has been ogling tirelessly working out on the rooftop across from her apartment while the looking glass does what its name implies, gazing back, waiting to pounce…

Although inevitably not without its share of rough spots, occasionally weak acting being by far the worst offender, this haunting adult fantasy remains firmly ensconced among the genre’s glories. Costello has typically taken the utmost care with every aspect of production, liberally lavishing moolah on things like period cars and clothes that were to become the first victims of budget cuts just a few short years ahead. Film scholars should pay close attention to his exquisitely composed imagery, especially in the Hollywood and Hellfire Club sequences, effectively enhancing the movie’s downbeat mood with mood lighting and camera placement. His formal training as a filmmaker finally paid off and this sophisticated masterpiece stands perhaps as the culmination of a very fine career. Almost as if he realized this even at the, he was to call it quits after just a few more flicks, ending on a distinctly minor note with 1983’s tired Heaven’s Touch, his heart clearly no longer in this so-so sendup of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait.

Unfortunately, fans awaiting a definitive DVD representation will have to wait a while longer.  Caballero‘s typically bare bones disc at least has the benefit of coming cheap but also typically falters in faithfully rendering the movie’s many moments of mood lighting, magnificent on the big screen (for which they were specifically conceived, as is true of the entire Costello combo) but murky when condensed for cathode ray scrutiny, especially if sourced from a video master which holds true for all of this cost-cutting company’s catalogue.  Hopes were raised for Scandinavian Pink Flamingo Entertainment‘s release then, especially since they appeared to have full collaboration of the notoriously hard to please director contributing interviews and liner notes.  35mm elements were duly secured for the inaugural entry in their much hyped Shaun Costello Collection, his severely twisted 1979 Hitchcock pastiche More Than Sisters, which had never looked nor sounded anywhere near this good in previous home cinema incarnations.  Alas, there was soon to follow a (perhaps inevitable) falling out between the creative and commercial beneficiaries as the latter slacked off on subsequent releases which  were as a rest of a low quality comparable to way too many “classic” adult DVD’s produced on the other side of the Atlantic, a tape-sourced version of Pandora’s Mirror dispiritingly included.

Written & Directed by Shaun Costello (as Warren Evans). Produced by Costello for Evansfilm. Cinematography by Palo Coeli. Edited by Roger Cunningham. Starring Veronica Hart (Pandora), Sandra Hillman (Liz), Jamie Gillis (Peter), Marlene Willoughby (Veronica Barrett), Tiffany Clark (Lydia McKardle), Hillary Summers (as Heather Gordon) (Bonnie LeMay), Merle Michaels (Alice Ralston), Kandi Barbour (Maxine), Annie Sprinkle (Queen of the Hellfire Club), Patty Boyd (as Lacey Smith & Beth Sheridan) (Nancy Olson), Ron Hudd (Bob Randall), Celeste Bon (Barbara Mellon), Dave Ruby (Lancelot Duval), Bill McKean (Chauffeur), George Payne & Jerry Butler (Bodybuilders), Diane May (Hatcheck Girl), Roy Stuart, Rod Pierce & Marc Valentine (Dragoon Soldiers), Ron Jeremy (Masked Hellfire Club Patron), Robin Sane (Club Dancer), Ashley Moore (Cowboy), Carter Stevens (as Steve Mitchell) (Tuxedo Guy), Jack Houston (Carlos), Gordon G. Duvall (Stage Manager), Shaun Costello (Waiter) & Frederick Foster (Shopkeeper/Oliver McKardle/Sydney Fried/Eli Rasp/Edgar Ralston). Running time : 88 minutes.

The great Shaun Costello surrounded by our very own Steven Morowitz (right) and film historian Joe Rubin (left) who famously facilitated the director’s maiden audio commentary on the Platinum Elite edition of his Passions of Carol

By Dries Vermeulen

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