Sleepy Head (1973)

Sleepy Head Poster

Sleepy Head (1973)

When the book is written, Joe Sarno will take his rightful place as one of three sexploitation Sires of the ’60s, alongside Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger, every one of them pushing the porn envelope in his own unique manner and paving the way for the explicit explosion that was to take place over the upcoming decade.  Said evolution, questionable perhaps to the more pruriently prudish of adult archivists, was welcomed with wildly diverging degrees of enthusiasm by each of these excellent eroticists.  While Meyer staunchly preferred to remain a softcore Sovereign among unruly upstarts, bouncing back and forth between larger than life cartoon violence in Supervixens and Up! and the sincerely skewed real world respectability afforded to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Blacksnake, both of his carnal cohorts begrudgingly embraced the pictorial possibilities of full color penetration.  Metzger, of course, proceeded to explore the trope’s outer limits over a mere handful of hardcore endeavors he engendered as “Henry Paris” between 1974-78, prior to making his early exit from the extreme close-up arena.  Sarno’s an altogether different matter, considerably more prolific and inevitably less distinctive as a result, in constant conflict with his higher aspirations, thwarted more often than nourished as the industry plummeted into an artistic abyss after hitting its peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  Ever the trouper as well as bereft of any alternative, he persisted pushing porn well into the video era with steadily diminishing returns, covering his tracks with an array of aliases that include Peter Walsh, Irving Weiss and Monica Fitta.

Sarno was perhaps the most suited of the three mentioned moviemakers to adjust his ambitions to the fledgling fuck film industry’s modest scale, having built his reputation on intimist domestic drama with the likes of Sin in the Suburbs and The Bed and How to Make It! focusing on small town hypocrisy regarding matters of the flesh.  Meyer, on the other hand, had successfully created a highly personal private universe through exaggeration to the point of excess and the fastpaced editing that makes his work feel fresh and exciting even today.  Acquiring European sophistication by association, distributing risqué fare from France and Denmark (sometimes spruced up with homegrown inserts) through his legendary Audubon outlet, Metzger clearly coveted Old World opulence.  Joe’s minimalist character-centric template was a natural for a film form tentatively branching out from ten to twenty minute loops into full length features.  As the market for his brand of suggested copulation was dwindling rapidly, on American soil at least, he had precious little choice but to take the plunge anyway if he wanted to keep bread on the table.  Following an extremely successful spell in Sweden, coincidentally (?) the land where hardcore pornography’s generally thought to have originated (true, when limited to photographic and film form) and seeming in hindsight like Sarno’s last stand in the face of fornication domination, he yielded to the pressures of public demand and went all the way.

Though he would soon enough get the hang of hardcore formula, his early efforts in the field comfortably fit with his cinematic sensibilities of the period, at a crossroads between the Scandinavian libertarianism of Daddy, Darling and the lost Christina Lindberg classic Young Playthings and his thoughtful analyses of arbitrary American mores a/k/a the Rebecca Brooke cycle – in reference to the alias adopted by awesome leading lady Mary Mendum – comprised of Confessions of a Young American HousewifeLaura’s ToysAbigail Lesley is Back in Town and Misty, all but the elusive latter salvaged from oblivion by the estimable good folks at Seduction Cinema under the “Retro-Seduction” banner.  Essaying the Nordic pseudonym of Erik (sometimes Karl) Andersson, he took a more mocking approach in his simultaneously shot 1976 twosome of Slippery When Wet and The Trouble With Young Stuff yet kept a straight face throughout his explicit maiden voyage, the currently under scrutiny Sleepy Head.  Irrelevant moniker aside, this monumentally overlooked gem proves as profoundly personal as any of his critically reclaimed simulated sagas, marking it out as one of the best among early adult’s sincerely serious offerings which more famously include the likes of Gerard Damiano’s Devil in Miss Jones, the Mitchells’ Resurrection of Eve and Duddy Kane’s Wet Rainbow.  Interestingly, Sleepy Head cleverly combines elements from all these notorious titles such as Eve‘s road to female self-discovery via sexual experimentation, Rainbow‘s rocky relationship problematics and Devil‘s sense of sin and the belief in eternal damnation as the price to pay.

Still reeling from the Devil‘s demands, Georgina Spelvin predictably shines as lonely and insecure Bernice Wyatt, writer of conspicuously sexless fiction and – just like the pathetic Justine Jones before her – on a one way trip to spinsterhood.  Refraining from intimacy as result of the strict Catholic upbringing that left her kid sister Tracey (an indelible performance for which tragic Tina Russell, arguably adult’s first superstar, hasn’t received anywhere near according credit) a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, she leads a seemingly serene existence fooling no one but herself, recurring erotic nightmares stirring up needs increasingly difficult to ignore.  Her sympathetic literary agent Georgia (the criminally underestimated Darby Lloyd Rains, shining star of Damiano’s Memories Within Miss Aggie and Metzger’s Naked Came the Stranger) urges her to go out on a date and break a fuck fast that has apparently persisted since she quit college.  Troubled by thoughts of her lover at the time, fanciful free spirit Nancy (surprisingly well played by Judith Hamilton, Spelvin’s real life girlfriend at the time), increasing her guilt for such an “unnatural” attraction, Bernices reaches out to carefree young Larry (Davey Jones), aimlessly strumming his guitar in Central Park, taking him home for sustenance.  Rewarding her TV dinner with tenderness, the boy seems a probable prospect for the woman to turn her life around if it weren’t for the blast from the past reappearance of Nancy on her doorstep.  Now a successful nude photographer, casually sleeping around with models like Jamie Gillis and Marc Stevens and therefore practicing very much as she has always preached, she’s adamant to rekindle their rocky romance.  Crassly insensitive to her lover’s intricate needs, Nancy assumes the role of ringmaster, deviously warming her to the idea of taking down Tracey’s pious attitude by staging to have her raped at knifepoint !

The narrative, progressing pleasantly until this point, takes a sharp left turn with the introduction of Nancy’s no good “friends” including a slobbering Levi Richards (the deceitful actor conning working girl Spelvin by way of audition in Metzger’s Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann) taking Tina’s prized maidenhead in an extended orgy finale, pretty much playing out in real time, that had dirty movie detractors accusing Sarno of selling out as he kept piling up performers on Bernice’s brass bed.  While the group grope does indeed qualify as the by and large unimaginative closing movement in primitive porn, Sarno’s rendition in no way betrays his beliefs and dearly held concerns, focusing almost exclusively on female pleasure, albeit enforced, tellingly by other women.  Russell’s facial expressions as she’s torn between liberating pleasure and misguided remorse are absolutely flawless, even further augmented by subtle details such as Spelvin’s softly stroking her sister’s foot as the actress’s real life husband Jason (the intertextual parallels just keep on pouring in !) pushes her over the edge, achieving credible climax.  Surely, if the director’s intentions had really been as callous as naysayers claim, Tracey’s heartbreaking request to Nancy to pray for her now she fears that God’s no longer listening since she has become a sinner for having (and worse, enjoying) sex would never have made it into the finished film.  The film’s compassionate coda (from the heart, I believe, rather than Sarno thumbing his nose at society as one IMDb commentator interpreted) finds Bernice tearfully picking up Tracey’s discarded Bible, unsure of what she has wrought, making her way back to Larry in the park and suggesting they go around spreading the gospel of a loving and enlightened God.  The nuance being that, while fundamentalists would fight tooth and nail to suppress the sex industry, religion in itself was not the enemy.  After all, if God is indeed love as ministers have tirelessly preached from their pulpits, then surely even He could find no fault with the free expression thereof, in life as well as art ?

Released with just a title card, technical credits are anyone’s guess.  Considering the director’s collaborators at the time and the recurring visual motif of pools of bright light disrupting the inky darkness, the movie may have been photographed by the late Bruce Sparks,  billed as “Prudence Prevails” when working for Carter Stevens yet frequently uncredited on other people’s projects, a nagging suspicion undenied nor confirmed to this day.  Passing away as discreetly as he had lived in the Spring of 2009 (indeed, if Stevens himself had not alerted the adult-dedicated blogs the world at large might not have taken any notice at all), he had cut his teeth shooting scores of Sarno’s ’60s simulated sex sagas including such recently recovered classics like Scarf of Mist Thigh of SatinCome Ride the Wild Pink Horse and the inimitable Inga.  Their stylistic trademarks came perhaps somewhat unjustly identified entirely as Sarno’s over time, as much as the emotionally naked vulnerability of (specifically) female characters.

Spelvin’s as highly regarded a hardcore actress as there has ever been, rightfully so, but she’s extremely well surrounded by an unsung ensemble not necessarily known for its thespian abilities.  Drifting in ‘n’ out of a burgeoning business, his time in the trenches totaling less than a year, Davey Jones delivers the standout turn of his short career.  His kindhearted seduction of the nervous and self-deprecating Spelvin proves nothing short of exemplary, Sarno’s careful and considerate direction in full evidence.  Like most of the film’s sex scenes, it plays out entirely without music, the cast instead performing like real people, with unforced naturalistic banter that extends far beyond the genre’s “fuck me harder” comfort zone.  The overall effect is simply mesmerizing, like witnessing sex for the very first time, unfettered and unembellished.  Benefiting from one of Video-X-Pix’s most lustrous transfers this side of a Platinum Elite Collector’s Edition, this unassuming little masterpiece – fully deserving that description though thusfar relegated to footnote status even in exhaustive explorations of the director’s body of work – proudly positions itself as a prime candidate for porn rehabilitation, a compelling drama adult in content as well as the freedom to show what goes where, both emotionally eloquent and erotically effective.

Directed, written and edited by Joe (Joseph W.) Sarno. Starring Georgina Spelvin (Bernice Wyatt), Tina Russell (Tracey Wyatt), Judith Hamilton (Nancy Price), Darby Lloyd Rains (Georgia Morrow), Davey Jones (Larry Coin), Jason Russell (Cal), Marc Stevens (Glenn), Jamie Gillis (Nude Model) & Levi Richards (Burglar). Running time : 93 minutes.


Sleepy Head’s memorable group grope climax piles the entire cast one on top of the other  

By Dries Vermeulen

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