The Passions of Carol (1975)

Although the video era would yield the occasional seasonal fuck film favorite such as Jim Enright’s endearingly cheesy A Little Christmas Tail or John T. Bone’s charmingly titled All I Want for Christmas is a Gang Bang, such festive commemoration was totally unheard of during the halcyon days of theatrical titillation.  While he swears he was smoking nothing stronger than Marlboro Lights at the time, this was precisely the proposition Shaun Costello came up with as 1974 drew to a close, a year that had seen him producing close to three dozen one day wonders, all of which had returned their puny investments many times over at the storefront box office.  This financial feat was all but lost on the owners of the carnally inclined Capri Cinema, a motley bunch of mob-affiliated entrepreneurs industry insiders would reference in only the vaguest terms as “the Greeks” with a mixture of affection, admiration and the slightest hint of entirely justified trepidation.  Cutting out the middle man, if only in a manner of speaking, the Greeks hoped to increase their intake by financing their own features at a modestly conflated cost compared to their production rivals (reportedly, the grapevine worked overtime assuring theater owners and their audiences were aware of such distinctions) with lucrative distribution deals outside of their own network netting them a sizable profit.  Already acknowledged in copulation cinema circles as a consummate professional closely adhering to allotted budgets and shooting schedules, Costello was their obvious choice to cross over into the creative arena.

An initial batch of frugally funded features (now pushing past the one hour mark as they were intended to headline rather than fill supporting slots) immediately curried favor with the money men, especially with The Love Bus playing to Capri capacity crowds, standing room only !  Still, a seasonal adult offering proved a tough sell with Costello’s backers, unconvinced that such a commodity would work to their benefit.  Unable to allay their anxieties when it came to cash compensation for an increased investment (which would then proceed to spiral out of control), he would pull the trump card of mainstream crossover acceptance on them.  A soon to become perennial porn favorite, assuring recurrent playdates and continuous monetary returns, based on a respected literary source (Charles Dickens’ oft-filmed A Christmas Carol) and, just to add another touch of class, directed by a woman.  Come again ?  In adult’s early stages, there were precious few female filmmakers about, apart from Ann Perry and Roberta Findlay, and their gender’s supposed sensitivity was generally considered an important selling point, not to mention a surefire attention grabber when trying to scare up some “real world” interest.  Professionally pulling the wool over gullible eyes who accepted cinema credits at face value, several dastardly dick-sporting directors would pretend they actually belonged to the fairer sex, mostly in an attempt to score a few quick bucks in the gender-bending process rather than to get in touch with their finer feelings.  Oh, the humanity !  Hardly an innovative ploy even at the time (Sam Weston had already been “Sybil Kidd” on Journal of Love and An Act of Confession and was to briefly become “Wendy Lions” on the following year’s Cry for Cindy) yet predating the furtive forays of Chuck Vincent (“Martha Ubell“) and Gary Graver (“June Moon“), Costello came up with “Amanda Barton“, dirty movie directrix extraordinaire, a moniker quietly put to pasture after two further endeavors (the surprisingly sophisticated Midnight Desires and the Vanessa Del Rio white slavery saga That Lady from Rio) when it became clear that adult audiences didn’t care one way or the other.

An intricate production, the complexity of which the director had definitely underestimated, The Passions of Carol spent so much time (and money…) in the process that it only reached theaters by the Spring of 1975, bypassing its estimated release (dare I say, sell-by ?) date by some three months !  Almost needless to say, regardless of a warm reception by most duly impressed men’s magazines, the movie only managed an inkling of its intended business, dropping out of sight soon after only to resurge with a vengeance through the advent of home video.  Leading the pack in recovering this “lost classic” was late adult historian (and future filmmaker) Jim Holliday who famously referred to Carol in his 1986 Cal Vista published tome Only the Best as “probably the best adult film ever made that the majority of X-rated fans have never even heard of“, jumpstarting a concise cult following that has continued to expand gradually ever since, albeit mostly among aficionados of strange cinema.  No stranger to excessive expenditure through his furtive alliance to the megalomaniacal Kenneth Schwartz later in life, yielding epic achievements Fiona on Fire and Dracula Exotica that struggled to break even at the box office, Costello’s Christmas folly was the result of his (at that time, perhaps even the entire industry’s) inexperience with a project of such artistic ambition and sheer ampleness.  Ahead of its time, the movie’s production opulence would eventually become almost de rigueur as adult briefly became an alternative type of mass audience entertainment, with Costello scoring the last laugh, peaking with a plethora of lavishly produced pictures from his “Warren Evans” twilight period including the likes of BeautyPandora’s Mirror and Hot Dreams as porno palaces were drawing their last breath with the specter of small screen sexuality encroaching on their turf.

Erudite and eloquent, it stands to reason that Costello’s dickin’ with Dickens would stick close to the letter, cleverly tweaking the tale to suit the genre’s requirements.  Curmudgeonly old codger Ebenezer turns into sexy sourpuss Carol Scrooge (appropriately billed as “Merrie Holiday” for the occasion, gamine carnal comedienne Mary Stuart turns in a bona fide career performance) with hatred of Christmas and humanity in general left intact.  Bah, humbug !  As chief editor of Biva skin magazine, showcasing hunks with their dicks hangin’ out for the female clientele à la Playgirl, she terrorizes her overworked employees and model wannabes alike, ruling the roost with an iron fist in a spiked leather glove.  Something of a gym bunny long before this became popular (even among the image-conscious body beautiful gay side of the industry), a pumped up Sonny Landham fits the bill as a potential Biva Boy of the Month auditioning for the conniving Carol and her loyal secretary Gina, which means more talking on the phone for the delightful Day Jason – another resourceful adult comedienne – who stole entire scenes doing little else in Radley Metzger’s The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.  The resulting threesome, taking place among mirrored walls, remains one of the most artistic in adult up until that point.  Semi-choreographed action (owing much of its effect to Costello’s sublime editing, his regular DoP Bill Markle supplying superior raw material) reaches full boil as Sonny’s hulking frame contrasts with two of the finest androgynous female forms of the early ’70s, both with smallish breasts topping slender physiques.  This provides one of several occasions throughout his career when Costello, ever the musical magpie, has resorted to scoring a scene with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, its obsessively pulsating rhythm supplying a driving urgency matching performers’ efforts.  Rest of the borrowed soundtrack features season-appropriate tunes such as the haunting Carol of the Bells serving as ominous theme, playing over the credits and reappairing during the disquieting nursery sequence, sometimes in odd renditions like a laidback cocktail lounge version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town !

Anyone scared (and scarred ?) into submissively embracing the season’s festive values by Dickens’ moralizing tale or any of its myriad movie versions knows the drill.  That night, Scrooge receives a visit from the ghostly apparition of her erstwhile business partner Marley (Lance rather than Jacob, played with touching perseverance by the late Marc Stevens, struggling gamely with Costello’s literary dialogue, hilariously ad-libbing to bridge the gaps), bearing the weight of his sins as heavy chains and complaining that no one in the afterlife knows how to give good head !  Warning Carol about the error of her ways, he informs she will be visited by three spirits.  The Ghost of Christmas Past (familiar Costello character actor Arturo Millhouse, who played manager to both Joe Rock Superstar and peeved pugilist Jamie Gillis in Midnight Desires, arguably the only cast member really at ease with the overblown dialogue lifted straight off the written page) takes her back to the innocence of childhood.  Cue aforementioned nursery setpiece, beautifully designed by Craig Esposito (who would do another sterling job on the director’s unsettling More Than Sisters, eventually graduating to Bill Milling’s globetrotting homage to pulp literature Blonde Goddess) with oversized cots and props, as Carol manipulates her best friends Susan Sloan and Alan Marlow into pre-teen physical exploration, intercut with lewd imagery of Raggedy Ann and Andy doin’ the dirty !  A nice touch, given the characters’ supposed tender years, is the exclusively oral nature of the scene, apart from a doll’s arm stuffed into Carol’s coochie.  Marlow was a handsome mainstay throughout the decade since reporting for stud duty (incidentally with Mary Stuart) in the elusive Duddy Kane’s excellent 1973 Wet Rainbow, the occasional thespian nugget thrown his way by Metzger (playing Mr Mann to Pamela and a harried businessman with no time for love in Naked Came the Stranger), Ms. Findlay (Angel #9) or Ron Dorfman (the unwieldy but occasionally enthralling Cherry Hustlers).  On the other hand, Sloan proved one of those take no prisoners starlets, in ‘n’ out of the industry like a flash, changing her moniker for each of the dozen credits she eventually racked up, the mock-innocent heroine of Robert Sickinger’s stylishly subversive The Naughty Victorians the most memorable by far.

The Ghost of Christmas Present offers pudgy comedian Kevin André, fresh from The Love Bus and a cherished presence in the aforementioned Metzgers, his greatest chance to shine in holly-green tunique and red tinsel boa with matching Yuletide afro, camping it up like an acid-tongued drag diva.  Time for Carol to take a peek into the happy home life – the reason for which she cannot fathom (“They love each other and it’s Christmas,” the Ghost exasperates with grande dame gesturing) – of her harried photo editor Bob Hatchet (Gillis) and his kindly spouse Barbara, sensitively yet not cloyingly portrayed by sexploitation veteran Kim Pope, cutting her teeth on Doris Wishman’s outrageous The Amazing Transplant and Jerry Denby’s Pleasure Plantation before going all the way in Gerard Damiano’s Memories Within Miss Aggie and as Vincent’s wickedly witty Mrs Barrington.  Then as now, Gillis had garnered a reputation as porn’s resident bad boy, playing an assortment of rapists and rotters, with this particular part a concerted effort to tweak the image by showing his softer side.  Their marital lovemaking (the unseen Tiny Kim’s crutches heartbreakingly displayed on the side) ranks among the most tender ever witnessed in adult.

Style shifting with each successive episode, the director has another trick up his sleeve, essaying the silent faceless part of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come guiding Carol to the possible inferno her future holds.  Great footage of Times Square leads to a nearly unrecognizable Stuart, face caked white and sporting a grotesque Bozo the Clown wig, turning tricks with miserable married guys like Ashley Moore who claim they “normally never do this” in her dingy motel room, lit by Mario Bava-esque pools of green and red light from the neon outside and the light bulb swinging back and forth overhead.  Tellingly, this harrowing scene plays out entirely without music, amplifying Carol’s fake moaning as she cheerlessly sucks then mounts her equally tortured John.  This nightmare vision provides her with all the epiphany she needs and Stuart truly does a bang-up job of charting her character’s evolution from bitterness to rediscovered humanity, rendering her closing soliloquy riveting rather than ridiculous as she wholeheartedly embraces the spirit of Christmas.  Only the presence of thickly accented Toni Scott (seen to much better advantage in Alan B. Colberg’s All Night Long and, especially, Alex de Renzy’s underrated The Pleasure Masters) and Costello’s fellow filmmaker Carter Stevens as Carol’s maid and fiancé respectively, rigidly restricted to non-sex capacity, suggest another sex scene possibly planned but never shot.

Directed, written & edited by Shaun Costello (as Amanda Barton). Produced by Costello for Ambar Productions. Photographed by Bill Markle (as David Measles). Starring Mary Stuart (as Merrie Holiday) (Carol Scrooge), Jamie Gillis (Bob Hatchet), Kim Pope (Barbara Hatchet), Marc Stevens (Lance Marley’s Ghost), Day Jason (as Daniela Di Orici) (Gina, the Secretary), Susan Sloan (as Rose Cranston) (Barbie White), Alan Marlow (as Alan Barow) (Billy Baxter), Sonny Landham (Curt Reynolds, the Biva Boy Wannabe), Ashley Moore (as Stuart Dickerson) (Hooker’s Customer), Arturo Millhouse (Ghost of Christmas Past), Kevin André (Ghost of Christmas Present), Toni Scott (as Angela Dermer) (Paulie, the Maid), Carter Stevens (as Alan Grodin) (Tony, Paulie’s Fiancé) & Shaun Costello (as Helmuth Richler) (Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come/Credit Card Guy). Running time : 76 minutes.

By Dries Vermeulen

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