Through the Looking Glass (1976)

Much has already been written about this truly one of a kind oddity, often by adventurous auteurs with little affection for and therefore, perhaps understandably, a lack of affinity with porn, giving both a fresh perspective while still “missing the point” to some degree. There’s a tendency to reclaim this work as an integral part of the marginally more respectable horror genre, where it admittedly seems quite at home, rather than leave it to the perceived limitations of hardcore erotica. Truth of the matter is, Through the Looking Glass (and, yes, there is a particularly depraved Alice in Wonderland inspired fantasy to make good on its title) is that extreme rarity, a movie – hell, an adult movie of all things ! – that cannot be comfortably classified within any single genre, moving across boundaries with almost uncanny dexterity. Director Jonas Middleton unfortunately didn’t bother to stick around for very long and interviews of the time reveal that he had precious little interest in conventional carnal cinema, basically shooting the obscure and occasionally almost equally outrageous Andrea True showcase Illusions of a Lady in order to secure funds for this, his unmistakable labor of love.

Looking Glass
 differs substantially from the average dirty movie in just about all aspects.  Cinematography by Gerard Damiano’s right hand man João Fernandes is dark and foreboding, key in creating the perfectly ominous Gothic atmosphere, superbly supported by an unerringly creepy soundscape by Harry Manfredini who would go on to score the Friday the 13th slasher series to excellent effect. Even the casting seems willfully idiosyncratic, most familiar face presumably that of a genuinely bloodcurdling Jamie Gillis as the titular mirror’s resident demon doubling as the flashback father figure of strangely lethargic “heroine” Catharine Burgess. Now Burgess, who also went by a slew of additional aliases and was rather crudely assessed by self-appointed Times Square historian Bill Landis (ah, but let’s speak no ill of the dead) as “a $1.98 Catherine Deneuve“, remains one of exploitation cinema’s more intriguing personalities, which is really saying something. Rumored to have never been involved in actual hardcore penetration (her scorching sofa scene with ravishing Ras Kean from Armand Weston’s magnificent Expose Me, Lovely forever casting doubt on that particular claim though expert editing certainly convinced porno patrons they were seeing more than they actually did), she supplemented her classy Hitchcock blonde looks with well above average acting ability, a combination which serves her far better here than it did in Al Adamson’s awesomely inept (albeit in the most disarming fashion) science fiction sex musical Cinderella 2000 !

Exhuding icy perfection from every pore, Burgess plays a wealthy heiress languidly preparing for a trip to Europe, her efforts thwarted by the irresistible lure of an ornate antique mirror in the attic that offers disquieting glimpses of suppressed memories of her depraved dad as well as an increasingly bizarre netherworld that appears to exist on the other side.  Soft and sexy Kristen Steen, the kindhearted nurse carnally corrupted by the schizo title character from Fred Donaldson’s Sometime Sweet Susan, portrays convincing innocence as the younger Catharine who falls victim to pater Jamie’s perverted passions.  Genre regulars Nancy Dare (Bob Bolla’s spiteful spouse from Damiano’s Odyssey), Kim Pope (Gillis’s crippled wife in Shaun Costello’s seasonal classic The Passions of Carol) and Ultramax, who made memorable appearances in early Eduardo Cemano not quite all the way fare like Fongaluli and The Healers, turn up as Catharine’s fair weather friends, bad-mouthing her behind her back at the beauty parlor, only to re-appear as hellish harridans for the film’s extended and unforgettable climax. Catharine whiles away whole hours lost in her own flawless reflection, her vanity ultimately costing her dearly as demons drag her down into their warped world.  Shades of Narcissus ?

As if there wasn’t enough weirdness already, Terri Hall and Roger Caine from Costello’s Dan McCord detective movies put in appearances as a pair of incestuously involved sibling domestics who manage to have an incredibly hot sex scene despite the icky baggage. The avowed highlight however comes when Catharine steps into the mirror only to find a place of such surreal sexual overkill that would surely have corrupted even little Alice’s dearly held maidenhead. This elaborate orgy, bathing in appropriately sickly orange hues, truly has to be seen to be believed and even then…  Eagle-eyed fuck film fans may recognize, or not due to some outlandishly freaky make-up, the likes of late Bobby Astyr and Jeff Hurst, Crystal Sync’s no good husband from Roberta Findlay’s sterling The Tiffany Minx, among the participants along with bulky oddball Grover Griffith who played the Messenger of Death in Howard Ziehm’s peculiar Sexteen.  Busty Nikki Hilton, the ugly duckling Arab princess from Bill Milling’s ingratiatingly silly French Shampoo, leaves an indelible impression as the traditionally attired little French maid lewdly relieving herself in an absolutely filthy bathtub.  Though she thankfully doesn’t get anywhere near the sex, lovely Laura Nicholson (who was proudly publicized as being underage at the film’s initial release !) as Catharine’s teenage daughter figures prominently in the unsettling final twist before fade-out.

For those who watch porn primarily for titillation, presumably the largest part of the adult viewing demographic, Looking Glass presents an anomaly almost as surreal as its content. While fornication is both frequent and explicit, including an ill-advised camera move into Burgess’s (body double’s) front entrance, it was also designed as defiantly anti-erotic for most part. On that count, it could be construed as a “failure” then, were it not for its dazzling display of ferocious filmmaking bravura in every other respect. Cult cinema of the highest order then, present day relevance undiminished, its group of followers has steadily expanded over the almost four decades since, and I for one predict that this entirely unique movie will continue to confuse and delight, in equal measure and sometimes simultaneously, many more open-minded audiences unafraid to take the plunge in the future.

Directed by Jonas Middleton. Written by Middleton, Ron Wertheim & David Maryla. Produced by Middleton, Maryla & Dennis Frye for Mastermind Productions. Photographed by João Fernandes (as Harry Flecks). Music by Harry Manfredini & Arlon Ober. Edited by James Macreading & Maurizio Zaubmann. Starring Catharine Burgess (Catharine), Jamie Gillis (Catherine’s Father), Kristen Steen (as Marie Taylor) (Young Catharine), Terri Hall (Lisa), Roger Caine (as Mike Jefferson) (Abel), Kim Pope (Ann), Nancy Dare (as Suzan Swanson) (Karen), Jeffrey Hurst (Mr. Manchester), Ultramax (Mrs. Manchester), Laura Nicholson (Jennifer), Douglas Wood (Richard), Eve Every (Lilly), Rocky Millstone (as Jacob Pomerantz) (Eugene), Grover Griffith (Fat Man), Bobby Astyr (Crazy Guy) & Nikki Hilton (French Maid). Running time : 91 minutes.

By Dries Vermeulen

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