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William for uncommon-ground.org

Parent categories: cinema - perversion

Related: erotic movies - kinky - fetish - paraphilia - sadomasochism in cinema - SM in mainstream films

Kink in the Movies

--William for uncommon-ground.org

Copyright uncommon-ground.org, copied here for research purposes.

Hollywood is a purveyor of the sensational, the glossy, the pseudo-hip. So it was just a matter of time before themes of sadomasochism and fetish sex made their way into the movies. Beginning in the Eighties, movies gave mainstream audiences their first sustained look at the forbidden world of dominance, submission, and BD/SM. True, in most cases these movies offered sinister, heavy-handed portrayals, but the door to the masked chamber creaked open, and more than just a crack.

The decade of 9 ½ Weeks and Blue Velvet gave audiences more than just a glimpse through the peep hole. At least twelve movies in the Eighties centered on sadomasochism, erotic bondage, psychological dominance, voyeurism, or other kinky sex. More than a dozen others contained noteworthy scenes. Dominance and submission crept out of the dungeon and into theaters at local shopping malls.

Or should we say submission crawled?

Dominance strode in boldly, of course.

Until the Eighties, the only full-length treatment of kink had focused on S/M and was found in a trio of European movies released between 1974 and 1976. Now regarded as classics of a sort, they were screened only briefly in the United States and were sparsely attended. Since then, only two of them have been available on video tape.


The Night Porter (Italy-U.S.A., 1974) is a psychological drama set in Vienna twenty years after World War II. Charlotte Rampling is a concentration camp survivor. She checks into a hotel and finds that Dirk Bogarde, a Nazi who was her dominant lover, is working there as the desk clerk. They try to avoid each other, but they meet nonetheless and the passion rekindles. They resume their S/M relationship and barricade themselves in an apartment against the death threats of Bogarde's former war companions.

The Story of O (France, 1975) came out the following year. Compared to the book from which it was adapted, it is erotic fluff - a cotton candy version of whips and chains. In all fairness, though, that was to be expected. The intensity of the book's scenes had to be toned down to allow it into mainstream theaters. The result is a tastefully mounted soap commercial for sexual submission.

Next came La Maîtresse (France, 1976), which is still the hottest look at S/M on film. Gerard Depardieu plays a burglar who, along with a companion, breaks into an apartment. To their surprise, they find a full working dungeon and a vast assortment of bizarre leather equipment. The mistress (maîtresse) of the house soon discovers them. She takes Depardieu in hand and introduces him to the ways of sexual dominance. The result is a love story that departs far from the ordinary. Unfortunately, La Maîtresse did not become generally available on video tape. It is now seen in this country only occasionally at film festivals and art houses.

Aside from those three features, American moviegoers had only sporadic peeks at kink prior to the Eighties. In Klute (1971), a twisted and pathetic sadist tries to kill a New York call girl, played by Jane Fonda. Any bondage during the story is off-screen and enters the plot only through dialogue. There was The Nightcomers (Great Britain 1971), an odd prequel of the Henry James ghost story "The Turn of the Screw." The movie itself is lackluster, except for a few racy bedroom scenes in which Stephanie Beacham is hogtied by Marlon Brando. At the end of the Seventies, a brooding Hardcore (1979) displayed S/M as an evil, freakish sideshow to Americana, as George C. Scott hunts for his missing daughter along a trail of porno films from Los Angeles to San Francisco.


Then came the Eighties. In contrast to the trickle that had gone before, American and Canadian film makers in the Eighties began to explore kinky sex with some regularity. Sadomasochism, bondage, or domination were the centerpieces of ten movies. Voyeurism was the key element in another. A semi-documentary about strippers featured discussions of S/M in some of its interviews. The biggest surprise was a movie (Dangerous Liaisons) that was not intended as an exploration of kink, but which gave a revealing portrait of the psychological side of dominance. (Dangerous Liaisons is about two tops vying for position). Call these the blockbusters of the kinky scene.

But first the honorable mentions. Traces of kink in the movies of the Eighties, usually inserted for sexploitation or for humor, were:

the flogging of Ming's daughter in Flash Gordon (1980);

the woman who asks Chevy Chase to tie her up with his neckties in Caddyshack (1980);

the bondage and suspension of Dabney Coleman by his three secretaries in 9 to 5 (1980);

the woman next door who wants to take down John Belushi's pants and give him a spanking in Neighbors (1981);

the bullwhip fight between two women in Wicked Lady (1983);

the invasion of earth by aliens who want to obtain the euphoria-inducing substance produced during Earthling's orgasms in Liquid Sky (1983);

Princess Leia chained to Jabba the Hutt's pedestal in Return of the Jedi (1983);

Lauren Hutton as the German envoy who gleefully appreciates men who can handle pain in Lassiter (1984);

Linda Fiorentino tied hand and foot by her boyfriend in After Hours (1985);

the electric-shock discipline room in the first segment of Cat's Eye (1985);

the closet full of whips and leather goods in the sci-fi horror film From Beyond (1986);

plasmatic Wendy O. Williams and her fellow inmates branding an "O" on the new girl's rear end in Reform School Girls (1986);

yuppie Jeff Daniels handcuffed to the bed by a quirky Melanie Griffith in Something Wild (1986);

baseball pitcher Tim Robbins tied to the bed by Susan Sarandon and forced to listen to poetry in Bull Durham (1988);

Genevieve Bujold tied to the foot of the bed with surgical tubing and clamps by her doctor- lover in Dead Ringers (1988);

and the funhouse hotel of sexually bizarre rooms of Heart of Midnight (1989).

An oddball special mention goes to Off-Limits (1988), in which military policemen Gregory Hines and Willem Dafoe uncover the S/M proclivities of Scott Glenn, an American colonel in the Viet Nam war. Glenn responds to the threat of being outted by jumping from a helicopter without a parachute. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

And another oddball mention goes to House of Games (1987), in which psychiatrist Lindsay Crouse shoots suave Joe Mantegna, the confidence man who stole her heart and all of her life savings. Slumped in a corner, he glares up at her and says in a sneering parody of smart-assed masochism: "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" Naturally, she obliges him.

Among foreign films in the Eighties, the nod for best kink goes to the shiny fetish costumes of Woman in Flames (West Germany, 1984) and the French sadomasochistic comic-book adventures of The Perils of Gwendoline (France, 1985).

Now for the main features, for better or worse. Sometimes worse:

The Eighties opened with Cruising (1980), in which Al Pacino plays a New York cop who goes undercover in the gay leather scene to catch a twisted serial killer. Let's face it, this is the Reefer Madness of S/M films, a laughable story of a vanilla person who gets a brief whiff of S/M and is immediately overcome and drawn to it like a moth to a flame. (Hint: There is no suggestion that Pacino's character had the chromosome for either homosexuality or S/M). The film was a flop largely because it waded around in the shallow end of the pool rather than diving into the subject. The story lacked the depth necessary to support the theme of Pacino's sexual identity crisis.

If Hollywood were going to treat kink as a domain of the lunatic fringe, then sooner or later we would expect movies with those two most convincing of demented psychopaths: Bruce Dern and James Woods. Sooner, as it turned out. In 1981 Dern pursued, imprisoned, bound, and tattooed Maud Adams over her entire body in Tattoo. As an expression of kinkiness and fetish in sex, the movie is unsatisfying. It paints a sensationalized picture of dominance without consensual submission.

But 1983's Videodrome, a Canadian film starring James Woods, does a better job. Woods is a cable television manager who programs softcore trash on his station. One day he comes across a satellite transmission of hardcore S/M being broadcast from Malaysia. He is intrigued and makes a tape of it, which he shows to girlfriend Debbie Harry. She purrs: "Wanna try a few things?" And he does. As the story progresses, Woods is enwrapped deeper and deeper in thoughts of S/M. Only one teensy little problem. The tape emits an experimental signal that causes hallucinations. Woods descends slowly into madness and demonia, pausing along the way for a deliciously lurid dungeon scene in which a television asks to be whipped: "C'mon, lover, let's perform. Let's open those neural floodgates." And he obliges.

Three movies in 1984 covered a range of kinks. Voyeurism was the linchpin of Body Double, based loosely on Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with a sexual twist. There's also a hint of panty sniffing when Craig Wasson grabs Deborah Shelton's discarded underwear from a trash barrel. Wasson, it seems, is house sitting in the Hollywood hills. Using a telescope, he spies on a woman (Shelton) who lives nearby. She (or a body double) tantalizes him by doing a masturbatory dance every night, until one evening he witnesses her murder. And that's just the first half of the story. By a quirk of fate, he discovers that the woman doing the nightly dance was merely disguised as the one who was murdered. He goes underground in the L.A. porno film industry to find her.

In Tightrope, Clint Eastwood is a cop pursuing a serial killer through a stretch of mud wrestling pits and kinky sex parlors in New Orleans. The twist comes when Eastwood realizes the killer is actually choosing victims by following him around the city. The movie's title is drawn from a comment by the police psychologist, who says that everyone has a dark side - "some have it under control, some are overcome by it, and some walk a tightrope in between." Genevieve Bujold is Eastwood's love interest, and the story includes a scene where she holds out her wrists to be handcuffed.

In Crimes of Passion, Kathleen Turner runs the sexual gamut as woman who works in an office by day and as a prostitute by night. In a key S/M sequence, she has a policeman handcuffed to her bed. She jams his rectum with his nightstick while she works the front of him with her body. In another scene, she dresses as the Statue of Liberty for a client who wants to grovel and worship at her feet. Anthony Perkins, another of Hollywood's great crazies, is a perverted street preacher who craves Turner and hangs out at peep shows. The story draws to a climax when he locates Turner's apartment and shows up there for the inevitable menacing confrontation.

If there were a pivotal year in the Eighties, it had to be 1986. That was the year 9 ½ Weeks was released. It was also the year of Blue Velvet. To say the two pictures were different in their attitude and approach would be like comparing silk-scarf bondage with piercing.

The controversy surrounding the sex scenes that were cut from 9½ Weeks was juicier than the film itself. The movie is tame as far as S/M goes and barely resembles the book. What makes it significant is its depiction of dominance and submission as a seductive magnet that draws a couple into romance. Mark it as the first American film to view kink as passionate rather than villainous. Kim Basinger is an art gallery employee who meets and falls for Mickey Rourke, a Wall Street exec. One thing leads to another, and they embark on a torrid affair revolving around sadomasochistic games and role playing, until she eventually leaves. The plot is fairly standard. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. But it has solid audience appeal.

On the other hand, Blue Velvet was an unexpected cult hit. The film uses S/M to paint a malignant underworld of sexual deformity, hidden in the white-bread heart of small town America. This is a disturbing movie that misrepresents S/M as non-consensual, violent, and repulsive. Still, to give credit where due, the story is propelled by Dennis Hopper's brilliant performance as a maniacal sadist who inhales helium (or nitrous oxide) while he tyrannizes Isabella Rossellini. There is a sense of satire as the movie contrasts the "House Beautiful" mediocrity of the town with the gargoyle dance of Hopper's seamy abyss.

The year 1986 also brought out a little gem called Stripper. This semi-documentary follows five dancers as they prepare to compete at a strippers' convention in Las Vegas. One of them, Danielle, chooses a dance using black leather fittings, chrome studs, and a cat-o-nine-tails. Her interviews on-camera are guileless and almost wide-eyed as she explains that S/M is a natural a part of her life, just as natural as hiking and other activities. The main characters come across as sympathetic, and the film itself deserves particular credit for handling its subject matter without exploitation.

By 1988, kink in the movies took a turn for the quirk. In the erotic thriller Call Me, Patricia Charbonneau gets an obscene phone call commanding her to take off her panties and go down to the neighborhood bar. Believing the caller is her boyfriend, she complies. As circumstance has it, she witnesses a botched dope deal and the murder of a transvestite in the women's bathroom. The plot escalates as the killers try to track her down. Meanwhile, she gets more obscene calls, which become progressively more dominant and explicit. The telephone domination in Call Me is dragged down, however, by the fact that this is really a film about stalking. At least we get the satisfaction of seeing Charbonneau catch the stalker in the end.

Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm, released the same year, is a surreal, over-the-top tale of four people who stumble across a pre-Druidic reptile cult. Amanda Donahoe steals the show as Lady Sylvia, the vampy dominatrix-priestess who ensnares innocent young men and later puts on an enormous, pointed dildo as the weapon with which she intends to sacrifice a sexy virgin to the snake god.

The decade was capped in 1988-89 by an extraordinary movie that seemingly has nothing to do with kink. The key word is seemingly. In reality, Dangerous Liaisons is a sizzling portrait of the psychological side of sexual domination, as two tops vie for position in pre-Revolution aristocratic France. This ribald classic is taut, subtle, and suggestive - and must viewing for understanding the attitudes of sexual power in the Scene.


The Nineties opened with an ugly toadstool of a film called The Comfort of Strangers (1991). A young British couple, played by Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson, are on holiday in Venice. They are lured into a relationship with another couple, Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren, who have dark undertones. The advertising for the film created the impression that the Brits are being led into S/M, but in reality Walken only cuts Everett's throat in front of the two women. In short, this is nothing more than a snuff movie with production values.

The next year brought us the suspense thriller Basic Instinct (1992), in which Sharon Stone plays a brilliant but twisted killer. In the famous opening scene, she is having sex with a man and uses bondage to secure him to the bed before stabbing him with an ice pick. Basic Instinct isn't a story about S/M. It's about using the victim's proclivity for kink to lure him to his death.

Body of Evidence, another 1992 kink movie, starred Madonna. In this incredibly lame crime story, she uses sex as the murder weapon, driving the victim to a heart attack. The somewhat interesting waxing and other kinky scenes don't make up for inane plot.

The year also saw Whispers in the Dark, a thriller with Annabella Sciorra, Jamey Sheridan, Jill Clayburgh, and Alan Alda. A woman psychiatrist, played by Sciorra, counsels two patients. One is an ex-con with a violent streak who has become an artist and is now the darling of the chic New York art-gallery crowd. The other patient is a woman who tells of her kinky sexual experiences with a dominant mystery man. Things get twisted when Sciorra discovers her new lover is the mystery man. Along the way, she also gets hogtied by the ex- con. Except for the bondage scenes as-told-by the woman patient and a shock-value finale in which Alda reveals himself as a villain, this movie is mostly unmemorable.

In Paris, France (Canadian, 1994), Leslie Hope plays a frustrated writer who imagines that her sexual passion, masochistic fantasies, and spiffy dominatrix clothing will unleash her creativity. The film has some interesting scenes with bondage and hot wax, but mostly the lead character's sexuality is just frenzied.

Exit to Eden (1994) was so pathetic, I refuse to review it ... except to say that Hollywood completely copped out. The Anne Rice novel on which the movie was based was about an exotic island resort catering to S/M aficionados. During the filming, the studio became scared of the subject matter and decided to camp-up the project by reframing it as an asinine comedy in which an undercover detective romances a hardcore dominatrix from the island's professional staff into a simpy vanilla lover ... a princess wannabe with no more substance than a melting stick of butter. I have nothing but contempt for the cowardice of Exit to Eden's makers.

For one brief scene, Starship Troopers (1997) shows us an infantry trainee being disciplined with a singletail whip. In this satire on fascism, a cast of unknowns goes to war against giant insects on alien planets. If you're looking for kink, stay away.

Pulp Fiction (1994) had a now-famous scene in which one of the characters, known as "the Gimp," is dressed from head to toe in black leather S/M gear, including a full hood. Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames are taken at gunpoint to a basement, where their captors intend to rape and kill them. The scene is repugnant because of its demonization of S/M fetishists as rapists.

So at this point, you should be asking yourself where the promise of the Eighties went. There was a brief glimmer of real kink in the movies, only to descend back into a vacillation between piffle and exploitation. The answer is that S/M moved into the music videos shown on MTV.

The Nineties finished off with a violent thriller starring Nicholas Cage, called 8mm (1999). Cage is a private detective who is hired by a rich widow who has found a snuff film, in which a teenage girl is butchered on screen, among her husband's personal effects. Cage tries to reassure the widow that snuff films are an "urban myth," that the scenes are done with makeup and special effects, but she wants him to track down the girl and prove that she wasn't killed. Through blind persistence, a little trickery, and more than a dash of luck, he establishes her identity and follows her trail to Los Angeles, where he sloshes through the grungy cellars and dark back rooms of underground pornographers, looking for clues. He eventually uncovers a bicoastal group of S/M film makers who gave the girl the slaughterhouse treatment as custom-order footage for the now-deceased rich guy. On the whole, the film is effective. But once again, it's portrayal of S/M fetishists as killers was deplorable.

Should we be surprised by Hollywood's treatment of kink? Not when one thinks of how the movie industry has handled the issue of homosexuality for decades, playing the subject broadly for laughs or projecting clichés and stereotypes onto the screen. Hollywood, for all its fascination with sex as way of titillating audiences, has great difficulty dealing with sex in a mature way. --william for http://www.uncommon-ground.org/movies.htm

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