Tuesday, April 21, 2009

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) d. John Peyser

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The plight of women in motion pictures has long been a complex and very rocky ride. During the early years of the Silver Screen, actresses often played roles that reflected the socially stultifying climate of the times and helpless Scream Queens like Faye Wray dominated the cinematic landscape. As the middle part of the 20th Century dawned, the so-called New Women birthed in the generation after the Suffrage Movement tended to be somewhat pluckier and a little bit more uninhibited, but women still tended to play very idealized parts and were icons of male fantasy, reaching that height of excess in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s, the portrayal of female characters by young actresses became truly complex. On one hand, mainstream film began depicting women in a somewhat more realistic and less chauvinistic manner as the Women’s Movement began to gain momentum. At the same time, exploitation cinema reached the apex of its gaudy pinnacle during that same era, putting young, attractive “actresses” and starlets into some of the most sexist roles ever penned by sleazy skin merchants and the pioneers of softcore entertainment. To be an actress in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s meant you were going to appear nude on screen, there would likely be at least one sex scene in addition to the obligatory “shower” scene or clip where disrobing was necessary. If you were appearing in a genre film, there was also a high probability that young actresses would be appearing unclad amidst scenes of violence, gore, depravity or some other cinematic instance of titillation designed to put men into movie theater seats. From 1965 to the dawn of the Video Age around 1980, scads of naked girls engaging all manner of wayward behavior could be seen in movie houses where exploitation fare was run. This incredibly bizarre dichotomy of mainstream film uplifting the station of women even as B-movies were objectifying women more aggressively than ever is one of the most fascinating components of the modern era of Motion Picture History, and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is one of the best examples of seedy, skintastic, scurrilous and sensually scandalous movie-making from those long lost days.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is the three-part story of a small group of beautiful young women from all walks of life who have posed nude in a men’s magazine called Bachelor and are now receiving unwanted and frightening attention from a sexually frustrated and demented serial killer named Clement Dunne, played by Andrew Prine. Dark, dorky and driven, Mr. Dunne hunts down these lovely ladies in a series of vignettes stitched together by the killer’s overarching lust to “help” these young ladies out of their state of fallen grace and into everlasting peace through the use of a lethally sharp straight razor. Jackie (Jamie Lyn Bauer), Charly (Jennifer Ashley) and Vera (Tiffany Bolling) must evade Clement’s foul interest if they are to stay in one piece and not end up sliced to ribbons.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was one of the guiltier pleasures of many exploitation film enthusiasts back in the days when all kinds of wicked flicks made their way to the corner video store and were readily available. The problem was that the joy was moderated by the knowledge of the cost at which it had been purchased, an exceedingly low quality visual experience due to poor film transfers onto muddy-looking video tape. While the story and the content of movies like THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was enticing and those flicks delivered the goods, the multitudinous moments of cinematic confusion due to the dark and washed out appearance of the vast majority of sequences made many a viewing a mixed bag, and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was once no exception. That is no longer the case thanks to Dark Sky Films. While their restoration of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is not the near miracle of their other recent release, THE SHE-BEAST, the improvement of the video elements of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is a measurable step upwards and for that we should be thankful. The colors are clearly brighter and sharper and that is of great benefit when one considers how stylishly shot and set THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was for being a low-budget effort. All of the images are crisper and lighter, allowing the knowledgeable viewer to bask in the salacious grandeur of this film. However, there are still problems with the visual aspects of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS. There is a graininess to the imagery and an aura that feels as if a soft-focus filter had been utilized throughout much of the first half of the picture. The opening credits and initial frames evidence some print damage and the hues are not as blazing as some restorations I have seen. Whether this is due to the restorers not being able to go back to the negative as a source, the source print having some damage or maybe THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was shot using some inferior technology and materials, is not entirely clear. What is evident is that THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS looks better than it once did, it sounds good and is a strong step up from its former days of faded glory.

The improved condition of the visual elements of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS allows the exploitation connoisseur to revel in a seemingly incompatible split-personality in this motion picture. On the one hand, from the opening frames until almost the closing credits, THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is filled to the brim with beautiful, naked young actresses in all manner of disrobed splendor. Whether you are looking for trim and athletic, curvaceous and comely or angular and austere, the fabulous figures of the female cast are fleshed out in miles of coppery-toned swaths of skin. In the case of Jamie Lyn Bauer’s character Jackie, she spends a series of scenes pulling her clothes off and then putting them back on as if the director kept saying out loud, “thank you, that was an excellent take” and then the devil sitting on his shoulder whispered “make her do it again and keep that damn camera rolling every second you sackless weenie!” Back Miss Bauer went for another nude scene and it is the viewer who won that exchange hands down. At the same time that we are treated to scads of scantily-clad sex objects, there is a surprisingly impressive pair of visual strengths to THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS that one might not expect seeing that it is an American exploitation film. European sex-epochs like THE SISTER OF URSULA were well-known for their brazen mix of sin and style, but THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is nearly able to match the glorious beauty of some of its European cousins. Shot in and around the coast and islands of southern and central California, the exterior settings and the colors of earth, surf and sky are quite impressive and only matched by the modish and seductive beauty of the interior scenery that was so very typical of the free and easy lifestyle of 1970s coastal California. Using compelling camera angles and lighting techniques, the cinematography is competent and even occasionally impressive. There is even more. When added to the sexy, chic and creative fashions that dominated the costume choices for THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, there is a lot to please the eye beyond the lascivious loveliness of the starlets of this film.

It is hard to imagine that THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS would also work on an intellectual or artistic level, but it does. The tripartite story line held together by Andrew Prine’s character and dark and dastardly performance is both novel in its conception and effective in its execution. By moving from the tale of one girl to the next and shifting setting ever so slightly, a brisk pace is maintained and what could have been a tedious and repetitive slasher film narrative structure was avoided. Liberally mixed with the general account of a sadistic murderer stalking delicious young lovelies are dollops of the “now generation” and their excesses of drinking, sex and the swinging lifestyle so very filled with paltry pleasure, obnoxious ostentation and cynical self-indulgence. What emerges is a startling abstract painting of why the early and mid-70s was, like cotton candy, a lot of fun to experience briefly but a fairly vacuous delight that brought no real benefit and some clearly deleterious after effects. Adding to the depth of this film is a cast of performers that are non-t00-well-known to most young people today, but for those of us who remember the skilled thespians of yesteryear, their presence is one of the many reasons to relish THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS’ dvd release. Andrew Prine steals the show with his somber garb, understated portrayal and yet horrifically threatening and disturbingly efficient dispatch of the sinful sluts he wishes he could despoil. Only a few ticks down on the deplorable meter is the character played by the venerable Aldo Ray, a sneering and ogling Neanderthal wrapped in an all-American father gauze that makes him even more miserably misogynistic. Francine York and Ray Danton give excellent supporting performances as the warring couple whose wealth and influence have lead them to heights of success and are in the path of a slayer who would just as soon send them to oblivion for their calculating and corrupt misuse of their positions. There aren’t a lot of exploitation films worth watching where you can say that an extensive and impressive cast of experienced actors were brought together to create a motion picture that is lurid as well as likable in a manner most people would never dare admit.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS has a moderately sized bonus features menu that has some unexpected splendors waiting to be unearthed. In lieu of an audio commentary, there is a 15 minute mini-documentary called “Making the Cut” which is a retrospective of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS. Including a very short clip with producer Arthur Marks and much more sizable interviews and anecdotes with Andrew Prine, Francine York and Jennifer Ashley, this featurette is thoroughly pleasant for its frank recollections, thoughtfully earnest reminiscences and eclectic blend of film clips, voice-overs and modern footage. It is the brightest jewel in the treasure chest, but the other precious stones are worthy of your attention. There is an exhaustive musical supplement called “Select Music Cues” that is a series of 18 film score tracks, forever documenting the often overlooked strength of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, it hypnotic soundtrack, which is very diverse in style and substance. Finally, there are two trailers (red band and green band), two TV spots and a radio spot, all of which are startlingly different from each other, which was rarely typical when it came to 1970s promotional advertising. Overall, the extras section of THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS was like the makeup on a nude model, you don’t often realize how essential it really is since your eyes are drawn elsewhere, but you are very glad that it was included.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is not the finest release of a sordid classic of yore, nor is it the most impressive, but I am exceptionally glad that it exists. Just as when Dark Sky Films brought out SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES last year, this is a splendid little gem that looks back on a vanished time and THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is a film that is just not being made anymore today. The mix of taboo sleaziness and sophisticated squalor is a guilty pleasure for those of us who watched the hordes of imbeciles who tried to dismember sincerity during the height of political correctness movement of the 1990s. There is nothing diplomatic about THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, neither is it illuminating or uplifting. It is sheer naughtiness for naughtiness sake.


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