Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series: All the Sins of Sodom / Vibrations

| October 9, 2017

It’s been a long time coming, but Joe Sarno is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves. Sarno was an independent filmmaker and contemporary of such “grindhouse” exploitation legends as Doris Wishman, Andy Milligan, and Michael and Roberta Findlay. But Sarno had a much different approach to those filmmakers. Like Russ Meyer, Sarno learned photography and filmmaking in the armed forces. He used his meager resources to maximum effect, using light and shadow to stunning effect, especially in his black and white features. His keen eye led to his being popularly dubbed “The Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” and watching his work from that era it’s not hard to see why. Last year Film Movement Classics released a double feature of Sarno’s Vampire Ecstasy (1973) and Sin You Sinners (1963) on Blu-ray and DVD, and they have followed it up this year with a release including All the Sins of Sodom and Vibrations, both from 1968. These two black and white features are excellent examples of Sarno’s work at its most visually striking.

In All the Sins of Sodom, photographer Henning (Dan Machuen) shoots tasteful erotic images in his studio with a revolving cast of beautiful young models. One of them in particular named Leslie (Maria Lease) serves as Henning’s personal muse and the closest thing he has to a partner. Things are going well until the arrival of Joyce (Sue Akers), a seemingly innocent young woman who Henning offers a place to crash for a while. Joyce’s presence soon starts to interfere with Henning and Leslie’s relationship, and Joyce has no compunction about seducing the other models who come to the apartment either. The “evil” energy she has in front of the camera becomes an obsession for Henning, who sees in Joyce the ultimate expression of his vision. But how much will he have to sacrifice for that vision?

Vibrations stars Maria Lease as Barbara, a young woman living in a small New York apartment and working as a typist for hire. Her landlady Edna (Peggy Steffans, who later married Sarno) informs Barbara that the apartment next door to hers is a storage for Georgia (Rita Bennett) where she keeps things “her daddy” left her. Georgia comes and goes at odd hours, so Edna is curious but insists it’s none of her business. The audience learns early on that Georgia uses the storage room for sexual adventures, sometimes solo (with an original “Swedish massager”) and sometimes with companions. When Barbara’s sister Julia (Marianne Prevost) arrives to crash at her apartment, Barbara is immediately set on edge. Julia is sexually forthright, and the two clearly have an uneasy relationship. Julia visits Georgia and soon Barbara is tortured by the sounds of lust and ecstasy coming through the wall night after night. Will she succumb to her base desires, or can she escape the strange hold her sister has over her?

Both of these films were made around the same time and use the same sets and some of the same cast members. While the films do have a similar look–both were shot by Steve Silverman, a frequent Sarno collaborator–it is to their credit that they don’t necessarily feel like they were shot in the same place. Sarno was a proponent of using dark backdrops that could place the location of scenes anywhere. He also placed actors close to the camera and each other, where he could use visual space to suggest intimacy or claustrophobia (the latter put to excellent use in his 1966 occult feature Red Roses of Passion, recently released on a gorgeous Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome). Sarno also wrote all his own scripts, often concerned with the relationships between women and including frequent themes of guilt and shame. It’s a rare thing for a Sarno film to end happily, and his thoughtful, artful approach to sexploitation cinema set him apart from his contemporaries. This double feature is a great introduction to the work of an important exploitation filmmaker, and anyone looking for a good place to get into Sarno’s imposing oeuvre would do well to start here.

Film Movement released All the Sins of Sodom / Vibrations on Blu-ray and DVD on 26 September 2017. The double feature disc includes an archival interview with Sarno, a commentary on All the Sins of Sodom with Peggy Steffans-Sarno and film historian Michael Bowen, a commentary on Vibrations by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, a second “mini-commentary” on Vibrations by Steffans-Sarno and Paige Davis of Alternative Cinema, and liner notes by Lucas.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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