Midnight Desires (1976)
Sole reason why real world recognition was withheld from Shaun Costello, when so many of his carnally creative contemporaries such as Gerard Damiano, Chuck Vincent and Alex de Renzy were welcomed to the fold of legitimate cinematic achievement, is that for the longest time none save perhaps the staunchest of sex fiends even realized that his body of work sprang forth from the same fertile, deliciously depraved mind. Active in adult in some capacity or other since the dawn of theatrically screened hardcore, he almost miraculously managed to maintain a low professional profile while wholeheartedly doing the dirty on camera by juggling an array of aliases like "Oscar Tripe" (for Lady on the Couch and Come Fly With Us), "Nicholas Berland" (for The Sensuous Fly Girls) and most frequently "Russ Carlson", uncrowned King of the one day wonder. Affording him the opportunity to pursue an unimpeded public life (including a stint as a professional jockey, if you can buy that !), this schizophrenia simultaneously guarded Costello from spreading himself too thin throughout an era of practically unparalleled productivity engendered in part, as he now freely admits, by his twin addictions to sex and cocaine. Hedging his bets was probably a wise move back in the day the fledgling porn industry was surreptitiously ruled by the Mob and it kept him out of their firing range.
Representing something of a transitional phase between the grimy one day wonders and the glossy big budget extravaganzas from his latterday "Warren Evans" stage (talk about your Renaissance man !), the three movies he made circa 1975 as "Amanda Barton" - cleverly coining a "female" alter ego just when the moneymen were catching on to both possibility and potential of a mixed adult audience - were perhaps the first real opportunity for Shaun to flex his filmmaking muscles since his astonishing 1971 baptism by fire Forced Entry (attributed to "Helmuth Richler"), a Vietnam vet on the rampage flick predominantly shot at his mother's apartment in Forest Hills ! Experimenting with a more evenhanded approach to the erotic, the Barton trio featured female protagonists who were intentional intimate instigators rather than victims, either of patriarchal oppression or simply circumstance. The Passions of Carol provided a witty gender-reversed reading of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and tawdry white slavery saga That Lady From Rio had Vanessa Del Rio in the title role (natch !) taking over dead Madame Blue's prostitution racket from Bill Milling's superior Oriental Blue, to which this was a sequel of sorts. Sandwiched inbetween came Midnight Desires, a slyly sophisticated portmanteau porno the self-deprecating director considers his best overall achievement, and who am I to quibble ?
Applying his usual grab bag approach to scoring, pilfering then recent mainstream soundtracks (which always had me wondering about imminent copyright infringement), Costello all but embraces the opulence that was soon to become his trademark - late genre critic Jim Holliday famously claimed that here was the only director able to "overproduce" an adult film - by overlaying the image of an immaculate white stretch Limo with Richard Rodney Bennett's evocative overture from Sidney Lumet's 1974 Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express. Marking his maiden collaboration with DoP extraordinaire Bill Markle (billed as "David Measles"), who was to become his right hand man for the remainder of the decade, as well as his first foray on 35mm (expanding the edges of the 16mm square and allowing himself room to breathe), Midnight Desires in hindsight perhaps proves the key to the direction, unexpected to say the least, Costello's career would take. Said stretch contains stock market wiz kid vying for vice-presidency John (Eric Edwards) and his upwardly mobile spouse Amy (Jenny Baxter, Maraschino Cherry's cousin Penny from the sticks) on their way for an evening of dinner and drinks with business tycoon Martin Van Nostrand (Jamie Gillis), trophy wife Elaine (C.J. Laing) on the side. No sooner have they entered the mansion (which doubled as the home of '30s screen diva "Veronica Barrett" as indelibly portrayed by the magnificent Marlene Willoughby in Shaun's subsequent Pandora's Mirror) when the Van Nostrands' loyal butler brings in the evening newspaper carrying the distressing headline that Hitler has just invaded Poland ! Distressing since this is a contemporary rather than costume flick so Martin's clearly off his rocker and Elaine appears all too keen to feed his delusion. To take his mind off the dire situation in Europe, she devises a party game where each of the participants will detail their deepest, darkest sex fantasy and we're off to the races...
Grande Dame of whipping girls, whose singleminded devotion to submission virtually borders on integrity, C.J.'s up first. Craving punishment (now there's a surprise !), not so much for anything in particular rather than everything she has done in life so far, Elaine imagines herself shackled in a blindingly white cell until "liberated" by three faceless hooded monks - who remain tantalizingly unidentified in the credits, though clearly headed by Gillis - straight out of the Marquis de Sade. Urged on by her increasingly explicit demands, they proceed to take advantage of her in ever more demeaning ways, a surface notion rightfully turned on its head by her captive audience correctly surmising that Elaine was indeed running the show, ordering the anonymous stud meat to do her bidding. Suppressed same sex longings are subsequently read into Eric's fantasy about taking pretty cult favorite Hope Stockton (memorably featured in Bill Milling's Virgin Snow and Temptations as well as Joe Sarno's Slippery When Wet) to an accomodating lady of the night (frizzy-haired Bree Anthony, Milling's muse in both Oriental Blue and When a Woman Calls) for "a homosexual experience without the presence of another man" as Martin so eloquently describes. The spectacle of both lovers eagerly sucking the strap-on protruding from the prostitute's male drag provides a transgressive tableau even for the anything goes '70s, taken one step further when Bree introduces "her" sizable schlong up Eric's (presumably substituted) rectum while he continues to plow his girlfriend who's similarly turned on by the outrageous situation !
Contrary to his jaded seen it all demeanor, Martin turns out to be something of a little boy lost at heart, nursing regret at his inability to fulfil his greatest dream of becoming a prize fighter, which his mother did not approve of. Unsurprisingly then, the assembly suspect deep filial resentment mixed with conflicting incestuous desire (whew!) when "Kid Kelly" takes out his frustration on the moll of his crooked manager asking him to take a fall because he has betted against him. Rallying fellow fighters Ashley Moore and Mel White (a/k/a "Mark Anthony", a real life S&M Master cast as such in Howard Ziehm's exceptional Honeypie) to join his aimless attack, along with an unwilling Alan Marlow (the callous Lothario returned to earth as a woman in Roberta Findlay's supremely witty Angel #9), the ominously nicknamed "Kid" furiously drags her into the locker room, hellbent on retaliation. Kudos to Costello for casting - dare I say, maternally - bountiful Vanessa Del Rio as the gumchewing, dead-eyed Lola whose larger than life sexuality both heals and galvanizes those who seek to victimize her. Aggression melts into passionate pleasure as these jocks are unwittingly divested of their crippling anger by Lola's blank screen acceptance of the assault, an unnerving reflection of intolerable enforced intimacy glossed over by (a mother's) loving forgiveness. Resorting to Freudian alibi while simultaneously taking the mickey (spoofing adult's early days quest for "socially redeeming value" much the same way Radley Metzger did in The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann), Shaun cheerfully shatters any and all subtly set up psychological intricacies by having Martin laughingly dubbed a "motherfucker" by his rapt audience, which could just as easily be interpreted as their letting off steam as involuntary witnesses or even a benign response on their part that lets Martin - ringleader in terms of power and pecking order - off the hook for another albeit imagined transgression.
Flaunting the "ugly" hang-ups discoloring her companions' musings, Amy counters their to some degree disturbing obsessions with a lighthearted Mills & Boon wrap-up, its triumph among the quartet - because she's simply having fun while the others were too preoccupied processing deepseated demons of the mind - predictably restoring the sex industry's surface status quo propagating carefree pleasure over confronting self-doubt and inadequacy. A rough draft for the Tiffany Clark Civil War sequence in Pandora (extending to the choice of music : Irish traditionals pillaged from the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon), this sweet little scene sees the ever enthusiastic Jenny portraying a proper English maiden (with matching hysterically overwrought accent) in an unspecified yet "romantic" past, first frightened then tempted by a trio of highwaymen. Amorously aided by a nearby inn's pliant
serving wench (pleasingly plump Linda Lovemore, best remembered as the girl in the opening scene of Metzger's Pamela Mann), Amy loosens her corset along with her morals for the lascivious likes of Roger Caine (credited as "Ray Jeffries"), Linda's real life husband Leo Lovemore (a/k/a "David Joseph", driver of Costello's Love Bus) and, almost unrecognizably, the director himself, casually breaching Baxter's backdoor, a witty subtextual wink, breaking down the "fourth wall" between film and audience, a weirdly appropriate coda given the narrative's confessional nature.
Directed and written by Shaun Costello (as Amanda Barton). Produced by Costello (uncredited) for Ambar Productions. Photographed by Bill Markle (as David Measles). Edited by Costello (as Josepi Masolini). Starring Jamie Gillis (Martin Van Nostrand/Kid Kelly), C.J. Laing (Elaine), Jenny Baxter (as Karen Regis) (Amy), Eric Edwards (John), Linda Lovemore (Bess), Vanessa Del Rio (Lola), Bree Anthony (Prostitute), Hope Stockton (as Ellen Burden) (John's Fantasy Girl), Roger Caine (as Ray Jeffries) (Highwayman), Leo Lovemore (Highwayman), Shaun Costello (as Russ Carlson) (Highwayman/Limo Driver), Ashley Moore (Boxer), Mel White (Black Boxer), Alan Marlow (Boxer), Leonard Cooper (Faraday), Arturo Millhouse (Coach Murray) and Craig Esposito (Butler). Running time : 73 minutes.