Tom Jolliffe on Fifty Shades vs the Mid-90s Erotic TV movie…
Before you wonder, no Asylum haven’t announced their next monster mashup film. In case you were living under a rock in the past five years, a pop-cultural phenomenon called Fifty Shades of Grey stood to attention (eh thank you). A piece of internet fan fiction suddenly rode the crest of a wave, spawned a book release (plus subsequent follow ups) and then ultimately the Hollywood film treatment. To call the books artistic would be wide of the mark. They’re horribly written, trashy, and the sort of Waterstone’s bargain bin material that only the most bored housewife would have read 20 years ago, but somehow post millennium is an absolute must-read. For many it can be read as a comedy. It oozes cheese. It’s the most hokey hokum you can imagine.
That brings us to the films. The first was truly woeful as a piece of film-making. Wooden acting, groan-worthy dialogue, under this façade of apparent lavishness and elegance that actually looked and felt cheap. People compared the film to Basic Instinct, and others of that ball park. That’s wide of the mark for me. Basic Instinct is a trash movie certainly. However it really knows it. Paul Verhoeven, an absolute master of the excessive, exploitation flick. However among the sub-par erotic novel structure, the film was almost gleeful in what it wanted to achieve, with everything from the excessive violence, demeaning the male species as slathering fuck hounds, and the infamous leg crossing scene to pull in the punters following the inevitable controversy. With all that though, it was beautifully shot with more than a passing nod to classic noir cinema, and a fantastic score from Jerry Goldsmith (which was nominated for an Oscar). Add to that a fiercely intense performance from Sharon Stone which turned her into a star. Basic Instinct may revel in its trash but at its heart, it’s good film-making.
No, Fifty Shades of Grey, albeit blessed with a talented leading cast, put them in the unenviable position of having to do little more than pout, look wistful and spout horrendously vapid dialogue. To me it doesn’t evoke Basic Instinct, or Fatal Attraction. For me it brought to mind those late night erotic thrillers, made for TV, that would populate the wee hours during the early days of Channel 5 (in the UK). Films with titles like Body Chemistry (quite obviously so brilliant, that it spawned three sequels), or Indecent Behaviour, or TV serials like The Red Shoe Diaries (which starred David Duchovny before The X-Files gave him something better to do).
When Channel 5 launched in the UK, it was a gateway for the adolescent male (or indeed bored middle aged man) to watch a skin flick at his leisure while the rest of the house slept. Before that the young lads best hope would be catching a three breasted alien in the Arnie film they were allowed to watch, or getting a friend’s older sibling to rent a dirty flick from the nearest video store. Sometimes you’d browse through the countless VHS’s. Front and back covers. Then one day, you’re 14 and you discover the erotic thriller section and you then also find out that VHS distribution companies occasionally threw caution to the wind and had actual topless shots on the back cover screenshots. That’s what you call Video Store bingo ladies and gentleman. It was easy pickings, whereas the other great hope for skin at that age would be discovering a discarded copy of Razzle in a piss ridden alleyway bush. To anyone over 18 it’s trash (that should only ever be picked up with tongs and incinerated immediately). To a 14 year old boy, it’s akin to Indiana Jones uncovering the Ark of Covenant.
So you’re there, in the comfort of your home. The brand spanking new fifth terrestrial channel (for the folk who weren’t able to have a satellite dish, and those lucky folk had probably gone blind due to the limitless availability of bare knockers) opened up a portal that no sock would escape unscathed. It introduced myself and friends to actresses like Shannon Tweed, Joan Severance, Shannon Whirry, and occasionally something almost high end like Body of Evidence starring Madonna. These films took themselves seriously, were ridiculous, terrible in almost every department but certainly tapped into an audience. A sort of seedy, hairy handed, frustratedly horny audience. These are the levels of quality that Fifty Shades adheres to.
Is that a bad thing? Hell no. There’s a market there. However it’s a more open and accepting market now. In the space of 20 years it’s become far more socially acceptable, even normal, for women to be open about sexual fantasies, or just for simple titillation. Most large towns seem to have an Ann Summers store (erm…not that I’ve noticed). It’s not merely confined to house parties full of ladies cackling at the sight of rubber dicks or crotchless panties. It’s right there next to Starbucks now. This kind of literature is more popular than ever and it’s openly discussed. It’s book club material.
We’ve come a long way from the days of Russ Meyer, who with tongue in cheek and a winsome grin would deliver ridiculous exploitation films like Faster, Pussycat Kill Kill, or Supervixens. To get away with making these films, without being caught up too heavily in the battle to push porn back into the back-streets following Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas and just after the relaxation of the Hays Code, people like Meyer would make these films intentionally, and comically trashy in order to get away with releasing a film so laden with female flesh (and even then he didn’t always get away with it initially).
The 80’s video boom opened up new audiences, and with every passing year and all these new channels exploding everywhere, there were gaps in the market to fill. Porn was back behind the velvet curtain. There was a space to be filled in the home video and TV market. Video tit flicks sprouted from everywhere. Cannon studios were particularly prolific at releasing these (as well as horror, action and sci-fi). As cable and satellite boomed in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a market to release erotic thrillers straight to TV. When Basic Instinct hit, it hit hard. Instant pop culture. Everyone heard of it, everyone had to see it, whether that was in theatres, but even more so on video. It launched a slew of counterfeit films, and none more so than in the TV première market. Tweed, Severance et al became titillation specialists. Ex models, playmates and more were being lined up to headline these films.
Still, this was consigned to a select audience and far from mainstream. It was a dirty, crusty tissued secret. This is before you consider further the darker subjects of Fifty Shades. Not only was this a new found level of anticipation and financial success for erotic cinema in its base form, it also brought bondage and SM out of the underground. Hell it bypassed the velvet curtain and the back allies and thundered into living room conversation. Once unspoken, it’s not as simple as a smacked ass, the film delves into darker territory. Nothing quite like an unfortunate google search might dredge up, but still rather spicy. Granted the translation from book to film is somewhat watered down and not all that extreme, but the point still stands. Fifty Shades caused sales of beginners bondage gear to sky-rocket, as well as certain google search terms.
With the rise in social media, and the fall in filters, both online, in person and our own filters, everything is talked about now. Everything is shared. Search engines remember all our history, but we share more than ever now. Discussing bondage openly is nothing. It has become prime-time discourse material. It’s chat show fodder. Granted on the most tame end of the spectrum, but even just 10 years ago it was discussed only in the basest corner of the internet. This is why a film which on every technical aspect of film-making from the writing, direction, editing, to the photography and acting, is no better or worse than an atypical Shannon Tweed boobtacular. However now this is all open territory. It’s not taboo. Very little these days is taboo. This is why a film that 20 years ago would have gone straight into a 2AM timeslot on some pisspot TV channel, is now spanking the box-office red raw.
In the 90’s if you were lucky you’d do well enough to spawn a sequel. Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure being a fine, fine example. Now though, Fifty Shades Darker is just about to storm the cinemas in time for Valentines day. It’s been shot for a sum paltry compared to blockbuster cinema, but rather lavish compared to a Tweed special, but these films don’t need big outlays at all. It just needs soft lighting and skin. Now, whether you’re a student, a working mum, a couple, working class, middle class, whoever, you can turn up at the cinema and not feel like “that guy in the disconcertingly large trench coat” who sits at the back of a theatre whilst watching a nudie film. Now it’s a bit of a laugh. It’s now a water cooler piece of popular culture. It’s utter, utter trash with the artistic merit of a Krispy Kreme donut, but it’s easily consumable and it seems people (openly) enjoy it. It also doesn’t have any pretensions about being challenging and artistic, like the glorified (and vastly overrated) exploitation films that are also becoming popular, like Nymphomaniac for example (some interesting themes and vignettes aside, is really no more high brow than a typical tit-flick).
Undoubtedly Fifty Shades Darker will rake it in. If/when I get round to seeing it, it’ll pass through me like a chimichanga but it’ll provide an element of nostalgia. A time when my video player was worn to within an inch of its life and the record, pause and frame by frame buttons on the remote were worn clear…Last week! (I jest…maybe).