Sidney Knight – The Debauchers (1972)
Lengthy IMDB Review
Its subject matter being the making of an “experimental movie”, The Debauchers is an experiment itself: taking the tried-and-true (and cheap) Warhol/Morrissey invention of confrontational improvised dialog (SEE: any Ondine performance) and making it work in a nasty, hardcore domination opus. The film was difficult to watch, and frankly distasteful, but a la the in-your-face Italian movies of Alberto Cavallone, worth the effort. Terry Levene distributed the film back in the day, and it is one of his most unusual titles.
Filmmaker Sidney Knight has made several interesting works but I wasn’t prepared for the downright cruelty here. One reason is that I was misled by the AFI Catalog 1961-1970’s inclusion of this title as circa 1970; it was made later, during the hardcore era. Credits are mainly crude pseudonyms, though Knight is listed on-screen.
Plot hook is very cornball -the porno staple of a girl answering an ad for participation in an “experimental movie”, and later ruing her own naiveté. This sort of ploy dates back to the exploitation films of the 1930s, with the girl from a small town answering a “no experience necessary” ad, coming to the big town and falling prey to white slavery/bondage, as in Elmer Clifton’s still watchable “Slaves in Bondage”.
Attractive porn mainstay Tina Russell is the stupido in question, egged on by her leech of a boyfriend Jason Russell, who digs the idea of her earning a fast $250 a day. She arrives at a private mansion, and when she balks at the downright mistreatment by “genius” film director Tom (actor’s identity is a pseudonym, and I’m hoping that it was really Sidney Knight in the role), she is kept prisoner for the duration of filming at gunpoint.
The plot twists here are thoroughly unbelievable, just functioning to keep the porn pot boiling and to amuse both jaded and perverted fans (I would like to plead guilty to the former attribute, please). Tom’s shrink Dr. Clayton gives Tina a phony song & dance to help keep her on board, and later on boyfriend Jason is convinced by Tom to move into the mansion too as an assistant, with obvious ulterior motives. A maid and butler are on hand to join in the sex.
What makes this nonsense interesting is the reliance, Warhol/Morrissey style, on baiting dialog. Anyone who’s ever been to a job interview where the professional tries to get a rise out of you knows the routine, and it is executed here with a nastiness that is breathtaking. As Tom, the guy credited as “Claude Rube” is so mean to Tina that one wishes for Gloria Steinem to barge onto the set and make a citizen’s arrest. As with some of the best Warhol efforts, e.g. “I, A Man”, this baiting goes beyond the character to impinge on the actress and I, for one, felt that Tina was being mightily mistreated here. But that dovetails exactly with the film’s theme -exploiting of would-be actresses, and in a moebius way a self-indictment of the filmmakers themselves- Knight and company are the title Debauchers.
This is rough stuff, segueing to a snuff film final reel with some cruel twists that have to be seen to be believed. Tom’s final line “you gave me just what I wanted” at the film’s open ending is chilling.
Casting is most of the battle in this genre, and Knight is blessed by the unrelenting creepiness of his surrogate on screen, the villain Rube, who is one horrible hothead. Infant terrible doesn’t begin to describe this role, and the Rubemeister does it justice. An uncredited Frank Darlin as the shrink is a slimy old guy who really got on my nerves with his snake-oil talk to Tina. I was frankly shocked when the old buzzard finagled her into giving him a blow job and more later in the film -presumably some old geezers in 1972 got a kick out of this but it is a sight that makes for sore eyes.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Tina while watching this, especially since it mirrors her own career trajectory. Real-life hubby Jason is suitably sleazy and unsympathetic as the money-hungry boyfriend: it’s amazing how many of these male hangers-on we’ve seen in film history from the Ric Lutze & Murrill Maglio types in porn to John Derek as Svengali to the ultimate MILF magnet of yore, Robert Wolders.