Her Private Hell (UK - BD RB)
The Wilson Bros' private hell is watching films starring the cast of Friends...
The world is a big place, especially when you are flying to pastures new to try and make it in the big, bad world. Leaving her native Italy to work for a fashion powerhouse, pretty young Marisa finds her first few days in the UK a waking dream, with love and fame beckoning as her photos are the toast of the industry. With a closely-knit band of financiers and managers around her, what could possibly happen to her to make life so damned Hellish?
British audiences had relied on the outside world for its quota of smut, mainly in the form of art house movies like Cleo de 5 a 7, which could be seen in dingy establishments where clouds of smoke often obscured the screen, either by guys smoking cigarettes or generated through friction from the guys in the dirty macs. The man behind such ingenious importation was the infamous Bachoo Sen, and in order to be the first guy in line to collect the money, he set about producing his own films, and the first rolled out was Her Private Hell.
Arriving in the UK, she is introduced to resident photographer Bernie, who shows her around the house in which the fashion outfit is run, the new girl dazzled by all the mod cons of the master bedroom. She duly test the bed with Bernie, and promptly falls in love with him, but once he starts to show his true colours she gravitates towards Matt, a young shutterbug looking for his big break. With the demands of the shady Margaret and the controlling Neville, total bastard and puppet master to all those beneath him, all angles are being played to keep Marisa in their grasp, with the poor girl suspecting too late the there is more going on than she initially thought.
With Marisa’s standard fashion photos doing so well, Matt utilises the opportunity to take her on a rare trip outside the choking confines of the house, persuades her to pose for a series of glorious nudes as part of his new technique of photography. When his photos turn out to be dynamite, the joy is swiftly interrupted when Bernie calls them "dirty and cheap", before the negatives are confiscated for destruction by Margaret and Neville, owners of the organisation and not happy at the stronger content. Surely there is no way that these risqué pictures could surface somewhere in the world without her knowledge…?
Her Private Hell is a cautionary tale of life in a gilded cage with a only a few characters, each one representing a further step down into the turmoil she in which she finds herself ensnared. Bernie represents lust, the other girls a Greek chorus, Margaret is there as logic, Neville effectively standing in for evil, and Matt being Marisa’s hope of salvation from the trap she it caught in. All work together, with the intentions of the young photographer not entirely clear, to keep the new success making money for their organisation, something they have done numerous times before, and will do to many times after Marisa is yesterday’s news.
With the emerging freedoms of the sixties, the seduction of the bright lights is easily understandable, and Marisa is a girl from the country whom falls hook, line and sinker for this brazen new world. Her seduction from them the outset was twofold, firstly with all the mod cons of an achingly-hip boudoir to crash in, along with the glamorous trappings which come with it. The second phase is that of the physical kind, as Bernie focuses more than just his camera on the newcomer, and the honey trap has snared an insect for their collection. Marisa has certainly been conned by a Mod, and to use a literary reference to illustrate the above point, in A Christmas Carol, Marley tells Scrooge than he forged the heavy chain he wear in limbo "link by link, yard by yard", unwilling to take any action or advice to stop his fate. Marisa‘s drive to be a success in a vicious world forges her own chain, even when the one person who cares about her tries to help. "I don’t want to listen", she snorts, ignoring Matt’s warnings that she is in the midst of a bunch of professional hustlers. She’s chooses to gloss over his warnings, and hardly even lets Matt finish…
Her Private Hell is a good reason to look at the wording of any contract you ever have to sign, as Margaret gets her to sign an exclusivity contract, but word things very carefully to have her sign towards the opposite she just said. "We’re the biggest fashion company in the country, and we can’t afford to have nude pictures of you all over England", she sniffs, but it’s only when Matt’s naked photos of her surface in a foreign magazine that she realises just how deep in their grasp she is, as well how corrupt those around her are. The revelation that her photos are being used for the international sex market is a real kicker, and one which really does change the direction of the movie with that singular event. Exploitation and the fashion industry go together like ham and cheese or bacon and eggs, with the girls used entirely like pieces of meat, and the line that separates them is as thin as the morals of the one clicking the shutter.
There is a sense of futile desperation in the movie, with Marisa a mouse trying to escape the maze she keeps running through, almost unaware of those looking down on her as they plot the next stage in their fiendish experiments. In reality, she is caught in something which has been going on since time immemorial, but with photography this time: it’s the pyramid-scheme of porno, where only those at the top make decent money, with those doing the real work being thoroughly exploited at the bottom. Transfer this concept to prostitution and the concept of pimps, and all becomes clear, but Marisa isn’t willing to take good advice to get out of it all.
From the outset, the reliable Peter Jessop gives us exceptionally fetching and erotic imagery, so beautiful they could have been pulled from the pages of a coffee table book. When Matt photographs Marisa in arousing positions on the bed, the results are truly spectacular, with the same kind of sumptuous nudity seen on the opening credits, as though the female form has been chiselled from marble. As a matter of fact, the first topless shot comes as a real surprise to us, let alone to audiences at the time, so used to being led on by the promise of nudity only to be left frustrated when none surfaces. Warren matches the DP’s work as a director, not wanting to let Jessop’s excellent photography go to waste, injecting verve and pace into the movie to keep it from being just another programmer. Without grandstanding, he employs ingenious and innovative tricks, a prime example being displayed in the opening scene, where a long car trip is both suggested and shortened by use of a couple of edits with different landscapes being seen from through the windscreen, ultimately arriving the final destination.
Warren also ensures that there is plenty going on beneath the surface in Her Private Hell, with one of our favourite examples being a sequence where Marisa is wistfully gazing at a very famous fashion magazine, which to her is the culmination of both her career and her dreams: to the young model, literally being in Vogue is the thing to be. The house is also an interesting thematic concept, as the lavish decoration of the first room she finds herself in gives way to a gritty and unfriendly environment once the post-coital Marisa starts to explore in the cold light of day. One of the key weapons used to control the underlings is that of jealously, carefully concocted between the two photographers to keep both of them on their toes. Once both have bedded Marisa, the differences in photographic styles between them being a metaphor for the question of whom handles their equipment better. Bernie derides the talented Matt’s tasteful nudes, effectively sewing the seeds of distrust between Marisa and the young snapper.
Sure, the story of a girl trying to make it into “the biz” of one description and falling afoul of those out to merely exploit her has been told many times down the decades, but there is something of a freshness to see it done in an entirely British setting, and made in a time where you wouldn’t have expected either such freshness or frankness. Obviously this is despite the BBFC’s best attempts to turn it into a more adult version of a film by the infamous Butchers Distributors, as they were dead-set on taking out all nudity and even the final exchange between two characters, that which secures Her Private Hell a significant place in the annuls of UK cinema.
Marisa seems to be smarter than the average woman whom comes into the grip of the fashion-hustlers. She questions the set-up and what she is getting from the whole experience, which throws off those around her used to having obedient little puppies. She is driven, and has more dimensions than you would normally expect in exploitation, and superbly played by Lucia Modunio (aka Mordugno) whom manages to combine innocence with savvy, as well as being a cracking bird. We had to say it.
The character of Matt - as written - is an interesting one, the male answer to Marisa, just as trapped in the Hellish world as she is, gravitating towards the new inmate as through she is his ticket out. The problem is that the actor playing him - Daniel Ollier - really can’t carry off anything even approaching charisma, and this is crucial requirement when he’s supposed to be one of the few sympathetic characters, and the possible way out of Marisa’s private Hell. It’s a pity that they didn’t use Udo Kier, whom they screen-tested for the role, but chose not to pick - said test footage is included in the extras.
The trinity of evil that is Bernie, Margaret and Neville are all played with rock-solid conviction, with all conveying more than is written. Sure, on paper they look like cookie-cutter baddies, but they really come to life in front of the camera, and we attribute that to a combination of decent actors and a director with a firm grasp on things. There is a sense that even though Neville and Margaret are running the show, they might well be in the thrall of the mafia, given that pornography was still illegal in a great part of the world at the time, so they are just as much prisoners as Marisa.
As though foretelling the attitudes about to crystallize sexual relationships for more than a decade comes Margaret’s cautionary line to the lustful Bernie: “ Love and lust are two different things.” Before the sexual revolution, lust was the driving force behind marriage, as sex without such formalities was still considered “sinful” in a time when religion and stern morality still ruled society. New attitudes allowed for the two feelings to be separated, with fewer traditionally miserable marriages formed as a result.
For a document of the times, there is much in the way of visual satisfaction, with clothes that could only have been worn (or afforded) by the hippest cats in town, as well as some truly mesmerising interior design, which makes you thankful it was filmed in monochrome rather than colour, lest it burn out your retinas. Both elements are gloriously in evidence when we get to the almost obligatory way-out party, with everybody grooving and getting down to wild lights and trippy lighting - you really want to climb into the screen and experience it all for yourself!
There are many movies which claim to be some sort of landmark in the history of adult cinema, and by the end of it, you almost become immune to such boasts. Who hasn‘t flipped open a porn mag and seen a section entitled something along the lines of: "Great moments in porno", where they celebrate the “monumental” moment Johnny Holmes entered Seka from behind? It’s this kind of gratuitous trumpeting which dilutes any genuinely worthy praise. Her Private Hell deserves the kudos given to it, as it was the first time swinging was documented in British cinema, even though it is revealed through a single line, one which the BBFC wanted removed, effectively changing entire themes and relationships throughout the movie.
Released the same year was Mr Mari’s girls, a movie which exploited a theme left unexplored in Her Private Hell, that of the hierarchy among the girls staying at the house, and the resentment to the new flesh which commands the favour of those pulling the strings. Indeed, the look of the film is an interesting fusion of the contemporary French New-Wave and the so-called “roughies” being produced at approximately the same time from people like Dave Friedman, with stark imagery produced in a cost-friendly fashion. The story of an innocent upping sticks and going to pastures new to become famous in a turbulent industry is one which has been told numerous times down the decades, with various degrees of triumph and damnation befalling the naive protagonist as they are blinded by the bright lights, with Arch Hall Sr’s Wild Guitar being a favourite of ours. Thematic elements from Her Private Hell were still being used over a decade later, with Emmanuelle in Soho depicting a gifted skin-mag photographer being told their work is mediocre in order to keep them under the thumb. Sorry for the comparison, Mr Warren…
We have crossed paths with Norman J Warren in the past, being at the Institut Francais during one of the superb Eurofests. Between screenings of the most excellent of genre movies, including Warren’s own Inseminoid, we were at the bar when a particularly pompous French septuagenarian was annoyed with the crowd. In aggrieved fashion, he went to swallow the last of his drink, but missed his mouth and some of it spilled onto his suit. In true Clouseau fashion, he tried to cover up his mistake and continue as though nothing had happened. One of us witness this hilarious incident, and looked across the bar to see that the only other to have seen it was Norman J Warren, and the two of us smirked at each other for noticing such pricking of pomposity. OK, it has nothing to do with Her Private Hell, but it’s a fond memory.
Now that we’ve established that Her Private Hell can lead to heavenly pleasures, you might find yourself asking “how does it hold up in this digital age of ours”? Well, let’s take a look, shall we…?
Whilst the 1.33:1 black and white image is a rather pleasing one, there is much in the way of minor debris and dirt to be found, including numerous splices and occasional tramlines. Such is the rarity of the movie that the archive print held at the BFI was damaged, and Something Weird Video were brought in to patch up the missing frames from their copy, reverting to SD materials whenever such instances occur. We can say with confidence that this is probably the best it will ever look, being a dramatic improvement over the aforementioned edition from SWV. You know that when you stick the disc into your drive and it gives you an authentic sixties vibe, there is something reassuringly authentic about the image before you. The SD option included in the package is very similar, but lacking the fine detail only HD can produce.
There are moments where the 2.0 mono soundtrack suffers from the availability of the materials, with some lines being somewhat muffled, along with low-level crackles and pops which you might rightly expect. There is nothing to really take you out of the movie, and it all adds to the same air of authenticity reflected in the image quality. You can almost imagine yourself sitting some wonderfully grotty cinema in Soho as Her Private Hell unspools before you. Just light up some pipe-tobacco, the combined aromas of bleach and chestnut and you'll have the complete experience.
Theatrical Trailer: This two-minute preview really delivers the goods in exactly the sort of manner that fans of this subgenre expect; plenty of quick cuts, a vaguely plummy-sounding voiceover and the action punctuated by on-screen captions. Even the trailer itself originally suffered at the hands of the BBFC, with some of the softer elements getting the heave-ho, along with the caption "Love and Lust and Deceit Go Hand In Hand", though we are pleased to report that it looks the bits deemed unsuitable for the trailer have been restored here. The simultaneously sleazy and groovy bass-driven score heard during this trailer only helps to whet the appetite of the viewer and would make catching this at your local fleapit in the late sixties something of a certainty.
Alternative US sequences: The official description of this material is somewhat coy, as this is a essentially compilation of nude footage that was included in the American release of Her Private Hell. Running for about three minutes, this material consists of stuff that the British censors deemed unsuitable for UK audiences, including Lucia Modugno taking her top off and some further naked breasts during the party scene; though it might not sound like much these days, it was pretty hot stuff back then, especially the scene with Ms Modugno and the British censors had very strict guidelines about what could and couldn't be shown at the time. These scenes were effectively the "continental versions" of scenes that were filmed clothed for British audiences, meaning the nude takes were filmed with the export market firmly in mind - possibly the best example of this now-defunct practice was in Michael Reeves' classic film, Witchfinder General, where several scenes were shot twice, but the only difference to the scenes related to the amount of clothing the supporting cast were wearing.
Screen tests: This mute footage is fascinating in that it includes the screen test of Udo Kier, who looks as amazing as ever and seriously makes you question the decision not to have him in the film, as he has far more charisma and acting ability (even in these silent tests) that the person they eventually plumped for. As well as Mr Kier, there is also footage of Jeanette Wild - who was actually cast in the film - go-go dancing and looking most alluring whilst doing so.
Inside Her Private Hell: This most agreeable collection of interviews with the cast and crew only runs for 15 minutes, but reveals a wealth of information about the making of the film. Director Norman J Warren, writer Glynn Christian, along with actresses Pearl Catlin and Jeanette Wild all reminisce about the production of Her Private Hell, as well as the distribution and reception; Warren is his usual affable self, explaining how his short film, Fragment, allowed him to get his first feature-length directing gig and how the contract he signed mean that he effectively slaved away at it for no money. Catlin tells an amusing tale of how during the shooting of a party scene, she tried desperately not to spill drinks on the new white dress that she was wearing, as she was supposed to be using it as part of her wardrobe on a forthcoming stage gig. Wild only features briefly and contributes very little, but if anything, it goes to show that she has aged comparatively well. There is a moment of poignancy when Catlin talks of how she feels about seeing images of herself on film from over four decades ago - she genuinely seems to get a little misty-eyed. Warren lightens up the mood by mentioning the fact that the vice squad burst in on them during the filming of one of the nude scenes following a tip-off allegedly from someone who had been peeping through one of the windows in the tiny studio. Warren also amusingly elaborates on the problems of having a French-speaking actor who wasn't particularly good at grappling with the particulars of the English language, describing the efforts of Daniel Ollier as "comical" and ultimately - and very wisely - deciding to get a voiceover artist into to dub his dialogue.
Whilst it might only run for quarter of an hour, Inside Her Private Hell is still a very enjoyable experience, as the interviewees reminisce about their time on this film with a certain degree of pride and their enthusiasm is undeniable, which also rubs off on the viewer.
Incident: This 13 minute short is Norman J Warren’s first film and was shot in 1959, but - in a manner similar to Edward D Wood Jr's Revenge of the Dead - was never released due to serious financial difficulties. It tells the story of a young woman who goes to the funfair and meets a young, Moddish guy there; they hit it off and go on the rides together before he tries it on with her in a back alley. What makes Incident interesting is that it is shot almost through the eyes of the young woman, seeing everything in the funfair bathed in a golden glow and her childlike innocence sees her enjoying the rides with girlish glee and her meeting the young guy has something of a fairytale aspect to it, but reality and childhood illusion is shattered when he sticks his hand up her jumper and she rejects his advances; this lost innocence is further augmented by her dropping the cuddly toy that the guy won for her at the shooting gallery in the funfair.
The very end of the film sees the young woman walking by the funfair early next morning and seeing things in the cold light of day - a great metaphor for her suddenly growing up in the wake of the incident the night before - and not only looking at the closed funfair (another allusion to lost innocence), but also seeing the cuddly toy on the ground; most tellingly, the film ends on a freeze-frame of the young woman's hand reaching in to pick up the toy - one could argue that she has either come to terms with the fact that things have changed and has accepted this, or she is picking up the toy because she is unable to comprehend what happened and is retreating into childhood, possibly for the rest of her life.
Norman J Warren's first film is serves as an interesting time capsule and though the story is very slight indeed, smarter viewers will pick up on some of the weightier issues that lurk beneath the surface.
Fragment: Warren's 11 minute 1966 short film opens with a depressed-looking woman standing on a bridge smoking her last cigarette, we then see her bump into someone and they go off and tool around London in his sporty car. The pair embark upon an affair, but the woman realises that monogamy isn't really his style and she takes this discover very badly indeed. In terms of production, style and storytelling, Fragment is a quantum leap over Incident and in this, you really begin to see Warren's style develop; the cinematography is wonderfully evocative of the period and all manner of camera angles are employed, along with rapid cutting between shots that convey a sense of energy that really drags the viewer in.
This short little story of a love affair gone awry is wonderful stuff, with scenes of a snowy London and shots of so many things that are equated with the "swinging" London scene at that time. The central character isn't a typical "dolly-bird" and seeing the young woman contemplating her own desire to continue her own existence is also something fairly atypical, as it is showing the more seedy and depressing side of London in the mid-sixties; everything is supposed to be bright, colourful, vibrant and with everyone having a good time, but here, you get a drab, colourless, bleak London that seems downright miserable.
Of note to Doctor Who fans is the brief appearance by actor Michael Craze near the end of this tale; Craze played companion Ben Jackson at the end of the Hartnell/beginning of Troughton era and this was probably shot around the time that Craze was leaving the show, with Craze is also being credited as one of the producers of Fragment, and would go on to star in Norman J Warren's Dario Argento-inspired Terror, that is until he suffered a major epileptic seizure during the shoot and was abruptly written-out.
The Anatomy of a Pin-up: This 1971 documentary, directed by David Cohen is a half an hour look at how the British arm of Penthouse magazine operated in Britain in the early seventies. The magazine's founder, Bob Guccione, is interviewed and comes across as every bit as bullish as his reputation suggests as he photographs his latest British disovery, an Essex girl with diction that makes her sound like a prototype Lorraine Chase. Peppered throughout this documentary are fleeting snatches of a vox pop, with differing views on the subject of nude modelling expressed by a wide variety of people and it is so fast-paced and opinions so diverse, that it feels remarkably similar to the opening titles of George Romero's There's Always Vanilla, only not nearly as crap. A bit of contrast is provided by brief token interviews with a few Women's Libbers and also from Barbara Cartland (who was already looking so far past her sell-by date that if she was in a supermarket, she'd have been chucked into one of the bins out the back), who speak about how degrading and how the subject objectifies women.
What IS interesting about this documentary (apart from some very fetching nudity), is that two of the models interviewed ended up being (or already were) actresses; Francoise Pascal appeared in numerous films and television productions, but is best known to British audiences as being one of the regulars on cheerfully racist and xenophobic sitcom, Mind Your Language, and also had a prominent role in the seventies sex comedy, Keep it up Downstairs. Even more interesting is that Norwegian actress Julie Ege is interviewed; Ege had already appeared in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the Marty Feldman vehicle, Every Home Should Have One by this point, but she still classes her self as a model. Ege would go on to appear in numerous cult films, including Hammer's Dracula/martial arts crossover, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires before meeting an untimely demise from cancer in 2008 - it's rather sad to see the youthful and beautiful Ege here talking about where she wants to go with her life, before her acting career petered out only a fistful of years later and long before her tragic demise courtesy of the Big C.
This documentary is an interesting time capsule showing that although the women here took their clothes off to gain money, fame and ultimately allow them to pursue the careers they wanted to get into, such things still take place now, even if the sale of pornographic magazine are on the slide due to the advent of the internet. Katie Price is probably the best example of this, as she started out getting her kit off and used that to build something of an empire, including perfumes, clothing and numerous books she put her name to. The medium might have changed, bit this principle is still here. The Anatomy of a Pin-up is an entertaining - if only mildly illuminating to a couple of degenerates steeped in exploitation lore such as us - look at the attitudes toward the industry four decades ago and it's inclusion here is most welcome.
Booklet: It would seem that the inclusion of a booklet to accompany a DVD release is in decline, but the BFI can always be relied upon to to include one and this release of Her Private Hell is no exception, as they go above and beyond the call of duty to further enhance the Her Private Hell experience. Featuring new essays about the main feature and the detailed looks at the supplementary material, there are contributions from director Norman J Warren and many others, who contribute scholarly examinations of the film itself and put it in context in the times during which the film was produced. One of the most interesting set of notes in this booklet comes from one of the feminists interviewed in the Anatomy of a Pin-up documentary. Also included are original promotional materials for Her Private Hell, including posters and ad campaigns, along with some fascinating behind-the-scenes photographs and images of the awesome marquees that were outside the cinemas where Her Private Hell played. This booklet is wonderful and is the kind of thing that the BFI does so well - a leisurely read of one of these booklets is always a highlight when it comes to getting a BFI release.
Her Private Hell is a film told with moody imagery and moodier characters, all cloaked by the pervading sinister air of control and exploitation. It is a movie to experienced rather than merely “watched”, as characters punctuate the bleak atmosphere with lines of dialogue to either get Marisa deeper in the quagmire she has gotten herself sucked into, or reveal the techniques utilised to keep the gravy train rolling along - in short, it’s a tale of quiet substance. It is also a landmark in British cinema, with this being this is no frivolous accolade, as they just didn’t make ‘em like this at the time, and was a portent for the sexual tone of the approaching decade of decadence. The BFI rightly focused their attentions on this film, and have strived to bring a complete edition out for those of taste to discover, and the wealth of significant extras, along with a DVD copy for potential up-graders, become the perfect way to make an excellent package even better.
How do we say it clearly enough? The BFI’s Blu-ray edition of Her Private Hell is worthy of your attention, time and money.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Standard Definition release and are not representative of the quality of the Blu-ray transfer.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 20th February 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM Mono 2.0 48k/16 Bit
Extras: Original Trailer, Alternative US Sequences, Screen Tests, Insider Her Private Hell, Incident, Fragment, The Anatomy of a Pin-up, Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Norman J Warren
Cast: Lucia Modugno, Terry Skelton, Daniel Ollier
Length: 81 minutes
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