Director: Joe D'Amato
Screenplay: Ottavio Alessi, Maria Pia Fusco and Piero Vivarelli
Cast: Laura Gemser (as Emanuelle); Gabriele Tinti (as Alfredo Elvize and the Duke of Mont'Elba); Roger Browne (as The Senator); Riccardo Salvino (as Bill); Lars Bloch (as Eric Van Darren)
A Night of A Thousand Horror (Movies) #3
It sounds strange that an Emanuelle softcore sex film is being covered here as a horror film but for anyone like myself who knows of the most infamous of the Emmanuelle cash-ins, when producers realised they could knock off one "m" from the name and get away with having the title, it's appropriate because of the moments which led to Emanuelle In America getting this infamy. What's meant to be a softcore film meant to titillate, in the beautiful Laura Gemser in the lead role and the other women, maybe even some of the beefcake men in the cast, turns quickly into the fictional cousin of the Italian mondo documentaries. Mondo films, already part fiction with suspect fact, were a catalogue of both the grotesque and the scintillating, between moments of humour and sex to actual death. Emanuelle In America, following the titular Emanuelle (Gemser) as a journalist photographer who sneaks undercover into the sordid lives of the rich and powerful to uncover front page material, is a mondo film in tone from the various scenarios it gets into, from a man who pays women to be his sexual harem to older women going to a secret club to pay for sex. As this is helmed by Joe D'Amato, one of the more notorious and lurid directors of the Italian genre boom of the seventies and eighties, who could go from Anthropophagus (1980) to zombie porn hybrids like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980), the film is even more willing to get grimy.
Strangely the film does live up to its notoriety but is also incredibly naive and innocent at others points in its view of sexuality; even when there's actual real sex involved between actors, its strangely innocent at times with its interest in free love and orgies compared to modern pornography. A lot of the film is incredibly dated, blurring the line between being a film about a sexually liberated woman and being misogynistic, Emanuelle only a fantasy for men who want a woman who wants to have sex a lot but without the feminist emancipation behind women owning their own sexuality and bodies. I will state flat out however that this is a hell of a lot better in quality and morality than the original Emmanuelle film from 1974 starring Sylvia Kristel. In terms of the gender politics, the blatantness of Italian genre films like this in cashing in on popular films is the lesser of two evils than the incredibly problematic politics of the original French film, where to be a free woman in her passions Emmanuelle has to follow the orders of an older man and is even raped by his command by others to liberate her. In terms of quality, the seventies aesthetic is shared between them but the flares and funky soundtrack by Nico Fidenco is a lot better than the bland soft focus of the original film or it ripping off King Crimson in the soundtrack. Also Sylvia Kristel is not a good Emmanuelle; she was far more beautiful and interesting in Claude Chabrol's surreal Alice, or the Last Escapade (1977) and having her as a weak, childlike figure in the original's script is like clipping the wings off as a character who could be more interesting if she took to her desires like a dolphin to water. For all the gross, eyebrow raising content I'll get to with Emanuelle In America, Laura Gemser is both unbelievably gorgeous and more physically charismatic, something far more appropriate to the character that she can even cope with a puritanical sociopath pointing a gun to her head by caressing his crotch through his jeans and scaring him away through her sexual charisma.
When things get strange is when the tonal shifts come about. Most of the film is light hearted and ultimately not as shocking as it would have been back in the seventies. Even the brief moments of real sex just evoke when Tinto Brass in softcore comedies like All Ladies Do It (1992) did the same thing, sometimes with prosthetic members. In fact moments in this, such as Emanuelle and her boyfriend in Venice having sex next to an orchestra practicing in the next room, do evoke Brass. The issue with the film and why its notorious is to the more shocking things added for extra spice. The first is excised from any British release of the film, be it streamed or on DVD, involving a woman giving a horse a friendly handshake. Not in the realms of the Kenneth Pinyan case documented in Zoo (2007) but something which could only come from the seventies, a period of cinema that's actually becoming even more problematic for us in the now-future to think about because, for every transgressive film that's celebrated, there's works like this even in one scene which is now more problematic to deal with in terms of historical retrospective. The other aspect that's even more infamous about the film is fake but completely out-of-synch with the generally light-hearted tone.
Just as you think the film's going to be about cheesy orgies where actors lay writhing naked on each other, and you see men woo older women dressed as Tarzan and Zorro, there's the snuff film subplot. Set up at the older women's club and becoming the finale narrative pull, it's not depicted in a cheesy titillating way, with bright orange blood and rubber torture devices, but completely straight as snippets of scenes from a torture horror film, a completely different film entirely accidentally spliced in at first until it becomes a plot point. In the realm of this type of Italian genre cinema, it's bizarre and tasteless even by the industry's standards, knocking one off the rails of how to deal with the movie. How can it still be a softcore sex film if it's going to be intentionally grim with the snuff film content? The silly and morbid gets confused and, when the film ends back with the comedy with Emanuelle amongst a jungle tribe, it's like being chewed up and spat out. Only if the film was trying to be like Japanese ero-guro would it make sense to a modern viewer's mind and even then, that's in the context of knowing there were films like this from countries like Italy and Japan that did the same thing but weren't necessarily going for the deliberately provocative. It was worth covering as a horror film from this because this kind of disarming of the viewer, even a mistake here, is the kind of thing many creators always wanted for their films but suddenly sucker punches you viewing Emanuelle In America. Even when you're openly aware it was there like I was its like being punched in the stomach.