Erotic Inferno (1976)

The name of film producer Bachoo Sen is all but forgotten these days, save for perhaps as a footnote to the career of horror filmmaker Norman J Warren, or as the producer of ‘Nightmare Weekend’ one of the most laughably bad horror films of the 1980s. It wasn’t always this way though, back in the late 1960s Sen was being heralded as the British film industry’s answer to Radley Metzger. Like Metzger, Sen’s stock in trade was classy, self-consciously serious sex dramas, generally focused on the complex love lives of affluent 30-something aged members of the jet-set, with Sen productions like ‘Love is a Splendid Illusion’ and ‘Loving Feeling’ also giving their himbo star Simon Brent an excuse to emote in his budgie smugglers. Quite how Love is a Splendid Illusion and Loving Feeling didn’t make the front cover of ‘Films and Filming’, I’ll never know.

For my money though, Sen’s productions didn’t really catch fire –no pun intended- until he started employing one Jonathan Gershfield, a young university student who wrote scripts for Sen’s sex dramas in the library of York University, under the pen name ‘Jon York’.

Gershfield/York’s scripts brought some much needed dramatic conflict to Sen’s well-to-do film world. York’s scripts are obsessed with power struggles, class issues and combative relationships between men and women, both in and out of the bedroom. One of York’s earliest scripts was for a Sen production called ‘The Intruders’ aka ‘Let Us Play Sex’. Filmed in Sweden, it’s the story of a hippie biker who schemes his way into a bourgeois family, where he bullies the men and throws some rough sex in the direction of the frigid women, all in pursuit of power and money. Today, The Intruders is mostly notable for an early, pre-fame appearance by Stellan Skarsgård, but for British viewers there is the equally distracting sight of future soap opera actor Chris Chittell as the hippie biker who causes all the problems.
Sen obviously realised he was onto a good thing by having York as his screenwriter and Chris Chittell as his leading man, and back in the UK brainstormed another film that would bring them all together again…Erotic Inferno. In a perfect world, this is the film that would be remembered as Sen’s magnum opus, rather than Nightmare Weekend.

Having played an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder about the rich in The Intruders, Chittell does a 180% here by playing the spoilt, hard living playboy Martin Barnard, whose privileged lifestyle is placed in jeopardy by the death of his father. Old man Barnard has apparently died at sea, and his death triggers off a catalogue of infidelity, betrayal and pure hatred amongst his surviving offspring. Martin is summoned back to his father’s country estate along with his brother Paul (Karl Lanchbury) where they renew an old enemy in their father’s chauffeur Adam (Michael Watkins). Unbeknownst to Adam, he is old man Barnard’s illegitimate son, and Martin and Paul’s half-brother, something his siblings are desperate to keep from him. Their father’s will though dictates that all three men have to stay at the family estate over the weekend, until the will is read. The will also insists that Old Man Barnard’s mansion must remain under lock and key for the weekend. A source of frustration to Martin and Paul who seek to try and break into the place, in an attempt to uncover and destroy any evidence of Adam’s parentage. Incidentally, the executor of the will, the rather sinister Mr Gold, is played by Michael Sheard, who’d go on to terrorize a whole generation of school kids as Mr Bronson in Grange Hill. Sheard’s involvement in Erotic Inferno apparently stemmed from the fact that he had money in the production, and that his role as an investor in the film also dictated that he step in front of the camera for an acting role too.

The men’s girlfriends, and various interested female parties, also find themselves sucked into the Barnard brothers’ conflicts, ensuring that this is at least a very dirty weekend. There is Brenda (Jeannie Collings), Martin’s sweet natured girlfriend, who is trapped in an unhealthy, abusive relationship with him and finds her affections drifting in the direction of brother Paul. Martin, on the other hand, is boning after bi-sexual stable girl Gayle (Heather Deeley), attempting to seduce her with the hilarious chat-up line “the smell of horses drives me crazy”. Last, but certainly not least is Nicole (Jenny Westbrook) the housekeeper, Adam’s on/off girlfriend and resident nympho. Nicole is a very popular woman around these parts, to put it mildly…who in the past has had relations with both Old Man Barnard, Paul and Martin. As Brenda sarcastically asks at one point “is Nicole always so friendly?”

Nicole is also the only one who possesses the key to the old man’s mansion, which she keeps on a chain around her navel, in a chastity belt fashion. This unsurprisingly makes Nicole a person of interest to Martin and Adam. Both of whom see her as the ultimate prize and are determined to snatch that key away from…well her snatch. The two men adopt very different approaches to achieving their goal. Adam favours traditional working class brutality, and goes about slapping Nicole around, bullying her and calling her a bitch. Martin however, seeing himself as God’s gift to women and a man of considerable sexual prowess, uses rough, sadomasochistic sex as a way of getting what he wants, echoing Chittell’s character in The Intruders.

It cannot be emphasized enough just how amazing Chris Chittell is in both The Intruders and Erotic Inferno. He pretty much acts everyone off the screen in The Intruders, and gives a far stronger supporting cast a run for their money here. These are incredibly angry, aggressive performances as very desperate men. Martin Barnard might be an utter bastard, yet you cannot take your eyes off him, and Chittell’s charisma practically flies off the screen. Chittell later claimed that he’d gotten himself into financial difficulties during this period, and it was either take film roles like this or rob a bank. Bank robbery’s loss was sexploitation cinema’s gain, but on the basis of his Erotic Inferno performance you can’t help but think that Chittell would have made a terrific bank robber as well, you certainly wouldn’t think twice about opening the till for this guy. At the same time, these roles also feel like raw rehearsals for the lovable rogue character Eric Pollard that Chittell would go on to play in Emmerdale. Pollard essentially being a toned down for primetime TV version of Martin Barnard.

Erotic Inferno is either the most misogynistic film ever made or an indictment on out of control macho behaviour. It’s open to interpretation either way. There is much to titillate men in this film, but very little to flatter them. Erotic Inferno isn’t a film that will make you feel proud of being a man. Men in this film are all greedy, chauvinistic and venal. It’s difficult to know who we’re meant to be rooting for, if we’re meant to be rooting for anyone at all. Martin and Paul are elitist crooks who treat women like garbage, but Adam is no working class hero either, he beats up his girlfriend and it transpires had also been pimping her out to Old Man Barnard as well. No side of the class war comes up smelling of roses here, yet while you don’t really care who comes out on top, Jon York weaves a compelling enough yarn to keep you watching who will triumph in this almighty, gladiatorial battle between Adam, a man who fights all his battles using his fists, and Martin, a man who fights all his battles using his cock.

Released in 1975, arguably the peak year for the British sex film, Erotic Inferno is something of a square peg in the round hole of that genre. The British sex film was taking on an increasingly comedic tone during this time, the ‘Confessions’ and ‘Adventures’ films were at their peak, but Bachoo Sen stuck to his guns and continued making serious sex dramas with Erotic Inferno. There is also a heck of allot of explicit sex in this film, as if Erotic Inferno continually felt compelled to live up to its title. Erotic Inferno is highly pornographically minded, in its full uncut version featuring sex scenes that are only a few shades away from being hardcore. Never more so than in a subplot involving Heather Deeley’s bi-sexual stable girl Gayle’s same sex relationship with fellow stable girl Jane played by Mary Maxted, who’d soon after find fame as Mary Millington. Despite failing to get anywhere with his “the smell of horses” line, Martin continues to pursue Gayle, only to get shot down with a series of dirty looks from Jane, a possessive lesbian. Erotic Inferno certainly gives Mary Millington a far different image than the one she achieved fame with, indeed it’s perversely ironic that Millington here plays a humourless, lesbian cockblocker who puts the brakes on any heterosexual hanky panky going on between Martin and Gayle. All a far cry from the fun loving, heterosexual male fantasy figure that she would become.

Living up to their reputations as sexual dynamos and extreme characters, scenes between Deeley and Millington represent not only the most explicit depiction of lesbianism seen in a British film until this point, but also the most realistic. There is none of that inept hugging and fumbling about that you tend to get when clueless straight male directors depict lesbianism. Indeed, someone here has definitely been doing their homework, the importance of the use of fingers in lesbian lovemaking is made here, there is even some shots of Deeley rimming Millington in the uncut version of the film.

Deeley is somewhat unique in the pantheon of British sex film actresses, in that whereas most people used made up names to appear in these films, Mary Millington, Fiona Richmond and Sue Longhurst for instance all being fake names, Heather Deeley is an actual birth name. Specifically Heather J. Deeley, born 1956 in Bury St Edmunds…the things you find out from misusing Deeley’s use of her real name is even more eye-opening if you consider that she also participated in hardcore scenes …something that would have surely caused your average person to seek out a pseudonym in order to keep some distance between a porn career and their private life…but they truly broke the mould when they made Heather J. Deeley.

Graphic as the lesbian scenes between Deeley and Millington are, these are also some of the most tender moments this film has to offer. Comparing favourably to the brutal, clothes tearing, dirty talk accompanying, heterosexual sex scenes in the film. It’s tempting to credit the actual actresses with making these scenes erotically come to life, both Deeley and Millington being openly bi-sexual off-screen, and therefore renowned experts in the field…so to speak. They were made for it, folks.

I suppose the easiest way of describing Erotic Inferno is as the most Jose Larraz film that Jose Larraz didn’t direct. There are a few shared personnel between Erotic Inferno and Larraz’s films. Erotic Inferno’s director Trevor Wrenn had previously worked as director of photography on Larraz’s Symptoms and Scream and Die. Actor Karl Lanchbury was another Larraz regular, with the majority of his feature film credits being in Larraz’s films, who had a tendency to cast the pretty boy actor as sexual weirdoes or serial killers. Erotic Inferno also shares Larraz’s favouring of the English countryside as its preferred picturesque backdrop, as well as violent sex being the narrative’s driving force. It’s not difficult to imagine Erotic Inferno belonging in the same cinematic universe as Larraz’s Vampyres, and that all the drama surrounding the brothers Barnard is playing out just a few fields and lonely country lanes away from the murderous antics of Fran and Miriam in Vampyres. Would anyone really shed a tear if one of the Barnard brothers were to pick up a hitchhiking Fran and Miriam and try the ‘smell of horses’ line out on them. If truth be told there isn’t a single male character in Erotic Inferno who isn’t worthy of the Fran and Miriam treatment.

Upon its release Erotic Inferno enjoyed an unexpected boost of publicity when it became part of a well documented ‘research’ trip that anti-porn campaigner Lord Longford made to Soho. All of course done purely to discover how morally corrupting pornography was for the lower classes, you understand. While Longford somehow managed to sit through a double bill of Erotic Inferno and Hot Acts of Love at the Astral cinema duplex, a later trip to see a Jess Franco film called How to Seduce a Virgin, proved too much for him and resulted in a walkout from Longford. The common man obviously enjoyed having their morals compromised though, and Erotic Inferno was still making money, packing them in and playing in Soho four years later.

Finding a full, uncut version of Erotic Inferno has proven to be a tricky proposition over the years. The film was cut for its British theatrical release in 1975, however when it appeared on tape in 1979, the video label Hokushin seem to have issued a version of the film containing all the sexual material trimmed out of the theatrical release. Sadly, later British video releases have all originated from a far more substantially cut version, while an American video release, entitled ‘Maid in Chains’ is censored even further. Not even the Hokushin tape can claim to be the complete version of the film, as it is missing some dialogue, presumably due to print damage, that has surfaced in other video versions of the film. So, whether there has ever been a totally uncut video release of Erotic Inferno remains a question mark.

Unfortunately seeing any version of this film isn’t easy today, Erotic Inferno hasn’t been in circulation since the late 1980s, and now seems something of a ‘problem’ title when it comes to releasing the film on DVD or Blu-Ray. While I’m not certain what this ‘problem’ is, rumours suggests it is something along the lines of the rights owner not being interested in the film being released again, or wanting too much money for the rights. I’m sure the absence of Erotic Inferno on DVD and Blu-Ray hasn’t been for want of trying though, after all it’s a film with Mary Millington in, and we all know how people just love to exploit that poor cow. I mean…there is a Blu-Ray release of Eskimo Nell that gives her prominent billing on the cover, despite the fact that she is only in that film for all of six seconds and in a role so insignificant that the original film didn’t even bother to mention her in the end credits. Wasn’t Eskimo Nell meant to be a satire on the crass, dishonest nature of the film biz? rather than the epitome of it? So, I’m sure there are some folks out there who’d just love to be putting out and making money from Erotic Inferno, a film in which Millington does actually have a substantial role in, after all exploitation really doesn’t stop at the grave, does it?

The absence of Erotic Inferno on DVD is in some ways regrettable though. Not only is it one hell of a film, that deserves to be seen again, but it is also powerful ammo against the nonsense claims regularly trotted out by film snobs that all British sex films are forgotten embarrassments, containing little sex and looking hopelessly reserved when compared to similar films made in America and Europe. Erotic Inferno is one mean spirited, super sleazy sucker punch to that kind of mentality. Its fashionable these days for people to sneer and look down their noses at British sex films, much in the same way it is to do with British horror films, the Carry On series, sitcom spin-offs or direct to DVD East End gangster movies, but without these films what would British cinema be left to comprise of?…stuffy period pieces and miserabilist dramas born out of do-gooder circle jerks…i know which British film genres I’m more proud of.