Sylvia (1977)

According to her cousin Toby (Pamela Serpe), poor Sylvia (Joanna Bell) hasn’t been at all well since the recent deaths of her parents; but she appears to be doing just fine when Toby and her school roommate Sheila (Helen Madigan) stop by and discover her on the living room floor with a vacuum cleaner salesman (Marc Stevens) demonstrating his unit’s “great sucking power”. This is not the Sylvia that Toby has known all her life; rather, the mousy, bespectacled one they find praying at a living room altar later on is the more familiar one, and she tells Toby that her doctor thinks her migraines and blackouts are psychological rather than medical in nature. Sheila assumes that Sylvia is actually a swinger and isn’t the least bit perturbed when Sylvia – after having drugged Toby – seduces her (with the help of an electric toothbrush) in the butch persona of ‘Tony’. Toby, who has witnessed odd turns in Sylvia’s personality before when they were growing up, is convinced that something is seriously wrong with her cousin, but decides to consult a priest rather than a doctor. Although the monsignor (Armand Peters) suggests it is possible that Sylvia is possessed – illustrated in flashback by Sylvia’s rape of a seminarian (Grover Griffith) sparked his referring to himself as a “lay brother” – he recommends psychoanalysis before ordering an exorcism. Sylvia’s psychiatrist Dr. Ballaban (Peter Savage) tells Toby that Sylvia has multiple personalities – including man-crazy Mona, lesbian Tony, and devout but less repressed Mary (who is actually in a committed relationship) – as a defense mechanism to the abuse she suffered from her schizophrenic mother (Helen Devine). Ballaban has had success in using deep hypnosis to try to unify Sylvia’s personalities into one, but Mona has been resistant (convinced that the treatment will kill her) and has taken greater control over Sylvia and the others (being able to switch at will to torment Sylvia and her sexual partners). When Toby tries to convince Sylvia – who is not conscious of her other selves even though they are of her – to see Dr. Ballaban again, Mona offers a pair of junkies: Sonny Landham (Predator) and Guido D’Alisa, a desperately needed fix to get rid of the good doc before he can get rid of her.

Had the film been cast with a better actress in the lead role (rather than one that was enthusiastic enough to rim all of her co-stars) A Saint, A Woman, A Devil  might actually have been a superior example of golden age pornography. The backstory is tragic (however awkwardly performed, the childhood flashbacks are tough to watch) and the notion that Sylvia could be helped by getting her to accept that the urges felt by her different personalities are in fact normal and should be consciously addressed rather than suppressed seems dramatically sound. It matters less that Bell is rather plain-looking and more that she’s thoroughly uninvolving in a role that requires some dramatic ability (not that the rest of the cast is much better). Directed by actor Peter Savage (who directed mainstream films before switching over to adult features while continuing to take roles in films like Taxi Driver and Vigilante) and crewed with NYU film students, the film is well-made technically for the most part even if its more dramatic scenes are awkwardly acted and staged (it looks like the editor dropped frames a la James Bond editor Peter Hunt to punch up a couple slaps and punches). The scenes that have the most impact sadly are some disturbing flashbacks to Sylvia’s battered childhood and the assault on Toby at the orgy by Turk Turpin (Cotton Comes to Harlem). Besides Landham and Stevens, the only other recognizable porn personality is Bobby Astyr as the host of an orgy. Boxer Jake LaMotta’s son Joseph has a walk-on role as a waiter (Savage and LaMotta Sr. acted together in a handful of films throughout the sixties and seventies and Savage directed him in The Runaways and his son in The Godfather & The Lady).

A Saint, A Woman, A Devil was previously released under its better-known title Sylvia in its X-rated version by VCX in 2006 and then by Alternative Cinema in 2008 in an anamorphic transfer with commentary by Blue Underground’s William Lustig who worked on the film as its assistant director and production manager. I haven’t seen that version – which I’m told was uncut in terms of the hardcore sex but trimmed some of the “battered child” scenes – but Vinegar Syndrome’s disc features 2K scans of both the X-rated (108:04) and R-rated (89:54) cuts of the film from colorful and mostly clean 35mm archival elements apart from some coarser looking optical shots (two encodes on a dual-layer disc rather than branching) with reasonably clean Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks.

Date: May 21, 2021