TITILLATION (1982)

After Russ Meyer packed it in with Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, he dabbled in projects here and there, utilizing actress and then-girlfriend Francesca “Kitten” Natividad in Mondo Topless Too, some of the footage of which turned up in 2002’s Pandora Peaks (though, sadly, none of it including Natividad). But despite their lifelong admiration and friendship, their romantic relationship eventually soured and Natividad moved on to broader horizons where she made bit appearances in big budget studio films, such as Art Linson’s 1984 sister film to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Wild Life, all the way to full, starring appearances in harmless but lowbrow sex comedies such as 1985’s Takin’ It Off. In this shift, Natividad also wasn’t averse to popping up here in there in some west coast hardcore films, Damon Christian’s Titillation from 1982 being the first of them.

Through his secretary, Barbara (Angelique Pettyjohn), rich old codger Felix Fitzwilly (Roy Simpson) hires detectives Spado Zappo (Eric Edwards) and his partner, Pigeon Johnson (Randy West), to locate the missing woman (Kitten Natividad) who would fit the bronze brassiere he keeps in his office like a trophy. This hunt, worth $50,000 to the person who finds the girl, ends up getting filled with multiple characters, double crosses, unlikely coincidences, and a generous amount of good ol’ American sex.

Titillation, an early directorial gig for longtime producer Christian (née Dick Aldrich), remains a genuinely hilarious and winning slice of west coast hardcore; the kind of stuff Bob Chinn pioneered in his Johnny Wadd series (in fact, Christian had produced a few Chinn/Wadd titles for Freeway Films). And as he would again the following year with Eat at the Blue Fox, Christian paces himself nicely in terms of the hardcore material, only allowing one sex scene in the film’s first twenty five minutes. Unlike Eat at the Blue Fox, Titillation also spreads the wealth among a variety of performers and does an admirable job balancing Natividad’s essential yet non-hardcore sex role with the remainder of the cast.

No doubt the promotional hook to the production was the promise of a Russ Meyer girl in a hardcore feature. And, as she generally is, Natividad is a lot of fun here but she’s reduced mostly to being the MacGuffin while Angelique Pettyjohn, veteran cult actress also making her debut in a hardcore film (and billed as Heaven St. John), steals the film in a performance that is absolutely jaw dropping. Put simply, this is a film where the sexual performance of one actor completely overshadows everything else, and that’s even after admitting that everything else is really pretty good. But if the metric of a good performance is that the audience buys everything they say or do on the screen, then Pettyjohn’s turn, a true eruption of volcanic carnality, is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. Taking an approach that emphasizes instinct over technique, Pettyjohn delivers a thunderous, hilarious, liberating performance akin to Pete Moon’s strategy on the drums; a joy to watch that’s both stupefying and blissfully energizing. The second she says “A hard man is good to find,” the film becomes Pettyjohn’s to lose.

In terms of the sex scenes in Titillation, a high bar is set very early as a simple scene with Mike Horner and Shery Carter is closely followed by a pair of cross-cut setups in which Eric Edwards and Pettyjohn are in one motel room while Natividad and Mike Zempter are in an adjacent room. The Pettyjohn/Edwards pairing is both interesting and astonishing due to just how little Christian has to direct the scene. He simply parks the camera and lets Pettyjohn go, casually panning up and down, but doing little else except being agog at what’s transpiring in front of the camera. And, lo and behold, the film delivers on its early promise by staying engaging and palpably hot with Pettyjohn and Horner’s scene as a swinging couple a shady neighbor is probably one of the finest threesomes ever committed to celluloid due, once again, to Pettyjohn’s taking it to the proverbial house.

With its corny voice-over used to deliver some well-written lines and gags with equal relish, Titillation could make for a fun double bill with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a film released earlier in the same year and was obviously some kind of an influence. The Chinatown-esque ending works better here than in does in Sean Costello’s Slave of Pleasure (which actually steals the Chinatown score to go along with its rather dour ending), as the entire mystery and all of its fallout in Titillation is completely benign. All of the performances are really good and the mix of stolen LA exteriors and the fun, stage-bound sets lend themselves nicely to the film’s lighthearted charm. Additional and specific props to the gag following the Randy West Gina Gianetti scene involving the tongue in the bear rug which manages to be very funny without calling a whole lot of attention to itself. Another subtle and smart moment involves a hidden panel and a monitor used for surreptitious spying in Fitzwilly’s office, where the film manages to pull off a nifty reference to Bob Chinn’s The Seductress, a film inwhich Titillation-director Damon Christian played a surveillance expert in league with shadowy figures.

Ultimately, Titillation may be silly and a better vehicle for Pettyjohn than Natividad but it has some nice humor that lands just right and contains such a game, fun-loving spirit that only the absolute humorless could find issue with. It is also a decently plotted mystery and holds tight to some fun references to various private eye pictures not the least of which is the squaring up of the plot in the end. Like the ending of some of the best 1940 noirs, Titillation requires a verbose wrap up that, even when explained, still seems gauzy and opaque in terms of how the mystery played out. Which, of course, is totally fine just as long as you had a good time playing.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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