THE FLESH TRILOGY (1967-1968)

In the annals of sexploitation, Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Flesh Trilogy (made up of 1967’s The Touch of Her Flesh and 1968’s The Curse of Her Flesh and The Kiss of Her Flesh) may very well be the pinnacle of gutter trash that floated its way into a polluted tributary and found itself drifting toward high art. The opening credits of the first film, superimposed over the naked body of Roberta Findlay (that luxuriously thick tangle of black hair is a dead giveaway), pretty much sums up the attitude of and approach to what’s ahead. But what begins as a standard roughie solidifies itself as something far more significant by the time the final minutes of the trilogy burn away.

The plot of The Touch of Her Flesh kicks off innocently enough. Like every other normal person, Richard Jennings (Michael Findlay) takes in a little crossbow target practice in his living room before kissing his wife, Claudia (an almost unrecognizable Angelique Pettyjohn) and heading off to a convention in Boston. But, damnit, wouldn’t you know it, the minute he hits Grand Central Station, he remembers that he forgot his speech which sends him back to the house to retrieve it. Unfortunately, Claudia has taken up with back-door man Steve Blakely (Ron Skierdi) and the sight of this unholy union sends Richard into a frenzy. He runs out into traffic, gets hit by a car, somehow loses an eye, and becomes the (very) temporary prisoner of a wheelchair who is hellbent on bloody revenge.

The Touch of Her Flesh is a little like a test run for the Findlays. A much more potent mix of the arty and the sleazy than Take Me Naked, The Touch of Her Flesh has a better sense of narrative although its points are pressed to an almost numbing level and the variety is pretty low (ladies undressing, waist-up naked people rolling around in a bed, go-go dancing, and stripping is about all that’s on the menu). But the cinematography and editing work overtime to keep the film from stalling out as it threatens to do on occasion; the camera sometimes overstays its welcome and insists on soaking up the scenery long after the viewer has gotten the point.

Glacially paced in a way that is akin to frozen molasses spreading out over a level driveway, The Touch of Her Flesh is not a film that parties well with a mixed audience in this day and age even if no generation is immune to the charms of Michael Findlay narrating his poisonous inner thoughts. Partly hilarious and partly terrifying, the way he describes females is like he’s speaking about a plush automobile built for comfort that is also a lethal tiger trap that’ll betray your cock and rip it off. He often lays his contemptuous flaming of the fairer sex over images of, you guessed it, Roberta Findlay as she undresses and writhes around on a bed which feels more like a marital confession than it does a cinematic choice. Likewise, of personal interest to me because it’s my mother’s name, is the way Findlay strangles the life out of the word “Claudia” (ie, “That’s the pig that poses nude for CLAW-DEE-UH, talking to one of her HOOK-AH friends.”). And, for certain, my mother would certainly cackle over his big-dick enunciation of her name if not for the fact that her earthly sainthood and utter goodness precludes her from even knowing about degenerates like Michael Findlay.

Hurried into production the following year after the success of The Touch of Her Flesh, The Curse of Her Flesh finds the Findlays borrowing from the serials of old to retcon the ending of the previous installment in its efforts to revive Richard Jennings for another go-round of murder and mayhem. The previous film is recapped by Roberta Findlay’s newscast narration (articulated through her lovable and unmistakable Bronx honk) laid over clips from Touch. A clever re-edit of the end of the previous film has Jennings murdering Claudia’s friend which, of course, is the opposite of what happened in the climax but it allows Jennings to live on to train his vengeful sights on Steve Blakey, the man with whom Claudia was having an affair in the first film, and, naturally, more women who get under his skin by doing little else other than drawing breath.

The Curse of Her Flesh adheres to more of a conventional plot and adopts synch sound to its bag of cinematic tools. Now whether either of those things are well-used is a matter of taste as we still linger for small eternities on artfully shot nudes in interesting compositions and bad coffeehouse theater. The film’s plot also takes the longest way around the barn as Jennings, posing as a theater owner, has an opportunity to kill Steve Blakely in the opening two minutes but makes a solemn oath to make him suffer. If you’re into conciseness, you’re also likely to suffer as Findlay bumbles his way through no small number of people to finally work his way back to Steve, each kill more ludicrous and Rube Goldberg-inspired than the last. The best one, and the one that perfectly details the intricately insane mind of Michael Findlay, has him soaking a cat’s paws in diluted poison and then picking a fight with his victim; a fight which MUST include the cat swiping her for the scheme to work. The penultimate gag involving a virgin, a squash, a best-value doctor, and a waiting period of six goddamn months is also pretty nuts.

After The Curse of Her Flesh’s rather hair-raising finale in which Jennings and Blakely fight to the death without any regard to their own personal safety while unharnessed in the back of a truck that is very much in motion in very real New York traffic, The Kiss of Her Flesh arrived in theaters to assuage the impatience of a very anxious America who were very much relieved to find out that the film centered around Richard Jennings as he expanded his show to mow down “every Jezebel” he meets from the big city to the quiet edges of country life where, somehow, he has reinvented himself as a doctor who, unfortunately, makes house calls.

Perhaps it was Michael Findlay himself who realized a third installment would have to include some sort of protagonist that the audience could get behind. For in the first two, Findlay more or less wanted the audience to root for him. In Kiss, the audience gets to cheer for Maria (Uta Erickson) as she goes out on her own to kill Richard Jennings after she suspects him of killing her lover, Cleo (Donna Stone). She goes and stays with her sister, Doris (Suzzan Landau), and Doris’s lover, Mona (Janet Baznet) who, unbeknownst to Maria, are already mixed up with Jennings and his schemes. The audience also gets to warm to Maria’s super stud, Don (Earl Hindman; most famously knows as Wilson in Home Improvement), a man of action who can throw a machete with incredible aim but who is also not at all afraid to enjoy a session with some anal beads.

The Kiss of Her Flesh is the best of the cycle for two reasons. One, it’s the most conventional in terms of its plot. This movie, inexplicable as it may be, goes somewhere. And even if it introduces some new kinks, the scenes don’t seem to hang in the atmosphere as they do in the other two entries and, emboldened by the slow crumbling of censorship laws that seemed to tumble by the week, have a much more passionate undercurrent. The second reason this one really cooks is that there are real stakes and investment in this story. For all of his wandering around and wonton killing in the first two, Michael Findlay cut a real figure as the repellent Richard Jennings so Maria’s quest to find and finally do him in comes with some real interest.

Additionally, the murders in The Kiss of Her Flesh are nastier, more elaborate, and, in doing so, the film and its previous two entries justifies itself not just as a true pioneer of the roughie but also an anticipatory force of the slasher franchises that would become a staple of the 80’s. Never mind that these were envisioned to satiate the most perverted desire of every 42nd Street degenerate who drooled on any piece of bare skin they might see on the screen. The mix of Findlay’s arch performance and the ridiculousness of the violence put the Flesh cycle in a territory unto itself and sort of stumbled upwards into a realm of more serious discussion and consideration.

And though all three films have various credits attributed to various people who crewed on them, it’s all but impossible to determine who did exactly what outside of Michael’s direction and editing. Credited with the cinematography along with co-producing and co-writing credit, Roberta Findlay claims she had no part in the films’ productions even if this is, to some small degree, verifiably untrue. Whatever the case may be, if Roberta did shoot more than she claims, she should be very proud of whatever is hers as the visual style of the film is crisp and improves on itself with each additional entry.

As much as the Flesh films cemented Michael and Roberta Findlay’s reputation as the reigning king and queen of the sleazy skin flick, their partnership and relationship was beginning to head into untenably rocky waters (even for them) and, by the end of 1971, Roberta would be a solo act. They still had some juice left in the tank but even as good as 1968’s A Thousand Pleasures and the following year’s The Ultimate Degenerate would prove to be, the vast majority of their creative and thematic heights were left on the field as they unspooled the wild ballad of Richard Jennings, folk anti-hero to incels and unfuckables everywhere.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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