THE ULTIMATE DEGENERATE (1969)

Making their black and white film cycle a full circle experience, 1969’s The Ultimate Degenerate opens on a scene that hints that the film might be a twist on 1966’s Take Me Naked, Michael and Roberta Findlay’s first collaborative feature that was stacked to the rafters with narration, peeping, and exhibitionism. But instead of a female being surreptitiously leered at by a drunken pervert as was in the case in 1966, Uta Erickson’s performance to a peeper across the way is for her excitement and pleasure. This may be all part of the gummed up fantasies of director Michael Findlay who, at this point, began to seem almost indistinguishable from the similar characters he wrote for himself to portray. But, like the femme flip found in the previous year’s A Thousand Pleasures, this one seems again energized by the spirit and input of Roberta, creative partner and wife who, again, gets full credit for the cinematography (as Anna Riva, natch) even if she has little recollection of doing it.

The film begins with Maria Curtis (Erickson) getting under the skin of roommate and lover Tammy (Carla Stone) by stripping for an unseen peeper named Ellsworth who lives across the way. Hot and bothered for more unconventional action than her square life will allow, she calls a number in a New York Review of Sex newspaper. Fielding calls in regards to the ad is Bruno (Earl Hindman), manservant of Spencer (Michael Findlay, again folding his gigantic frame in half by giving a performance from the seat of a wheelchair), a sex crazed cripple who lives in a house tucked away in the wilds of Vermont where he houses a number of nubile young women whom he controls with a concoction that will cause them to perform any sexual favor requested by his clients. Meanwhile, Bruno is up to his own mysterious side-scheme that may or may not be nefarious (though a good indication of his frame of mind is that his idea of a practical joke is to spray women with a whip cream container at incredibly close range through the fly in his pants).

Certainly The Ultimate Degenrate has all the cinematic trademarks of the Findlays as the lens gets smeared with petroleum jelly and it flashes a rather curious attitude toward women and sexual intercourse as if its point of view is completely fine and normal. And though we’re spared the embarrassment of riches that are the voices of Robert and Michael reading the dialogue they came up with, this film is undeniably a cut above what came before and, just at its base, is the most exquisitely shot film of the Findlay’s black and white pictures. Setting aside the evocative use of shadow and framing, those wildly captured downtown night exteriors of Times Square are just to die for as is all the Coney Island footage, stitched into the film with the help of some expository dialogue. Also, a minimal dolly-in shot that would become one of Roberta’s visual trademarks is employed here, giving some kind of hint that she was involved, however loosely, in the film’s cinematography. The Ultimate Degenerate is also the last to contain the same library music and pop tunes that have been used so often that even a casual exposure to a Michael Findlay double bill will create an earworm that one will find either charming or utterly maddening.

Amidst the usual sickness that was a feature and not a bug in the cinema of Michael Findlay, there is also a good deal of earned eroticism in The Ultimate Degenerate. Since Maria shows up to Spencer’s mansion on her own accord to party as hard as humanly possible, she ends up in some encounters that seem guiltlessly hot, including a teased-up jumble with Sally (five-alarm fire Cindy Freemont sporting short-cropped hair, scary eye makeup, and a giant cigar). Also of specific note is when Conchita (Rita Vance), another of Spencer’s slaves, does an amazingly lascivious flame dance in the third act that is scorching, beautifully captured, and perhaps some of the best filmmaking Michael Findlay ever notched under his belt.

And The Ultimate Degenerate’s power doesn’t just deliver with the sex. For after a truly remarkable sequence in which a drug induced nightmare fugue gives way to a true sense of erotic terror, one of the final shots of the film, a Vaseline smeared point-of-view shot given an incredible amount of fluidity that only a camera operator in a wheelchair could provide (on that budget), is an astonishing slam dunk. And, as had been the case with many of Michael and Roberta’s work up to that point, it long predates some of the style and content taken up by those horror filmmakers who worked the New York adult circuit and knew a good thing when they saw it.

I’m looking at you, Sean S. Cunningham. You, too, Wes Craven.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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