Release Date(s)Various (June 28, 2022)
Studio(s)AGFA/Something Weird/Vinegar Syndrome
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B-
- Overall Grade: A-
Since Hollywood has had a long history of being hostile to female directors, they’ve often had to make their way in the world of independent filmmaking instead. While some aspects of the mainstream movie business have been a bit more welcoming to women, such as editing and screenwriting, the doors for directors have stayed firmly shut for the majority of Hollywood’s history. There have been rare exceptions like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, but for the most part, women have had to look elsewhere to find work behind the camera. One such place is exploitation cinema, where directors like Stephanie Rothman have plied their trades, and another is adult filmmaking, which has had distinct voices like Suze Randall and Candida Royalle. Doris Wishman was a director who straddled the two, making softcore adult exploitation films on shoestring budgets throughout the Sixties and Seventies.
Wishman’s career spanned the early days of nudist camp films to the advent of hardcore action during the Seventies, but she stubbornly followed her own path during that entire timeframe. She did eventually make a couple of hardcore films of her own, but her heart wasn’t in it, and she retired after struggling to finish the slasher film A Night to Dismember in 1983. She did briefly return to filmmaking in 2001, just before passing way from complications due to lymphoma in 2002. The Films of Doris Wishman: The Twilight Years collects seven of her films that she made between 1970 and 1977.
Deadly Weapons (1974) was Wishman’s first collaboration with the Polish-born exotic dancer Liliana Wilczkowska, better known to exploitation fans as Chesty Morgan. Morgan’s claim to fame was her prodigious bust, which measured in at a whopping 73”. The posters for Deadly Weapons proudly leaned into that fact by featuring the tagline “Seeing is Believing: 73-32-36”—and yes, some things do need to be seen to be believed, but be forewarned: they simply can’t be unseen afterward. The story by Judy Kushner (credited as J.J. Kendall) features Morgan as Crystal, a woman who methodically tracks down the gangsters responsible for the death of her boyfriend, and then enacts her revenge by smothering them with, well, her very own deadly weapons. As she delves deeper into the underworld, she eventually uncovers a familiar face involved with the mob’s schemes. (Speaking of familiar faces, watch for adult film veteran Harry Reems in a small role as one of the gangsters.)
There’s not much else going on in Deadly Weapons, but Wishman’s direction is energetic, and she keeps things moving despite the limited resources that she had available. She used stock footage to paper over any gaps in what she could actually shoot on her own, as well as library music in order to keep things at least sounding professional. She also wasn’t afraid to take an otherwise preposterous story down some very dark rabbit holes, including a tragic ending. Morgan wasn’t much of an actor, but her unique assets helped Deadly Weapons find a receptive grindhouse audience.
Things might not have turned out the best for Crystal, but since you just can’t keep a good bosom down, Wishman immediately followed up Deadly Weapons with Double Agent 73 (1974), also starring Chesty Morgan. Judy Kushner’s story moved things out of the gangster milieu and into the world of international espionage (or at least a low-budget localized version of it, anyway). Jane (Morgan) is a secret agent who is sent under cover to infiltrate a heroin ring, kill the criminals one by one, and take pictures of the bodies as proof. To help keep her cover, the camera that she uses has been implanted into her left breast, and all she has to do is squeeze. Yes, you read that right. There’s high concept, and then there’s high concept.
Wishman’s direction is even more energetic in Double Agent 73 than it was in Deadly Weapons, and she displayed some real creativity on her nonexistent budget. She used stock footage of a club that she couldn’t afford to shoot in, and then faked Morgan being there by filming her against a fluttering mylar sheet—and it all actually intercuts surprisingly well. Wishman also shot an honest-to-God car chase simply by having the cars drive around town normally, and then speeding up the footage in post. She even covered her lack of technical resources by openly borrowing Hitchcock’s staging of the shower scene in Psycho—Hitch used quick cutting to make his scene look more violent than it actually was, but Wishman did the same thing to hide the fact that she had nothing more than some unconvincing fake blood to work with. Yet thanks to Wishman’s complete lack of shame in doing whatever that she needed to do to put things together, to say nothing of Morgan’s lack of inhibition, Double Agent 73 remains good clean fun. Well, maybe not so clean, but fun nonetheless.
Fun wasn’t necessarily the goal for The Amazing Transplant (1970), as it has a much harsher edge than many other Wishman films of the Seventies. The screenplay by Dawn Whitman follows the misadventures of Arthur (cinematographer Joao Fernandes) as he sexually assaults a series of women, unable to control himself for reasons that he doesn’t understand. The police investigation is led by Arthur’s uncle Bill (Larry Hunter), who follows the trail wherever it leads, ultimately ending up at the door of Dr. Cyril Meade (Bernard Marcel), who may know the secret behind what’s driving Arthur.
While many of Wishman’s films featured a clear sense of female empowerment, the women in The Amazing Transplant tend to be victims more than anything else. There’s a lot non-consensual sex on display, and even the scenes that aren’t openly rape still trade in uncomfortably questionable forms of consent. The most interesting thing about the film is that the title appears to have no bearing on the story for the majority of the running time, with its meaning only becoming evident at the conclusion. Even then, it’s not clear what Wishman was trying to say with it. She also deliberately left the ending ambiguous by cheekily leaving part of a newspaper headline covered, leaving it to audiences to decide what actually happened. (Poring over the shot while freeze-framed does reveal the truth, but that wasn’t something that the original grindhouse audiences could have done, so Wishman definitely didn’t want viewers to know for sure.) Any way that you look at it, The Amazing Transplant is a bit out of character with most of the other films from this phase of Wishman’s career.
Let me Die a Woman (1977) is also a bit of an oddity, though for completely different reasons. It’s a documentary, or at least a quasi-documentary, combining interviews (both real and staged) with re-enactments of some of the stories that are being told. The subject matter? Transgenderism and gender reassignment surgery. Wishman actually began shooting Let Me Die a Woman in 1971, but didn’t manage to complete it until 1977, which isn’t too surprising considering the biases of the era. It’s a topic that was far out of the mainstream, even for the grindhouse circuit of the day. The film alternates between an interview with a trans woman named Leslie, and segments featuring Dr. Leo Wollman, who was a gynecologist working with trans people. It’s Wollman’s segments that are sometimes dramatized, with his stories being visualized by Wishman as softcore sex scenes. (One of them features Harry Reems again, nearly unrecognizable without his infamous mustache.) Wishman also included footage from real gender reassignment surgeries.
It’s an uneasy blend, in more ways than one. Let Me Die a Woman is an exploitation film through and through, yet Wishman and Wollman were both clearly sympathetic to trans people. Despite the sensationalized dramatizations, there’s nothing judgmental about the way that the real individuals are presented. It’s all quite matter-of-fact (especially given how woodenly that Wollman reads his lines, though since he’s dubbed, it may not even be his real voice). Ironically enough, the only person who really belittles trans people in the film is Leslie. She’s got some really unfortunate takes regarding other transexuals—at one point, she even compares herself favorably to Anita Bryant. Yet whatever compassion that Wishman may have had toward her subjects, she still wasn’t shy about parading them naked in front of the camera, so she still took advantage of them in her own way. Let Me Die a Woman is essentially a film at war with itself, as its genuinely empathetic perspective is constantly undercut by its own exploitative nature. It’s a deeply strange and uncomfortable film to watch—there’s never been anything else quite like it.
While many of Wishman’s films were high on energy but low on plot, that’s not the case with The Immoral Three (1975). The story and screenplay by Judy Kushner and Robert Jahn is filled with twists, turns, and even a generous helping of non sequiturs for good measure. It’s the saga of three seemingly unrelated women: Ginny (Cindy Boudreau), Sandy (Sandra Kay), and Nancy (Michele Marie). They’re all brought together after the death of Jane (Boudreau again) for a reading of her will, and then they—well, it’s all outrageous enough that everything is best experienced cold, so the less that you know going in, the better. Suffice it to say that the women discover they’re not quite as unrelated as they once thought, and that Agent 73 is involved in some capacity (though it’s not clear if she’s supposed to be the same Agent 73 as Chesty Morgan’s character in Double Agent 73, since she’s played by a different actor here).
Despite the convoluted nature of the story, The Immoral Three is really a revenge drama at heart. Wishman keeps things moving briskly at all times, so it really doesn’t matter if anything actually makes sense. Yet she was still perfectly happy to let the plot machinations grind to a complete halt occasionally for a few irrelevant sex scenes, such as one that takes place on a stalled elevator. (Really, what else is there to do on a stalled elevator?) Wishman’s creativity despite her lack of resources is on full display throughout the film, including one of the best fake beards of all time—it looks like a cardboard cutout, and that’s probably exactly what it was. Everything culminates in a genuinely wild finale that has to be seen to be believed; the “Seeing is Believing” tagline from the poster for Deadly Weapons would have been just as appropriate here.
Keyholes Are for Peeping (1972), subtitled Or Is There Life after Marriage?, is a rare full comedy from Wishman, and she assayed the genre with the same gusto that she approached everything else. It was a collaboration with comedian Sammy Petrillo, whose only other noteworthy film credit was William Beaudine’s infamous Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla—and that says everything that you need to know about his gifts as a funnyman. The story by Wishman and her editor Lou Burdi features Petrillo as Stanley, a nebbish who lives with his mother (also Petrillo, in drag, with Wishman providing the voice). Stanley dreams of making his own way in life by becoming a marriage counselor, in the hopes that he can marry his girlfriend—or to be more precise, in the hopes that he can finally have sex with his girlfriend, as she’s waiting for marriage. Meanwhile, the building’s super, Manuel (Phillip Stahl), keeps pretending to clean the hallways as an excuse to look through keyholes and watch his tenants having sex. The seemingly unrelated paths of Stanley and Manuel eventually collide, and not to Stanley’s benefit.
Humor is definitely a personal thing; when it comes to comedy, there’s no accounting for taste. Your enjoyment of Keyholes Are for Peeping will definitely depend on your tolerance for Petrillo. Many of his jokes haven’t stood the test of time, especially a cringeworthy one about the Ubangi people. While some people might dismiss things like that as being products of their time, a bad joke is still a bad joke, and that’s one aspect of humor which remains timeless. Still, it’s interesting to see how Wishman approached this kind of material.
Love Toy (1971) is a bit of a jarring shift when compared to Keyholes Are for Peeping. Wishman made both of them back-to-back, and the comedy in Keyholes may have been a way of lightening up after the disturbing nature of Love Toy. The story from Judy Kushner (as J.J. Kendall again) shows the aftermath of a high-stakes card game between Marcus (Larry Hunter) and Alex (Bernard Marcel). When Marcus loses everything that he owns, Alex offers to let him have everything back in exchange for one night with his daughter Chris (Pat Happel). Marcus agrees reluctantly, so Alex and his wife Mary (Uta Erickson) tie him up while Alex goes off to play twisted and perverted games with Chris. Meanwhile, Mary plays some games of her own with Marcus, but she can’t resist getting involved with Alex and Chris, so things end up going from bad to worse.
Love Toy trades heavily in nonconsensual sex again, which is something that just feels out of place given the strong nature of so many of Wishman’s female characters during this period. There’s a heavy House on the Edge of the Park vibe to Love Toy, and given the fact that the David Hess character in that film is also named Alex, it’s hard not to think that Ruggero Deodato and his writers may have taken some inspiration from Wishman’s film. House on the Edge of the Park at least provided some release by turning things into a rape/revenge story at the conclusion, but there’s no such catharsis in Love Toy. Things take a really unpleasant turn toward the end of this story, and while there’s a twist that seems to back away from it, that’s followed by yet another twist that plunges Chris back into her nightmare. Wishman traded in a variety of genres throughout her career, but Love Toy is one of the few of her films that can openly be described as horror.
All seven of these films were shot by cinematographers Yuri Haviv, C. Davis Smith, and Joao Fernandes (sometimes credited as Juan Fernandez). While they were produced on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, and would have been matted for theatrical exhibition, the aspect ratios vary as presented here. Deadly Weapons, Double Agent 73, and The Immoral Three are all at 1.85:1, while The Amazing Transplant, Let Me Die a Woman, Keyholes are for Peeping, and Love Toy are at 1.37:1. (There’s plenty of breathing room at the top and the bottom of the frame for latter four, so it does seem like they may have been composed with matting in mind.) The American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video describe all of these transfers as being from 2K scans of the original camera negatives, although there are some changeover marks visible in a few of the films. Still, it’s entirely possible that the cues were cut or burned into the original negative, since Wishman doubtless couldn’t have afforded to produce internegatives for printing.
Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73 have similar picture qualities. They’re both surprisingly clean, without too much damage on display. Deadly Weapons does have a few shots that do have significant damage, such as the one at 18:16, and also occasional dropped frames. Double Agent 73 is just a touch cleaner overall, though it’s marred by focus issues, but that’s inherent to the original cinematography. Of course, the stock footage is of varying quality, and it doesn’t match the surrounding material, but that’s also inherent to the source elements. There are some nighttime exterior shots that look extra grainy, possibly from pushing the exposure on slower film. Colors contrast, and black levels are all fine. Nitpicks aside, these films look better here than they have any right to look.
The Amazing Transplant and Let Me Die a Woman both demonstrate more substantial signs of damage. The Amazing Transplant has plenty of scratches, including a group of persistent ones in the middle of the frame that run for the length of an entire reel. In all other regards, it’s similar to the previous two films. Let Me Die a Woman is the weakest presentation in the entire set. It’s filled with scratches, blotches, and other damage marks, as well as density fluctuations and color shifts. There are also plenty of dropped frames. These problems are severe enough that even an expensive frame-by-frame restoration couldn’t have fixed all of them.
The Immoral Three splits the difference between the previous two pairs. It does have some heavier damage, including a few substantial scratches and blotches. It also suffers from a noticeable drop in quality for the exterior footage included from 47:42 to 48:25, but it’s otherwise comparable to both Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73. Keyholes are for Peeping is a bit more perplexing. There’s a marked difference in quality between the primary footage of Stanley’s adventure, and the sex scenes that Manuel is watching—the former are notably softer and grainier. It almost looks like a mixture of 16 mm and 35 mm. Most of the sex scenes were stock footage from other Wishman films, so maybe it’s just a matter of different stocks having been used for Keyholes are for Peeping. Aside from that anomaly, the levels of damage are otherwise comparable to the best-looking films in the set. Love Toy is also generally clean, with the damage mostly in the form of speckling and minor scratches, though the ends of each reel do get a bit worse. Overall, it’s probably one of the strongest presentations here.
The audio for all seven titles is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. They’re all derived from the mono optical tracks, with minimal cleanup, so there’s some hiss and crackling in the background, plus a few pops as well. In most cases, artifacts like this tend to be worse near reel changes. Most of the dialogue was post-synced, so it rarely integrates well into the soundstages—and in some cases, it really stands out like a sore thumb. The worst offender in that regard is Let Me Die a Woman, which features production audio for the interview footage combined with the badly overdubbed voice for Dr. Wollman, and the difference between the two is pretty jarring. Let Me Die a Woman also has the most audible damage, which isn’t surprising given the condition of the elements that were used. Otherwise, the audio is serviceable for the rest of the films in the set. The library music sometimes sounds surprisingly robust, so at least Wishman had access to quality recordings to use in her films.
DEADLY WEAPONS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B+/B
DOUBLE AGENT 73 (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B/B
THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B-/B
LET ME DIE A WOMAN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/C-/C+
THE IMMORAL THREE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B-/B
KEYHOLES ARE FOR PEEPING (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B-/B
LOVE TOY (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) C/B+/B
AFGA’s Blu-ray release of The Films of Doris Wishman: The Twilight Years is a three-disc set packaged in a clear amaray case that displays a Chesty Morgan spread on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 24-page booklet featuring an essay by Something Weird’s Lisa Petrucci, as well as an extended 1994 interview with Wishman that was conducted by Peggy Ahwesh. There’s also a spot gloss magnetized slipcase and slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 5,000 units. The following extras are included:
DISC ONE: DEADLY WEAPONS & DOUBLE AGENT 73
- Audio Commentary on Deadly Weapons by Michael Bowen
- Audio Commentary on Deadly Weapons by Annie Choi and Joseph A. Ziemba
- Audio Commentary on Double Agent 73 by Frank Henenlotter and Anthony Sneed
- Trailers (Upscaled SD – 2 in all – 4:25)
Doris Wishman biographer Michael Bowen kicks off the first commentary for Deadly Weapons by describing how he first met her back in the Nineties, and the challenging process that he went through while researching her life and films. He does provide biographical information about Wishman, and places Deadly Weapons into context with the rest of her career. He also gives plenty of details about Chesty Morgan and the other actors in the film, as well as identifying the locations—many of Wishman’s films were shot in her own apartment, and the decor is very recognizable from film to film. Bowen definitely knows his stuff—this track is a treasure trove of everything that you could possibly want to know about Doris Wishman, and then some.
The second commentary for Deadly Weapons features Annie Choi from Bleeding Skull, as well as Joseph A. Ziemba from AFGA (and he’s also a contributor to Bleeding Skull). They both make it clear up front how thrilled that they are to be doing a commentary for this film, and their enthusiasm shows. They tend to take a broader view than Bowen, who dives into every bit of minutiae that he can squeeze into 75 minutes. Choi and Ziemba provide more of a fan’s view of the film, and there’s nothing wrong with that—though there’s also some interesting inside information about the behind-the-scenes work at AFGA on the production of this set.
Speaking of a fan’s view, the commentary for Double Agent 73 is provided by fellow grindhouse filmmaker and Wishman uber-fan Frank Henenlotter, who is as interested in the gratuitous shots of feet in the film as he is in the gratuitous nudity. He even offers his own foot fetishist drinking game while watching, and he keeps it going for most of the track (even though he does miss a few). He’s joined by filmmaker Anthony Sneed, although Sneed isn’t credited on the packaging or the menu. It sounds like Sneed hadn’t yet seen Double Agent 73, so it’s hilarious listening to Henenlotter explaining everything to him—until you’ve heard the director of Frankenhooker trying to justify why there’s a camera in Chesty Morgan’s left breast, you simply haven’t lived. It’s a freewheeling track, as they follow any tangents that interest them regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with Double Agent 73, but if you love Henenlotter’s films, you’ll love this commentary. It’s definitely the yin to Michael Bowen’s yang. (The only downside is a few blasts of distortion that mar the recording.)
DISC TWO: THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT & LET ME DIE A WOMAN
- Audio Commentary on Let Me Die a Woman by Carta Monir
- Trailers (Upscaled SD & HD – 2 in all – 4:53)
The commentary for Let Me Die a Woman is provided by trans writer and publisher Carta Monir. She notes the importance of the fact that Wishman used production audio in the film, as it provided a record of the voices of real trans people from the era. On the other hand, she also points out the artificiality of the rest of the film. She gives a great overview of the gender politics in the film, both from a modern perspective in hindsight, but also from the historical perspectives of the time—including the complex attitudes of Leslie. (She does mention the commentary that Leslie did on the 2005 Synapse DVD, and says that she hopes it would be included on this Blu-ray, but unfortunately it couldn’t be). Let Me Die a Woman just isn’t an easy film to analyze, but Monir does a credible (and fair) job of examining all of its strengths and weaknesses.
DISC THREE: THE IMMORAL THREE, KEYHOLES ARE FOR PEEPING, & LOVE TOY
- Audio Commentary on The Immoral Three by Lars Nilsen and Bret Berg
- Trailers (HD – 3 in all – 7:32)
Bret Berg from AGFA and Lars Nilsen from the Austin Film Society are the commentators for The Immoral Three, and they freely admit that not only should this not be the first Doris Wishman film that you watch, but that it shouldn’t be the first Doris Wishman commentary track that you listen to, either. It’s true that they don’t have the voluminous facts at their disposal that Michael Bowen does, but they’re still selling themselves a bit short. They compare The Immoral Three to Charlie’s Angels, among other things, and discuss how softcore films like the ones that Wishman made were becoming less relevant during the hardcore era of the Seventies. (They describe it as being sex that was filmed by Martians who didn’t know what Earth sex was.) They obsess over the low-budget trappings like the Seventies fashion, the decor, and the use of stock footage. The self-deprecating tone here is refreshing, so this is still a worthwhile commentary track.
Needless to say, The Films of Doris Wishman: The Twilight Years won’t be for all tastes, but it’s an essential collection for fans of grindhouse cinema, or for anyone else with an open mind, and who’s willing to meet micro-budgeted films on their own terms. It’s seven different titles from one of the most prolific women filmmakers of all time, packed into one compact set. But wait, there’s more! This is just the first of three volumes of Wishman’s films that AFGA, Something Weird, and Vinegar Syndrome plan to release. It’s a veritable bonanza of Wishmania, and yet more proof of what a great era that this is for physical media fans.
- Stephen Bjork