The “Flesh” Trilogy (1967-68)

“Poison semen”. Just keep that phrase in mind while you’re reading this. Insofar as it makes sense to watch Michael and Roberta Findlay’s “Flesh” films at all, I suspect it makes sense to only watch all three in one hit rather than spread out individually. This I did last night. Similarly, it only really makes sense to review them in one hit as well rather than give each their own review. This I am doing now. Having said that, it’s still worth noting that, like that other noted phenomenon Star Wars, the “Flesh” films weren’t conceived as a trilogy, and only the unexpected success of the first film led to the other two being made at all. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of watching the three films in one sitting is important, and so the DVD from Something Weird is probably the ideal way to see them (short of watching them in 35mm at an actual grindhouse, of course).

Anyway, as we all know by now, in the 80s the horror genre was overrun by that rough beast called the slasher film (I’ve always preferred Ric Meyers’ term “murder movies” as a distinction from “real” horror films, but there’s a whole argument about genre there which we’ll save for another time), since when a certain amount of ink has been spent trying to work out where it came from. Wikipedia argues that the first serial killer thriller can be dated back as far as 1932, indeed, but agrees that its most likely progenitors can be found from the early 60s onwards (here, read it yourself). I don’t see the “Flesh” films widely claimed as forerunners of the slasher film, but I think they should be. The series is, after all, purely and simply about killing people, most of them women.

Slashers have long been accused of misogyny, of course, and that charge is easily laid at these films’ collective feet. The whole premise of the series is that Richard Jennings (Michael Findlay himself) comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, he flees in shock, and ends up being run down by a car, as a result of which accident he’s left in a wheelchair and minus one eye. Accordingly, he essentially decides all women must die because, you know, they’re wicked and their vaginas make men do strange things, etc. I’ve never been placed in that situation myself, but I am sure that is not the most rational reaction. And Findlay gets three films out of this premise.

So yeah, the misogyny goes without saying, really, and Findlay’s presence in the leading role poses a few interesting questions as well. But the involvement of Mrs Findlay, Roberta, in her husband’s work creates a fascinating layer of complication; until their marriage ended in 1974 she worked with him as co-producer, co-author, cinematographer, actress, etc, and from what little I can gather she seems to have embraced the 70s hardcore trend far more enthusiastically than Michael did. She seems to have been an interesting character, and her participation in these atrocities, however pseudonymous, makes the waters just that bit murkier.

Anyway, The Touch of Her Flesh kicks off proceedings with our Mr Jennings having the aforementioned realisation of the ghastliness of women, and practising his skills on some go-go dancers and prostitutes before turning his attention to his faithless wife and her lesbian lover. It’s basically just kind of nasty, although there’s certainly some inventiveness involved in the methods Jennings uses to dispatch his victims (poison darts, buzzsaw, etc). I’m baffled if I can quite understand how this was popular enough among grindhouse audiences in 1967 to generate demand for a follow-up, not least because Jennings appears to get killed at the end of it. Still, I presume whoever did watch this stuff 45 years ago wasn’t bothered by the fairly rudimentary narrative and filming technique…

At any rate, the Findlays had an inexplicable hit on their hands and a demand for more women to be killed. So they obliged with two more films (given that the second ends with a “coming soon to this theatre” card for the third, I presume they were both made and released around the same time). The Curse of Her Flesh is a bit more technically advanced, featuring actual sync-sound rather than dodgy post-dubbing (in contrast to the other two films, and indeed to most of Findlay’s other films), and it’s remarkable how this gives the film a vague feeling of actually being better than Touch; that said, it also means the film is far heavier on dialogue than Touch, and, well, the dialogue is kind of astounding. But the film’s strength (if that’s the word) is the way it ramps up the strangeness factor, literally right from the opening credits (which appear as graffiti on the wall of a men’s urinal, setting the tone in many ways), manifesting in some even more peculiar deaths (poisoned cat’s claws, a dildo with a concealed knife, etc) but also details like the stag film involving a squash being used as a phallus. Oh, and there’s also the reappearance of Jennings’ missing eye. Still, if he can come back from paralysis and apparent death, I suppose his eye growing back is a comparatively minor feat…

Somewhere during film number three, The Kiss of Her Flesh, the series goes from odd to fucked up beyond belief. Jennings has seen off his wife and her adulterer, but now he’s up against Maria after he bumps off her sister Doris’s best friend (involving torture by lobster claw…?). Jennings poses as a doctor and pays a visit to Doris and her lesbian lover, and then the poison semen I referred to earlier finally enters the picture… not literally, thank god/dess, but you know what I mean. And really, this is kind of mind-boggling. I mean, torturing that first poor woman with a lobster claw before electrocuting her is one thing, and the acid douche he applies to the lesbian lover is another, but poison semen? I don’t know what was harder to work out: how Jennings would’ve actually made his semen poisonous, or how the Findlays even came up with the idea of poison semen in the first place… Needless to say, Maria takes her sister’s death badly, and Jennings finally stands to get his comeuppance at the hands of someone as twisted as him. Kiss is markedly more upfront with its sexual content (male and female genitalia on show, voyeuristic masturbation, lesbian incest OH GOD KILL ME NOW) and the dialogue is still kind of amazing. And really, the end title announcing “positively the end of Richard Jennings” is about the only way the Findlays could’ve ended the film; I’m damned if I could see how they could’ve gone any further with the series.

Like I said, cumulative effect is what matters. It wouldn’t even be the same watching the three films over three days or something like that, you’d have to watch all three in one go. Individually they’re negligible; collectively, over three and a half hours, they add up to a kind of amazing trash epic. Reprehensible in almost every way—artistically, morally, etc—the “Flesh” trilogy is almost impossible to recommend, and I daresay that the fact that I enjoyed it on some level (I’m not quite sure what) indicates something fairly unpleasant about me. But such is life, as someone once said, and I’m not unused to the idea that something fairly horrible lurks at the core of me. Clearly necessary viewing for trash connoisseurs, though, if no one else…

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