The first 20-30 minutes of Secrets of Sex hit a vein of camp gold that’s guaranteed to launch you into schlock ecstasy. In the very first scene, a Paradise Lost quotation, the one Mary Shelley used to preface Frankenstein, looms over two buff naked men and an equally nude blonde with pendulous mammaries. They’re seated in several bales-worth of hay, but soon they get up, embrace, then slowly orbit each other in slow motion. And this is before the film’s mummy narrator, played by writer Elliott Stein, shows up.
Once he does, Secrets of Sex, originally released in the U.S. as Bizarre, largely breaks down into macabre libido-centric parables that make the film feel like a baffling but ironically slow-witted pseudo-intellectual cross-breed of EC Comics’s Tales from the Crypt and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid to Ask. Most portmanteau films, specifically ones that weren’t created by beatniks intent on reducing the history of mankind to an eternal battle of the sexes through the lens of a semiserious exploitation film, only work in bits and pieces. Various disparate stories usually just can’t sustain themselves as a singular, thematically unified whole. This goes double for Secrets of Sex, a film whose central premise of an eternal stalemate between men and women in the sex war is abstracted in book-end sequences of topless go-go dancers fighting half-naked proto-Chippendales wielding machine guns. Even when you think you’re laughing with the movie, you’re more than likely laughing at it.
Stein’s mummy presents male-female relationships over the centuries as a history of deviance: Homosexuality, sadomasochism, and lizard-related neuroses are signs of not just one, but rather all of the times. These ham-handed fixations are only really presented in an engaging way when leavened with a somewhat knowing sense of humor. Unfortunately, because the script is a patchwork collaboration worked on at different times by a gaggle of five authors, each one with their respective bugfuck sensibilities, Secrets of Sex feels like an omnibus feature written by a pretentious schizophrenic. In one sequence, a man reading Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose in his tighty whities discovers his house is being cased by a leather-clad minx. He promptly beds her, using his telephone’s receiver as a sex toy while the operator asks him to please hang up. This is unfortunately one of the film’s more playful ones. It’s mostly bombastic in its half-joking, Blake Edwardsian “go with the flow” mentality, though no more so than most of the film’s exploitative contemporaries. And yet, somehow, the idea of watching a Burroughsian lack of communication that leads to an unexpected bout of boffing is only so funny.
Then again, there’s always something in each segment worth laughing at. Even weaker segments, like the one where a nebbish man (Stein again) contracts a prostitute and asks her to allow his pet lizard into bed with them, have their moments: “My contact lens has dropped among your charms” is undoubtedly the best line in the movie. Still, there isn’t that much to the scene beyond a perplexing flashback where a younger nebbish man (still played by Stein, now wearing a beanie and a candy-striped blazer) is traumatized by lizard statues in a public park. Kinky, truly, but not nearly as funny as its filmmakers undoubtedly thought it was.
Still, the sequence that best exemplifies Secrets of Sex’s kitschy but hardly modest charms is one where a male model ends up dying for his art. The actual murder that the film climaxes with is filmed with a flair for avant-garde montage sequences and a wicked sense of humor. Images of the model pendulously straddling a dull blade are intercut with shots of the sadistic photographer that put him in that unfortunate position enjoying her lunch: cutting a rare steak with a dull knife and later stubbing her shriveled, coffee-stained cigarette butt into her saucer. It’s unclear that the filmmakers of Secrets of Sex were trying hard to do anything but please themselves and make a little money while doing it, as in a tentative spoof of a clueless lady James Bond-type spy that becomes tangentially sidetracked by a silent bedroom farce within that spy film. But in that earlier fashion model sequence, everything effortlessly comes together in ways that the rest of the film only strives for.
Secrets of Sex looks like it was put together on the cheap, but also features some terrific bargain-basement avant-garde sequences where concepts are abstracted well beyond normal levels for a cheapie skin flick. The image quality on Synapse's disc is appreciably only somewhat marred by grain, as is the soundtrack with hisses and pops. That lends the film an authentically grotty look and sound, but never to the point where that becomes a distraction. You can still readily make out the cellulose on any of the girls' supple frames if you try, as in one scene where a girl slowly removes her bikini bottom to reveal cottage-cheese moon craters that are both terrifying and mesmerizing.
Synapse did a fantastic job stocking this disc with extra features. The audio commentary discussion between writer Tom Weaver and Secrets of Sex producer Richard Gordon, who financed such canonical B pictures as No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Fiend Without a Face, is terrific. Gordon is a self-aware and clever fount of information and his discussion with Weaver rarely is a direct discussion of what we're looking at in each scene, but rather a history of the people in them and where they came from.
A brief video interview with Elliott Stein is interesting if for no other reason that he tells us that he and William Burroughs planned on making a film called "The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler," to be directed by Burroughs. According to Stein, a script written by Burroughs and himself was finished but never filmed. Granted, this 11-minute interview doesn't really tell us much of anything about what motivated the filmmakers when they made Secrets of Sex. Stein claims the mummy narrator construct was his idea. He goes on to say that Boris Karloff's 1932 The Mummy is one of his favorite movies, which tells you absolutely nothing of why a mummy is narrating a movie about the sex war.
The best feature on the disc is a pair of short films Balch directed and Burroughs, a mutual friend of Balch and Stein's, wrote. The Cut Ups, in particular, is a real find, a small wonder of dizzyingly refracted images of repressed sexuality, language as a virus, and men with hidden motives skulking about in public places. It's as close as we're likely to come to a filmed version of Naked Lunch, though Cronenberg's adaptations is no slouch.
Secrets of Sex is more of a curio than anything else today, but anyone even mildly interested in it should pick up this disc just to see director Antony Balch and William Burroughs's astonishing avant-garde short The Cut Ups.