Review by David Carter
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source bootleg VHS
A common misconception about film is that the “sequel boom” began in the 1980’s with such titles as Friday the 13th, Rocky, and Back to the Future. In fact, large and small studios had been churning out sequels to popular titles for almost twenty years before Rocky fought the big Russian. During the much looser restrictions of the 60’s and 70’s many movies weren’t even remotely related to the film to which they were supposedly based on. A perfect example of this type of “fake franchise” is the Emmanuelle series. The Emmanuelle character is basically a sexual adventurer. All of the films are allegedly based on a 1973 French film starring porn star Sylvia Kristel, Emmanuelle (spelled with 2 m’s) based on the autobiography of actress Emmanuelle Arson (The Sand Pebbles). The film was a huge hit internationally, making over $100 million, and spawning many legitimate sequels. Much more numerous however were the dozens of titles which just borrowed the Emmanuelle character and the varying degrees of hard or soft-core sex, depending on which film you watch.
Most of these sequels are utter crap and aren’t worth the cost of the blank tape used to copy the film. A considerable amount of the Emmanuelle films are unrelated foregn sex films, where the female lead’s name was changed to Emmanuelle when the film was dubbed into English. However during the mid to late 70’s a few of the Emanuelle (with 1m) films began to be about more than just mindless sex scenes spliced together. The beginning of this turn for the better was the introduction to a new actress to the role of Emanuelle: Laura Gemser. A dark-skinned, exotic beauty from the island of Java, Gemser was not only more attractive than the previous and subsequent Emmanuelles, she was also a much better actress. Though not of African decent, Gemser is known as the “Black Emanuelle” and some versions of these films are titled thusly. The series of films where Gemser is paired with Italian director Joe D’Amato (Porno Holocaust, Anthrophagus, etc) transcend the boundaries of the standard 70’s nudie movie. The half-dozen Emanuelle films that he made (in a two year period!) are true exploitation classics and could serve as a perfect primer for an exploitation neophyte. Lets examine what I feel to be the best of these films: Emanuelle in America.
The film begins in America (of course), specifically New York City where Emanuelle is both an erotic photographer and a freelance investigative journalist for an unnamed newspaper. To serve as an introduction to the Emanuelle themes, Gemser is attacked by a Puritanical would-be-murderer because she is the “embodiment of sex and lust…the cause of all of this century’s problems.” Emanuelle of course escapes using her sexuality. Now that everyone is caught up, the plot begins. Emanuelle gets a tip from a source that something is amiss in California. Wealthy industrialist Eric Van Darren is buying a harem, with each girl corresponding to a Zodiac sign. Immediately Emanuelle fakes her passport to become a Virgo and heads of to join in the fun. Thus begins one of the most intricate plots in the history of exploitation films. Freaky things are certainly afoot at the Van Darren compound (basically just lots of sex), including one of the harem girls masturbating a horse. The stables are also where Emanuelle stumbles upon the real source of Van Darren’s money, guns to be sold on the black market. Emanuelle escapes the compound to break the story to the world with the help of a handsome Italian aristocrat who invites her to visit him in Italy.
This first episode serves as a blueprint for the rest of the film in two ways. Firstly, the action is divided up by the stories that Emanuelle writes for the paper. She returns to New York to turn in the story and pitch her next idea inbetween each adventure. Secondly, during each adventure she meets someone or sees something that leads her to the next adventure. This is an interesting technique employed by D’Amato, who’s films usual suffer due to a lack of a coherent narrative. It is also an effective way of developing the plot. The viewer never knows more than Emanuelle herself which leads to a small but welcome aspect of suspense.
Emanuelle does visit the Italian nobleman at his estate in Venice. There she finds that his intent was less than honorable (imagine that) and he is really a part of group of wealthy sexual deviants (story #2). During this incident she meets an old and ugly rich woman with a young handsome boyfriend. With some snooping she finds out there is a small island in the Carribean where wealthy women can buy themselves a young stud, and of course try them out first (story #3). The visitors to the island engage in all types of fetishes and perversions. This episode serves as a juxtaposition to the harem from the beginning; the filmmaker’s subtle attempt to show that women can be just as immoral as men. It is on this island where the true meat of the story is revealed. In this place where the customers can afford anything they desire and there are no laws to restrain them, Emanuelle stumbles on the one sexual taboo that makes even her squeamish: torture/snuff films (story #4).
Emanuelle, being a good reporter, is curious to whether or not the film is real, and if so, who is responsible. A tip leads her to Washington, DC, where the sexual lust and lust for power go hand in hand. This was both a swipe at the United States by the Italian filmmakers and a type of socio-political commentary. We see the timeless theme of “absolute power corrupting absolutely” and the standard 70’s antiestablishmentarianism. In a nod to Pasolini’s Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom, those who have the desire to rule over people view them as a commodity, not as humans. I never like to spoil endings, so I’ll just say that there are some more snuff films, some LSD, but Emanuelle is O.K. and has a happy ending.
Emanuelle in America is not only superior to the majority of the series, its also better than a lot of the exploitation films of the 1970’s. Somehow D’Amato’s sick and twisted tendencies shown in the majority of his films were reigned in to a reasonable level and don’t overwhelm the message. During D’Amato’s run at the helm of the series, Emanuelle became a quasi-feminist heroine. The original film had Emmanuelle the epitome of male desires and she behaved like a stereotypical male fantasy brought to life. In this and the other Gemser/D’Amato films, the power lies with Emanuelle and is more about her exploring her own sexual freedom as opposed to pleasing others. The film is shot very well (D’Amato was also a cinematographer) and all of the acting is at least passable, both of which are rarities for this genre. To put this film in context of other exploitation films reviewed here at NotComing in has less sex than Caligula and less violence than I Spit On Your Grave. It is still more than some people can handle though, so don’t expect to sit down and watch this with your parents or clergyman. While it has both explicit hardcore sex and graphic violence, I’ve seen this film lambasted on other internet film sites for being too “tame.” I won’t get on my soapbox, but many, many people watch these films for less academic reasons, and Emanuelle in America doesn’t have enough sex for the perverts or enough violence for the gore-hounds. By my standards, it’s a very enjoyable and entertaining film with a tangible message making it a good addition to our library of exploitation films.