Flesh Gordon Review
First released in 1974, Flesh Gordon remains one of the enduring cult classics of exploitation cinema. The sci-fi sex romp was originally intended as a hardcore porn feature and you can clearly see in certain scenes that the actors, many of whom were porn stars, weren't faking it. However, the budget and production values rose during filming and the decision was made to cut out the more explicit footage and release it as a mainstream X-rated sex comedy. It was the early seventies and a new breed of anarchic humour was taking off. Flesh would come out around the same time as Monty Python & The Holy Grail and The Kentucky Fried Movie and would appeal to the same audience.
The plot is a porned-up version of the Flash Gordon serials and it sticks so close to the plot that an opening disclaimer was added to ward off a lawsuit. You'll notice the similarities to the big budget Flash Gordon film, which came out six years later in 1980. Earth is being attacked by a sex ray from the planet Porno which is causing people to copulate on the streets and planes to crash because the pilots can't resist jumping on the passengers. Flesh Gordon (Jason Williams), Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields) and Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgins) travel to Porno in a penis-shaped rocketship and discover that the ray is the work of "his impotence", the evil Emperor Wang, who looks like a cross between Ming the Merciless and Cherie Blair. Dale is captured by Wang, who plans to make her his bride, while Flesh is kidnapped by the tyrant's lusty sister Amora.
Okay, it sounds like the kind of parody a 13-year-old would come up with and most of the humour is on this level. I haven't even mentioned the Penisaurus or Prince Precious and his gay freedom fighters. Yet there's a charm to the film that makes you smile at the bad jokes the way you do at Kenneth Williams and Sid James in the better Carry On films. And there are some good jokes - for the King Kong-inspired finale, where Dale is carried off by a giant monster, the creature is given a hilariously droll voice-over by none other than Craig T Nelson, then a stand-up comic, now a busy character actor best known as the father in Poltergeist. There's also a nice tip of the hat to the conventions of the cliffhanger serials this is based on.
Flesh Gordon's other virtue is its special effects work, which ranges from the cheap and crude to the genuinely impressive. The crew contained several future Oscar winners, including make-up wizard Rick Baker and an uncredited Dennis Muren, who later supervised the effects for Jurassic Park and the recent Star Wars films. The quality of the stop-motion animation work, in particular Flesh's fight with the insect man, is outstanding.
I can't unreservedly recommend this. With my hand on my heart, I have to say it's not a great film and not anywhere near the class of Holy Grail or Kentucky Fried Movie. Sometimes it feels like watching a student film with crap jokes, naff sets and terrible acting and, despite its origins as a porno movie and the constant full frontal nudity, it's not at all sexy. And yet I can't help liking it. It's never boring, it has a puerile charm and a good few laughs and there are moments when you can't help but be impressed by what the filmmakers accomplished.
There have been censorship issues with Flesh Gordon in the UK, on account of the not-quite-pornographic raunchiness. Unfortunately I can't say for certain whether the film on this disc is uncut. Although the DVD was released in 2001, there's no reference to a widescreen version on the BBFC's database, just a 1988 fullscreen VHS release. As distributor Entertainment In Video would have been required to submit a widescreen version, there's obviously been a cock-up on someone's part. For the record, the 1988 version, which was officially cut by 1m 16s, ran for 84m 23s. The DVD's running time is 86m 11s so it's either uncut or cut by considerably less than any previous version.
Visually, this is all over the place but this is not the fault of the PAL transfer, which is 1.78:1 anamorphic and better than you might expect. It's down to the print, which has some damage, and also to the quality of the film as shot. The commentary explains how different sequences were produced by different crews, sometimes on different film stocks and the quality of what they came up with varied wildly. Some scenes are out of focus, others are very grainy and the lighting doesn't always match.
Sound is Dolby Stereo and adequate. Again, the original material doesn't give the disc producers much to work with but the sound is never less than clear. There are no subtitles.
The extras are the obligatory trailer (also 1.78:1 anamorphic) and a commentary by producer and co-director Howard Ziehm and if you never thought a commentary could be worth the price of a disc, you may change your mind after listening to this. It's not scene specific and Ziehm is obviously reading but, as he talks for nearly an hour and a half about his background and his experiences making Flesh Gordon, you should find what he has to say fascinating.
He speaks candidly about his work as a pornographer, the nightmarish problems he had finishing and selling Flesh Gordon and, most amusingly, his battles with the Californian legal system, which was cracking down on the porn industry at the time (see also the Sheen brothers' film Rated X). At one point, unable to prosecute him for shooting porn, which wasn't illegal, the cops charged him with "conspiracy to commit oral sex". Oral sex at the time was a misdemeanor with a $50 fine but conspiracy to commit it carried up to 15 years in jail. Quite a blow, you might say. There's enough information here to fill two in-depth documentaries and if you have any interest in exploitation film-making, you'll be riveted.
Menus are static and there are 18 chapter stops.
I can't in good conscience give the film more than 5 out of 10 because so much of it is amateurish and it's only sporadically funny but I will say I like it more than many films I'd rate higher. There's a spirit to it which makes you want to forgive it a lot. It should please fans of odd exploitation flicks and silly 70s humour and the commentary track is a great bonus. The picture and sound are only okay but it's not the distributor Entertainment In Video's fault. I can't see any disc producer getting much more out of it. The only blame I'd level at EiV is their failure to promote what should be a must-buy disc for cult movie lovers.
5 out of 10
4 out of 10
4 out of 10
7 out of 10