Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sylvia is A Saint, A Woman and A Devil

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Director: Peter Savage

Cast: Joanna Fields, Pam Serpe, Jenny Shawn, Heather Nicholson, Marco Ricotta, Peter Petrella, Jr., Martin Stevens, Ginger James

Vinegar Syndrome / All Regions / Rated XXX and R / 1:85:1 widescreen / 108 and 89 minutes

EXTRAS: Alternate cut of movie

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Italian born actor, writer and director Peter Savage (real name, Francesco "Pete" Petrella) was raised in the crime-ridden Bronx during the Great Depression. He met young thug Jake Lamotta and the two became inseparable, taking up boxing in the local gym and ultimately writing Jake's biopic screenplay to Martin Scorcese's classic Raging Bull in 1980. Prior to writing that legendary script, he and LaMotta would collaborate on other "legit" films like WWII-era gangster films The Runaways (1965) and Cauliflower Cupids (1970). Around that same time Savage would make some adult films under pseudonyms like "A. 'Nutty' Savage" and "Armand Peters". "Armand" wrote, directed and acted in the perfect New York grindhouse movie A Saint, A Woman, A Devil in 1976, a film that would later have the hardcore sex scenes edited out and be released and retitled as simply Sylvia.

The plot follows closely the story of "The Three Faces of Eve" where a quiet, unassuming woman is found to have three different personalities inside of her and is helped by a doctor to amalgamate them back into one. In A Saint, A Woman, A Devil, Sylvia is a virtuous Christian woman who is cursed with having different people living inside her psyche. Two dominant ones are a whore and a manly lesbian, both of whom want to have sex with just about everyone. One day when Sylvia is visited by a vacuum cleaner salesman (porn legend Marc Stevens), she suddenly changes from the meek, religious woman into "the whore" and seduces him. Her prudish cousin Toby and school friend Sheila show up for a visit and walk in on the coupling couple. Surprised, they leave and come back later like nothing happened and the two sleep over. Sylvia is soon overtaken by her butch lesbian side, drugs her sister and fucks Sheila. This prompts Toby to visit a priest and a doctor to get her cousin some professional help. After the church proves useless, only the hypnotist doctor (played by the film's writer and director, Peter Savage) can put Sylvia back together by tricking her other selves to resorb back into their host.

A Saint, A Woman, A Devil

Aside from the obvious connection to "The Three Faces of Eve", it also reminded be a lot of Sally Field's starring role as "Sybil" in the 1976 mini-series by the same name. Sylvia's disorder stemmed from terrible abuse from her schizophrenic mother who would pull out her fingernails, beat her and tell her how she hated her as a small child. Later, when Sylvia was a teen, her mom would threaten to rape her with bananas, corn cobs, bottles and even hammer handles if she caught her masturbating. All of this trauma caused her mind to split into different people with different skill-sets to deal with life and, in the case of this movie, sex. There is a really creepy scene of Sylvia as a small child, switching personalities and imagining that she is a lifeless doll. Pretty intense stuff for a porn flick. The sex scenes were all pretty standard '70s fare except that I noticed that actress Joanna Bell who plays "Sylvia" (in her only starring role) really likes to toss salad. That's not a bad thing per se, just a little surprising to see a woman hungrily lapping at a hairy man-asshole, not once, but multiple times throughout the movie. There is also a pretty groovy lesbian scene where, instead of brushing their teeth, they use their electric toothbrushes as sex toys.

Like a lot of adult movies of the time, there were also some violent sexual situations like Toby following Sylvia to a group orgy and getting drug into a back room by a huge black man, beaten and nearly raped until he passes out drunk. A Saint, A Woman, A Devil is all over the place tone wise; silly, sexy, upsetting. You really only get that in classic porn. This DVD release by Vinegar Syndrome contains the full 108 minute XXX version of the film but also contains the pruned down 89 minute version, bereft of any hardcore sex. The latter plays out like a freaky drive-in sexploitation film complete with a few alternate shots to fill in running time. Both versions look better than the former best release from After Hours Cinema. They are pristine by classic adult cinema standards. But you may want to hold on to that release if you have it because the Vinegar Syndrome DVD doesn't contain the commentary from Blue Underground founder and nephew of Jake LaMotta, Bill Lustig and film historian Michael Bowen.

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