I Want My Mummy… BIZARRE aka SECRETS OF SEX Reviewed

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DVD. Region 1. Synapse. Not rated.

The advent of DVD and the inexorable rise of enterprising, independent disc distributors has led to the unearthing of countless oddities that one could previously only salivate over in old copies of Continental Film Review. Case in point, Bizarre (aka Tales Of The Bizarre / Secrets of Sex), a 1969 collaboration between veteran exploitation producer Richard Gordon and director Antony Balch, a precocious wide boy film importer / programmer with an unhealthy fixation on Bela Lugosi and intellectual pretensions, who had already made a couple of avant garde shorts with William Burroughs and his circle. The experience of those, plus Gordon’s track record in portmanteau movies and the commercially successful example of Amicus, convinced them that an anthology was the appropriate format for their maiden effort…

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In the pre-titles sequence a medieval Middle Eastern potentate buries a trunk (in which his wife’s lover is hiding) in the desert. The (mysteriously mummified) victim thereafter provides a running commentary (in the appropriately sepuchral tones of  the ubiquitous Valentine Dyall) on the age-old battle of the sexes, with eye witness accounts from the front line. In the process we learn precisely nothing about those secrets of sex but the various vignettes are unquestionably bizarre: a male model posing for an arty coffee table book depicting torture through the ages is actually done to death by a female photographer so that she can get the perfect cover shot (shades of Pupi Avati’s House With Laughing Windows)… a woman deliberately conceives and gives birth to a horribly mutated baby, seemingly to spite her disagreeable husband… a female burglar ends up banging the bollocks off the guy she came to rob… a wacko reptile fetishist tries to arrange a threesome with a prostitute and a lizard… you get the picture. There’s even an episode devoted to the adventures of Lindy Leigh, whom readers of a certain age will remember as a comic strip (in every sense of the term) heroine from the pages of Mayfair magazine.

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Definitely of its time, Bizarre stirs Surrealism, deadpan humour, narrative non sequiturs, intellectual and literary conceits (subliminal glimpses of William Burroughs’ novel Nova Express, throwaway mentions of Scientology), tit’n’ass and schlock horror into a truly unique, if not entirely satisfactory, viewing experience.  The young director regarded SOS as a learning exercise, and his style had matured by the time of his second collaboration with Gordon, Horror Hospital (1973), wherein Balch’s sense of the surreal was more seamlessly integrated into a formally conventional horror narrative. Who knows what he could have gone on to achieve, had he not died so prematurely? He might conceivably have become some kind of British answer to Russ Meyer… on the evidence of Bizarre, he was certainly an admirer of Meyer’s editing style.

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Secrets Of Sex / Bizarre has in the past been re-edited by sundry distributors to produce alternative, shorter features emphasising either its horrific or sexy elements, and of course the picture has had its brushes with censorship (though the legend “the film they tried to stop!”, emblazoned across the pack, is surely hyperbole.) This is the director’s cut, in a surprisingly good-looking 1:66:1 transfer and comes handsomely appointed with extras. Aside from the inevitable trailer, there’s an interview with co-writer Elliot Stein (the guy underneath all those mummy bandages, who also appears as the lizard-fixated pervert) plus a commentary track by Richard Gordon which, while informative and entertaining, never really touches upon anything that’s happening in the picture, adding a further layer of surreality to the proceedings.

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Most interestingly, Synapse have unearthed the two early ‘60s monochrome shorts that Balch made with Bill Burroughs and like-minded boho beatniks. In Towers Open Fire, Messrs Balch and Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Alexander Trocchi, sex film distributor Bachoo Sen, et al, wander round enigmatically in a succession of jump cuts, interspersed with all manner of abstract footage and random noise, both visual and sonic. After an eternity of this stuff, a rudimentary narrative of sorts seems to emerge, concerning Burroughs’ broadcast of words so incendiary that anyone who hears them immediately disintegrates. The editors of more erudite and earnest journals than this one would bore you rigid at this point rambling on about Burroughs’ conception of “word as virus”, a theme that Balch really goes to town on in The Cut Ups. More disorientating visuals and constant repetition of the words “Yes” and “Hello” make sleeping sickness the viral experience to which this one is most akin, and after several attempts I’ve still not managed to watch it all the way through. Many viewers will feel that these shorts, while having a certain literary / novelty value, aren’t nearly short enough…

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