Joe Sarno did his best to bring class to smut throughout the '60s, in a string of "middle-class depravity" exposés that turned low budgets into assets. The director's locations and casts looked authentically shabby, and because Sarno didn't have to worry about playing Radio City Music Hall, his films possessed a bracing frankness about what frustrates people, sexually and otherwise. That frankness doesn't equate to realism, however. Something Weird Video has put four Sarno films on two special-edition, double-feature DVDs, and in all of them, the characters' earnestness only makes the tone more lurid.
Sin In The Suburbs and The Swap And How They Make It both use the trapped-housewife hand-wringing of the early feminist era as a backdrop for melodramas about organized adultery. In both films, whole neighborhoods of married couples can't get it together in the bedroom because of the pressures of work and bills, so they drift from illicit affairs to regularly scheduled masked orgies. The moralistic requirements of the '60s drive-in circuit pushed Sarno's movies toward punishing "this time we've gone too far" twist endings, but Sin In The Suburbs and The Swap are compelling as straight drama because Sarno shows why suburbanites make bad choices. His characters try to be cool about their loosened libidos, but the films imply that sex games are just a salve for economic anxiety and social insecurity. It's like high school never ended for these people.
The other Something Weird disc pairs the stripper character study Flesh And Lace with the rural psychodrama Passion In Hot Hollows. In the former, a nymphomaniac exotic dancer tries to avoid being touched, lest she lose control; in the latter, a shrill libertine returns home with her new hippie stud in an attempt to shock her repressed, masturbation-addicted sister. In both features, nudity is copious but not perfunctory. While most sexploitation movies string crude plots between extended takes of passionless grinding, Sarno frequently had his characters talking right up to and even during the deed, and he often cut back and forth between a sex scene in one room and a heart-to-heart conversation in another. The dialogue isn't especially clever or memorable, but it's sincere.
Something Weird pads both DVDs with raunchy drive-in trailers and short subjects, and adds Sarno commentary tracks on Sin In The Suburbs and Passion In Hot Hollows. The tracks are more broadly historical than scene-specific, and commentary moderator David Friedman sours the mash by making overstated claims: No matter what exploitation aficionados say, Sarno doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer. Still, unlike most of his contemporaries, Sarno had a style, based on withholding action, looping minimalist jazz soundtracks, and using stark shadows to freeze characters in circles of light. His films are haunted by sexual curiosity, and by the idea that desire can't be contained by a wood-paneled den.