Is softcore on the verge of a popular rediscovery? In the last year, Kino Lorber has released COLOR OF NIGHT on Blu-ray, and they’re set to release the first three in the official EMMANUELLE series on Blu in April. Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment just released a Blu-ray of softcore Ozploitation oddity CENTRESPREAD in January (on a double feature with the much more well-known FELICITY), and Vinegar Syndrome is releasing PARTY LINE and IN THE COLD OF THE NIGHT this year. Softcore was a huge part of the home video boom in the 80s and 90s, and many of the films produced in those years have never made it past cable and VHS releases. The sheer number of films that have been out of circulation for so long makes ’80s and ’90s softcore a goldmine of nearly lost cinema history. Shout Factory released the notorious Madonna-starring erotic thriller BODY OF EVIDENCE last year, and now their horror imprint Scream Factory has just dropped another major release in the home video return of softcore. THE POISON IVY COLLECTION collects all four films in the series in one set for the first time, and gives all but the fourth POISON IVY films their debut on Blu-ray. This particular franchise is a great crash course in different styles of softcore in the ’90s heyday, and spans enough time to provide a contrast between ’90s-style softcore and 2000s thrillers.
In the first film, Sara Gilbert plays high schooler and occasional narrator Sylvie Cooper, a nerdy loner who strikes up an unexpected friendship with a girl she calls Ivy (Drew Barrymore) due to the provocative temporary tattoo on her thigh of a crucifix adorned with ivy. Ivy is from the wrong side of the tracks, but she attends the same private school as Sylvie thanks to a scholarship. Sylvie’s family is wealthy, a fact that makes her so deeply uncomfortable that she makes up odd lies to make herself seem less bourgeois to Ivy. Sylvie’s father Darryl (Tom Skerritt) is a conservative television commentator and her mother Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) barely leaves the house due to severe emphysema. As Sylvie’s only friend, Ivy all but officially moves in to the Coopers’ huge house and before too long a dangerous attraction arises between Ivy and Darryl. Ivy is starved for attention due to neglectful parents—Sylvie hypothesizes that Ivy dresses so sexy because she’s trying to get her dad’s attention—and Darryl is spellbound by Ivy’s eerie resemblance to Georgie before her illness took over their lives. It’s only a matter of time before the simmering attraction boils over into something more, and Ivy may want to be an even bigger part of the family than she initially lets on.
Looking at the films that followed in its wake, it’s surprising how relatively tame POISON IVY is. Released in 1992 just months after BASIC INSTINCT, the film in its theatrical version plays almost chaste for the most part. Regardless, its novel mix of erotic thriller elements and “coming of age” drama with a strong focus on the friendship between its two young female leads helped propel it to box office success. The taboo nature of the affair between a grown man and a teenage girl probably didn’t hurt, of course. The success of BASIC INSTINCT, POISON IVY, THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (all released in the States in the same year) was a catalyst for a boom of erotic thrillers and specifically films depicting stalkers and inappropriate relationships. In 1993 alone Alicia Silverstone played an obsessed teenager in THE CRUSH and Lara Flynn Boyle played the title villainess of THE TEMP, and female stalkers became so prevalent that when FEAR (starring Mark Wahlberg) was released in 1996 it seemed quite novel in its portrayal of an obsessive young male. In the new Blu-ray commentary on POISON IVY with director/co-writer Katt Shea moderated by C. Courtney Joyner, Joyner points out that the Lifetime cable network has created its own cottage industry of made-for-cable films based on the template set by these ’90s “obsessed (x)” hits that Shea’s film helped spawn.
It’s a lively commentary that never flags, with Joyner and Shea discussing her prior work with Roger Corman (her debut feature as a director was 1987’s STRIPPED TO KILL) and the trajectory of her career leading up to and beyond POISON IVY. Revisiting the production, Shea points out that there is no way an R-rated movie like this could be made today. Not just because of the subject matter, but because both of its female leads were 16 years old at the time the film was shot. That’s particularly uncomfortable viewing the unrated cut of the film—presented as the theatrical version in full HD with “standard definition” inserts of the footage from the unrated version, from what looks like a badly worn tape master—which while still much less explicit than many contemporary erotic thrillers does feature some nudity cut for the R-rated version. Shea doesn’t say whether or not Barrymore used a body double, but regardless anyone seeing this movie for the first time in 2019 is probably going to be somewhat shocked. Sadly not shocking is the fact that after Shea directed this hit, she worked in television but didn’t direct another theatrically released feature film until 1999’s THE RAGE: CARRIE 2. And that film was her last until the upcoming NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE, releasing in March. It’s tough not to think of Patty Jenkins’s similar situation going from 2003’s Academy Award-winning MONSTER to WONDER WOMAN in 2017. Given how tough it has traditionally been for female directors in Hollywood, it’s not surprising that POISON IVY 2: LILY was the last of the series directed by a woman.
Lily (Alyssa Milano) moves from Kalamazoo to Los Angeles to attend art school, where she moves into off-campus housing with a group of oddball roommates including sculptor and resident spiky-haired bad boy Gredin (Jonathan Schaech). She immediately catches the attention of her teacher Donald (Xander Berkeley), a former painter who is suddenly inspired to paint again by Lily’s beauty. For her part, Lily has been convinced to take a journey of self-discovery thanks to the box of stuff she found in her new closet. Belonging to a mysterious young woman named “Ivy,” the box has a folder of nude self portrait photos and a diary outlining Ivy’s philosophies about life. Soon Lily is cutting her hair shorter, piercing her own belly button, wearing dark lipstick, and posing nude for Donald after class while babysitting his daughter and romancing Gredin in the evenings. Whatever school this is, Lily is only ever seen in painting class, which is probably for the best given her packed schedule of extracurricular activities. But Donald’s interest in her is more intense than the need for a figure model and babysitter, and Lily’s flirtation with him has consequences she could not have imagined. Donald’s wife Angela (Belinda Bauer) warns him against another dalliance with a student after a previous affair “nearly killed” them, which only drives him closer to the brink. What dark secret lurks in his past, and is it somehow connected with the mysterious Ivy?
Released directly to video in January of 1996, LILY hews much more closely to the Zalman King school of softcore drama than the erotic thrillers of the era. Lily’s exploration of the power, pleasure, and danger of her own sexuality shares a similar tone to King’s late ’80s and early ’90s features, no doubt at least partly due to the script by Red Shoe Diaries writer Chloe King. The film was directed by Anne Goursaud, a longtime editor who previously worked on studio films including THE OUTSIDERS (1983), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). Goursaud had also directed Milano in 1995’s EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE and followed LILY with another softcore sequel, ANOTHER 9 1/2 WEEKS (1997). LILY looks and sounds very much like those softcore dramas that dominated video store shelves and late night cable in the 90s, from Schaech’s bleached hair and goofy sunglasses to the alt-rock and “Sadeness: Part i” soundalikes on the soundtrack. The cast is fine, although the material doesn’t require much emotional range from most of them. Berkeley was born to play this kind of creepy Boomer dad, though, and Belinda Bauer is great but sadly underutilized. It’s interesting to see the dynamic of the first film flipped with the father figure as the obsessive, but otherwise there’s nothing groundbreaking or novel about LILY. That said, the film’s look, tone, and production design that places it in a very specific moment make it an interesting time capsule of the era. 1997’s POISON IVY: THE NEW SEDUCTION, is a major change in tone from the first two and is also a snapshot of a particular type of film of the time, but in its case that’s not necessarily an endorsement.
Young Violet and her sister Ivy lose their home when the affair between their mother Rebecca (Athena Massey), a live-in maid, and her employer Ivan Greer (Michael Des Barres) is discovered by Ivan’s wife Catherine (Merete Van Camp). Flash forward eleven years: Violet (Jaime Pressly) returns to the home from which she was banished as a child to visit Ivan’s daughter Joy (Megan Edwards), her best friend from childhood. Violet claims that she’s in town to work before starting college, but it quickly becomes apparent she has more nefarious plans. She’s looking for a place to stay, but Joy insists she stay with her and Ivan. Widower Ivan has left Catherine’s room exactly as she left it, and when Violet moves in she has access to everything she needs to prey on Ivan’s loneliness with his wife’s clothes and jewelry. The Greers’ maid Mrs. B (Susan Tyrrell) is on to her, but Violet manages to spin a web of seduction that pulls in both Ivan and Joy’s fiancé Michael (Greg Vaughan). As the sexual encounters intensify and tensions escalate, Violet’s manipulations somehow escape the attention of everyone but Mrs. B, who really should have just taken a vacation and left these oblivious people to their fate.
THE NEW SEDUCTION throws any pretense of serious drama out the window almost as soon as the opening credits are finished rolling. This is a straightforward stalker movie, with Violet as the obsessed young woman bent on destruction. It’s also unquestionably an erotic thriller, with much more sex and nudity than either of the previous POISON IVY films. The script this time around was written by Karen Kelly, whose previous credits included the Shannon Tweed vehicles SCORNED (1993), ILLICIT DREAMS (1994), and BODY CHEMISTRY 4: FULL EXPOSURE (1995). Kelly’s experience with the style is evident here, where familiar erotic thriller beats are used as callbacks to the original POISON IVY. Director Kurt Voss is probably best known for his collaborations with Allison Anders (including their debut feature BORDER RADIO), although his other ’90s work includes a number of other low-budget thrillers like BODY COUNT (1997) with Alyssa Milano and Ice-T and THE PASS (1998) with William Forsythe and James Le Gros. Voss pitches everything in THE NEW SEDUCTION slightly less hysterical than it should have been to really put it over the top and into consideration as a “camp classic,” although its opening sequence features an inspired fakeout.
Pressly manages a few moments of convincing menace, though, and Susan Tyrrell (as always) is working on a completely different level than everyone else and should have been given much more to do. The presence of Athena Massey (star of Gregory Dark‘s 1995 thriller UNDERCOVER HEAT) helps tie THE NEW SEDUCTION into the movement of erotic thrillers of the era and there’s also a brief appearance by Susan Ward, who would later star in Mary Lambert‘s PG-13 take on the erotic thriller THE IN CROWD (2000) and the belated softcore sequel WILD THINGS 2 (2004). The film suffers from its clear focus on getting Pressly naked as often as possible, leading to some weird hanging threads like a scene in which a cat is clearly heard meowing in the house despite a cat having never been seen before and a convenient final-act reveal that a certain character needs heart pills—again, despite there never having been a single previous reference to them. It’s also the kind of film where virtually every scene takes place in or around the Greers’ house, a problem underlined in its final act when Joy inexplicably drives away from and back to the house multiple times as if she’s trying to drag the movie to another location but just can’t do it. It makes a nice bookend to the transition at the end of the opening sequence when a shot from the inside of a car driving away from the house dissolves into a shot from the inside of a car driving toward the house. Fans of these type of straight-to-video erotic thrillers might have fun with it, but THE NEW SEDUCTION is cheap, slapdash, and nakedly exploitative in ways its predecessors were not. That description also applies to the final film in the series, POISON IVY: THE SECRET SOCIETY (2008), in which the production value drops as precipitously as the trashy insanity skyrockets.
A year after losing her parents, small-town girl Daisy (Miriam McDonald) leaves the farm and her boyfriend Will (Brendan Penny) behind to attend a prestigious university. She’s excited to take advantage of every opportunity her new school provides for her, and applies for an internship recommended by her professor Andrew Graves (Greg Evigan). This puts Daisy in the sights of Azalea (Shawna Waldron), head of a mysterious unofficial sorority called The Ivys, who also has her eyes on that internship. Daisy unwittingly finds herself in the midst of a power struggle between the Ivys and the Graves family: Andrew’s wife Elisabeth (Catherine Hicks) is the Dean of the school, and his womanizing son Blake (Ryan Kennedy) is literally in bed with everybody including Daisy and Azalea. Azalea concocts a plan to enlist lonely, financially struggling Daisy into the Ivys, but Daisy has second thoughts when she realizes the “sorority” she just pledged is less about sisterhood and support and more about arson and murder. She makes this discovery far too late, though, and Azalea threatens not only Daisy’s scholarship but poor Will unless Daisy does her bidding. With some key information from her roommate Magenta (Andrea Whitburn), Daisy comes up with a plan to escape the Ivys’ clutches, but failure might mean a fate worse than death—or, considering what happened to the young woman in the pre-credits sequence, maybe just death.
While LILY obliquely and THE NEW SEDUCTION directly tied into the first film, THE SECRET SOCIETY is happy to jettison any pretense of series continuity. The tenuous connections to its predecessors are conceptual rather than narrative: like Drew Barrymore and Alyssa Milano before them, in 2008 Miriam McDonald and Shawna Waldron were best known for parts they played when they were much younger. McDonald is an alumnus of long-running Canadian teen TV drama DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION, while Waldron played tomboy football player Becky O’Shea in the 1994 family sports comedy LITTLE GIANTS. While each of the first three POISON IVY films featured one young actor in the nude as a selling point, the producers of THE SECRET SOCIETY must have been banking on two such appearances being enough to distract viewers from the radical departure from the franchise’s history. Aside from its title and the appearance of not one but two actors looking to sex up their previously innocent image, the only other thing this has in common with the previous films is the fact that its lead characters are named after flowers. The soundtrack also uses a sort of take on the Enigma-esques of LILY, although it’s impossible to say if that’s a nod to the earlier film or it just seemed to work with the “secret society” angle and their Latin initiation rite. If the film had any other title, it would be impossible to identify as a “POISON IVY movie.” It feels much more like an abandoned third sequel to THE SKULLS (2000) that was repurposed for this franchise with a simple gender flip. That makes it even more mystifying that this is the only film in the series with three credited writers, although it seems entirely possible at least one of those writers wrote a completely unrelated screenplay that was retrofitted for the brand.
Produced over a decade after THE NEW SEDUCTION, THE SECRET SOCIETY displays a number of major departures from and evolutions of ’90s-style softcore. While many softcore films of the ’90s were shot on film and finished on tape, in the late ’90s and early 2000s that process had given way to even cheaper digital video. By 2008, Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski had all but cornered the market on direct-to-cable softcore movies like Ray’s BIKINI ROYALE (credited to “Nicholas Medina”) and Wynorski’s “Harold Blueberry” parodies like THE DA VINCI COED. THE NEW SEDUCTION is a step up from those movies’s production value, but it still looks like it was designed from the ground up to be seen on television. Director Jason Hreno had previously directed two made-for-cable erotic thrillers released in 2003: WICKED MINDS starring Angie Everhart (who also starred in ANOTHER 9 1/2 WEEKS) and DEADLY BETRAYAL starring Nicolette Sheridan. While he brought some experience with the form, THE SECRET SOCIETY looks like its production was very rushed. The flat “TV movie” look lends the film the feeling of a failed pilot, which calls to mind another softcore sequel. CRUEL INTENTIONS 2 (2000) was a straight-to-video sequel that began as an aborted prequel TV series (starring Amy Adams in the Sarah Michelle Gellar role), its completed episodes chopped and cobbled together with some newly-shot nudity for spice to justify its “unrated” status. THE SECRET SOCIETY originally aired on cable in a cut version before its home video release reinstated all the nudity that couldn’t make it past the FCC. Appropriately enough, the movie premiered on Lifetime, which brings the franchise full circle as discussed by C. Cortney Joyner with Katt Shea on the commentary for the first film. The success of POISON IVY and other like-minded films in the Class of ’92 begat a legion of erotic thrillers, which in turn informed the development of Lifetime’s domestic thrillers from MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? (1996) to the STALKED BY MY DOCTOR series (2015–2018, so far).
Scream Factory has not provided information regarding the source of the transfers for this set, but only the first film shows any significant difference between the HD and SD footage inserted for the “unrated” versions and the fourth has only ever been released uncut. Aside from the commentary on POISON IVY, the only other special features are trailers for the films which vary wildly in quality. The worst is the trailer for THE NEW SEDUCTION, which looks like it was imported from a RealVideo file created in 1997 and downloaded from somebody’s Geocities web site; it also features “#1 Crush” by Garbage, which does not appear in the film at all. The film transfers look nice, although LILY benefits the most from the new HD upgrade. The first three films haven’t had new home video transfers since 1999, so this is definitely the best they’ve ever looked. The transfers for the first three films appropriately maintain the familiar ’90s look, while the fourth film looks like a movie made in 2008. According to IMDB THE SECRET SOCIETY was shot on 35mm, but it really looks like late 2000s pro digital video. It was previously released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2008, so it’s possible this new set uses the same transfer. Even if it didn’t, it would likely be difficult to tell the difference. For what it’s worth, the a/v presentation in this set is likely the best any of these films are ever going to get in a physical home video release.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more features detailing the making of the films or putting them in their proper context in exploitation film history. While boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome and Severin Films routinely give “disreputable” horror and adult features worthwhile features that treat them like the historical documents they are, it seems softcore is still not quite at the point where its value is acknowledged on the same level. It’s great to have nice transfers of these films all in one place, but when Kino Lorber’s COLOR OF NIGHT Blu-ray includes commentary tracks with director Richard Rush on both the theatrical and unrated versions of the film and their upcoming EMMANUELLE releases have featurettes in addition to numerous trailers and radio spots, it’s tough not to feel the POISON IVY series got the short shrift. There are no doubt many cinephiles and casual viewers who will dismiss all of these films out of hand, of course, but for any serious student of sex and exploitation cinema this franchise provides a unique look at differing approaches to softcore using the shared (if somewhat cracked) lens of the first film’s concepts and themes.
The POISON IVY Blu-ray collection streets on February 12, 2019.
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Tags: #1 Crush, Alicia Silverstone, Allison Anders, alt-rock, Alyssa Milano, Amy Adams, Andrea Whitburn, Angie Everhart, Anne Goursaud, Another Nine & a Half Weeks, Athena Massey, Basic Instinct, Belinda Bauer, bikini royale, Body Chemistry 4, Body Count, Body of Evidence, Border Radio, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Brendan Penny, C. Cortney Joyner, Catherine Hicks, Centrespread, Cheryl Ladd, Chloe King, Color of Night, Cruel Intentions 2, Deadly Betrayal, Degrassi The Next Generation, Drew Barrymore, Embrace of the Vampire, Emmanuelle, Enigma, Eric Roberts, Felicity, fred olen ray, Garbage, Greg Evigan, Greg Vaughan, Gregory Dark, harold blueberry, ice-t, Illicit Dreams, In the Cold of the Night, Jaime Pressly, James Le Gros, Jason Hreno, Jim Wynorski, Jonathan Schaech, Karen Kelly, Katt Shea, Katt Shea Ruben, kino lorber, Kurt Voss, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lifetime, Little Giants, Mary Lambert, Megan Edwards, Merete Van Camp, Michael Des Barres, Miriam McDonald, Mother May I Sleep with Danger, Nancy Drew, Party Line, RealVideo, Red Shoe Diaries, Richard Rush, Ryan Kennedy, Sarah Gilbert, Scorned, scream factory, Severin Films, Shannon Tweed, Shawna Waldron, shout factory, Single White Female, Softcore, Stalked By My Doctor, Susan Tyrrell, Susan Ward, The Crush, the da vinci coed, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The In Crowd, The Outsiders, The Pass, The Skulls, The Temp, The Two Jakes, Tom Skerritt, Undercover Heat, Vinegar Syndrome, Wicked Minds, Wild Things 2, William Forsythe, Xander Berkeley, zalman king