Joe Sarno’s 1960s sexploitation movies were more psycho-sexual melodramas than anything else. His specialty was to lift the lid on respectable suburban or small town communities to expose the hidden licentiousness and hypocrisy. By the 70s though he’d mellowed somewhat, and Abigail Lesley Is Back in Town, released in 1975, is much less cynical and bleak than his classic 60s films.
What’s interesting is that the basic plot is very similar indeed to his 1969 film Passion in Hot Hollows, but the tone of this movie is very different.
In both movies a woman has left a small town community years earlier to escape the stultifying conformity and repression. When she returns she unleashes an explosion of sexual passions that rocks the town to its core. But unlike her counterpart (Norma Sue) in Passion in Hot Hollows, Abigail Lesley is a much more sympathetic character. She’s also a much more fully developed character.
At first she appears very much like Norma Sue - deliberately causing chaos and seducing everyone who can possibly be seduced. As the film progresses we learn that she has reasons for feeling a degree of bitterness. Most importantly though, whereas Norma Sue was intent on revenge and on leaving a trail of destruction behind her, Abigail Lesley wants to liberate the people of Bayport. And rather than being the somewhat vicious rednecks of the earlier film the people of Bayport are merely repressed.
Most repressed of all is Priscilla (Rebecca Brooke). Abigail had seduced her husband Gordon (Jamie Gillis). Priscilla is conducting a kind of extramarital romance with a rather shy fisherman, but they’re both too uptight about the whole thing to have sex. She is very embarrassed by her sexual feelings, even when those feelings are directed towards her husband. Her aunt Drucilla (Jennifer Welles) suffers from no such hang-ups, which simply embarrasses Priscilla even more.
Her friend Alice Anne has her own embarrassing little secret - she learnt everything she knows about sex from her brother. Lila and Tracy have a secret as well - a youthful lesbian love affair. And it’s been quietly smouldering ever since.
Abigail decides the best plan is to get everyone sleeping with everyone else. Once they’ve overcome their inhibitions they’ll be free and happy. Hey, it was the 70s, when people still thought sex was a good thing. The results are not quite what she expects, but they’re certainly not disastrous. Especially for Priscilla.
Sarno recruited his cast mainly from New York City porn stars, many of whom worked mainly in the hardcore area. But this was the 1970s, when porn stars had generally started their careers as legitimate actors. They knew how to act. And given an opportunity to do real acting they could produce the goods. The characters in this movie have real complexity, as do the performances.
Jennifer Jordan is delightful as Abigail. She’s a bad girl, but she’s a nice girl as well. Being a bad girl has worked for her and she believes it can work for other women. Rebecca Broke is outstanding as Priscilla. She’s so emotionally and sexually repressed it’s painful to watch. You really feel for her. Jamie Gillis as her husband Gordon is a bit like Abigail - he’s cheerfully immoral but good-natured. And Jennifer Welles is great fun as Priscilla’s enthusiastically lascivious aunt Drucilla.
Certain kinds of scenes were pretty much obligatory in the softcore movies of this era. There had to be some lesbian sex, and at least one female masturbation scene. Sarno manages to make these ingredients actually work as part of his story. The various lesbian couplings kind of make sense in a 1970 exploring-one’s-sexuality kind of way. And the scene where Priscilla watches two of her friends having sex then slinks off to her bedroom to frantically and tearfully masturbate is actually rather moving. For Priscilla sex is very very disturbing.
The sex is certainly more graphic than in earlier Sarno films but it’s still strictly softcore.
The mood is, surprisingly for a Joe Sarno movie, fairly light. These are mostly likeable people and while the events set in train by Abigail prove very unsettling nobody really gets hurt. And for at least two people there’s real love at last. Overall it’s like an early Sarno sovial/psychological melodrama crossed with a good-natured romantic comedy. And the mix works rather well.
Retro Seduction’s DVD release puts most mainstream DVD releases to shame. It’s packed with extras including some great interviews. Jamie Gillis, who passed away recently, is particularly amusing. And there’s a commentary track as well. The DVD transfer makes use of the last surviving print of the movie. It’s a theatrical print but in excellent condition and the movie looks terrific.
This is one of the finest examples of that strange 1970s phenomenon, the serious arty erotic movie.