Flesh on Fire The Splintered Male Psyche in Mike and Roberta Findlay’s Psychosexual Trilogy By Bob Moricz. The rich complexities of the feminine psyche have often eluded and terrified the male stalwarts of puritanically patriarchal societies such as ours...
The rich complexities of the feminine psyche have often eluded and terrified the male stalwarts of puritanically patriarchal societies such as ours. Shamed and muzzled by the torch bearers of splintered spirituality, the woman’s wide scope is split into easy archetypes. The most common clichés are the mother and the amazon. The mother nurtures and enables, while the amazon’s fierce sexuality strikes the fractured man with fear, for he is completely out of touch with his own. This broken view fails to integrate the intricate manifold of femininity. There are vast psychic landscapes coursing within and between these polarized divisions.
The business of entertainment thrives on this divide, conditioning us to accept artificial archetypal polarities as reality. This delusion leaves everyone divided. To divide is to conquer and the division makes lots of money for studio execs and ad agencies. The result is a gross injustice upon our psychic and emotional lives, relationships, and perception of the self. We’re left with that bastard of a feeling, that lousy rat with no business in the brain’s bread cupboard: shame, a most destructive force, especially when worming into the undulating psychic waves of human sexuality. In Touch of Her Flesh (1967), the first entry in Mike and Roberta Findlay’s Flesh trilogy, shame reduces geek weapons expert and "master of disguise" Richard Jennings (Mike Findlay, billed as Robert West) to a murderously drooling id-driven caricature of masculinity fragmented by an inability to fully integrate the lush multiplicity of the feminine psyche.
Jennings is an archetypal man of the late ’60s. He wears a suit and likes to drink, working hard staying up late in his den writing, reading, studying. He doesn’t have much time for the physical or emotional needs of his bored, frustrated bleached blonde sexpot of a wife, Claudia (Angelique). She wears thick mascara and walks around in her underwear. Jennings is no match for her. She has lusts which the bookish suit can’t satisfy nor easily comprehend; a most precarious position for a fractured self.
When he leaves for a weapons conference in Boston, Claudia immediately falls into the arms of her lover, Steve (Ron Skideri). The Casanova asks her if she thinks Jennings will be fooling around with other girls and she replies he doesn’t have anything to fool around with. For the divided self, such a comment is interpreted as a mighty insult by an overworked ego constantly seeking, yet incapable of attaining a connection between perceptions within a psychic wasteland and the frightening external reality of confusion and shame.
Forgetting some very important papers, Jennings arrives home to find Claudia making love to another man. He freaks out; fleeing into the dark, seedy streets of late ’60s Times Square and is left wheelchair bound and missing an eye after getting smashed by a car. Perhaps through the empty eye socket, but more likely from within the tangled detritus within his own stunted egghead psyche, the worm of revenge burrows its way into the damaged cuckold’s brain. His sole purpose becomes the destruction of sexually wolfish women like Claudia. The Flesh trilogy is, in essence, the vengeance of the castrated man, the divide between Jennings’s sex and his self-mirroring his own disintegrated view of women:
"They look at themselves in their mirrors and they can see their voluptuousness that men desire. Breasts swollen with the sweet milk of love ready to be drunk warm and comforting from the tender nipple, but actually of venom and greed and self-gratification ready to poison the innocent man who seeks suck... There is one escape. The only true escape for any man trapped in the sexual vortex of the female being. It is to destroy her and all who act like her. To take the girl who strips herself naked in public and kill her naked in public. Lay the prostitute back upon her pillows and as she opens to you, strangle the filthy beast so those gates of flesh never open again... I will kill them. One by one. And the first shall receive a rose to symbolize the innocent pubescence she once had. But its thorns shall be impregnated with the poisonous venom she herself dispenses. And this symbol of her once virginity shall kill the whore."
Jennings wheels himself into a club where a go-go dancer’s gyrations further overload his short circuited psyche. He delivers the poisoned rose to the dressing room where she pricks her finger. As she finishes her set, she collapses dead on stage. He goes off to another club and kills a stripper from a distance with a poisoned dart from a blow gun. Meanwhile, Claudia practices piano and paints at her girlfriend Janet’s studio.
While trolling the streets, Jennings spies Janet (Suzanne Marre) talking to a friend of hers. He recognizes her as "the pig that poses for Claudia talking to one of her hooker friends." After Janet leaves, Richard approaches the woman (Peggy Steffans, billed as Marie Lamont), soliciting her for company. She takes him back to her apartment where he broods, "I don’t need any help. Undress yourself." She strips and gets ready for the imminent coupling. Jennings pulls a knife from his pants, threatening the call girl with the penicular stand-in. She tells him where to find Claudia, but he stabs her anyway.
Claudia and Janet lounge around in various states of undress as the limping Jennings stalks the pad. When Claudia goes for a nature walk, the limping cyclops strikes! Armed with a crossbow, he follows Claudia into the studio where she hides. Upon discovering his wife, he gropes and then decapitates Claudia with a circular saw. Wrestling with the topless Janet, she runs off with his crossbow, finally penetrating the stunned psychopath with a piercing projectile. He falls to the floor, limp and dead. The fish eyed camera lens drunkenly tilts upward, displaying the decaying cavern of the interior as a distorted reflection of myopic male sex insanity.
The Curse of Her Flesh (1968) gets straight to it as a burlesque stripper performs her stage act all over a docile wooden chair. The viewer’s perspective is from the audience pit, tilted upwards at the gyrating woman. We, the guilty viewers, take in the lurid spectacle. How do we respond? Do we go back to our normal routines after absorbing the bump and grind, tapping into and channeling the southerly stirrings for positive ends? Or do we run from the true nature of our pelvic risings, banishing healthy lust into dank dungeons littered with the closeted skeletons from dynasties of obscured depravity?
A club patron goes to use the men’s room and the opening credits unveil as urinal graffiti while he relieves his bloated bladder. Cut to the familiar visage of Richard Jennings, the "master of disguise" gluing on a phony beard as a radio newscast rehashes the events of the previous installment. Jennings rents a dilapidated adult theater, posing as the manager. Steve, the guy the one eyed sex killer caught in bed with his wife, is on the scene and finds his way to the theater. In disguise, Jennings shows him around. He takes Steve to the men’s restroom and tells him that this is where the real show happens. Once he found four men in the stall together with their pants down and they tried to get him to join in. As Steve uses the loo, Jennings contemplates sticking him like a pig through a peephole.
Cut forward to Steve in his derelict apartment mumbling to himself about flying champagne corks doing damage to eyes and fallout shelters while strippers in lesbian tableau intercut his monologue. A joyful soul tune with an undulating bass line kicks in and the women genuinely seem to enjoy themselves, dancing around with dollar bills obscuring their nether regions. Steve ponders, "Why do the women have it and the men don’t?" Steve, like Jennings, is a classic example of the fragmented man, cowed by the power of feminine sexuality.
Jennings chats up one of the girls who work his theater and she takes him back to her apartment. He dips her kitty cat’s paws in poison before making out with her. He pours some drinks and when he returns he finds her lying nude on the couch with the cat in her lap:
"That’s a nice little pussy you have there."
"Thank you. Everyone who sees my pussy likes it."
"Is it friendly?"
"Oh yes. Sometimes I play with it for hours."
"Does it ever get tired?"
"No. It never gets enough. Sometimes the girl next door comes over with her pussy and puts it with mine."
"Amazing how something so soft and pretty as this little pussy can be so dangerous."
"Yes. This little pussy is really a primordial carnivorous beast waiting to tear apart anything it can touch."
"What does it eat every day?"
"That’s right. It swallows as much meat as it can. And if it were big enough or strong enough it would open its jaws and swallow me and suck the meat from my body."
"Hey, I don’t like crazy talk like this."
"That’s why like every other putrid little pussy in the world, this one must die!"
Sensing Jennings psychic dystopia, the bothered cat digs its poisoned claws into her mistress’s flesh. Jennings leaves willingly, smugly satisfied knowing her fate.
Cut to the stage show at Jennings’s theater. Two shoddy roman columns flank a blonde woman, to which her outstretched arms are tied. Stella (Linda Boyce), Jennings’s star performer, approaches the bound woman in a black corset and heels. Stella whips the woman, leaving raw lacerations which she then kisses and licks, ultimately removing the peroxided performer’s panties and going down on her.
Backstage Jennings informs Stella that she’ll be going all the way during the one o’clock show and she responds she doesn’t mind as long as she’s getting paid. Jennings gropes her and she gamely goes along with her boss’s advances, until he tells her all pieces of fish smell the same to him. She responds by telling him how she’s been wondering what’s been hiding in his little G-string and Jennings, of course, flies into a furor. He is the one who’s supposed to bully and control. In an attempt to gain his ground, he asks Stella if she knows what a dildo is. "Of course. It’s every girl’s best friend."
Stella makes a quick jaunt to her apartment during a break before the show, but accidentally gets locked out, so she saunters over to her sexy bee-hived neighbor’s place. Stella pours some drinks and they take a bath together. Stella is very impressed with her neighbor’s foot skills. The neighbor replies, "You know, I had a girlfriend once who said my big toe was better than any man." Of course, once they’re out of the tub it’s hanky-panky time. Stella wears a G-string given to her by Jennings, and guess what? It’s poisoned! The foxy bee-hived neighbor convulses and dies. A cop tells her distraught husband Terrance (John Amero billed as John Ellie) that she died from something she ate.
Stella’s back at the theater, angry with Jennings for his passive aggressive act of violence. Jennings tells her not to worry about it and that he’ll give her $500 for tonight’s performance. But she’s not taking it easy. The same dumb cop arrives at the theater to question Jennings and he tells New York City’s finest to go play with his nightstick before Jennings blows the cop’s head off with a makeshift shotgun.
The neighbor’s husband Terrance, who happens to work the box office at Jennings’s theater, meets Steve at a bar. He is convinced Richard Jennings killed his wife. He tells Steve that the man who rents the theater has one eye, just like Jennings. Meanwhile, the myopic psychopath poses as a clerk at a bookstore and in walks Steve’s fiancé. He zeroes in on her. He tells her he knows she lost her virginity at 12 and that Steve would never tolerate marrying someone defiled in such a way. They have a lot to talk about. Jennings guides her into the back room of the store.
Six months later, Steve is in bed with his new wife, Paula (Eve Bork), in a fleabag motel off the highway. A reel of film shows up at the doorstep. Though his wife seems rather nervous, Steve decides to play the film. He is surprised to see his wife undressing in the film, but she comforts him by explaining that this is obviously the work of Richard Jennings and he must have found someone who looks exactly like her. This placates Steve and they continue watching the movie. But things take a turn for the worse. In the film she is groped by a masked man, Jennings, who ends up penetrating her with a sturdy stand in for his flimsy genitalia; a squash. If that wasn’t bad enough, the film cuts to a back alley abortionist reconstructing her hymen. Steve flips out. He grabs a harpoon gun and exclaims, "Jennings is right. Some women deserve to die!"
As he kills her, Jennings pops out from behind a room divider armed with the ever phallic machete. His revenge is almost complete. Steve has become a doppelganger of Jennings, his nemesis. Like Jennings, he has violently murdered his own wife out of jealous rage. What is to become of Steve? Will he follow the same path, murdering Amazonian sexpots hungry for corporeal comminglings? We will never know. The film ends after a ridiculous chase scene, concluding with a knock down fight in the back of a moving truck with Jennings hacking away at Steve’s cock with his jumbo blade, cackling like a high pitched witch. Jennings’s insecurities regarding his manhood are played out much in the same manner a child’s feelings of tininess and fear play out in the destruction of insects or small animals. The half man fails to properly navigate the passage between his internal upheavals and the realities of the external world, devolving from a man of respected intellect into an infantile minimus trapped in a moving truck and hacking away at another man’s cock in a sordid execution of retarded revenge.
His revenge fully realized at the conclusion of The Curse of Her Flesh, Jennings is even crazier in the final installment of the flesh trilogy, The Kiss of Her Flesh (1968). On the shore of a stark snow swept beach, a man stalks a young woman named Cleo (Donna Stone, billed as Diane Stein) and smacks her over the head with a tire iron. When she wakes up her arms are splayed and tied to a table. Intimidating in a ski mask and sunglasses, the masked man cuts off her panties. He gorges on lobster with a Lancer’s sparkling wine chaser. The man pulls off the mask and glasses, revealing the familiar doughy eye-patched countenance of Richard Jennings.
In Kiss of Her Flesh, Jennings gets even more wild and creative with his deadly stratagems. He attacks Cleo’s ample flesh with a claw from the lobster before going at her with a nasty pair of pincers, finally hooking up electrodes to her big hoop earrings and electrocuting her. She writhes spasmodically before collapsing, spilling out of her bra. "So much for you, pig." Same old Richard Jennings.
Cut to Maria (Uta Erickson billed as Dyana Alicia) and her boyfriend Don (Earl Hindman billed as Leo Heinz) in bed making out. She pulls off her top, then his shorts. He gropes her groin. Maria decides to surprise Don by inserting a set of stringed beads in his asshole. Don is game. Maria asks him to tell her when he’s about to climax and when he gets there, she yanks them out with a swift jerk. He collapses on top of her in transgressive ecstasy.
When Maria gets up to answer the phone, the audience is treated to some full-frontal male nudity. On the phone is Maria’s sister, Doris (Suzzan Landau billed as Alice Grant), whose best friend was horribly murdered. The only person who could have done it in such an awful way is the dastardly Richard Jennings. Maria is determined to put an end to his reign of terror, so she goes off to visit her sister in a "small and lonely town" where Jennings is hiding out and committing his sex crimes.
Maria arrives at the snow swept east coast wasteland and makes her way to Dora’s house, who’s live-in girlfriend Mona (Janet Banzet billed as Marie Brent) is sick in bed with a virus. Dora is very happy to see Maria. We learn that they used to make love growing up together. She tells Maria, "No one but you can satisfy me." The found jazz soundtrack grows ominous, (often the case during lesbian sex scenes in the Flesh trilogy). The music in these movies seems to refract from within the mutilated consciousness of the madman Jennings. To him, the union of women flaunts the worthlessness of his own manhood and misfired desires.
Maria goes back to her motel. Jennings shows up at Dora’s house in the guise of a doctor on a house call to examine Mona and determine the nature of her physical ailment. She is already nude upon his arrival. Jennings proceeds to give her a vigorous chest exam, during which he notices what looks like "bite marks from a lover." He concludes that the best thing for such bite marks is professional massage, which, of course, he is licensed to perform. As he massages Mona, Dora spies on them through a peephole into Mona’s room. Upon the departure of the lascivious physician, he instructs her in the use of a special douche to be applied in the morning. It will definitely take care of her problem.
As he leaves Jennings is accosted by Dora, who’s turned on by the events she had witnessed. They make out and he forces her to fellate him. After he comes, Dora doubles over in pain. Somehow he managed to poison his sperm! As Dora convulses nude on the carpet, he calls out, "My poison semen should take care of you well enough. So long, sucker!" In the morning, Mona douches as the doctor instructed and she too collapses into a lifeless pile in the shower.
After Jennings randomly blowtorches a hitchhiker to death, Maria arrives at Dora’s house to find her beloved sister dead in the living room. Maria calls her boyfriend Don, telling him the tragic news and that she is going to kill Jennings.
She goes to his office pretending to need an exam and the psychotic saw-bones is more than happy to comply. He gropes her nude body mercilessly and without shame as she readies a snagged scalpel. When he pauses to inject her with a needle filled with a paralyzing ingredient so he can vivisect her without struggle, she stabs him in the shoulder and flees with Jennings in hot pursuit. As he runs after her in a long shot, a distant figure tackles Jennings. The screen goes black.
When Jennings wakes up, he is tied to a chair with a shotgun pointed at his crotch with "a string attached to a hairpin trigger and tied on to [his] shriveled penis." Don and Maria look down on him, getting naked and ready to make love. If Jennings gets an erection, that’s it for him! The couple continues hot and heavy until Richard gets a rise. When he reaches his maximum potential, the trigger clicks but no bullet is released. They inform him that next time it will be much more painful and then go outside for some firewood.
Jennings unbinds himself and attacks the pair, chasing them to the secluded shore seen at the start of the film. Wielding a monstrous machete, Jennings squeals, "I will slice you in two like a piece of cheese!" He tackles Maria, strangling her. Don rushes him, forcing Jennings atop an electrical tower. Don throws the large, phallic metal, impaling Jennings upon his own volatile sex terrors. A handwritten title card fills the screen. "Positively the end of Richard Jennings." Thank goodness.
It’s very easy to write these movies off as misogynistic drivel. And they are. But levels of psychic complexity vibrate into undulations from a lost era on the threshold of mainstream American culture’s fascination with pornography; the kiss of death for roughie no budget sexploitation shockers like the Flesh trilogy.
In 1972, four years after The Kiss of Her Flesh screened, everyone and their grandmother was off to see the new cause célèbre, Deep Throat. What was once marginalized to the seedy semen stained movie caverns of the Deuce became even more graphic, albeit less shameful, and everyone was coming out to see it. Deep Throat successfully gentrified the sexploitation genre, expanding upon and smoothing out its rough edges, making it presentable to a public on the precipice of what seemed like a new age of liberation, acceptance, and progressive thinking.
Forty short years later, politicians talk about rescinding Roe vs. Wade and men are still performing the same psychosexual gymnastics revolving around shame and humiliation. The mother and the amazon, or some clumsy combination of the two, are still the predominant feminine archetypes presented in mainstream entertainment.
Shame and humiliation. That stuff really sells. Shame is a negative, destructive feeling leaving one open to the sordid pitfalls and pratfalls of psychic splintering. Guilt tells us when we’re doing something wrong. It tells us the compass is working. Richard Jennings is an excellent example of a man whose compass is all fucked up, bent out of shape from shame. The Flesh films are cautionary tales about what happens when a man loses touch with himself and those around him due to a traumatic event’s effect on an already beaten down and belabored brain. All the psychic junk he’s been shoving into the closet over the years busts out violently when the mind’s door cracks open.
The power of shame is contingent upon an inability to access the self. In our society, people are more likely to look outside themselves to find their true identity. Assuming an identity to uncover the self is a divided and false mode of discovery. Some forcefully fit themselves into a compartment which doesn’t quite click. For some it works out. For some it doesn’t and then it’s time to find something new. When this happens one becomes a wanderer, lost without a land. Loneliness and disconnection are the breeding grounds for shameful self-destruction and the wheel just keeps spinning.
It takes courage to look within to find out who we really are. Once we know who we are, we are no longer divided. The business of entertainment exploits the divided self and we end up eating shit and loving it, wanting more and more. Let us learn from the example of Richard Jennings, one of the grossest caricatures of the psychic split. Let us have the courage to look deeply within to find our true selves.
Once we do that, we can finally move forward.
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