Romania or Bust: DeCoteau by Torchlight IV

Matty looks at Petticoat Planet (1995) and Lurid Tales: The Castle Queen (1995) – the final films David DeCoteau would craft for Torchlight Entertainment – before dishing the dirt on the helmer’s own Torchlight spin-off, Bikini Goddesses (1996).

Spring 1994. 

With Beach Babes From Beyond (1993) on video store shelves, Test Tube Teens From the Year 2000 (1994) gearing up for release, and Blonde Heaven (1995) and Beach Babes 2: Cave Girl Island (1995) in the can, David DeCoteau ventured to Romania to lens his final two films for Torchlight Entertainment; the erotic subdivision of Full Moon that Charles Band had tasked the prolific auteur with overseeing. However, 1994 was a tricky year for Full Moon. The B-movie studio was undergoing an acrimonious split with parent company Paramount, whereupon several recently completed titles fell victim to rights squabbling, and production on others rattled on irrespective of whether they could be finished or released. Obviously, the financial strain and behind the scenes turmoil impacted upon Torchlight, and producer Karen L. Spencer, who, by all accounts, was DeCoteau’s right hand woman during the first four Torchlight pictures, was conspicuous in her absence when Torchlight shifted to Romania for its last hurrah. What happened exactly — for the minute, mum’s the word. But by the end of ’94, DeCoteau was plying his trade away from Full Moon (incidentally, he’d follow his Romanian sojourn by making four of his best movies in a row: Prey of the Jaguar (1996), Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), and Absolution (1997)), and the writing was on the wall for Torchlight. As Sara Suzanne Brown, the star of Test Tube Teens and once the face of Torchlight’s VideoZones, alluded to in an interview with Femme Fatales magazine, Full Moon had grown increasingly unhappy with the lack of interest in their saucy offshoot, and had decided to “slow down” and “halt” Torchlight until they could “get things the way they like them”. [1]

It’s somewhat bittersweet, then, that DeCoteau’s Torchlight sign-offs are so good. Shot back-to-back, PETTICOAT PLANET (originally called ‘Denim and Lace 2000’) and LURID TALES: THE CASTLE QUEEN continue the upswing that began with Blonde Heaven. As with DeCoteau’s preceding Torchlighter, Petticoat Planet and The Castle Queen are perfectly pitched. Gone is the tedium of the humdrum Beach Babes and its so-so sequel, and gone is the flip-flopping of Test Tube Teens, wherein the ultra-steamy softcore shagging sat at marked odds with its generally more knockabout tone.

Neither Petticoat Planet nor The Castle Queen are plot-centric but they’re never boring. Both films have a joyous spark to their dialogue-driven scripts, and Petticoat Planet’s snappy, barb-laden patter in particular is augmented by DeCoteau’s high-energy delivery. Eschewing the obvious western trappings of its ‘all-girl wild west planet’ hook (per Charles Band’s Corman-esque ‘waste not, want not’ policy, where multiple films would use the same props, same sets, and, sometimes, same crew, Petticoat Planet was shot on the frontier set built for Sam Irvin’s ‘cowboys n’ aliens’ Full Moon flicks Oblivion 1 & 2 (1994 & 1996)), DeCoteau presents Petticoat Planet as a screwball comedy with a randy mayor (Elizabeth Kaitan), thirsty sheriff (Lesli Kay), and lovelorn barmaid (Betsy Lynn George) duking it out over Troy Vincent’s crash-landed interstellar garbage man — the first fella to arrive on the estrogen-soaked plains of Puckerbush (tee-hee) for twenty years. Of course, what stirs is that George aside, the plucky Kaitan and Kay don’t need a guy. They’re the type of super-strong, headsure honeys DeCoteau has championed since his epochal scream queen vehicles Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) and Nightmare Sisters (1988). They’re women as tough and as powered by their libido as their XY counterparts, and they’re just as unafraid to show it. Their incessant digs at each other and at Vincent, and their endless bitching about Vincent’s bed-hopping antics are a hoot and DeCoteau has a blast juggling their firecracker repartee.  

The Castle Queen, meanwhile, is a sumptuous period romance — well, after the film’s nominal hero, history student Tom (Shannon Dow Smith), straps into a ramshackle VR machine in a mysterious arcade and begins to experience the carnal pleasures of 17th century England via bizarro tech wizardry. Intended as the start of an entire ‘Lurid Tales’ series that, for the above noted reasons, never came to be, The Castle Queen is the low-key craziest film of DeCoteau’s career — I mean, who would ever expect a yarn about puritans, parliament, and Oliver Cromwell from the man responsible for Creepozoids (1987) and a quartet of Puppet Masters? It’s nonsense, mind; if you listen hard enough, scribe Randall Fontana’s character-to-character verbal jousting, spat with plummy and wildly fluctuating English accents, is borderline unintelligible but it gets the point across, even with the wince-inducing phonetic Eng-ger-lish of The Castle Queen’s Romanian supporting cast. We’re in ye olde land of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. A world of lusty maidens and gentlemen suitors. A place where candles are permanently lit, bodices ripped, and performances gleefully theatrical. Throughout, DeCoteau has his camera drift around the film’s gorgeous castle location, whisking up an atmosphere of simmering mood and great aesthetic elegance. 

As for the rumpy-pumpy, Petticoat Planet’s slap n’ tickle is appropriately silly and in keeping with the rest of the film’s vibe. The sequence in which Vincent has to service Kaitan and Kay on the bounce — and nearly goes for round three with George — is as absurd as it is horny. DeCoteau plays the scene as farce, and Kay’s individual tangle with the space stud has a similarly mischievous touch of kink to it, with DeCoteau throwing handcuffs, chaps, a bullwhip, and a pair of sunglasses (because DeCoteau) into the mix. The neatest moment, though, comes at Petticoat Planet’s close, when DeCoteau has George seduce Vincent with a hypnotic procession of spins and twirls; a deliberate homage to George’s iconic appearance as the Lolita next door in the David Fincher-directed video for Billy Idol’s 1990 single, Cradle of Love.

George also stars in The Castle Queen. Delicate and wispy, The Castle Queen is the sort of softcore that you’d find wedged at the back of your parents’ VHS collection. Again photographed by the then twenty-four year-old wunderkind Viorel Sergovici (who’d go on to shoot all but one of DeCoteau’s subsequent Romanian pictures when the director returned to Full Moon in late ‘97), the cinematographer forgoes the eye-popping pink and red hues he slathered Petticoat Planet with in exchange for a floaty, poetic style that complements the classically feminine notions of romance and wooing that DeCoteau toys with. A giddy ménage à trois notwithstanding, the coitus is a mite vanilla compared to the robust spice of Petticoat Planet, but the polite belly bashing fits The Castle Queen’s mannered demeanor and is still pretty damn sexy.

Petticoat Planet:

USA/Romania ● 1995 ● Erotic, Sci-Fi, Western ● 77mins

Elizabeth Kaitan, Lesli Kay (as ‘Leslie Kay Sterling’), Betsy Lynn George, Troy Vincent ● Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Ellen Cabot’)  ● Wri. Matthew Jason Walsh

Lurid Tales: The Castle Queen:

USA/Romania ● 1995 ● Erotic, Sci-Fi, Drama ● 76mins

Shannon Dow Smith, Kim Sill (as ‘Kim Dawson’), Cristi Harris (as ‘Christi Harris’), Betsy Lynn George Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Ellen Cabot’)  Wri. Randall Fontana 

Petticoat Planet
and The Castle Queen surfaced on tape in 1996 and 1998 respectively, when, in an abridged version of their convoluted history, Full Moon had cosied up with The Kushner-Locke Company, and Torchlight had been reinvented as Surrender Cinema and was under the stewardship of Pat Siciliano, the former music supervisor of Full Moon’s record label, Moonstone. In the interim, David DeCoteau had elected to stay in Romania to recuperate from a professional burn out. A cursory glance at the helmer’s resume tells you everything you need to know: simply, the poor sod needed a holiday after a decade of waging war in the low-budget trenches. Thing is, filmmakers gonna, erm, film-make (?), and as DeCoteau traversed the edges of the Black Sea his mojo was rekindled during a visit to ruins left by a gaggle of Greek settlers circa 630BC. Initially flirting with a Jason and the Argonauts (1963) like idea, DeCoteau conceived a cheaper — if conceptually suspect — alternative: a Romanian T&A comedy in the mode of Beach Babes From Beyond about Greek goddesses.

It’d be easy to criticise BIKINI GODDESSES. Its capital crime is that Romania is 100% not Greece, and every frame of this impoverished 16mm quickie screams ‘Iron Curtain’. There’s no way else to describe it: Bikini Goddesses just looks incredibly Soviet, and the unmistakable Cold War/Eastern European grubbiness extends to the titular goddesses themselves — an uncredited trio of local non-actresses who DeCoteau can’t even remember the names of, and who are all dubbed by Tempe fav Ariauna Albright. Lacking the glamour of their American softcore contemporaries, visually the girls are more akin to the dowdy fringe characters of a Dostoevsky novel than they are ancient Graeco deities, regardless of the togas provided by costume designer Victoria Dragnea (who, like the film’s producer/cinematographer Viorel Sergovici, was a Petticoat Planet/Castle Queen holdover and a key collaborator on DeCoteau’s later Romanian epics).

The thrust of Bikini Goddesses is woefully thin too. Mounted from a script written in a day, Bikini Goddesses’ plot isn’t so much slight as it is nonexistent. It’s something to do with a layabout American lad (Blonde Heaven’s Alton Butler) going to ‘Greece’ — extra-large bunny ears, please — to help his beleaguered hotelier dad (Claudiu Trandafir, another Romanian DeCoteau stalwart). Goddesses appear, humping ensues, blah blah blah beach party. Oh, and one of the girls is evil, maybe? Yet as ropey and as hokey as it is in premise and texture, there’s a ragged, audacious charm to Bikini Goddesses, and it sports a nice line in schoolyard vulgarity (as exemplified by the sex obsessed, third person speaking bellhop Stavros: “Stavros wishes for a mighty penis to pleasure many women!”). 

Filmed in six summer days in and around the Grand Hotel Rex (the preferred bolt hole of  assassinated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, trivia fiends), the fact DeCoteau managed to cobble together a nudie in a country that, in the mid ’90s at least, wasn’t known for its progressive attitude is mind-blowing, and Bikini Goddesses’ finest burst of simulated bonking is a scorcher. Emphasising the physicality of the strapping Butler and zeroing in on the heart-shaped derriere of the hottie pretending to gobble him on the empty hotel dance-floor, it’s a genuine ‘how the hell did Dave get away with it?!’ bit of craftsmanship that rivals the bloody-mindedness of shot-stealing mavericks like Fred Olen Ray and Larry Cohen. Indeed, it’s the film’s semi-improvisational and experimental nature that elicits admiration. Essentially cast on the fly — the aforementioned Stavros is played by the Rex’s real bellhop, uncredited; a real taxi driver plays a taxi driver; a real receptionist plays a receptionist etc. — there’s a free-spirited air and earthy vitality to Bikini Goddesses that transcends its scrappiness and inherently limited production values. Because although it’s Beach Babes From Beyond and Test Tube Teens From the Year 2000 that get the nod on the film’s video cover (which was the last release from the director’s own Cinema Home Video), Bikini Goddesses’ can-do spirit is closer to the punk-y, DIY ethos DeCoteau would exhibit in Leather Jacket Love Story, Voodoo Academy (2000), and the pioneering homoerotic horror masterworks of his Rapid Heart slate. It’s rough, yes, but Bikini Goddesses is a fascinating evolutionary step from an artist on the precipice of finding his niche, and swiftly developing a taste for doing things his way.

Romania ● 1996 ● Erotic Comedy ● 80mins

Alton Butler, Claudiu Trandafir Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Ellen Cabot’)  Wri. Matthew Jason Walsh (as ‘Eric Black’) 

Bikini Goddesses (1996) VHS

[1] Femme Fatales, Vol.2/Number 3, Winter 1994, ‘Golden Girl: Sara Suzanne Brown’ by Ari Bass

Portions of these reviews appear in Matty Budrewicz & Dave Wain’s forthcoming book, “Schlock & Awe: 2,001 Forgotten Films of the ’90s Rental Realm”.

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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