Sin City: Vegas High Stakes (1996)

Dave takes a trip into the desert to hang out with strippers and hillbillies.

Gary Graver stepped away from the porn industry in the late ‘80s to focus on trying to break into the mainstream with pictures like Moon in Scorpio (1987) and Crossing the Line (1990). But if anything would tempt him to return to XXX terrain, it would be something that at least attempted to recreate the heyday of the skin flick’s Golden Age.

Western Visuals were no replacement for fabled smut peddler Harold Lime, but when Graver did make his porno come back in early ’91 to direct their Three Men and a Hooker (1991) and The Stranger Beside Me (1991), the company allowed him a little more artistic flexibility compared to the stringent bump n’ grind of many of his peers. Creatively speaking, the peak of Western Visuals and Graver’s partnership arrived a couple of years later with a trilogy of highly acclaimed features that were all shot in 35mm: Erotika (1994), which was a remake of Sandra: The Making of a Woman (1973); Exstasy (1995), which was a remake of ‘V’: The Hot One (1975); and, finally, Lust & Desire (1996), which didn’t remake anything – although it was drained of its hardcore to facilitate a symmetrical mainstream release in the shape of VEGAS HIGH STAKES.

Graver writes, directs and photographs here (all under the pseudonym of either ‘Akdov Telmig’ or ‘Robert McCallum’, depending on whether you’re watching the XXX or R-rated version), and it’s a story that very much fits his preferred oeuvre.

Lust (Jeanine Martin aka Nicole London) and Desire (Samantha Kastler aka Jordan Lee) are two Las Vegas strippers who witness the murder of an Elvis impersonator (Don Fischer) in the car park of their club. When the hitmen realise they’ve been seen they give chase, only for the two buxom beauties to flee into the desert where they find sanctuary at the ramshackle redneck home of Uncle Earl (Don Hart aka Mike Horner) and his inbred nephews, Billy Boy (Steve Hatcher) and Tom (Doug Shepard).

Mixing slapstick, quirky characters, and a Thelma & Louise (1991) vibe amid the lushly photographed backdrops of Vegas, Death Valley and Yosemite National Park, there’s somehow a coherent – if simple – narrative that runs through the spine of Vegas High Stakes. The strength of any porno is dependent on when you take the sex out, is there a story worth watching? Well, removing forty minutes of hardcore footage from Lust & Desire was always going to be a gamble. But it works.

Both London and Lee aren’t blessed with the same acting chops as erotica icons Veronica Hart or Georgina Spelvin, but on the few occasions where the feature falls short, it’s easily compensated by Graver’s feel for pace and a reliance on old hands like Hart/Horner. Ironically, it was Graver who gave Horner his big break, casting him as Eckerman in Tangerine (1979), and unleashing a career that would clock up over a thousand blue movie performances and garner multiple AVN awards.

Vegas High Stakes was released on VHS in the Spring of ’97 but failed to set the rental shelves alight. It resurfaced in 2005, when Troma picked up the catalogue of Phoenix Arts and Entertainment (along with Tuesday Never Comes (1992) and Death Dancers (1993)). Troma retitled it ‘Lust and Desire in Vegas High Stakes’, and slapped a ‘wacky’ Lloyd Kaufman introduction onto the DVD.

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