Word Of Mouth (1999): The Framing of a Hooker

Dave takes in a classy slice of sleaze from the end of the decade, and discovers an unexpected name behind the camera.

One thing you miss about late ‘90s and early ‘00s softcore is the absence of the auteurs. Don’t get me wrong, there are some (Edward Holzman, Kelley Cauthen), but you can’t help but yearn for the idiosyncrasies of folk like Jag Mundhra and Gregory Dark.

Tom Lazarus comes close.

A writer by trade, his father ran a much-admired screenwriting class at the University of California, where the Oscar-nominated (Get Shorty (1998)) Scott Frank considered him a surrogate dad. The junior Lazarus started out in the mid-‘70s, penning a few movies-of-the-week and some fine episodic television like the excellent seventh season instalment of Columbo, ‘How To Dial Murder’, which featured Nicol Williamson and a young Kim Cattrall. Small screen gigs in the form of Hunter, War of the Worlds and Jake and the Fatman (where he was executive story editor) followed in the ‘80s, but it was in the ’90s where Lazarus hit pay dirt, writing the $100million horror Stigmata (1999) for MGM and producer Frank Mancuso Jr. However, in a unique twist to the conventional narrative of a Hollywood screenwriter’s career, just as a bloodied Patricia Arquette was going a little nuts, Tom Lazarus wasn’t to be found firing in pitches for the inevitable sequel.

Instead he was directing the first in a remarkable quartet of high-end sleaze epics.

WORD OF MOUTH brings us before the beguiling gaze of Torri (the seductive Catalina Larranaga), a sophisticated and charming hooker, who regularly pulls in four-figure bills for the privilege of spending the night in her company. Indeed, such is the reputation of this olive-skinned bombshell that Darrow (Mark Pellegrino), an ambitious documentary maker who works alongside his editor girlfriend (Lori Dawn Messuri), has convinced her to be the focus of his new feature. It swiftly becomes an arduous journey for both filmmaker and subject, as their clearly defined roles become complex and ambiguous. The deeper Darrow digs into her labyrinthine personality, the more red flags arise that point to a duplicitous web of lies that’s been spun by the salacious seductress. Not that his lover Kensington is doing anything to allay suspicion, as she furiously explores the past of the woman who she fears will steal her boyfriend.

Produced by the dream team of Mystique Films and Kelley Cauthen (Smooth Operator (1995)), anyone hitting play on this picture expecting the kind of wall-to-wall bonking associated with the distro might be left somewhat frustrated. Having said that, what sporadic sex that is woven through Lazarus’ film is nevertheless of an impeccable standard, with cinematographer Bruce L. Finn shooting with elegance and style.

Unusually for a dose of titillation, the script is the real star. Written by ‘L. L. Thomaso’ – who, I’m sure, is not connected to Tom Lazarus in any way [1] – Word of Mouth is chock-full of mind games, morality mazes, and a mélange of skillfully plotted erotic encounters. If you like your smut to be as ostentatious as an evening with Torri herself, then this film was made for you.

Word of Mouth was granted a video premiere in America on 23rd August 1999 as part of the classy Eros Movie Collection from Playboy. It eventually made it over to the U.K. in a similarly branded guise, when the much missed Showbox Entertainment released in the Autumn of 2004.

Interestingly, Lazarus would find his muse in Larranaga. The beautiful actress went on to work with the filmmaker in his next three features: House of Love (2000), Voyeur Confessions (2001), and The Exhibitionist Files (2002).

USA ● 1999 ● Erotic Thriller ● 90mins

Catalina Larranaga, Mark Pellegrino, Lori Dawn Messuri, Mark Sweeney ● Dir. Tom Lazarus ● Wri. L. L. Thomaso

[1] ‘L. L. Thomaso’ penned four feature films and a TV series. All of which, funnily enough, were directed by Tom Lazarus.

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