Bite Size: The Flesh Merchant/The Wild And The Wicked (1956)

We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. “- Hugh Hefner, as interviewed by Oriana Fallaci in the January 10th, 1967 issue of LOOK magazine


The girl gone wrong vice picture was another stalwart of early exploitation, with a endless parade of pretty young things moving to the big city seeking glitter and glamour, usually in show business. Despite men’s feelings on the matter, the women of exploitation cinema were certainly interested in curating mystery and a cosmopolitan air of casual difficulty, outside the limited confines of hearth, home and day dresses demanded by their former existences. The desire for more, be it material goods, sexual agency or the additional options afforded by financial independence is exactly what is used to lure these women into sex work, white slavery (non Caucasian characters are rarely afforded the same level of respectability or perceived innocence to warrant the same paternalistic, protectionist hysteria) or some hybrid of the two.


For all of his pretensions toward both the liberated and the libertine, Hefner’s quote shows he was no different (aside for a flair for personal opportunism) from any of the moralists of his day, or the production codes they created that mandated crime mustn’t ever appear to pay. The female protagonists of vice films may not be rounded up by law enforcement, but they are still punished in the end. Locked away from their former lives, tainted by their ambitions and implied to be deserving of whatever befell them before the credits rolled. You can be that difficult, mysterious woman…..but you’ll be forever marked by the filthy stain of wounded male ego. Had you just been content with your lot, none of this would have happened.


The Flesh Merchant is, on its face, a nondescript little exploitation film. The movie was indifferently directed by grindhouse journeyman W. Merle Connell (best known for the 1948 hygiene film Test Tube Babies) and dumped unceremoniously into the grindhouses in 1956. Typical of B fare, a spate of retitlings (The Wild And The Wicked, Sex Club, Dial 5683 for Love) and projectionist recuts makes information on the original conception of the film a bit tricky to track. Both “hot” (as seen on the Secret Key Archives Skin In The 50s DVD release) and “cold” (the print available most everywhere else) versions of the film exist, with a barely feature length runtime designed for the addition of additional loops to spice things up a bit.

22 year old Nancy Sheridan (Joy Reynolds) hops the bus to Hollywood where her estranged sister Paula (Lisa Rack) has had some success as a fashion model. Paula is far from thrilled by kid sister’s plans to stay awhile, and her reaction makes clear that modeling is probably not how she affords her fur coats and swank apartment.

Paula drops Nancy off at the bus depot the following morning. Nancy instead takes a cab to an art institute seeking models, the business card of which she stole from Paula’s desk. The nude modeling escalates into luxury prostitution at a resort like compound run by obvious Mafia stand ins. Soon Nancy is rooming with wise old broad Easy, and realizing the “guests” would like more than to take her picture.

This zippy little melodrama whizzes by, as necessitated by the scant 58 minute runtime. The cast of colorful characters (end of the line hooker Easy, a closeted male secretary at the art school, a goofy Chico Marx type brothel employee referred to only as Joker) are full of coded, delightfully suggestive dialog clearly designed to skirt right up to the knife’s edge of what the mores of the day would allow, while cluing the audience in with a nudge and a wink. When young Nancy is asked if she has any art modeling experience, she chirps “Yes, naturally”. A “naturalist” was a common synonym for “nudist” at that time.

There’s plenty of filmy peignoirs and bathing costumes and sheer dresses, as well as a brief bit of actual nudity even in the “cold” cut. In a refreshing change, where the loops are meant to be inserted isn’t hugely jarring or distracting. Given there there isn’t much visual craft here other than the beauty of actresses, having the more salacious elements passably blend into the main plot definitely helps the overall experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, while The Flesh Merchant hits all of the standard beats of a vice picture, Nancy is given far more agency than most of these stock plots usually allow. While initially a bit shocked by nude modeling, she calculates a beat and playfully drops her draping in an alluring pose. When she catches on to the true nature of “The Colony”, Nancy is more afraid of her gangster employers than the work itself. Soon she is getting quite used to champagne cocktails and diamonds on her wrists. Nancy’s already had the wholesome agreeable small town girl bit, has learned the rules of engagement, and has decided the brothel is definitely the better deal.

This leaves Paula to be the sanctimonious voice of era approved reason. Once the inevitable insanely improbable coincidence happens to make both sisters aware of the other’s true nature, she makes a second impassioned plea for Nancy to go home, before she misses her chance at Eisenhower era perfect domesticity. Paula then explicitly states she doesn’t know how to appeal to Nancy. You can see Paula realizing she’s projecting her own yearnings onto her younger sister, as her impassioned arguments run out of steam in an admission of futile frustration.

Paula makes one last ditch effort, bursting into the drawing room full of clients. Instead of charming them, makes an angry speech detailing her rage and disgust at the purveyors of sex, the men who buy it and all of the compromises that trade has forced her to make in her own life. Lisa Rack never made another film, and the role of moral scold is a rather thankless task. Her performance as Paula is surprisingly adept, and she delivers this final screed with believable conviction that she is trying to save young Nancy from that same fate.

Of course, the moral majority wins out in the end. Considering the stranglehold the expectations of happy domesticity and constant feminine cooperation had on this particular era, Nancy eschewing all of that, no matter how briefly, might just be the spiciest bit of content The Flesh Merchant has to offer.














Bite Size: She Demons (1958)

Irish McCalla was a popular pin up model whose brief acting career is probably best remembered for her titular turn on mid 50s television series Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle, a role for which she was cast when Anita Ekberg turned it down. While far from a dynamic actress, her statuesque 5’10” frame and nominal ability to deliver her lines gave her a modest edge over some of her fellow beauties looking to jump from the pages of men’s magazines to the silver screen.

1958’s She Demons is the only film appearance in her slim filmography where Irish was given top billing. Given the time frame and the jungle island setting, this was likely a bit of a calculated career move for all parties concerned. She wanted out of television, the film’s producers wanted a still somewhat recognizable name on which to hinge an otherwise unremarkable bit of budget genre fare.

Spoiled socialite Jerrie Turner (Irish McCalla) is sent off on a vacation cruise so her father can get his bratty daughter out of his hair (and his checkbook) for a bit. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught up in a hurricane, and crash lands on an uncharted island. Thankfully, square jawed tour guide Fred (Tod Griffin), sassy sidekick Sammy (Victor Sen Yung, whose list of credits is historical proof of just what kind of roles non Caucasian actors were unfortunately limited to in this era), and ship’s captain Kris (Charles Opunui, ditto) have all survived the wreck along with her.

Typical of someone used to hired help, Jerrie is less concerned with her crew or essential items like food or a radio than she is with the location of her powder blue cashmere shortie or a particular pair of toreador pants. The group’s troubles quickly move out of Gilligan’s Island territory, and into something more pressing. The seemingly empty island is actually filled with, you guessed it, “she-demons”. The creatures look like scantily clad human women from the neck down, but have horribly mutated faces, sharp fangs and a tendency towards random violence. To make matters worse, the one partial radio broadcast the group is able to receive indicates the US military is scheduled to use the island as a bomb testing site in less than 48 hours.

This sort of schlock was an even bigger barnacle than juvenile delinquency melodramas for hanging onto the bottom of a double bill for ungodly amounts of time. What distinguishes She Demons is just how many tropes it manages to pack into 76 minutes.

Baseline plot stolen from Bela Lugosi’s work in both 30s sci fi serials and 40s horror cinema?

Check to both of those, simultaneously.

Rampant exoticism and ethnic stereotyping used primarily in service of giving some blandly attractive white extras an excuse to shake it in sarongs?

Check, and it’s a fully choreographed number set to Les Baxter’s “Calypso”.

Mad scientist in attendance?

Absolutely, check. The villain isn’t just a mad scientist, he’s a Nazi mad scientist, Karl “The Butcher” Ostler (Rudolph Anders). He’s been holed up on the island with his foot soldiers since before the war ended, using the suspiciously pale “natives” as guinea pigs in a crazy scheme to restore the beauty to his burn scarred wife’s face. There’s also a henchman named Igor (Gene Roth) who pops up to add some early Nazisploitation style sadism to this whole affair, whipping an escapee and tossing the girls into bamboo cages when its not their turn on the operating table.

Had writer/director Richard E. Cunha managed to shoehorn in some half baked voodoo angle, this film could have filled the Bingo card. That said, the final act is a nice surprise as it’s Jerrie, not unseasoned potato salad Fred, who saves the day. She manages to grow both a spine and a sense of resourceful priority quickly enough to save herself and her staff before the stock footage of US Air Force bombers is scheduled to show up.

This being the 50s, Jerrie ends up doing so in an evening gown, and Fred still gets the romantic hero treatment in the last 5 minutes despite being basically useless. It’s still a notably refreshing change for a film of this ilk to give its leading lady a bit of character arc. Even if that character arc is “self involved spoiled brat” to “self involved spoiled brat that manages to appropriately wield a champagne bottle and a set of keys to spring the men….. because there is absolutely no way in hell she’s voluntarily paddling 300 miles to the mainland in a rowboat”.







Bite Size: Chained For Life (1952)

Daisy and Violet Hilton were a set of English born conjoined twins, with a life story that is arguably stranger and decidedly more exploitative than any of the fictions created during their long career as entertainers. Born in 1911, their poverty stricken mother sold them outright, and they began touring with the sideshow as toddlers.

Daisy and Violet were trained as singers, dancers and musicians (Daisy played violin, while Violet preferred a saxophone). The combination of skills allowed the girls to become a sensation outside of the sideshow, and they played to capacity crowds in the comparatively more respectable burlesque and vaudeville houses.


After years of abuse and wage theft, the Hiltons successfully sued their guardian and her husband for emancipation and financial damages in 1931. Finally free to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they continued to tour as the Hilton Sisters Revue, took a well deserved vacation cruise, and made an appearance in Tod Browning’s Freaks.

While the 1932 film is now regarded as a classic of early cinematic horror, there was a massive backlash at the time regarding the perceived obscenity of such a sympathetic and overt portrayal of “oddities”. With their very existence deemed indecent for polite society and a sea change in popular music and entertainment on the horizon, the Hiltons’ drawing power and fortune quickly dwindled into a quagmire of financial problems and doomed publicity stunt marriages.

By 1952, the sisters were dead broke. With a over a decade of misfortunes behind them and an ever narrowing field of prospects, they signed on to make a film for exploitation producer George Moskov. Chained For Life lets schlock imitate life, incorporating some of the pair’s actual troubles into the potboiler plot.

Opening in an suspiciously jury-less courtroom mid murder trial, the film’s narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks as each of the principles takes the stand. Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton (Daisy and Violet Hilton) are the headliners of a vaudeville act. With box office receipts slipping, their sleazy manager (Allen Jenkins) comes up with a can’t miss publicity stunt. The theater will hold a mock wedding for one of the siblings. After Vivian declines, he arranges the faux marriage for Dot. Andre (Mario Laval) is a sharpshooter in the show, and for his role as bridegroom is paid by the week.

Andre is what the parlance of the time would have called a “cad”, and is soon unsatisfied with both his salary and the fact that he can no longer shag his assistant with impunity. Slowly he puts his oily charm to work on Dot, convincing her to marry him for real. After grifting large chunks of her money, he jilts her via newspaper article after just a single day. Violet, never having approved of the scheme in the first place, avenges her sister’s broken heart by shooting Andre from the wings with one of his own pistols.

There was potential here for a campy sort of grimy noir, but it fizzles rather quickly given the sisters’ flat delivery. They look uncomfortable at having to emote, and one or the other shoots a nervous look straight into the camera at multiple points in the film. Their real life marriages ended in an incompatibility of sexual orientations, not murder, but the meta echoes of bigamy accusations, golddigging con artists and earnest pleas for acceptance as separate individuals with basic human needs lends a distinctly uncomfortable air to the proceedings. Life had been far less than kind to the Hiltons, and here they are reenacting lurid recreations of some of their worst traumas just to keep a roof over their heads.

Perhaps in a concession to the limitations of the film’s stars, the love triangle plot is treated almost as an afterthought, while an above average slate of vaudeville acts pad the runtime to feature length. It’s an interesting time capsule of a vanished form of popular entertainment, and one of the better extant examples of the sisters’ singing, which they are far more adept at than dramatic acting.

None of it is quite enough to wash away the oily, seeping stain of obvious underhanded profiteering. The non ending of the film makes it worse. Having facilitated the desired sideshow, the film makers opted to hurry up and cut to credits with a cop out that will hark back to the frustration of anyone who had the unfortunate luck of having Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, Or The Tiger? assigned to them as required reading in primary school.

Unsurprisingly, the Hilton Sisters never made another film. They made personal appearances at drive ins showing their modest filmography as a double feature. When even that small bit of reflected lemonlight tapered off, they worked as checkout clerks in a grocery store until their death in 1961.