Monday, February 25, 2013

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 2: Zalman King

We move from one indie filmmaker who produced exploitation pictures to another who favored sexploitation. Zalman King basically turned into a franchise as the years went on, creating slickly produced “couples” softcore fare for cable for more than two decades. His work was so overwrought it was often amusing — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — but at its most melodramatic it became quite memorable.

King was born Zalman King Lefkowitz in N.J. and worked as a commercial scuba diver (!) before he became an actor in the Fifties. As a performer he appeared on a lot of classic series: from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Munsters, Bonanza, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Adam-12 and Charlie’s Angels. He starred in two films with Richard Pryor, Some Call it Loving (1973) and the now totally lost You’ve Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat (1971).

As a leading actor in film his finest moments are considered to be The Passover Plot (which I’ve never seen) and the mighty weird and very entertaining drug/horror pic Blue Sunshine (1978). He first produced and co-scripted films in the early Eighties (Alan Rudolph’s Roadie and Endangered Species), but his “erotic” rep appeared in earnest when he scripted and produced Nine 1/2 Weeks in 1986.

King made very soft softcore that attempted to appeal to female viewers as well as male. His theatrical and made-for-cable work is remarkably demure, but definitely satisfied those viewers looking for a context (ANY context) for their sex scenes. The inherent problem was that as the years went on, the campy aspect of King’s work, which I really enjoyed, gave way to a slicker approach that looked great but fit the Playboy Channel model of gorgeous-looking-but-mostly-tedious sex sequences. The result wasn’t lively, wasn’t campy, and wasn’t all that sexy.

In a short period of time (1988-1992) King went from (ahem) “controversial” theatrical films like Wild Orchid (1989) (although I far prefer its wonderfully insane sequel Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue) to The Red Shoe Diaries, the Showtime franchise with David Duchovny that set King off on a two-decade path producing “late-night” cable softcore.

But let’s return to better days: King’s directorial debut, Two Moon Junction (1988), remains one of his most gonzo creations, although it isn’t quite as amusing now as it was when I first saw it as an impressionable youth. The movie tells the story of a Southern debutante (Sherilyn Fenn, in a Madonna-blonde rinse) who falls in lust with a carnival handyman (Richard Tyson). Along the way we meet an oddball cast of characters played by Burl Ives (wise Southern sheriff), Herve Villechaize (cursing carnival owner), and Kristy McNichol (horny female trucker).

As noted, I watched the film again recently to assemble scenes for this blog entry and was disappointed to find it has not held up very well in the camp department; as a softcore flick, its appeal lies entirely with the idyllic good looks of Fenn and Tyson (the former can dole out the melodrama with the best of them; the latter looks like a character from a romance novel cover struggling to come to life). As camp, we are left with some really overripe dialogue, but far too little is done with wonderfully “melo” performers like Ives and Villechaize.

Of course, as I’ve learned from 19 years of doing the Funhouse TV show, the overwrought always seems that much stranger and more amusing when cut down to a shorter length, and thus I present a less than 10 minute assemblage of the more “torrid” aspects of the movie (sorry, no Burl or Kristy in here):

RIP Mr. King by moreclipsplease

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