“Is this what it all adds up to? Is there anything else?”

Bourgeois and bored, Tracey Jo Whitman (Dyanna Lauren) feels like life is passing her by. Now in her mid-thirties, her only obvious vice is surreptitiously scoffing biscuits in her local supermarket. It’s no consolation, but her best friend Elizabeth (Melissa Hill) is even less fulfilled. She’s encumbered with an adulterous husband (Tony Tedeschi) and peculiar tendency to nibble at bars of soap. The pair seem doomed to continue in quiet desperation, to settle for dissatisfaction, until the intervention of a charismatic shop-assistant spurs them in to action.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that things begin to change for the girls during a routine excursion to the aforementioned supermarket. To the horror of her friend, Tracey Jo helps herself to a mouthful of biscuits without realising she’s under surveillance. Suddenly, satirically, they’re ordered to step away from the biscuits, and to the amusement of the assembled shoppers, flee the building in shame. Outside, their tormentor – a tattooed shop-assistant by the name of Roy (Steven St Croix) – approaches them to extend the hand of friendship. Though Elizabeth seems relieved, Tracey Jo is furious and threatens to make a complaint. Her new-found nemesis walks away, and the girls are enveloped by an unexpected gust of wind.

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Elizabeth is enthralled by her new acquaintance, and fantasises of a ménage a trois with him and a pretty co-worker (Stephanie Swift). In fact, she and Tracey Jo are suddenly consumed by libidinous desires – ravishing their respective husbands in spite of the underlying tensions. Of course, these encounters do no more than paper over the cracks, and Elizabeth finds herself banished to the spare bedroom. Tracey Jo, on the other hand, gives full vent to her frustrations by telling her husband (Jon Dough) that she’s lost all faith in him – and heading off to the supermarket for a rendezvous with Roy. . .

“Something bad is going to happen . . . something very bad.”

One of the most celebrated adult films of the nineties – indeed, of all time – Bad Wives has suffered the indignity of being released on DVD shorn of half it’s length. Aside from doing its cast, writer and director a considerable disservice, this mystifying decision makes a meaningful evaluation of the film’s merits almost impossible. For example, when Mary Jo berates her husband for ‘fucking everything up’, it seems to come from nowhere. Equally curious is Elizabeth’s husband informing her that he’s lost interest in the physical aspects of their relationship – shortly after they’re engaged in particularly wanton love-making. A cynic might suggest these are just examples of ‘porno-logic’, but I have a feeling they’re more indicative excised footage.

In light of the above, one could justifiably expect the 72 minute version of Bad Wives – the version under review – to be an incomprehensible mess, but against all odds, that’s not the case. It does feel compromised, understandably less than fully formed, but is still engaging and relatively rewarding. In fact, it’s quite the curiosity – or at least, Roy the mysterious bag boy is. The catalyst to our heroines escape from passivity is clearly other-worldly, but his exact nature remains elusive. The official line is that he’s the devil – and he does whip Elizabeth into such a frenzy that she points a shotgun at her husband – but it remains a rather benign incarnation of the Prince of Darkness. Indeed, by insisting the girls can do whatever they want, he could be seen as a liberating force – a knight in white work-clothes. An element of darkness is clearly at work – as evidenced by his impassioned discussion of chaos and evil – but for me, Roy is essentially a provocateur; a mischief-maker more interested in his own amusement than anything else.

Attempting to analyse Dean Nash’s award-winning screenplay is obviously quite treacherous under the circumstances, but we can discuss other aspects of the film with more certainty. As usual, Paul Thomas demonstrates an admirable ability to coax performances out of his cast; Steven St Croix had already proved his acting chops with Bobby Sox (and a number of exemplary John Leslie features) but Dyanna Lauren and Melissa Hill also deserve credit for taking their characters from bored to bad wives. Though he’s not generally considered a great stylist, the director also supports the narrative with some uncharacteristic visual flourishes – for example, the infernal red light that bathes Roy’s face early on in the film. The calculated costuming is another nice touch, with Roy’s attire switching from white to black in the middle of a pivotal sequence, and our heroines making a similar sartorial switch once they’ve fully succumbed to his spell.

“I think about everything I haven’t seen, won’t see, can’t see.”

Paul Thomas has gone as far as describing Bad Wives as the best film he’s ever made – high praise indeed. He’s also described the screenplay as the best he’s ever worked with. Unfortunately, the evidence at hand isn’t sufficient for me to gauge whether either comment is justified. It’s clearly a superior adult film, distinguished by an intriguing narrative, assured direction and solid performances, but the same could be said about any number of the director’s features. Until Vivid Video – who are notorious for the poor presentation of their films – restore the film to its full duration, a more meaningful assessment will have to wait.