“Thank you for coming to my humiliation.”

In Shaun Costello’s first 35mm feature, four affluent Americans gather together for a night of games. Unfortunately, the introductions are barely at an end when they receive the news that Hitler has invaded Poland. The host, Martin Van Nostrand (Jamie Gillis), is shattered, and his wife Elaine (C.J. Laing), is forced to improvise a means of alleviating his distress. Their guests – Jonathon (Eric Edwards) and Amy (Karen Regis) – had expected an evening of polite conversation and gentle social interaction, but Martin’s mental state renders such lightweight distractions impossible. Instead, the group agree that each will reveal a deeply-held sexual fantasy, exposing themselves to the scrutiny of the group. Far from the anticipated joys of bridge, the games played on this particular evening are to be purely psychological.

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Despite its simple set-up, this is apparently a film of which the estimable director is particularly proud – scratch the surface and it’s not hard to see why. The dialogue sequences hit more often than they miss, and three of the four fantasy sequences succeed in terms of provocation and cinematic technique. The first confession comes courtesy of Elaine, who it appears has a penchant for punishment. An overhead camera reveals her to be naked and alone, shackled and distraught in an empty white room. Suddenly, doors open behind her and she makes her way into a dungeon populated by four masked men. Next to reveal himself is Jonathon, an outwardly conservative businessman who fantasises about ravishing a prostrate blonde under the supervision of a tuxedoed brunette (Bree Anthony). The air of menace that pervaded the earlier sequence is now replaced by a languid, almost arthouse approach that calls to mind the films of Walerian Borowczyk. The sequence features very little ambient sound, instead playing out against a backdrop of understated chamber music. This in turn gives way to a more aggressive, hyperactive style when Martin speaks of his frustrated aspirations of a career in boxing. We see him pounding a bag in a grimy, low-rent gym, being approached by a gangster and instructed to ‘throw’ a title fight. The ensuing sexual fantasy is appropriately physical, as he drags the gangsters moll (Vanessa Del Rio) into the locker-room, slaps her around, and takes her alongside three other men. The culmination of this sequence – the inevitable ejaculation of the men – is inter-cut with shots of anonymous fists remorselessly pounding a bag, and the face of our pugilist as he’s made an offer he can’t refuse. It may not be high art, and it certainly isn’t politically correct, but it is very effective film-making.

I should stress that this isn’t a Sadean film, despite its premise and scenes of coercion. It’s certainly quite kinky – in keeping with the director’s reputation – but that’s not the same thing. Elaine’s fantasy has her placed in stocks prior to being whipped and penetrated, while Martin dreams of enacting a double-penetration and smearing another man’s seaman over a woman’s face. Most unusual of all, though, is Jonathon’s imaginary ménage a trios: One of the female participants is totally passive, barely even betraying consciousness, but the fantasist also affords himself a submissive role. Indeed, he goes so far as to suck a strap-on worn by the unusually-attired prostitute, and even allows himself to be penetrated with it. While the hardcore of the seventies is typically more daring than that of subsequent decades, such blatant homosexual allusions were rare even then.

In addition to being interesting on a number of levels, Midnight Desires is also somewhat prophetic. Its episodic structure is certainly not unprecedented, but the reliance on a simple framing device to contextualise otherwise-unrelated sexual sequences was contrary to the dominant ideology of the time. Some of the earliest adult features – Deep Throat included – actually contained footage culled from pre-existing 8mm ‘loops’. Additional material would then be produced to provide a theme or context and, for minimal investment, a feature-length film was born. Of course, 1976 was the era of porno-chic, of increasingly ambitious productions and a shift towards mainstream methods of story-telling. Costello’s film, with its refusal to incorporate a linear narrative or revert to cinematic primitivism, stands in stark contrast to this. It also effectively anticipates the vignette format that would be successfully adopted by DeRenzy in the eighties and Andrew Blake in the nineties.

Midnight Desires is clearly a film containing much to admire, but it isn’t an unqualified success for several reasons. The fantasy sequences are particularly well-executed, but the narrative interludes look flat by comparison; the dialogues themselves are actually quite interesting – especially when the characters analyse the preceding fantasy – but their realisation is not as imaginative as the set-pieces they punctuate. The curious interventions of Van Nostrand’s butler, who brings news of the war during the course of the evening, are also something of a mixed blessing. The truth is, Midnight Desires is not set in the ‘thirties, and the news updates point to the eccentricity of our hosts rather than the passage of time. On paper this is perfectly fine, but it adds an unnecessary element of farce to the evening’s storytelling. On the subject of which, the fourth fantasy sequence – that of Amy – isn’t up to the standards of those that preceded it. A group encounter set in 18th century England, the accents of the imaginary highwaymen are predictably risible, but the real problem is the lack of a discernable psychological undercurrent; without it, there’s no frisson to the footage, and only the technique to admire.

Ultimately the pluses greatly outweigh the negatives, but I wouldn’t go as far as describing this as Costello’s masterpiece or placing it alongside the genuine classics of the genre. It’s a vignette movie, and as such is never likely to be as engrossing as say, The Story Of Joanna or 3am. Nevertheless, there’s much to admire – the versatility of the director, the carefully chosen soundtrack. There’s also much that contemporary directors could learn from. One of the strengths of Midnight Desires is that the dialogue passages comment on and enhance the vignettes, rather than simply facilitating them. The script is good and the cast handle the material admirably. Even C. J. Laing – not known for her acting ability – has the personality to elevate her role beyond that of mere window-dressing. It’s just a shame that the intensity of the first three-quarters isn’t maintained for the entire duration of the film.