Gerard Damiano could justifiably be described as the father of adult movies because it was he, albeit pseudonymously, who directed Deep Throat. I should point out that, despite its enormous financial success, the movie has little or no aesthetic value, but it remains a landmark; representing the first time a narrative film featuring explicit depictions of unsimulated sexual activity attained widespread visibility. Of course, the infamy of Deep Throat – the moral outcry, arrests and high-profile trials – tells us more about the culture and politics of the time than about Damiano and his film. However, before anyone mistakes the director for a hack who happened to strike gold, one of the worst adult movies of the early seventies was swiftly followed with one of the best.
Despite more than 30 years having elapsed since its initial theatrical release, The Devil in Miss Jones remains a startling experience. As dark as a horror film and as textured as an art film, this is an unapologetically adult adult film.
Justine Jones is a lonely, unfulfilled, thirty-something woman living a life of quiet despair. To a mournful piano-led refrain, we watch as she runs a bath, climbs in and slits her wrists. Inexplicably, the movie immediately cuts to Justine entering a sparsely furnished room and taking a seat next to a polite, somehow apologetic, stranger. It transpires that she is attending an interview although, due to the confusion that has followed her ‘accident’, its exact nature is unclear. Her host, ‘Abaca’, advises that two positions are available but, despite her chaste existence, the ‘upper office’ cannot accept her. She has taken her own life – the one sin they cannot overlook. However, the assertion that, if she had her time again she would live an existence ‘consumed by lust’, proves intriguing. Although her ultimate destination remains beyond doubt, Miss Jones can return to earth for a finite period.
The middle section of the movie is a series of vignettes punctuated by dialogues between Miss Jones and Abaca. Following some initial tutelage in the sins of the flesh, Justine proceeds from masturbation to lesbianism and threesomes. Unfortunately though, time is running out. These increasingly frenzied encounters are actually nothing more than a period of purgatory, a period in which Miss Jones is prepared for her own personal hell.
Much has been made of religious subtext of this film – of the themes of sin and eternal damnation – and the symbolism of Justine masturbating with fruit and a live snake is hard to miss. Of course, it can also be read from a secular point of view. For example, Justine’s suicide could be seen as the culmination of years of repression and denial. Existential questions don’t necessarily require metaphysical answers and it’s worth noting that Damiano’s conception of hell is almost certainly based on that depicted by Sartre in Huis Clos.
Whatever the original intention, the resultant film is a heady combination of philosophy and carnality. Here we have a film that begins with a suicide and ends in hell. A film that seems to equate lust with eternal damnation, yet still manages to achieve considerable erotic tension. Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies in the symbiotic relationship between the narrative and the sex scenes, but considerable credit must also go to Georgina Spelvin who excels in the role of Miss Jones. It’s easy to ridicule the acting of adult film stars but the stereotype of vacuous, silicone-enhanced models stumbling over their lines could hardly be less helpful here. Spelvin, who was undeniably past her physical prime by the early seventies, would go on to star in a number of noteworthy films but this remains her signature performance. It’s amazing to think that, despite a theatrical background, her she was initially approached to cater the production rather than feature in it!
Finally, no discussion of this film can be considered complete without reference to Alden Shuman’s memorable, deeply melancholy, score. The fact that it was recently broadcast in its entirety by a New York radio station is testament to its quality and enduring appeal.
Although the industry as a whole failed to capitalise on his audacious precedent, Damiano continued to make adult films with an art-house sensibility throughout the seventies and into the eighties. We will come to those in due course.