Monday, April 25, 2016

Glutton for Punishment: A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine

by JB
I must tell you: this picture was a sweet and sour surprise.

We are all interested in bad movies, inexcusable cinema, worse-than-mediocre pictures, and go-go-dancing, for that is the stuff we use to fill the empty spaces in our souls. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, and the frustrating—that is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of some of the worst movies ever made. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable soul who survived a screening. I am that miserable soul. The absurdly low budgets, the cramped studio apartment locations, the ridiculous plots, the suggestive soda pop drinking—my friend, we cannot keep these a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward those who would lasciviously drink Coca-Cola straight from the bottle! Remember, my friends: terrible movies such as these will affect you in the future!
I was motivated to seek out David F. Friedman’s roughie opus A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine for several reasons. Friedman’s book, A Youth In Babylon, is a seminal film text and belongs on every serious film student’s bookshelf. I am not joking. Friedman writes at great length about his associations with early exploitation masters Kroger Babb, the infamous “Forty Thieves” distribution chain, Harry Novak, Dan Sonney, and his partnership with Herschell Gordon Lewis making their “Blood Trilogy:” Ten Thousand Maniacs, Blood Feast, and Color Me Blood Red. A Youth In Babylon is essential reading.
I once met Friedman at a film convention (I believe it was the first Famous Monsters convention on the East Coast) and found him to be the quintessential showman, half carnival barker and half used car salesman. Learning that I taught a high-school film class, he began reeling off a list of films that he thought my students just had to see. All of the films on the list, of course, were his own films that he was conveniently selling right there at his vendor’s table.

Something Weird Video precedes all of their tapes and discs with an intro that consists of crazy clips from their films edited into an even crazier montage. One standout clip is from Smell of Honey. Actress Stacey Walker sits up on a bed covered suggestively with a sheet and snarks at her sad-looking lesbian roommate, “I may be a BITCH, but I’ll never be a BUTCH.” Walker then laughs maniacally. You, gentle reader, can enjoy this “world-famous” opener right here:

After watching that video introduction countless times, I vowed to see this film.

The Plot In Brief: Sharon Winters (Stacey Walker) has an interesting relationship with the men that she dates. She leads them on with posing and kissing and hugging and touching until they reach a state of crazy arousal, then rejects them flat, claiming that she is not that type of girl. The frustrated beau then either retreats into a blue-ball shadow world, never to be heard from again, OR advances aggressively—at which point Sharon cries rape and sees that the young man goes to jail. Sharon frustrates the hell out of everyone around her, including strangers, co-workers, roommates, and a nice young man named Lowell (Sam Melville, acting under the pseudonym Neville Coward) who actually seems to want a normal relationship. Lowell is rewarded for his patience in courting Sharon by falling so deeply into her web that he receives a bullet in the heart for his trouble. Will Sharon continue her wanton life of using and discarding men?
Given this awful premise, A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine is more entertaining than it has any right to be. There are several reasons for this: the performers are attractive, a rarity in this kind of film; the cinematography is beautiful and evocative; and the music is good for its type and lends the film a whacked-out, nostalgic tone. The lead actress, Stacey Walker, only made two pictures, both for David Friedman, and then retired from moviemaking and moved to Texas. Walker’s sultry looks and audacious performance are a big reason this film is so fun to watch. Throughout the DVD audio commentary, Friedman continually expresses regret that Walker gave up on acting, moaning “She coulda been a star!” Sam Melville actually achieved some fame, starring in four seasons of the television show The Rookies as Officer Mike Danko and enjoying a career on television and in the movies that spanned twenty-five years. Melville could actually act, another rarity in films of this type.
In case you’re skeptical about the cinematography, note that A Smell of Honey is an early effort by Laszlo Kovacs; this was only his fourth film. Three pictures later, Kovacs would lens Easy Rider and go on to a distinguished thirty-five year career in Hollywood. Kovacs would eventually photograph Five Easy Pieces; What’s Up, Doc?; Paper Moon; Shampoo; New York, New York; and Ghostbusters! Even in this early effort, we see Kovacs playing around with depth of field, interesting shot compositions, evocative lighting, and actual night shooting. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and clean, even in Something Weird’s sometimes battered print. Kovacs shows us what a difference it can make, even in a low-budget film, if an audience can ACTUALLY, CLEARLY SEE WHAT IS BEING PHOTOGRAPHED. Eureka.

The film’s music is very much “of its time.” Some of the main themes become so repetitive that I wondered if the filmmakers were doing this on purpose to stress the repetitive nature of protagonist Sharon Winters’ game or if, being a low-budget film, they only had so much music with which to work. A late sequence in the film features a hip and swinging garage band; Friedman gleefully admits he cajoled them into appearing in the film for free to gain exposure for their music. Ka-ching!
The audio commentary that accompanies the main feature is very entertaining. Something Weird’s Mike Vraney prompts producer/screenwriter David Friedman and filmmaker and sleaze expert Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case/Frankenhooker) to free associate and spin yarns as the film plays; their conversation is raucous, entertaining, and informative. Henenlotter directed a documentary on this general subject, That’s Sexploitation, which is due to be released on Blu-ray this week. The documentary features the last filmed interview with David Friedman before he passed away. Friedman actually appears in A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine twice—once as the jury foreman at the beginning of the film and again at the end as Sharon’s sad, quibbling trick.
The Something Weird Video DVD contains the aforementioned audio commentary and two bonus Friedman pictures: The Brick Dollhouse and A Sweet Sickness, neither of which reach the lunatic heights of Smell of Honey.

My friend, you have now read this column, based on my own sworn testimony. Can you prove that this film doesn’t exist? Perhaps on your way home a lovely, mysterious girl with odd, arched eyebrows will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it, but she just might be Stacey Walker, offering you either a smell of honey OR a swallow of brine! Have you ever drunk brine? I thought not! Many scientists believe that bad movies are being filmed at this very moment. We once laughed at fire, the wheel, gravity, wrongful prosecution, the telephone, and the 1960s. So much laughter! And now some of us laugh at very bad movies. God help us in the future.


  1. I've been forever on the fence about getting this movie. You've sold me!

  2. I guarantee you will get at least $7.79 worth of entertainment and fun.

    1. The $7.79 wasn't the thing stopping me. If I could post a picture of the ever growing DVD/blu ray collection you'd see why adding more physical media makes me hesitate sometimes. :-D

  3. Reading about your enjoyment of David Friedman's commentary reminded me of a similar experience I had with another Something Weird release entitled Kiss Me Quick. The commentary with Harry Novak, that film's producer, and Mike Vraney was fascinating. Novak talked about his career in the movie industry with great detail. The commentary was infinitely more interesting than the movie. I must admit that I prefer Friedman's films to Novak's.

    Other sexploitation films that I found to be much better than they ought to be are the The Alley Tramp, directed by H.G. Lewis, and Michael Findlay's The Ultimate Degenerate. If you like the genre, they are worth checking out. The work of Joe Sarno, though, always stands out for me. Most of his films up to the early 1970s have elements that transcend the usually seedy realm of sexploitation.