The Films (2.5/5)
“Dear Fellow Human:
God created the universe for you…
then he created you…
and made you intelligent…
and he gave you all you need to be intensely happy…”
It’s not every porno that opens with a written prologue promising to make the viewer happier and closer to God, but Carnal Haven does just that via onscreen text attributed to “Troy Benny” (the pseudonym for director Carlos Tobalina). About a group of couples who attempt to improve their love lives with a sex therapy workshop, Carnal Haven closes with a text epilogue insisting that the movie meets any reasonable standards of educational and artistic value. Using “educational value” as a pretense of smut was, of course, a common move among adult filmmakers since the 1950s, when sex education shorts and “documentaries” about nudist colonies got by on this technicality. But the unique thing about Carnal Heaven is that Tobalina actually seems to believe in the promise that his film will help bring couples closer together.
The movie has a very repetitive structure, even for porn; we’re introduced to an unhappy couple, see them having unsatisfying sex, while a voiceover explains what their issues are; then we cut to them having sex with each other and, sometimes, other partners at a workshop run by two doctors (Sharon Thorpe and Ken Scudder). In the last section, we return to each couple having much better sex as a result of what they’ve learned. The group encounter therapy isn’t quite as enjoyably weird as in recent Vinegar Syndrome release Touch Me, but much of the advice Tobalina imparts to us is surprisingly good. Granted, much of it is basic stuff about sexual positions, clitoral stimulation and so forth, but the movie’s seemingly earnest attempt to help its audience learn to “be intensely happy” is oddly endearing.
Of course, few of Carnal Haven’s original audience members attended as a lesson in personal development, so it’s somewhat odd that the sex scenes are actually the weakest part of the movie. Aside from one funny scene where Thorpe uses her own body for a tutorial on female pleasure, the movie’s many orgy scenes are shot with little consideration for camera placement or lighting (this is especially odd because the non-porn scenes are framed more carefully). There’s an over reliance on hardcore closeups that quickly grows monotonous. Probably most damaging is the bizarre score, presumably assembled from stock music cues, which sounds like a biblical epic one moment and a slapstick comedy the next. The money shots are always accompanied by weirdly creepy cues that sound like they’re from an early Cronenberg movie; I saw ejaculations, but I was thinking about alien parasites, which can’t have been the desired effect. To put it another way, I probably far spent more time than I should have admiring the wallpaper and colorful bedspreads during the sex scenes.
Her Last Fling, the other film directed by Tobalina (this time using the pseudonym Bruce Van Buren) included in this double feature, features slightly more interesting sex scenes, thanks to the appearance of stars like Paul Thomas, Candida Royalle and even a cameo (of sorts) by John Holmes. The movie follows a young woman, played by Sandy Pinney, who has been diagnosed with an unspecified disease and told she only has weeks to live. She decides to cross some items off her bucket list, and “multiple orgies” is apparently at the top of the list. The sex scenes here suffer from the same problems as Carnal Haven; again, there’s an over reliance on disembodied close-ups, and the weird, Cronenbergian music cues make a return appearance. It’s odd, because in the non-sex scenes, Tobalina shows a lot more interest in framing and composition, even dwelling on the Golden Gate Bridge as a repeated visual metaphor for the character’s journey.
Is it possible Tobalina was a frustrated aspiring auteur who was more interested in the stories that bookend the sex scenes than the sex itself? And how would he feel knowing that the “redeeming social value” that was originally a pretense for the porn is more interesting to this contemporary viewer than the porn itself? I can only guess, but the way Her Last Fling concludes reaffirms the director’s apparently earnest belief in the transformative powers of good sex – as the movie’s final caption reminds us, “FUCKING MAKES LIFE.”
Carnal Haven and Her Last Fling were are both presented in 1.78:1 transfers scanned in 2K from the 35mm camera negatives. After getting used to qualifying my ratings of the A/V quality of vintage porn DVDs with the understanding that companies like Vinegar Syndrome have to work with less-than-ideal source elements, I was pleasantly surprised by how great both of the movies included look here. Obviously it helps that these movies were either shot or, more likely, blown up to 35mm, and that Vinegar Syndrome was able to work with the negative rather than the best print they could find. Even so, both movies are remarkably clean, with vivid colors, flesh tones and fine detail throughout. These aren’t going to be reference discs for anyone, but as far as vintage porn transfers go, Vinegar Syndrome’s work here is remarkable. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio on both films is clear enough – much of the dialogue is tinny and muffled, but as this is clearly a problem with the original audio, it’s likely this is as good as these movies will ever soon, and almost certainly as good as they’ve ever looked.
Each film includes the original theatrical trailer, both of which are very entertaining in their own right.
Carnal Haven and Her Last Fling hardly represent the best of ‘70s adult cinema, but Vinegar Syndrome’s excellent double feature is recommended for those with a historical interest in the subject, as well as kinky couples looking to have a good laugh and get a little bit closer to God.