The Films (2.5/5)
The two features included on this DVD represent the end of an era, as they’re among the last adult features to be shot on 35mm. Though home video and, by extension, the curtained back rooms that could be found in most video stores were already popular by the time these movies were released in 1985, the industry was still a few years away from the direct-to-video boom that changed porno forever. While neither of the movies included here - both of which star stripper-turned-porn star Hyapatia Lee and were directed by her then-husband, Bud Lee - are among the best of the golden era of porno movies, they’re fascinating as artifacts of a time when their adult films were often made with surprisingly high budgets and attention to production value.
The main feature, The Ribald Tales of Canterbury, was made with a very high budget ($300,000), and it’s a Medieval parody with surprisingly good sets and costumes borrowed from the Universal lot. The final result may not exactly be Excalibur, but it’s considerably more entertaining than a lot of stuffy period pieces that don’t have nearly as much unsimulated sex. Also, Hyapatia Lee mentions in her memoirs that the production went to Scotland for two days to shoot exterior location footage; you have to appreciate a porn parody of Chaucer that will go that far for the sake of verisimilitude.
Hyapatia Lee co-wrote the script, a very loose version of Chaucer’s tales that revolves around a hostess (played by Lee) who invites her travelling companions to join her in a contest to see who can tell the most entertaining story as they make their way to Canterbury. The movie is filled with goofy humor and actors cheerfully mugging their way through “medieval” dialogue. In a way, the movie owes more to Pasolini than Chaucer; after the director’s own Canterbury Tales was released, a flood of softcore ripoffs were produced within a few years. The Ribald Tales of Canterbury was produced a decade later, and I don’t know whether the title had the same currency as it did soon after Pasolini’s movie was released. However, at its best, it has a cruder but still sweetly shameless naughtiness that plays like an X-rated Mad magazine parody of the Pasolini film.
As for the sex scenes, they’re visibly part of a transitional period in porn in a number of ways. The actors look like they’ve been hitting the gym, but their bodies aren’t impossibly sculpted. The body hair is more groomed, but there’s still plenty of bush on display. There’s an over-reliance on generic (and unflattering) hardcore closeups of penetration, but also some surprisingly sensual moments that take advantage of careful framing and lighting. There’s not the sense that these are the works of a porno auteur - Bud Lee is quite frank on the DVD extras about his having only been one of several driving creative voices on the film - but it’s still an entertaining throwback to a time when the idea of porn movies having scripts wasn’t an automatic punchline.
The bonus feature on the disc, Tasty, was produced immediately after but released before The Ribald Tales of Canterbury. Hyapatia Lee stars as Tasty Tastums, a DJ who, when she and all of her co-workers are about to be fired, decides to switch the format from rock and roll to sex talk. Tasty was a relatively rushed production, and even its director admits that it’s not as strong a movie as its predecessor. However I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it a bit more than Canterbury. This is despite the fact that it points the way towards oncoming trends in porn that I can’t stand. The movie is overlit, the set design doesn’t get much more complex than a palm plant next to a couch, and the male actors are dressed in that half-assed business casual look that seems better suited for a staff meeting at TJ Maxx than a porno.
There are way too many poorly framed close-ups here too, including the one that would show up in approximately a billion pornos since. It’s the close-up of penetration that gives you the least enticing view possible of the man’s flapping scrotum and the woman’s blushing taint. As I write “blushing taint,” there’s something halfway alluring about that phrase, but the reality is thoroughly unerotic, at least the way it’s usually shot in porn. To me, it’s the visual signifier of bad porn - unimaginative, artless and off-putting.
So why did I enjoy Tasty? Simply put, because it’s a doofy ‘80s porn comedy about a sexy radio station. Tasty’s sense of humor is almost identical to any number of bad ‘80s softcore sex comedies like Hardbodies, movies that leaned heavily on titillation, double entendres and leering T&A shots. Tasty is actually more enjoyable than those movies; by literally showing us sex instead of snickering like a 12-year-old boy at the suggestion of it, it’s at least more honest about its own appeal. Plus, it has at least one unforgettable scene, featuring Lee in a music video parody of Pat Benatar titled “Hit Me with Your Wet Shot.” It’s hilariously close to the real song, and the video is a fantastic ‘80s collection of neon, dry ice and a bed on a rotating platform. It’s a perfect time capsule that happens to end with a particularly enthusiastic facial. It’s worth a look.
Both The Ribald Tales of Canterbury and Tasty were restored from their original 35mm negatives. Both movies look great - although the movies themselves aren’t among the most visually dynamic adult productions of the era, both transfers look clear and pleasantly filmic throughout. The 1.0 mono audio tracks are also clear throughout.
A commentary with director Bud Lee is included with Tales of Canterbury. It’s an entertaining listen, and Lee is particularly enthusiastic when discussing the sets and production design, probably more so than he is when the conversation turns to the sex scenes. At one point he actually admits to fast forwarding past the sex when he rewatched the movie to prepare for the commentary. A video interview with Lee (approximately 10 minutes long) is also included; the director discusses meeting his star and then-wife. Theatrical trailers are also included for both movies.
Neither The Ribald Tales of Canterbury or Tasty are among the best movies of their time, but they’re worth checking out for fans of vintage porn. Not just because they’re nearly the last of their kind, but because they’re shamelessly lowbrow fun for reasons besides (but definitely including) the sex scenes. Vinegar Syndrome has done a great job restoring both movies, and the audio commentary, in particular, is a nice touch.