Underrated Movies #20: Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (1971); Dir. Joël Séria

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In Act I, scene 7 of Macbeth, Macbeth is having doubts about killing Duncan, the King of Scotland. There is still enough morality in him that he shivers at the thought of murder. He asks his wife, Lady Macbeth, “And if we should fail?” Lady Macbeth replies,

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

Would Macbeth have gone on to kill Duncan without Lady Macbeth whispering encouragement in his ear? What is it about TWO that can be so deadly? Killers, of course, often act alone, but the criminal pairings of history are numerous. Alone, the personality may be undeveloped, blunted, even: it is just looking for its perfect half. When they find their perfect half, they become not only whole, but bigger, grandiose, and capable of great and violent action. It’s a two-way current, self-sustaining, a complete world under glass. The duo becomes impenetrable. They egg one another on, whispering encouragement (or scolding shaming comments: “what are you, a pussy?” – which is basically what Lady Macbeth is saying to her husband, a potent scold if ever there was one, to a certain kind of man, and Lady M knows her husband well).

One side of the duo brings one aspect of the criminal mind to the table: the planner, the theorizer, the one who creates and builds up the justification for what they are about to do. “The world sucks”, or “we’ll show everyone how awesome we are”, or “They made fun of us in school, they deserve what they get.” These justifications are often backed up with loosely understood quotes from people like Nietzsche (a hero to Leopold and Loeb, with his ideas of the “superman”, high above the everyday morality play of normal humanity), or Marilyn Manson, and cobbled-together hifalutin’ theories of violence and death.

The other side of the duo brings the mindset of the perfect follower, the subservient lapdog. Every leader needs a follower, breathless with admiration and willingness. There’s a sado-masochistic dynamic in deadly duos, one getting off on being the leader, the other getting off on groveling. It’s a self-sustaining system. Nobody can infiltrate, and it’s that way by design.

Leopold and Loeb, teenagers, still living at home with their parents, created an entire alternate universe, where they believed they were criminal masterminds, where they read Nietzsche and talked about the perfect crime, and didn’t just talk about it, but planned it out. They slept with each other, a huge taboo, beyond the pale, really, at the time. There were some in their lives who were disturbed by their closeness (“don’t you want to make other friends?”), but by the time those gentle suggestions came, it was far too late. The duo had taken its final deadly and perfect form. Compulsion, the 1959 film about Leopold and Loeb (with Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as the boys and Orson Welles as their defense lawyer) takes the view that the sado-masochistic dynamic between the two boys is essential to understanding their crime. You need a partner for S&M games. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy existing in a vacuum. It was the submissive one, however, who created the intellectual framework for their “perfect crime”, it was the submissive one who talked about justifications for what they did, while the dominant one was less interested in that, and more interested in fame and notoreity.

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History is full of deadly female duos as well. There were the Papin sisters, in Le Mans, France, domestic servants, who murdered the lady of the house and her daughter in 1933. This event sparked the intelligentsia in France, at the time, inspiring Sartre, Camus, Jean Genet, to reflect on not only evil, and the nature of evil, but how evil often only comes about in relationship. One sister by herself would never have had the guts, or the smarts, to murder. But together? One imagines the sisters whispering to one another in their maids’ quarters, whipping themselves into a frenzy of anger, outrage, and determination. Sometimes it takes someone TELLING you to “screw your courage to the sticking place” to strengthen your resolve.

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Jean Genet, famous thief, prostitute and intellectual, wrote a play based on the story of the Papin sisters, called The Maids. I worked on it as an independent project, in college, with Nancy, a dear friend and fantastic actress. The Maids (at least in the translation I read, I haven’t read it in the original French) has an incantatory breathless feel to the dialogue. Genet was not known for kitchen-sink realism, and here, he goes into the darkness at the heart of that duo. If anyone understood the underbelly of sex, and how it works ON us, even as we imagine that WE are working IT, it was Genet. A true outlaw, a homosexual, an artist, his interest in the Papin sisters was the confluence of sex and violence. Thwarted sex drive can often turn into rageful outbursts, and The Maids is a play without men. Men are mentioned, in passing, but they are completely peripheral to the bell-jar world of unchecked estrogen. Men are irrelevant. (It is interesting to note, however, that Genet meant the play to be performed by men in drag. Sex and gender can be quite dizzying, and in The Maids nobody’s identity is fixed: all is fluid.) The two maids cling to one another in their degradation, reveling in their lowly status in life. If they raised their status, they wouldn’t have anything to complain about, and complaining is what fills these sisters with purpose, a bleached-white burning fire of transcendent anger and martyrdom without which they would be lost. The sexual energy between the sisters is explicit. There’s one scene in the play where the sisters are role-playing: When “Madame” is gone, they take turns playing Madame. Madame glories in abusing the sisters, making them grovel and beg and scrub the floor on hands and knees. In this particular moment in the play, Madame (who is actually one of the maids) orders the maid to lose herself in a sexual fantasy, making her talk about it, pumping her up, abusing her roundly throughout, until the sister, lying on the floor with her rags and mop bucket, has an orgasm. There is glory in degradation. This was Genet’s stock-in-trade.

It’s subversive stuff, and it taps into many things that upstanding citizens perhaps don’t want to admit, or are not even aware of, since their experience of life is not from the perspective of the perennial “outsider”. Genet’s outlaw status was precious to him, it was the his creative wellspring, and the tension between anger at the world at large and fiery acceptance and LOVE of his status, makes up the main themes of his work.

The Papin sisters also inspired another play, My Sister In this House, beloved by college theatre programs everywhere because it features that rare thing: two strong female roles. It is one of those narratives that continues to fascinate, disturb. The implications are enormous. It messes with our preconceived notions about women, about sisters, about victimhood and what it means to be a victim. Here, the victims LOVE their victimhood. They roll around in it, wearing it like a badge.

And, again, there is the fact that there are TWO of them. One sister alone would not have had the courage of her convictions. She may have smouldered with resentment, and groveled in her own sorry state, but once there are TWO, and once those two bond together in a delusional fight against the forces that hold them down, everything changes. Victimhood turns into action.

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The 1954 Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch is similar to the Papin sister murder in that it has inspired many renditions in literature and film. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were teenage girls, best friends, living in Christchurch, New Zealand, and they murdered Pauline’s mother during a walk in the woods. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is the most well-known riff on this event, but there have been others. The girls lived in an intense heated-up fantasy world, and they have bonded due to their various physical ailments, reveling in fatalistic “we are not long for this earth” attitudes. When they were separated, even briefly, it was shattering to their senses of self. At the trial, it was suggested that the girls were lesbians, a charge that they both, to this day, deny.

Lesbianism may very well be beside the point, with a deadly duo.

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There is something self-sustaining as well as mania-inducing about two young girls together, especially girls of a certain age. The relationship can take on benign or malevolent forms, depending on the circumstances. Sex is in the air, on the brain, hormones make sure of that, and the prospect of actually doing something about it with an actual man, is terrifying and also titillating, but as long as emotional fulfillment comes from the female, girls are fine with living on that precipice. As long as nobody tries to separate you and your friend. You could not manage the shoals of adolescence without your friend.

Heavenly Creatures focuses on the girls’ heated-up fantastical fantasy life, represented by the clay creatures they create, which come to life in their minds. Jackson lets us see their fantasies, the medieval orgies they plan for their clay creations. It’s an outlet for the girls, who grew up in a prudish uptight decade. The girls also obsess about movie stars and singers, crafting semi-violent rape scenarios for themselves, clinging to one another in abject “fear” and excitement. They role-play. One is dominant, one submissive. None of the fantasies would work if they were not mirror-images of one another. Nobody suspects how frenzied the girls really are about each other, and once their uneasy parents begin to suspect that something is a bit “off” about the girls’ devotion to one another, it is too late. The imposed separations only intensify the bond, and the resolve of the girls. Each girl ceases to exist when not in the others’ presence.

Joël Séria’s controversial 1971 film Mais ne Nous Délivrez Pas du Mal (sloppy English translation: Don’t Deliver Us From Evil. I like the French better: “But Deliver Us Not From Evil” – a more direct inversion of the Lord’s Prayer) is loosely based on the Parker-Hulme murder. Banned in the United States, never released here, it’s a gorgeously shot eerie film, about two French schoolgirls, bored out of their minds in a French convent school, who decide to forsake Christ and embrace the Devil.

If you take a look at the artwork for the DVD, you may be forgiven for thinking this is your normal underage exploitation affair.

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Billed as a horror film, it is actually a deeply psychological art film, with two exquisitely played lead characters who create a portrait of obsession and disturbance.

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Jeanne Goupil, an inexperienced actress at the time (although you would never know it: this girl, with her choppy Bettie Page bangs, hairy armpits and mischievous grin, gives a chillingly great performance) plays Anne, an intelligent rebellious teenager (hiding cigarettes in her closet at home) who grew up in a grand chateau in a small French village, and goes to school at a convent. She comes home on weekends to stay with her parents, stuffy wealthy intellectuals who sit around playing chess with one another, as their daughter slumps in a nearby armchair, torturing a small kitten, grinning at the yowls of the cat as she pulls its ears.

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Catherine Wagener plays Lore, the blonde sidekick, who is the classic follower. Her desire to FOLLOW eggs on Anne’s desire to lead. One would not exist without the other.

Both girls, when in repose, have a flatness to their aspects, as though they are coiled in the brush, preserving their strength. Only when they are with one another are they expressive. The girls do nothing together but laugh, and their laughter is a constant soundtrack throughout the film, even during the most horrifying sequences.

The horror comes not from gore and blood and “gotcha!”-moments of surprise. It comes from the sheer banality of it all, the benign manner in which all of this is presented. The two girls, in sundresses, ride their bikes down a country road, their laughter ringing through the air, their limbs long and supple, and knowing what we know about them, knowing their commitment to darkness, it becomes a chilling image. Holed up in the rigid cloister of the convent, the two girls hide under the covers at night, reading forbidden erotic literature, and whispering about evil and sin. The girls love to go to confession because it amuses them to see the discomfiture of the priest as he hears their sexual stories (all made up). They report back to one another about how embarrassed he looked, how funny it was, and how fun it was to be bad.

The opening of the film shows a long row of cots in a drafty room, reminiscent of Ludwig Bemelmans’ illustrations for the Madeline books: 12 little girls in two straight lines. A nun strolls down the center aisle, doing a head count, and then steps behind a sheer screen at the end of the room. Anne, wide awake in her bed, chewing gum, stares at the screen, a grin of anticipation on her face. Through the screen, we can see the naked body of the nun in silhouette, her breasts and hips clearly outlined, and Anne gazes upon the sight voraciously. She snaps her gum.

From this opening, you might think you were about to watch a high-end Red Shoe Diaries, with its mix of subversion, flesh revealed, and illicit peeking at things you shouldn’t peek at. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Red Shoe Diaries, I quite enjoy them myself – but Seria is up to something else here.) The two actresses were in their late teens and early 20s, but they were playing girls who were 15 years old, ripening on the edge of womanhood, heady with the knowledge that they have … power. The power to make men … do things. Feel things. This is the essence of sin in their Catholic upbringing, and they revel in it. They are not sexually active, they are virgins, and they would never go through with any deflowering experience with any of the men they torture. No. Men do not interest them at all. Not really. The girls are only interested in one another.

The fascinating thing about Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is that, yes, it does manage to be erotic, but it also manages to be an insightful portrait of sociopathic behavior, with its total lack of empathy, its overarching boredom with almost everything. Anne and Lore take this to an extreme, renouncing Christ and embracing Satan as their Master, in a black mass done in an abandoned chapel on the chateau grounds. The black mass is filmed in lush detail, the two girls in see-through white nighties, with wreaths of flowers in their hair. They are committed to evil. But what does this mean, in human terms?

In the DVD extras, there’s an interview with Jeanne Goupil now, about her experience filming this movie. She was so raw, so untrained, that all she did was trust Seria completely, and throw herself into the world of the character. She had no sense of herself as an actress, she didn’t worry about her looks (she cut her own bangs), she wasn’t experienced, a reason why the performance is so deadly, so effective. Goupil had compassion for her character, and she had no apologies for that, something I found so refreshing. She found her character to be totally logical, although much of the character’s behavior may seem erratic or insane. But it’s not. Everything Anne does is very targeted. It may be amoral, but there is an internal logic that is unshakeable. Highly skilled and experienced actresses are unable to capture this dynamic, and feel the need to telegraph “I am inSANE, aren’t I??”, which is a defense mechanism: the actress trying to tell the audience, “I am not like this. I realize what my character is doing is wrong.” Goupil is beyond those self-protective concerns. She takes Anne at her word. Fearlessly. And so it is a fearless performance. Anne’s interest is to see other people in pain. She finds it funny. And so she thinks about this, she ponders it very seriously. The mentally challenged groundsman at the chateau, for instance. He is barely verbal, guileless, a village idiot, really. He would never hurt anyone. But Anne is bothered by how he ogles at her. She isn’t bothered in the way a prissy girl is bothered. She is bothered because he cannot be allowed to feel entitled to look at her. He must be reminded who is boss. So she lies in wait, watching, taking note of what he cares about, what he loves. The only thing she can come up with is the birds he keeps in cages in his drab garage-attic room. The birds have bright plumage, citron, sapphire, emerald-green. He clucks over them, he loves them. It is the only thing he loves. To a sociopath, this information is golden. Slowly, over time, Anne and Lore sneak into his room, and kill the birds. One by one. They don’t do it all in one fell swoop, because that would not be as psychologically shattering to the groundsman. What is far more shattering is to go through one death, grieve it, and then think: “Well, now I’m safe.” To then come home the next day to find another dead bird.

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Goupil, in her interview, says, with zero embarrassment, “She is very smart, very logical. If you want to hurt someone, then of course you would go after what is important to them. What else would really do the job? The only thing to do is kill the birds.”

This is what acting teachers talk about when they talk about how important it is to find “motivation”. Not motivation as in excuse-making (ie: “My character is hurt and lonely and bored, and doesn’t like how the groundskeeper looks at her.”) That’s fine, that’s part of it, but don’t stop there. Because if you stop there, then you are only playing the excuse, and in so doing, you are plying the audience for sympathy, which has ruined many a potentially good performance. “Feel sorry for me – THIS is why I have done this! Aren’t you sad for me?” Your mind should not be on the audience in that way. It should be on getting your needs met as the character. So the underlying excuse is there, but the ACTION (killing the birds) is the correct focus. Because if your motivation is clear (“I must do this in order to get what I need”), the audience will get it, and their response will be far more powerful than if you try to win them over to your side. If you listen to convicted murderers talk about why they did what they did, it is always totally logical (to them). “She was in my way.” “I wanted a little bit of peace and quiet.” “I needed that money.” The horror is in how clinical they are about it.

The best performances of this kind focus on the logic inherent in the behavior, not in the emotional reasoning behind it, because for such people those “excuses” are often beside the point. I’m talking about true psychopaths here, but the same can be true for playing any character. The brilliance of Nora Helmer in Doll’s House dancing a manic tarantella for her husband is not the underlying thematic elements Ibsen is interested in portraying (the submission of the wife, the unfairness of misogyny and keeping women financially dependent). The brilliance of that scene is that Nora is trying to keep her husband from going to the mailbox, because she knows the letter that will bring about her ruin is waiting there. I have seen actresses playing Nora play it as though they are trying to play all of Ibsen’s themes, showing they “understand” the social implications of the play, and the result is always boring and intellectual. However, I saw an actress play it at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and all she was playing, all she was DOING on that stage, was trying to KEEP. HER HUSBAND. FROM GOING TO THE MAILBOX. THAT is motivation an actress can PLAY. THAT is the difference between a great performance and a workmanlike performance. I still remember the blocking of that scene in Dublin, I still remember the placement of everyone on that stage, I remember the color of her dress. This was years ago. Her desperation and determination was an electric current shivering through that theatre, and I felt it in my body: Torvald must. not. be allowed to go to the mailbox; she would do ANYTHING to keep him from going to that mailbox. Her tarantella came from a very practical motivation which was why it was so unbearable to watch.

This is actress-talk, but I think it’s very important, especially when playing characters on the brink of madness. Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener (and, by association, Séria) avoid all of the traps in this type of material. The script is magnificent, spare. The script also allows for cracks in the armor of the two girls, which elevates the story into something almost mythic, a fairy-tale come to life. If they were just two little evil trollops cavorting around in see-through nighties, that would be one kind of movie. But these are young girls. Bored out of their minds. Crushed under the oppression of their education and the prudery of their current culture. They have no appropriate outlet. But still, they are just young girls.

There’s a moment that killed me the first time I saw the film. The two girls hover outside one of the bird cages, and Anne reaches in, pulls out the bird, and forces the poison pellet down its throat. She puts the bird back in the cage. The two girls watch, ghoulishly, and, almost immediately, the bird goes into its death throes. We have been so used to the girls giggling at everything, but here, they are silent. And you can see that Lore, looking on as the bird keels over, has some emotions about it. She has some feelings about what she has just been a party to. But the relationship – the current between Lore and Anne, the belljar of its dynamic – does not allow for such doubts, for such second thoughts. They must be crushed down, seen as they would be by Anne as weakness. Morality is inverted here. Compassion, one of the strongest and most important emotions on the planet (it could save us all) is seen as weak. Kindness is silly, stupid. Coldness and hardness is where it’s at. The only vulnerability allowed in their lexicon is what they feel for one another. What’s a bird to them? Nothing. But in this moment, you can see Lore hesitate. You can see emotion fill her eyes. But then, they hear the groundsman returning, and they scurry away into the shadows, to watch him discover the death. Moment of conscience is therefore averted, squashed.

There are other moments like this in the film, where one or the other … hesitate. It is not about God so much, although you could make that argument since the film is about embracing the Devil. Kindness comes from … where? In an important scene, Anne (who really is the ringleader), realizes she has gone past some invisible point of no return. She realizes this with no dialogue, no expository monologue. But suddenly, we see her running, tears on her face, to the church, where she kneels and prays as though her life depends on it. It’s heartbreaking. The black mass is rather silly, right, just superstition, right? But it is in her soul, what she has done … can she take it back?

All of this is muddied by the intensity of her friendship with Lore. When alone, each girl sits around in stasis, legs slack, stretched out, fingers dangling through dead air … and then, at the sight of the other one, bicycling up the drive, each girl springs to life, bodies alert and anxious, grasping, shoulders back, face alight. A watchful parent would recognize the red flag in this transformation, although the lines are blurry. Isn’t that how we feel about our friends? Shouldn’t we be happy to see them? What could be wrong in that?

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Anne and Lore continue to push the envelope, and things come to a head when they pick up a stranded motorist, and bring him back to the little guest cottage on the chateau’s expansive grounds. It’s a cold night. The girls have a fire going, and they take off their clothes, drying them by the fire, as the motorist looks on, bemused, turned on, shocked. They stroll around in their training bras and white panties, serving him whiskey, giggling, acting nonchalant and unaware of the effect they are having on him. This is not the first time they have provoked a man into violence. Doing so is sport for them. It’s two against one. They know they are wily and can get away. But here, things go very differently, changing things forever.

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Don’t Deliver Us From Evil is that rare thing: a film with the courage of its convictions. You can see why it was banned. It is unblinking in its honest portrayal of the sexuality of teenage girls, first of all, and also unblinking in its examination of the slow development of a sociopathic mindset, step by step by step, the girls supporting each other along the way.

Its ending is brutal and beautiful, Shakespearean in its symmetry and theatricality. It made me gasp the first time I saw it, as it dawned on me where we were going. I thought: “No … no … they’re not going to … are they?? They couldn’t, could they?”

Yes, they could.

And of course they do.

It’s the only logical thing at that point. There is no other possible way for it to go. The girls know what they are doing, and they know how to get what they need.

The pairing has become complete, perfect. The self-sustaining system of the criminal pair will never be broken.

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10 Responses to Underrated Movies #20: Don’t Deliver Us From Evil (1971); Dir. Joël Séria

  1. george says:

    All so fascinating – the historical fact of these events, the dynamic of the pairing up and the bonding, the socio- and psychopathic descent, the act – the climax, and then the cinematic considerations that go into portrayal and presentation; one could spend a cold and dreary winter’s month engrossed in all this stuff. If ever you write the book Psycho Couples in Cinema I’m reserving that month.

    I wonder, do personalities amalgamate in similar ways for purposes that are the antithesis of psycho evil – I mean are there such dynamic duos that work the other side of the street, a white to the black, a yang to the yin?

    PS: Haven’t seen the movie but I hate, hate, hate, that DVD cover – a flogging is called for.

  2. By golly, I only know about Don’t Deliver Us from Evil by title and reputation. What a surprise to see you write about it. On a related note, have you seen this article?

  3. Kent says:

    Love your insight and screen captures, Sheila! This is a movie that deserves far more attention than it has received. Maybe it is overlooked because of the trashy DVD cover… it looks like an ad for Teenage Virgin Lez Magazine!

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    Shoot me an email and tell me the ending. You can’t leave me hanging like that!

  5. sheila says:

    Cara – no spoilers – rent the movie!!!

  6. sheila says:

    George – I think perhaps that longtime collaborators may make themselves better by working in a team – that the team brings something to the table that alone the individual cannot – like …. Simon & Garfunkel? Or the Coen Brothers? Or … people I haven’t even heard of but who, through collaboration, bring something into the world that they might not have done singly. I’ll have to think more on that.

    I’m fascinated by these deadly pairs, obviously. I read the book “Columbine” last year and it was a very interesting look at what was going on in that deadly dynamic, who brought what, who supplied what – and how when they were put together it became such a deadly match.

  7. sheila says:

    Peter – I’d love to hear your thoughts after you’ve seen it. It’s actually nice to see how many people HAVE seen it (either here or on FB). It’s so little known.

    And I think I did run across that particular article at one point when I was researching this piece. That story is just so fascinating to me, especially since they are both still alive.

  8. sheila says:

    Kent – Teenage Virgin Lez Magazine – hahahaha I think I need to get a subscription of that.

    I mean, if I saw that DVD cover, I would not rent it. This is just my taste – I know many people WOULD rent it based on that cover … but they will be in for a rude awakening when they actually see the film. I think if it were properly marketed the right audience would find it.

  9. Kent says:

    The discussion of collaboration and partnership is rich material even when it doesn’t involve murder. Understanding who adds which ingredient to the mix, and how they create a third, sometimes objective, reality and voice is a study in human alchemy. Heavenly Creatures attempted to portray this in concrete terms, with the sequences in Diello’s world, which I felt removed the human mystery of the shared fantasy.

    Murder is a dramatic catalyst for entering this world, as is suicide, and the build to these actions becomes even more heated and intense. Both Hitchcock and Wilder understood collaboration intimately, and used it repeatedly to drive their plots. Neither wrote alone, and their best creative collaborations were very long term. Hitchcock with his wife, and Wilder with Brackett and then Diamond.

    Even on the simplest, most human level it is a fascinating topic when you meet a couple who have something going on between them that does not solely belong to one or the other, and does not logically follow preconception. For example, the match of Brando and Wally Cox still stupefies, though both are now long dead. Also, considering that Brando was the submissive partner, repeatedly dumped by Cox, and always returning and begging for more, they highlight the special magic of the interior world driven by passion, even without a resulting murder.

    As for TVL Mag. it was a real publication in the ’70s. My girlfriend’s father would stay at the table and read it after dinner, while the rest of us adjourned to the living room. It was sold next to the Whiskey bottles in a high desert liquor store, and I’ve always wondered if it a) saved lives through empowerment and b) brought interesting new lives into this world.

  10. Greg says:

    Looks like it eventually got released over here as an NC-17, and considering when that rating system went into effect….

    Sounds like an intriguing movie, and also one that will deeply, DEEPLY disturb me.

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