Before the advent of the much maligned MPAA, an organization going by the name of the Legion of Decency was at the helm of trying to keep filmmakers in check. Legion of Decency, now there’s a war-like moniker for sure and a war was on, or rather a cinematic witch hunt of sorts. Of course, in carrying out their task they were to censor what the public would see and hear and in the 60’s these do-gooders had their work cut out for them. What did the Legion of Decency not want the public to see? Mostly nudity, sexual situations and later, extreme violence. Yes, there are lots of grey areas in there, as even the overall tone of a film could ultimately find the movie and its director at the mercy of these folks who purport that all things must be kind and/or decent.
It should also be noted that the Legion of Decency did not work with a series of letters in order to rate the movie in question. In most cases they merely decided whether the picture would play or not. Sometimes cuts or edits to the film would be requested, but that was always met with great amounts of contention and the distributors would either not show the film at all or show it at the risk of being caught and fined.
David F. Friedman, one such producer/distributor who has gone up against the censor boards on numerous occasions, said, “At the time there was no ratings and so we were able to get away scot-free with the blood and gore, but nudity was always a different story. In fact, I’ve always said about making pictures in America that you’d better not show a guy touch a girl’s breast, but you can cut it off with a hack saw.”
What kind of a twisted value is that? The Legion of Decency apparently found acts of the sexual nature to be more unsavory than an act of murder. It’s certainly an odd way of viewing things though no less popular today. Rape aside, this writer finds very little wrong with sex and very little right with murder. To fully understand this quandary one must also know that the Legion were manned almost entirely by Catholics. Catholicism, a religion that urges its followers to suppress sexual thoughts and desires while also being responsible for some of the bloodiest wars in the name of God. The Crusades anyone?
The picture should be clearer now. Religious oppression, censorship of art and the upheaval and rebirth of America during the 60’s. Someone was bound to push all the right buttons (or wrong, depending on your stance). Husband and wife Michael and Roberta Findlay stepped up to the plate and smacked a home run right out of the park with their seldom seen but often talked about “Flesh” trilogy.
In 1967 they gave us “The Touch Of Her Flesh” and with this picture the stage was set for the depraved character Richard Jennings. Rich is a weapons expert who is married to a promiscuous woman who makes no qualms about poking fun at her husband’s sexual inadequacies. Surely a Freudian discussion is begged for here, but we’ve no time for it.
Richard is on his way to a weapons convention and his wife Claudia is on her way into another man’s pants. If only the bus to Boston had showed up on time things might have turned out differently, but whether through a scheduling error or fate, poor old Richard catches his wife in bed with another. Enraged and disillusioned, Richard takes to the streets and is accidently run down by a car, leaving him in a wheelchair, temporarily paralyzed and blind in one eye.
Once out of the hospital, Jennings wheels up and down the streets of Manhattan looking like a demented one-eyed Ironside. He has deduced that women are nothing more than a soft, pink trap. “There is one escape. The only true escape for any man trapped within the vortex of the female being. It is to destroy her and all who act like her. To take the girl who strips herself naked in public and kill her, naked, in public.” So Jennings sets about his business of seducing and destroying all women who he feels are impure. If the Legion of Decency had thought that they’d seen it all, they were wrong. Dead wrong.
For the first installment of their trilogy the Findlays took it easy and offered up deaths by
poison thorns and darts, a knifing to the stomach and evisceration by a table saw. Sick, but tame by freaky Findlay standards. By 1968 things really started to spin out of control and we were faced with “The Curse Of Her Flesh.”
This time around Jennings owns a theater that features strippers and live sex shows. It’s the proverbial bird’s nest on the ground and Jennings is no doubt the cat. To further this notion a cat’s claws are poisoned and then the feline is coerced into attacking a go-go dancer. Other murders include; death by harpoon, lethal g-string underwear, stabbing by a machete and the most bizarre – a switchbladed dildo.
Later, in 1968, the trilogy was concluded with “The Kiss Of Her Flesh” and now the Findlays imaginations were kicked completely into overdrive. How’s a douche filled with sulphuric acid grab you? Maybe nipple torture with lobster claws and salad tongs is more to your liking, or perhaps elimination by electrocution and a blowtorch could get your motor running? Still not doing it for you? Well, not to be outdone by anyone including themselves the Findlays had Jennings inject his penis with poison and then f**k a girl to death with his “poison semen.” Whoa. It’s obvious that as the series moved on the Findlays had Jennings become more and more sadistic and unkind towards his victims. Was it reactionary to the heavy handed censors of that era or merely a twisted and distorted reflection of the couple’s very own relationship?
These films are so strange in their delivery of simulated sex, slip shod gore and ludicrous tortures that even the “raincoat” crowd would find these things to be offensive. The “Flesh” trilogy is certainly an example of that “train wreck” theory. You’re pretty sure that you shouldn’t be wasting your time watching it, let alone enjoying yourself, but you just cannot peel your eyes from the screen. Compelling, repulsive, amusing and somewhat stimulating – what more could one possibly need?
More times than not the Findlays would produce their psycho sexual sickies using pseudonyms, usually “Julian Marsh” and “Anna Riva.” With that in mind one might imagine that the married couple were wanting to distance themselves from their creations. For legal reasons that may be a perfectly rational deduction, but the Findlays seemed to be enjoying themselves way too much as “Anna Riva” and “Julian Marsh” are both in the films. In fact, Michael Findlay, “Julian Marsh” and “Richard Jennings” are one in the same. Were they making these debauched stag-like films for their very own arousal? It’s a possibility that should not be dispelled as Roberta later went on to direct and produce hardcore features after Michael’s unfortunate death in a helicopter crash.
All things considered, these movies were surprisingly well made. That is not to suggest for one minute that the “Flesh” trilogy is arty or poetic, quite the contrary; but when the subject matter and the monetary constraints are taken into account along with the renegade-guerilla style of filmmaking that had to be employed, the Findlays certainly worked a bang up job. Are these cinematic experiments in sex and sadism poignant? Hardly. Subversive? Possibly. Perverted? No question. Was the Legion of Decency turned upon its ears? Without question.
Writer Christopher Curry has spent 29 years relentlessly trolling the underbelly of Horror, Sci-Fi and Exploitation cinema. He was first hooked by a made-for-TV zombie picture entitled “The Dead Don’t Die” and his recollections of Reggie Nalder have yet to peacefully leave his psyche. There is seemingly no benchmark of quality for Curry as he will watch and write about any damned thing. Curry has not only spent 10 years contributing to MK Magazine but is also the author of A Taste Of Blood: The Films Of Herschell Gordon Lewis and is presently hard at work on a book chronicling the films and career of Ted V. Mikels