Canada may have a long history of making sexy films, if not actual sex films. From early 1960s nudie cuties like Have Figure Will Travel and Montreal’s decidedly non-explicit “maple syrup porn” films through to the Porky’s-sparked sex comedy boom of the 1980s and erotic straight-to-video thrillers of the 1990s, Canadian filmmakers have never shied away from titillation. But even the most salacious depictions of sex in mainstream Canadian films are palpably self-conscious, seemingly borne less from a desire to depict actual eroticism than to push artistic and legal boundaries and perhaps ruffle a few critical feathers while they’re at it. Certainly, most Canadian films lack the same sense of freedom and carefree sexual self-possession found in European cinema or even some American films.
Perhaps that’s why you can count Canada’s legitimate flirtations with the pornographic film industry in its ’70s heyday on one hand. A few adult film actors moonlighted in Canada in hopes of making the jump to legitimate films, including Marilyn Chambers’ memorable turn in Rabid and Harry Reems’ role in the Quebec comedy L’chiens chauds. George Mihalka’s 1982 film Scandale was tailor-made for the rising home video market, an ambitious attempt to combine a real-life story with a handful of scenes of hardcore sex. But Canada did have at least one attempt at actual pornographic features filmmaking right in the middle of the porno chic ’70s boom. Shot in Vancouver by one-time producer Clarence Neufeld and a cast of unknown exhibitionists, the adult monster spoof Sexcula is not only an almost lost piece of undeniably sleazy Canadiana, it’s also one of earliest monster movies made north of the border, a spoofy take-off on the Universal classic horror films.
The film’s story unfurls like this: When a woman (Debbie Collins) arrives at a spooky old mansion owned by her ancestors, she and her boyfriend (David F. Hurry) find a dusty old diary that discusses the history of the house during the 18th century. As they enjoy a picnic on the mansion grounds, they read aloud from the diary about how Dr. Fallatingstein (Jamie Orlando) created a male monster in her basement lab named Frank (John Alexander), to help satisfy her sexual needs. But something goes wrong with her experiment—not only is Frank impotent, but he seems generally uninterested in pleasing his mistress. It seems the only one getting any action around the old dungeon is hunchback assistant Orgie (Tim Lowery) who keeps sneaking into the lab to have a go at a nude female pleasure robot (Marie McLeod) strapped to one of the slabs.
Concerned, Fallatingstein phones up her cousin Countess Sexcula (Collins, again) to try and help sexualize her new creation. Sexcula arrives and tries a few different tricks to arouse Frank, including hypnotism, a romantic carriage ride (that turns into a lesbian tryst when Frank decides he would rather sit up with the driver) and a performance by a stripper (Julia Simmons) who gets pawed by the lab’s resident caged gorilla (Bud Coal). When these approaches don’t work, Sexcula discovers the real problem—Frank is unable to produce “sex cells.” Determined to help her cousin out by fixing Frank, the vampire vixen collects some second-hand cells by climbing into bed with a lumberjack (Coal, again), an unsuspecting drunk waiting for a hooker (Hurry, again) and finally, some actors on a porn set acting out a wedding scenario.
After one more disastrous attempt by Sexcula to seduce Frank in the bathtub, Frank is (apparently) ready for action—the film climaxes by cross-cutting between the actors on the chapel porn set going at it yet again and Sexcula being chased by Orgie and the ape around the lab, with a few shots of Frank and Fallatingstein finally—but chastely—kissing in front of a bed—an apparent attempt at shooting around the expected scene of consummation. Finally, and most oddly, the scene cuts away to Frank in the lab in a fedora, singing “Fallatingstein… Fallatingstein…” before he addresses the audience and says “So, it wasn’t love after all.” The camera follows him as he shuffles off like Humphrey Bogart, revealing the castle to be a just a set.
Although undeniably a XXX feature with all the stuffed orifices and bodily fluid exchanges expected, Sexcula is still a fairly demure exercise with only sporadic, awkwardly integrated sex. Sexcula appears in two hardcore sequences on a small bedroom set, but most of the other scenes—the carriage ride, the strip tease and the bathtub seduction—never really get past the softcore stage, focused more on nudity than sexual contact. The longest and most explicit sequence is the chapel marriage that turns into a multi-day partner-swapping affair. On an obvious pasteboard set, the bride and groom get bored of reciting their vows and decide to drop their pants before the altar while the best man tackles the maid-of-honour. This lengthy scene, which includes “behind the scenes” shots of cameramen getting close-ups, appears to have been shot for another film. Perhaps it was an existing loop or an abandoned project, as the tone is quite different and Countess Sexcula doesn’t actually appear—as opposed to the other sex-cell stealing scenes, she only pounces when the set lights “go out” and the screen is plunged into darkness.
Beyond its more basic tangible aspects, Sexcula is a bit of a mess, most likely due to a troubled production history. Many of the storytelling techniques seem to be quick fixes attempted in the editing process, from the needless early framing device of the picnicking couple, which seems to exist solely to narrate some later silent sequences, to the out-of-nowhere chapel action that seems to substitute for Frank and Fallatingstein’s missing hook up. Anachronisms like a phone ringing and a porn production somehow happening in the 18th century are all played off as jokey non-sequiturs, a half-hearted wink to the audience that seems to acknowledge the film’s artificialness even before the fourth wall is officially demolished in the final reel. It’s as though the filmmakers painted themselves in a corner inventing so many additional contrivances that they just gave up and left them all in anyways, reluctantly acknowledging that the audience isn’t there to see a story anyways.
And yet some care has been put into making the film’s non-sex scenes work. The attention to detail on the horror elements of the story are surprisingly decent—the castle dungeon set is convincing enough, and little touches like the caged gorilla and the deformed make-up job on Orgie show that someone involved had an appreciation for classic horror cinema. And placed in that context, Sexcula is somewhat unique. Aside from the earlier 1967 co-production The Vulture, Sexcula is the first fully Canadian film to work with Gothic horror elements and pay unabashed tribute to the Universal monster movie cycle. It’s quite different from the Toronto-shot Flick (1970), which took pains to distance itself from its roots, even having its protagonist, a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein, step on and destroy a 1960s model kit based on Karloff’s creature from the 1930s horror classic.
But perhaps most interestingly, Sexcula‘s troubled production seems to have been the basis for another Canadian film. In Jack Darcus’ 1986 satire Overnight, an unsuspecting actor is shocked to discover that he’s been cast in a pornographic movie about a “Countess Sexcula” whose own manufactured lover can’t get it up. That film also appears to allude to many of the real problems that occurred on the set of Sexcula, from the real-life impotency of one cast member to the frequent firing and hiring that reportedly occurred on set as the first-time producer tried to come up with a saleable film. In this way, it doesn’t much matter that what may be Canada’s sole dalliance with adult filmmaking in the 1970s has almost been buried by history; it’s a film that still transcended its intended purpose, and became a larger-than-life legend of sorts, the kind of film that pulverizes traditional representations of Canadian culture on film by breaking the ultimate onscreen taboo.
Of course, by the time Sexcula was released, the pendulum of horror taste was already starting to swing away from the tried-and-true Gothic chillers. Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls, released just the year before Sexcula, signaled the new, blood-soaked direction that Canadian B-film would follow for the next decade. With its gorilla suits, crackling electronic equipment and references to classic Universal monsters, Sexcula manages to be almost as out-of-time as the Countess’ bedside telephone—a genre-mixing curiosity piece that is still fun but, like other Canadian films of its ilk, a little sexually self-conscious in the way it keeps insisting on its own artifice. But ultimately these shortcomings don’t matter, as Sexcula holds a much more important place in our collective film history as Canada’s main carnal contribution to the original porno chic boom.