Love is in the air this Valentine’s Day, but if object to the holiday’s Hallmark overtones and favor something a little wilder and weirder instead, we have the perfect movie marathon for you. Skip the romantic comedies and watch a series of sexploitation films that feature steamy softcore sex, strange storylines, and compelling cinematography. You can find these films online right now, so we’ve included video embeds and links for your viewing pleasure.
Named after the sorceress in the Arthurian legend, Bruno Gantillon’s 1971 film Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay has everything a Eurotrash classic needs: beautiful women (who love each other), castles, an exotic location, bondage, creepy characters, magic, and a nonsensical plot. Two young women in the French countryside are taken to an enchantress in a castle. She offers them immortality for their souls — and a lifetime of torment, should they refuse.
Sexploitation maestro and lover of busty women Russ Meyer created a satiric softcore flick in 1968 that centers on a hypersexual housewife who can’t keep her hands to herself when her husband is away. Meyer deals with issues of race, politics, and other taboo subjects in a straightforward manner. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote of the film:
It is also a celebration of zestful direction and photography, and a lot of the time it’s very funny. In a field filled with cheap, dreary productions, Meyer is the best craftsman and the only artist. He has developed a directing style so open, direct and good-humored that it dominates his material; what a relief to bear laughter during a skin-flick, instead of the dead silence that usually envelops their cheerless audiences.
Prolific Spanish director Jess Franco’s career spanned horror cinema to pornography, but he is best known for his sexploitation films from the 1970s that featured surreal stories and imagery. If you like your sexploitation on the Sadean side, Eugenie de Sade hints at the French writer’s work and offers a bizarre murder narrative. A young girl and her stepfather, famous for his erotic stories (cue incestuous subplot), execute a series of sadistic deeds.
Famous for his sensual tales of virgins and vamps, the dreamlike cinema of Jean Rollin is uniquely mesmerizing. In 1979’s Fascination, Rollin cast porn actress Brigitte Lahaie as one woman in a Sapphic group of vampires who seduce men and lure them to their death. Rollin favors lesbian sex scenes over bloodletting, which is to be expected of the French director — but Rollin’s women are usually well-written and more complex than they first appear.
The uninitiated might be surprised to find out that there is a category of exploitation cinema devoted to naughty nuns with bad habits. And that’s the threadbare plot of Sister Emanuelle, which stars Laura Gemser as the titular sexy adventurer from the softcore “Black Emanuelle” series. The movies were a way for Italian filmmakers (like provocateur Joe D’Amato) to cash in on the French film Emmanuelle, starring Sylvia Kristel. The Black Emanuelle movies are on the sleazier side, but cult film siren Gemser is capable and engaging.
Pioneering sexploitation director Joe Sarno’s films were just as concerned with each character’s emotional world as they were with their naked skin. Inga stars a teen protagonist who moves in with her scheming aunt. The older woman wants to hook Inga up with a wealthy neighbor. But Inga doesn’t have eyes for him since she has the attention of every man in town. Inga is beautifully shot in black and white and full of ’60s-era eroticism.
Adult film auteur Radley Metzger made art-house sexplotiation with a literary twist. His 1975 film The Image, based on Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s novel of the same name, features a sadomasochistic ménage à trois and some of the finest photography in erotic cinema.
Directed by one of the only women working in the sexploitation genre, Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell was her first film that explored “roughie” themes (movies dealing with sex and violence). Wishman’s vulnerable protagonist meets a litany of characters who use and abuse her.
Dyanne Thorne, star of the Ilsa sexploitation series, commands the screen in Jess Franco’s Ilsa, the Wicked Warden. The 1977 film is one of the most popular in the “women in prison” genre — and Ilsa’s prison is a den of iniquity where she exploits the female population.
Japanese “pink films” are part of a softcore genre that hails from the ‘70s, featuring sex, violence, and other extreme subjects. The movies were essentially invented by small film studios to stay in business once TV and American imports took over the scene. Kôji Wakamatsu’s film has a fabulous title, Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, but it’s a bleak movie that deals with issues of rape and trauma. More shocking than titillating, Wakamatsu’s film shows the darker side of sex where poetry and exploitation meet.
For something a little lighter, look for School of the Holy Beast.