VIDEO ARCHIVES WEEK: Lipstick (1976)

VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the November 22, 2022 and November 29, 2022 episodes of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.

Never trust Chris Sarandon.

I learned this at a young age with Fright Night, but this was before that and you still should never trust him. Don’t trust him in The Sentinel, don’t trust him in The Princess Bride, don’t even trust him as the voice of Jack Skellington.

Christine McCormick — played by Margaux Hemingway, herself a supermodel who appeared on the covers of Cosmopolitan, Elle and Vogue as well as serving as the spokesperson for Fabergé’s Babe perfume — is the face of a new brand of lipstick. She also is the guardian of her 13-year-old sister Kathy (Margaux’s sister Muriel, who was also in Star 80 and Personal Best), who has a young girl crush on her teacher, Gordon Stewart (Sarandon). For some reason, he thinks that Christine has the connections to get his music out to the world.

He comes to her beach photo shoot, but there’s no time to chat, and she forgets that they were to meet at her apartment. As he plays his atonal music — more on that in a second — she leaves the room to take a phone call from her lover Steve (Perry King, who really was in some awesome junk and I say that in the best of ways).

Hurt by her seeming rejection, his assault is brutal in its quickness. Saying, “So you fuck priests, too” he shoves a photo of her brother Martin (John Bennett Perry, Matt Perry’s dad) in her face, breaks it and then smears lipstick all over her face, telling her he wants it all over him. He ties her to the bed and takes her — the scene is too male gaze, too beautiful in a way because it’s a disgusting act — and even when they’re caught by Kathy, he suggests that the little girl joins them.

Once free, Christine gets a lawyer, Carla Bondi (Anne Bancroft), who tells her that it won’t be easy to convict him. And it isn’t. Christine’s sexual image as a model, even the fact that she has fantasies and a sex life, is used against her. So when Gordon goes free, it’s no great surprise.

Christine decides that she’s done with California and modeling after one last job. Except that the last job is in the same exact abandoned building where Gordon is rehearsing a synth ballet. He ends up finding Kathy, using her heartbeat as an instrument and then raping her as well. When she gets back to the photo shoot, Christine finds the rifle she had packed — literally, they packed to leave and are doing the photoshoot and then getting out of town — and shoots at Gordon as he tries to get away. As he gets out of the car, she pumps round after round into him. And in the end, no jury will convict her.

But maybe not. Because I believe that everything that happened after the not guilty verdict is in her head. There’s no way that she’d leave modeling literally from her last shoot. The coincidence that Gordon would be in the same building, in a California filled with places to rehearse, is infinite. The idea that she can successfully shoot him so many times in broad daylight and still not go to jail is the kind of fantasy that only appears in exploitation movies. Like Lipstick.

Director Lamont Johnson started as an actor and was mainly known for TV movies like Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232Crisis at Central High and That Certain Summer, as well as Spacehunter: Adventures In the Forbidden Zone. It was written by David Rayfiel, who was the scriptwriter for The FirmHavana and the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Michael Winner turned down producer Dino De Laurentiis’ offer to direct this film and that shocks me. In his autobiography, Winner said that “Chris Sarandon was not a very good actor unless he was playing nut cases.” Then again, he used him in The Sentinel.

Even stranger, in 1998’s Little Men, Muriel Hemingway and Sarandor played husband and wife Jo and Fritz Bhaer.

That’s really fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo shooting the lipstick ads, while the clothes for this movie were designed by Jodie Lynn Tillen, who was the costumer for Messiah of Evil and Lemora! While uncredited, Donfeld also worked on the clothes. He was most famous, perhaps, for creating the TV costume for Wonder Woman.

French singer and music composer Michel Polnareff did the music for this, which is beyond wild. It’s completely unsettling — he also did a disco soundtrack for the film — and when it plays while Gordon assaults Christine, it’s horrifying, setting up his assault of her body, brain and ears as his atonal noise blasts, filling the room with painful beats and shrill screams. Later, when it’s played in court and the jury must hear it, you nearly feel bad for the bad guy but no, he’s absolutely the worst.

Despite critics hating this movie and it failing with audiences, it was remade as Insaf Ka TarazuCollege Girl and Edi Dharmam Edi Nyayam in India and Arzu in Turkey.

The real victim? Margaux. This movie was supposed to launch her career in Hollywood, but Muriel got most of the notice. She would few movies over the next seven years — Killer FishThey Call Me Bruce and Over the Brooklyn Bridge, the first movie for Sam Firstenberg — before working in foreign genre movies like Goma-2 and straight to video films like Fred Olen Ray’s Inner Sanctum and Inner Sanctum II, Joe D’Amato’s A Woman’s Secret and Donald Farmer’s Vicious Kisses. Sadly, she became heavily involved in drugs and died at 41 from suicide. Her sister Mariel has always claimed that her death was not self-induced, but instead drugs.

Harlan Ellison, that cantankerous madman of my heart, once said of this movie, “Lipstick panders to the basest, vilest, lowest possible common denominators of urban fear and lynch logic. It is the sort of film that, if you see it in a ghetto theater filled with blacks, will scare the bejeezus out of you. The animal fury this film unleashes in an audience is terrifying to behold. It gives exploitation a bad name; and it has less to do with rape, which is the commercial hook on which they’ve hung the salability of this bit of putrescence, than it does with the cynicism of Joseph E. Levine, a man who probably has no trouble sleeping with a troubled conscience.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.