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Sylvia (After Hours Cinema) DVD Review

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    Ian Jane
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  • Sylvia (After Hours Cinema) DVD Review

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    Released by: After Hours Cinema
    Released on: December 20th, 2003.
    Director: Armand Peters
    Cast: Joanna Bell, Mark Stevens, Helen Madigan, Sonny Landham
    Year: 1977
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    Sylvia - Movie Review:

    A hardcore porno version of Flora Schreiber's Sybil, 1977's Sylvia is the only known credit or the mysterious analingously astute Ms. Joanna Bell. Originally released by VCX, After Hours Retro has given this XXX oddity a true special edition release. Interestingly enough, the film was written and directed by 'Armand Peters' also known as Peter Savage and Peter Petrillo, a real life New York mobster who dabbled in moviemaking and who appeared in small roles in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull (which he also produced and helped write), Vigilante and, surprisingly, Doris Wishman's Double Agent 73!
    The film tells the strange story of the titular Sylvia (Joanna Bell), a woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder. Any time she becomes sexually aroused, one of her personalities will become dominant and she'll stop at nothing to get the physical satisfaction she wants. We learn this very early on in the film when a sleazy looking door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (played by Marc Stevens) comes calling and winds up receiving more than he bargained for. Sylvia may look innocent enough when her hair is pulled back and her glasses are on but once she gets in the mood she'll eat your ass. For real. Joanna Bell shows a very strange penchant for ass eating in this movie.

    At any rate, Sylvia's behavior confuses her friends, some of whom start to wonder if she might be possessed by a demon or something. She sees a psychiatrist named Dr. Balaban (played by Peters himself) who does his best to help her, but it looks like Sylvia has bought herself a one way ticket to a sexually repressed and religiously bizarre crazy town.

    Sylvia is an interesting movie not only for Bell's truly bizarre performance but also because it honestly strives to be an intelligent psychological thriller. It doesn't quite get there but you can tell that the director had his heart in the right place and that some effort was put into the script. That said, this is still a porno movie and it falls into the same traps that most 'porno with a plot' films fall into, and that's the requisite sex scenes. Bell is an interesting performer. She's not traditionally attractive but she has a certain quality to her that makes her completely watchable. One has to wonder whatever happened to her and why she didn't make more movies as she's obviously into the role. Aside from Bell and Marc Stevens, look for cameos from Helen Madigan and Sonny Landham (who would later star in Predator and run for office in Kentucky according to the commentary). The rest of the cast appear to have just been locals, possibly friends or family members who wanted to appear in the picture, it's unlikely they were professional performers. While the film isn't particularly well shot or well edited, it does move at a decent clip and it's never dull. There are enough strange elements here to make this an interesting excursion into seventies sleaze. It's not sexy enough to work as masturbation fodder and it's not professional enough to succeed as an artistic statement but it is weird enough to work really well as a quirky exploitation movie.

    Sylvia - DVD Review:

    After Hours Cinema has transferred Sylvia from original 35mm film elements in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image shows some wear in the forms of some fairly constant vertical scratches and some mild debris but overall the picture looks pretty good even if it hasn't been properly flagged for progressive scan playback. The colors are a little on the faded side and some scenes are softer than others but the movie is perfectly watchable. Softness comes and goes depending on the scene and some shots are intentionally out of focus but that's a stylistic choice, not a transfer flaw. Overall, the movie looks surprisingly good.

    The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is a little flat in some scenes but aside from that it sounds just fine. There aren't any glaring problems with hiss or distortion and the dialogue stays clear throughout. Levels are well balanced and the score sounds very nice.

    First things first - the real reason you'll want to scour your way through the supplements on this DVD is for the commentary track courtesy of William Lustig and moderator Michael Bowen. Lustig served as assistant director and production manager on this film and his relationship with Peter Savage/Armand Peters makes for a fascinating discussion. Lustig details where various scenes were shot (some in Long Island, some in Manhattan) and provides some interesting trivia about the various performers. He mentions that the scene that takes place in the priest's office was shot in an actual priest's office and he talks about his early days in the film industry. Lustig also talks about mob involvement in the XXX industry of 70s New York and about his own early adult films. He shares some really interesting stories about his uncle, boxer Jake La Motta, and his friendship with Savage and he talks about how Savage put up the money to send him to NYU for film school! While he's not so keen on the film's star (he describes Joanna Bell as a pig more than once) his stories about how Sonny Landham kept her occupied on set and in turn saved his life need to be heard.

    Also on the disc is the always enjoyable After Hours Retro trailer vault where you can delve into dirty sneak peeks at various adult films available now or coming soon from the label. Classy menus and chapter stops are also included as is the film's original theatrical trailer under the alternate title of A Saint, A Woman, A Devil.

    But wait, that's not all! Michael Bowen also provides a seven page essay on the history of the film and it's unusual connections to the works of Martin Scorsese. The essay covers some of the same ground as the commentary but it still makes for an interesting read and it also details the mystery behind the film's theatrical release. The keepcase fits nicely inside a slipcase that features slightly different cover art.

    Sylvia - The Final Word:

    After Hours Cinema has done a great job not only rescuing this film from obscurity but in treating it right on DVD. Lustig's commentary is fascinating and invaluable and worth the price of admission alone, while the film itself is an interesting curiosity item.

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