Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Directed by Joseph W. Sarno: Sleepy Head (1973)

A fascinating, if relatively unknown, offering from legendary director Joseph W. Sarno, Sleepy Head (1973) is an admittedly minor work but it is well-worth seeking out for fans of the much-missed director. Starring adult icons Georgina Spelvin and Tina Russell, and featuring Jamie Gillis and Marc Stevens in supporting roles, Sleepy Head was Sarno's first full foray into hardcore filmmaking and, while it is a far cry from his greatest works, it is a worthwhile edition to his filmography, even though it is often just afforded footnote status in his career.

Bernice Wyatt is a lonely woman approaching middle age living in a small Manhattan apartment. Raised in a strictly conservative environment, Wyatt is constantly battling inner demons in regards to her increasing sexual desire. This battle between repression and desire isn’t helped by her friend Nancy, who is constantly trying to get Bernice to push against her proper upbringing and her explore her sensuality. Bernice’s religion-obsessed sister Tracy isn’t helping either as her sheltered beliefs are only attempting to push her further and further away from her desires.

For at least its first hour Sleepy Head is a successful meditation on desire and repression driven by the fearless and intense performance of Spelvin, who was fresh from her legendary turn in Gerard Damiano’s Devil in Miss Jones (1973). Despite being shot quickly, and on an extremely low-budget, Sleepy Head still contains the adventurous, intelligent and stylish direction that marked all of Sarno's work. Opening very much like a horror film with an unforgettable nightmarish sequence where Spelvin is faced with the personifications of both her repressed and lustful sides, Sleepy Head marks itself immediately as something other than just a typical adult production of the period. The opening also strongly announces that this is indeed the work of Joseph W. Sarno, even though he didn’t sign the film at the time, as its lighting and mood recalls a number of his mesmerizing productions from the sixties. With this unforgettable opening, Sarno immediately establishes the heavy and oppressive atmosphere that never lets up throughout Sleepy Head’s 90 minute running time. Almost completely free of a score, with only a couple of brief library cues used, Sleepy Head is, despite its nonsensical title, an extremely serious work that ventures into the type of melodrama Sarno loved before eventually giving way to a typical adult film of the period in its final half hour.

Sarno, by all accounts, didn't take the decision of crossing over into the hardcore world litely and there is a certain hesitation to his style in Sleepy Head that wasn't typical of his other films in this period, like the freewheeling Seduction of Inga and Young Playthings. Sarno’s camera is more static than usual and Sleepy Head’s biggest problem is that it finally just feels like the work of an exhausted artist. This can of course be credited to the obvious budgetary limitations, and shooting schedule, but considering the fact that Sarno had already completed nearly ten features in the seventies by Sleepy Head's release in 1973 perhaps a bit of physical fatigue was setting in. Maybe Sarno was already feeling some of the limitations of this new explicit era he had just entered. Adult film historian and Sarno biographer Michael Bowen told me last year in an interview here that Sarno, "frequently observed that he felt there were inherent limitations to what one could do with a film with hardcore content, so it wasn’t his favorite way to work", and I think that feeling is felt throughout Sleepy Head. Still, despite the weary feeling present throughout the film, Sarno still brings much of his usual directionally flair to the film but it finally really thrives due to its cast, especially Spelvin who is quite unforgettable here as a woman having a real internal crisis.

Georgina Spelvin was already nearing her late thirties when she shot Sleepy Head with Sarno in 1973. Born Michelle Graham in Houston, Texas in the mid-thirties, Spelvin was quite unlike any other adult-film icon before or since. More than just a typical sex-pot, Spelvin had remarkable acting chops and they are on full display in Sleepy Head, a film that is controlled by her believable and intense performance. While Spelvin is the controlling force in Sleepy Head, the rest of the cast is notable as well.

Pretty Pennsylvania born Tina Russell was only in her mid-twenties in 1973 but she had already shot more than two-dozen adult features. Already well on her way to becoming one of the most popular adult icons of the period, Russell is interesting as Spelvin’s younger bible thumping sister in Sleepy Head, although she clearly doesn’t have Spelvin’s range. A real memorable film-personality, Russell would tragically pass away at the age of 32 in 1981 due to Stomach Cancer.

As Bernice’s provocative friend Nancy, Judith Hamilton occupies the other large role in Sleepy Head. Hamilton, who would appear in Sarno’s terrific The Swith or How to Alter your Ego in 1974, made relatively few films but she’s fine in Sleepy Head and brings a real knowingly decadent feel to the film. The rest of the film’s iconic cast only appear in mostly supporting roles, with several just appearing in a scene or two.

Sleepy Head does ultimately collapse in on itself in the final half hour, where Sarno all but sacrifices an interesting story for typical adult-faire, but fans of the great man will find much to love here. Bowen would write in his liner notes to Sarno's Girl Meets Girl box-set that while Sleepy Head, "marked the first time in Sarno's career that he used a pseudonym on one of his films", it still, "clearly retains hallmarks of (his) signature style." Sleepy Head is obviously not a film for everyone due to its extremely explicit nature and many politically-obsessed filmgoers will want to pass on it. For adventurous film-lovers though who love Joe Sarno and swinging seventies cinema, Sleepy Head is an essential title.

Considering the rarity and age of Sleepy Head, VideoXPix's DVD of the film is in very good shape. The colors are slightly faded due to age, and some reel damage is noticeable in spots, but overall the disc offers a relatively clean uncut print of the film and its a fine way to view it. Sadly no extras are offered, save for a trailer to the Sarno directed All About Gloria Leonard. Fellow Sarno fans interested in the disc can visit this (NSFW) link.

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