Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious": Shaun Costello's The Passions of Carol (1975)

One of the key works from legendary adult-auteur Shaun Costello, The Passions of Carol (1975) is among the strangest and most effective films of its kind ever made. Shot on 16 mm, for less than 20,000 dollars over a two-week period in late 1975, The Passions of Carol is Costello’s quite startling and extremely entertaining updating of Charles Dicken’s timeless A Christmas Carol, only it is quite unlike any other film version of it ever released.

Starring an extremely effective Mary Stuart (working under the delightful pseudonym of Merrie Holiday) as cranky magazine publisher Carol Scrooge and featuring a number of great seventies icons like Carter Stevens, Jamie Gillis, Marc Stevens and future mainstream mainstay Sonny Landham, perhaps best remembered as being a major scene-stealer in Walter Hill’s mega-hit 48 Hours (1982), The Passions of Carol is a film marked by ambition and it is that ambition that separates it from the hundreds upon hundreds of adult exploitation films shot in New York in the mid-seventies.

By 1975, Costello had already established himself as one of the kings of the ‘One-Day Wonders’ but he wanted more and his cinematic aspirations, along with his voracious appetite for literature, led to The Passions of Carol, his first fully-scripted film. Just known in some-circles as the man behind brutal works like Forced Entry (1973) and Water Power (1977), Costello reminds us of what an innovative filmmaker he is with The Passions of Carol, a film that that trades in the brutality of Costello’s more infamous works for a surprising, if still incredibly perverse, sweetness. The Passions of Carol is, after-all, a Christmas film and Costello manages to give a fresher spin on Dicken’s often told tale than most of the better known mainstream hands that have touched it throughout the years.

Despite the fact that the finished product is such a successful hybrid between adult-feature and timeless literary classic, The Passions of Carol was a nightmare for Costello to shoot, as he had never been in charge of such a production. Costello recalls, within his indispensable liner notes that accompany Video-X-Pix’s excellent DVD, that, “it took a week of eighteen hour days to complete the screenplay”, for The Passions of Carol after which he made the mistake of only blocking, “out four shooting days” for its actual production on a New York Soundstage he had located. Costello goes on to detail that he, “had no idea” what he was getting into and that he was, “marching head-long into a disaster.”

After discovering that the film’s original four-day shooting time wasn’t even enough to get the colorful and surreal sets designed, Costello soon discovered that he was in above his head on The Passions of Carol but he soldiered on and finally managed to complete the film in two-weeks well over-budget. Recalling that he was helped considerable by, “caffeine, Dexedrine" and his dedicated crew, Costello knew he had something special with The Passions of Carol and he had it in his head that it might even prove a mainstream crossover hit.

According to his liner-notes, Costello wondered what, “what (he) was smoking” when thinking that The Passions of Carol might have a true crossover appeal, but the film did manage to play New York’s Quad Cinema, a venue that had never hosted an adult film before. Despite some acclaim, including a solid notice from Variety that Costello was surprised to hear about in the film’s excellent commentary track, The Passions of Carol’s, “box-office was disappointing”, and filmgoers were, “bewildered by this odd presentation of sex and Christmas.” The Passions of Carol would disappear soon after but it quickly developed a reputation of being one of the great-lost films of the period and the Platinum Elite Edition that was released this past Christmas serves the film incredibly well.

It’s hard to imagine a 35 year old ultra-low budget work looking much better than it does on Video-X-Pix’s meticulously restored DVD. Certain unavoidable audio and video issues aside, The Passions of Carol looks quite splendid on DVD and Costello’s nervy and imaginative style shines throughout. The disc also serves cinematographer Bill Markle’s photography well and one has to marvel at just how incredibly cool this film looks despite all the trouble that faced its makers preparing and shooting it. Despite some faults, some of the performances are fairly poor and occasionally Costello's ambition is simply too much for his budget, The Passions of Carol is quite an achievement and everyone involved has reason to be proud of it.

Perhaps the best thing about the DVD, which even comes with a mock snowflake, are the extras the Distribpix team assembled. Costello’s liner notes are among the best I have ever read for a film like this and his memories will take you back to a New York that has almost completely disappeared. Speaking on a city that has vanished the disc’s featurette focusing on how the locations have changed is quite haunting to watch and will make anyone who remembers New York before it was sanitized beyond recognition throw their hands up in severe frustration. Best of all is the disc’s commentary; Costello’s first of hopefully many, which is engaging, informative and absolutely fascinating to listen to. It is absolutely essential listening for students of off the mainstream filmmaking and will be of interest to even those who don’t enjoy the film.

More information on The Passions of Carol can be found at DistribPix's (NSFW) website and at their blog. I have my fingers crossed that future Shaun Costello special editions will be on the way and I certainly hope this fascinating filmmaker will be on hand again to share his vivid memories concerning them.

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