Almost every pornographer from the 1960s has had a revival during the video era, with a “personal biographer” and pseudo-cult following created by what passes for today’s media/fan universe, but Walt Davis seems overdue. I watched this SWV preservation of Substitution without preconceptions and came away impressed with his modest achievement.
The format is more Love American Style TV sitcom than porn at first, but eventually Davis delivers the goods -not just an endless (more than two dozen actresses and models appear) share of full-frontal nudity, but also a couple of scenes demonstrating the new freedom possible in theatrical films in 1970, as explicit closeups of female genitalia and our hero fingering them approach the soon-to-be breached barrier into hardcore sex (previously broached only by Andy Warhol’s breakthrough Blue Movie a year earlier).
Chuck Sailor shows promise as our handsome young leading man Henry, working in Muntz’s stereo shop in L.A. (The store owner Jim Muntz plays himself, son of the legendary TV advertising pioneer Madman Muntz.) The hero’s car has decals advertising the real-life shop in an early case of product placement/not so subliminal advertising on screen. Sadly as a fanatical vinyl collector, I was sorry to see the store has no record albums for sale, only rack upon rack of little 4-tracks, popular at the time but unlike their vinyl forebears not standing the test of time. Tending the store besides Henry is his best bud Fred Letcher (hardly living up to his name, but ably portrayed by James Paulin) and a bevy of sexy sales girls in red outfits that suggest Swinging London more than the Left Coast -certainly Mike Myers would enjoy this film, and could easily use it as inspiration were he to spoof ’60s Sexploitation the way he has already taken on ’60s Spy Movies and courtesy of Beyonce, ’70s Blaxploitation.
The plot peg is actually close to Myers’ heart, as Fred comes up with a cure for Henry’s 4-year-itch: visit the Maharoni, a local guru, who has devised a meditation method to cure marital ills. Sexual Substitution is a process whereby one can imagine one’s sexual partner as somebody else, and Henry buys the concept, at which point the film switches abruptly from okay sitcom to standard, nearly all-sex format. Davis uses a repetitive approach, oddly reminiscent of the careful work of Stanley Kubrick (2001 especially), in setting up identical scene after scene, shot after shot setups, for a parade of at least a dozen beauties appearing nightly for Henry to ogle across the bedroom, then get into bed, and in a couple of cases, have Henry finger them to a fare-thee-well.
To make this aimed-at-inducing-successful masturbation format less boring, Davis introduces the key subplot of Henry’s lovely but shrewish wife Alice (Patrice Nastasia) going with BFF Dottie Letcher (Fred’s attractive wife played by Marnie Kaye, who is baited to the audience early on as potential fantasy sex partner for Henry, but never strips or participates) to an exclusive lingerie shop. It’s run by Pat Duran, who uses that name for her character, perhaps being a real-life lingerie magnate, and another surprise is the high prices for the baby dolls, harem outfits and other sheer nighties displayed by a parade of uninhibited models (full frontal nudity required) she’s peddling. Inflation in prices for gasoline, college tuition, housing, foodstuffs and even a Maaco auto paint job may have gone up 10 to 20 times in the 40 years since Substitution was made, but these sexy outfits cost more than their Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood counterparts do today! With capable performers and a script (uncredited but presumably penned by Davis) way above average for the genre, Substitution has its funny moments. A low budget (except for the relatively huge costs of employing such a large cast -even at day rates this one had to cost many times that of a usual two-day wonder) hurts, keeping this film from being a fully realized success. Many scenes with Henry and Alice are shown virtually silent -no post-synched dialog, no music, no background sound, more typical of an unfinished film (quite common in the soft porn field) and deadly for comedy. Another shock is that Henry goes to work wearing exactly the same shirt and slacks three days in a row -obviously the costumes, credited to Valli (NO, not the star of The Third Man) emphasized lingerie to the detriment of our male lead’s attire.
I’ve seen Davis’s other films and he has a way with comedy. (His infamous hardcore opus, The Demon in Miss Jones, is a wholly different form of black comedy.) Like Mark Haggard, the unsung master of the sex film format (ranging from The All American Girl right through to Paul Thomas’s classic The Masseuse), Davis was clearly a talented guy who never got a shot at the big time. The more of these “coulda been a contender” types one encounters in film history the more one infers that success in Tinseltown is 99.99% luck, and that most of the stars & auteurs (ranging from one-hit wonders like Paul Hogan and Pauly Shore to inexplicable superstars with longevity like Nic Cage) should be giving thanks to the goddess Fortuna on a daily basis.