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Autumn Born

1979, Starring Dorothy Stratten, Ihor Procak, Nate MacIntosh, Jocelyn Fournier, Roberta Weiss. Directed by Lloyd A. Simandl.

Autumn Born, a softcore bondage film made in Winnipeg, is the kind of Canadian film that by all rights should have been doomed to obscurity. The fact that it was ever released on video is attributable only to its star, Coquitlam, British Columbia native Dorothy Stratten. A Playboy Playmate, Stratten's life and tragic murder have been the subject of several films and documentaries.

In 1978, Paul Snider noticed an advertisement for Playboy's 25th Anniversary Playmate search, and convinced his girlfriend Dorothy to pose for some photos. Although she didn't win, the magazine was interested in Stratten, and later crowned her Playmate in the August, 1979 issue of Playboy. Snider, a "promoter" who was from many accounts a bondage enthusiast himself, controlled Dorothy and her career with an iron fist. Along with bit parts in the 1979 American teen films Skatetown, U.S.A. and Americathon, Stratten landed a starring role in the Canadian-made Autumn Born. After marrying Snider, Stratten's big break came with a starring role in the 1980 cult favourite Galaxina. But as Stratten became more famous, Snider watched his control over her vanish, and she declared her intention to divorce her former manager and move in with new beau Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Stratten in They All Laughed. Before that could happen, Snider shot the 21-year old Playmate to death before turning the gun on himself.

With appropriately seedy production values, you might assume that Autumn Born delivers the goods, but it doesn't and that is perhaps one of the reasons this film turned out to be a financial disaster. In fact, Stratten rarely appears nude in this role, spending most of the film parading around in lingerie, while first-time director Lloyd Simandl takes lingering shots of her thighs. But nowadays I'm sure Simandl looks on his time making Autumn Born as a learning experience, because since this bomb he has become a successful producer and director with over 35 movies under his belt, mostly of the straight-to-video sci-fi ilk. Since 1993, he has filmed all of his pictures in his native Prague as Canadian/Czech co-productions.

Released just around the same time as her Playboy pictorial, the sinister plot of Autumn Born begins when spoiled rich girl Tara (Stratten) goes out and buys $1900 worth of designer clothes on her 17th birthday. Her Uncle is furious with her, since as the head of her deceased father's company, he is forced to foot the bill. After exchanging words with Tara, Uncle realizes he has a much bigger problem on his hands once his niece turns 18 next year, she will on the board of directors of the company, and it could mean financial disaster. Her Uncle quickly formulates a plan to control her. He contacts a stern looking woman named Victoria who runs a "school of discipline" and arranges for Dorothy to be kidnapped and interned there.

Before long, Tara's fate is sealed. She and a friend go to a Winnipeg disco club in the middle of the afternoon(!), where Tara starts getting drunk and dancing with an ugly man in a ludicrous silver suit. Upon leaving, Anne, one of Victoria's stooges, grabs Tara. With the help of her partner Philippe, they whisk the teen away to Victoria's school where she is stripped down to her unmentionables and handcuffed to a soiled bed in a dingy basement room. Once Anne describes the "rules" of the school, detailing how she will be punished if she doesn't behave, she is left alone, writing away and screaming that all men are " bastards." Living up to that insult is Philippe, who plays weird noises piped into the room for some kind of strange psychological torture.

Dorothy's resulting "madness" leads to the most insanely absurd parts of Autumn Born. Especially notable is when Philippe sends a wind-up toy mouse in to Tara's cell. She finds it and starts talking to it, saying things like "You'ld like to escape, wouldn't you... but you can't!" She hides it from her captors, and starts hoarding food to feed the plastic toy, crawling on the floor behind it yelling "I need you honey, I won't hurt you!" When a recording of " Three Blind Mice" plays over the sound system, Tara gets hysterical that her toy might have its tail chopped off, and Philippe suddenly barges in the room and crushes the mouse with his foot(?).

Aside from Philippe's mind games, Anne whips Tara's feet and spanks her, and once she forces her to strip and bathe herself in a steel tub revealing a bruise on her tush that looks like it was made with a piece of charcoal. The idea, of course, is that Tara has to endure such hardships until she "behaves" (read: signs control of the company over to her Uncle). Finally, with her will gone and her eyes vacant, Tara is brought before Victoria. They bathe and sleep together, all in time for her Uncle to visit the school with his lawyers on the eve of Tara's 18th birthday. But Victoria has one more lesson to dish out, and it isn't to Tara.

Since I never would have viewed Autumn Born if it hadn't been Canadian, I find it somewhat difficult to evaluate some aspects of this film. I'm sure it conforms to the accepted conventions of the genre it portrays Tara as someone who "deserves" to be punished, once her will is broken she becomes the "ideal" love toy for Victoria, and so on, but frankly I just found Autumn Born to be depressing and tedious. For one thing, Simandl assumes that elongated scenes of a semi-nude Dorothy is enough to hold the audience's interest, but I suspect the camera's blatant ogling as she squirms on a dirty bed would be trying to even the most dedicated bondage aficionado.

Stratten's atrociously bad acting and Simandl's naive attempt at directing his first feature make this film an amateurish mess. Incompetent attempts at plot development are further confused by a narrator who makes only two or three comments throughout the scant 76-minute running time. There is little to recommend in Autumn Born, besides to those who might be morbidly curious about either the life and times of Dorothy Stratten, or the strangest Canadian films ever made.

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