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Centerfolds From Hell

1992, Starring Joel Olson, Bonnie Mak, Dominique St. Croix, Giuseppina Mirijello, Costas Papanastasiou. Directed by Jack Bravman (2738-6127 Québec).

A lecherous photographer gets his comeuppance when he's hunted by spandex-clad models in sexploitation veteran Jack Bravman's final feature film, Centerfolds From Hell. Bravman, a Quebec native, returned to his home province in the 1980s to make a handful of low budget genre films to take advantage of Quebec tax credits available at the time. His final effort, 1992's Centerfolds From Hell never saw an official home video release even though it's among their better productions, a sci-fi twist on Scrooge that heavily features former Penthouse magazine centerfold Dominique St. Croix as a Goddess-figure who delivers a pointy arrow of enlightenment into the posterior of the film's sleazy protagonist.

Though born in Canada, Bravman got his filmmaking start in New York City producing a handful of sexploitation movies in the late 1960s like Blonde on a Bum Trip (1968) and Meet the Sex (1969). He soon began working extensively with local filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay, even having Roberta handling the camerawork for his own 1970 directorial debut Janie, a psychosexual thriller. From there he reportedly got involved with porn production house Bunnco Films and even tried his hand at adult filmmaking at least once, with 1973's largely forgotten All in the Sex Family. By the mid-1980s, though, Bravman was back in Montreal with a fistful of cash supposedly supplied by a New York City real estate magnate looking to move into more legitimate filmmaking. Beginning with his first Canadian production, 1986's Zombie Nightmare, Bravman loomed large behind a steady stream of Montreal-shot horror and sci-fi schlock including Invasion of the Mindbenders (1987), The Carpenter (1988), Madonna: A Case of Blood Ambition (1990), Night of the Dribbler (1990) and Voodoo Dolls (1991).

While most of those films managed to hit video shelves, Centerfolds from Hell, like Bravman's goofy slasher horror Night of the Dribbler, didn't get a release, despite being one of Bravman's better Canadian-shot efforts. The premise of the film has pig-headed photographer and part-time porn director Donnie Goodman (Joel Olson) unable to help himself around the ladies. At a dinner party, the perpetually neon-clad Lothario gropes Christine (Giuseppina Mirijello), the girlfriend of his best pal Boris (Costas Papanastasiou). Caught in the act by his fiancé Daryl (Bonnie Mak), Donnie insists it was just a misunderstanding. When everyone leaves in disgust, the lonely and depressed Donnie stumbles into the bathroom where a bright light transports him to another dimension (that looks suspiciously like an abandoned warehouse), where whip-wielding Wanda (Dominique St. Croix) holds court over a crew of purple spandex-clad girls ("you look like... centerfolds from hell!" proclaims Donnie, awkwardly).

It's at this point that the film starts to veer into weirdness. With the help of an odd-looking device, Wanda offers Donnie visions of the past and future so he can see how his chauvinistic attitudes hurt women. After revealing that a young student (Susan Mackasey) he once tricked into modeling for him and then assaulted was so distraught she turned to prostitution, Wanda serves up another vision in which Christine eventually accepts Donnie's advances, but the affair costs him his relationship with Daryl. Worse, when Donnie later breaks up his unhappy future marriage with Christine, she commits suicide. In one particularly amusing scene, while awaiting trial for these transgressions, Donnie awakens to discover he's been turned into a woman (wearing the same turquoise jumpsuit) and must fight off unwanted sexual advances. He's then sentenced to death by a jury that includes Christine, Boris and Daryl, but Donnie manages to somehow escape a bow and arrow onslaught by Wanda and her feminist avengers. Only after waking up on his bathroom floor does he realize he must mend his ways to be truly happy.

Though scripted by Maurice Thévenet, Bravman's scribe on Night of the Dribbler, Centerfolds from Hell is a notable improvement over that slapdash film. Still, the shortcomings here are obvious—the performances, mostly by non-actors, aren't particularly convincing and a handful of cheaply dressed industrial sets are a high school play's vision of whatever extra-dimensional purgatory these all-female fighters are supposed to rule. And yet, the film seems to be more aware of it's limitations, and manages to work with them—with only a handful of actors and sets on hand, Centerfolds from Hell seems content to take place in a limited world and focuses more on Donnie's inner awakening to make up for a lack of tangible production values.

As seems obvious from the title, Centerfolds from Hell seems at least partially conceived and scripted around the presence of a real centerfold model, Dominique St. Croix. St. Croix, an American-born 1986 "Pet of the Month" for Penthouse magazine, tried to use her notoriety to break into the film biz with limited success. Following a small role in Rafal Zielinski's Canadian sex comedy Recruits (1986) and an appearance in the Arizona-shot regional thriller Stay Tuned for Murder (1987), St. Croix landed her biggest on-screen role as Wanda, a kind of Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future who shows Donnie the many errors of his ways. Striking a statuesque figure in purple spandex, Wanda is one of the more experienced actors on board, and it even seems like she has some experience handling a bow and arrow.

Seemingly inspired by twist-ending TV series like The Twilight Zone and perhaps also the redemption storyline of A Christmas Carol, Centerfolds from Hell is also interesting to view in terms of Bravman's own career trajectory. In the film's conclusion, part-time pornographer Donnie must face his most rigorous test, as he rejects the advances of an amorous adult starlet to head off with the ever-forgiving Daryl. For his directorial swansong, it's tempting to speculate on how much of Donnie's story alludes to Bravman's own experiences in the mines of New York City sexploitation filmmaking. The only thing that's certain is that, had Centerfolds from Hell received a proper release, it surely would have disappointed viewers lured in by the title's promise of nudity and sex, only to find a poignant lecture on the need to respect women.


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