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Pleasure Palace

(AKA Corrupted) 1973, Starring Janice Duval, Nicky Fylan, Tom Celli, Art Roberts, Leta Lovespring, Susan Garret, Bree Cole, Vicki Gabereau. Directed by Ed Hunt (Phoenix Film Productions Ltd.)


For aspiring filmmakers, the 1970s were are great time to be in Canada, with an unprecedented amount of money flowing around the fledgling industry. Not only had the recent establishment of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) loosened up the government purse strings, but the discovery of Canada's tax shelter rules helped spurn an influx of private cash too. It was an attractive situation not only for local filmmakers, who finally had a fighting chance to develop projects they'd had in mind for years, but it also proved to be a temptation for filmmakers outside of Canada, several of whom packed up their cameras and headed north to make their mark with low budget genre pictures. 1973's Pleasure Palace, directed by recent UCLA film grad Ed Hunt, was one of the earliest of these expatriate films, a sleazy and cynical blackmail story that offers a peek behind the dark, sultry curtain of Toronto's adult entertainment industry.

A recent UCLA film grad, Hunt arrived in Toronto in 1969 ready to take on the burgeoning Canadian film movement. Like Floridian Bob Clark, perhaps Canada's most successful tax shelter transplant, Hunt cut his teeth on sexploitation features back in the United States, even directing two himself (only one, the 1969 LA-shot S&M snoozer The Freudian Thing has since surfaced). Canada was increasingly making a go at the skin flick game, largely led by the French-Canadian softcore films from Montreal's Cinepix, so Hunt's experience and sensibility were put to good use in his debut Canadian film, in which he combined a healthy dose of full-frontal nudity with gritty Toronto location work. Though far from revolutionary, Pleasure Palace made good on its Canadian theatrical run and helped kickstart Hunt's career north of the border.

Pleasure Palace follows George (Tom Celli), a well-heeled architect who has lost interest in his wife (Canadian TV talk show host Vicki Gabereau). At night, he hits the town by himself, wandering into sleazy Toronto haunts like burlesque bar Le Strip and Jingle's Photo Palace, a dingy photography studio that supplies eager shutterbugs with not only cameras, but also the nude models to pose for them. It's at Jingle's where George first meets Angela (Janice Duval), the studio's blonde hostess, who works the desk and assigns the girls to the customers. As their romance heats up, George never clues in that Angela and her sleazy boyfriend Derek (Nicky Fylan) are only looking for a big payday--looking for blackmail material, Derek hires a private eye to snap pictures of the lovers during a cottage tryst. The owner of Jingle's, Derek is also trying to line his pockets by helping out Jerry (Art Roberts), a sweaty anti-smut crusader who, when he isn't appearing on TV to rail against pornography, is sneaking into the bedroom closets of nurses and attacking Photo Palace employees. After Derek arranges an fantasy-fulfilling orgy for Jerry and forces Angela to take part, she starts to wonder if her life wouldn't be better off with George.

Although a handful of sexploitation films had already been cranked out in Toronto by the time Ed Hunt arrived, his first Canadian-lensed effort is notable for the way it breaks out of the dingy studio sets of those earlier films to incorporate an amazing panorama of Toronto street life in the early 1970s. When we're not cruising down Yonge Street and along the Danforth with George and Angela, we're whisked away to the University of Toronto, the Wellesley Hospital, the Royal Alexandra Theatre, a TTC subway station and even Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Hunt also takes us from rustic Thousand Islands cottages to the TD Centre and its swanky observation deck, and then on to Yonge Street bars like the Friar's Tavern and the Saxony Tavern. Pleasure Palace really uses the natural locations in a way that wasn't really contemplated by earlier "adults only" films like Adulterous Affair (1966) or Violent Love (1967), bringing it closer to Toronto-centric films like Goin' Down the Road (1970) or even The Silent Partner (1978), works that heavily feature and sometimes romanticize the city in which they are set.

But Hunt seems less enamoured with Toronto the Good as he is with capturing the city's seedy, neon-drenched night life, which was peaking around 1973. Nicknamed "Sin Strip," Yonge Street at that time was a hotbed of massage parlours, adult bookstores, grindhouses, pinball arcades and strip joints that existed as a kind of Canadian reflection of New York City's Times Square. The two adult businesses prominently featured in the film-- Le Strip and Jingle's Photo Palace--were actual Yonge Street fixtures (and were also both used as locations in Hunt's next picture, 1974's Diary of a Sinner). Despite obviously having some personal draw to these kinds of places, Hunt paints the strip as a generally unappealing place populated by almost entirely undesirable characters--scheming women, lonely and dangerous men, petty criminals, hypocritical moralists, and corrupt PIs. Hunt's Sin Strip is a cynical place where backalley dust-ups are common and everything has a price.

Helping to bring some authenticity to the film, many of Pleasure Palace's cast and crewmembers actually called the Yonge Street strip home--aside from actresses likely recruited from nearby burlesque houses, producer Bennett Fode owned the New Yorker Theatre just down the street, having made his name in Canadian film circles for producing some of Don Shebib's early work. Star Nicky Fylan, an Italian immigrant who began his career as a model and actor, is said to have given up his craft so he could concentrate on operating several body-rub shops along Yonge. Hunt managed to convince him to return to acting for the role of Jingle's owner--a natural fit.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film--especially for Canadian viewers--is the character of zealous moralist Jerry, who leads the anti-porn organization Citizens for Decency Committee. A deeply conflicted man, Jerry sets fire to magazine centrefolds and a nude Burt Reynolds poster in his office (but only after lovingly studying both). He hastily abandons his attack on a local nurse when his victim, using the vibrator he brought, realizes Jerry's gun is an unloaded starter's pistol and, laughing, invites him to join her. During the orgy that Derek has arranged, Jerry excitedly whips Angela while wearing a priest's frock; a devastating and over-the-top portrayal of the Moral Majority. But the most interesting moment comes when George and Angela watch Jerry being interviewed on TV, in which the host refers Jerry's organization the CFDC--not coincidentally, the same acronym as the Canadian Film Development Corporation, the government body set up to help fund Canadian filmmakers. Hunt appears to take several not-so-veiled shots at the organization, with the TV host accusing Jerry's CFDC of censorship and failing to prove that adult material has a detrimental effect on society. It would be interesting to know if the real CFDC turned down Hunt based on the racy content of Pleasure Palace's script.

Even if the CFDC wasn't interested, plenty of patrons were--the film reportedly earned back 10 times its budget, according to a 1976 profile on the director in Cinema Canada magazine. It was enough for Hunt to get a foothold in the industry and he quickly began work on Diary of a Sinner, this time with Fylan producing and many of the same cast and crew returning, as Hunt began to transition away from sexploitation to become a more traditional genre filmmaker (apparently spurned, in part, by his steadfast belief in UFOs). But as Hunt's films focused away from Toronto's grimier, crime-infested enclaves to the gleaming future of faraway planets, they also lost much of the location work that made his early films so much fun. Hunt's early Canadian sexploitation films may not have been the best that the country has to offer, but they do offer a unique outsider's take on Toronto's less savoury side, exposing the ominous cracks in the palace's foundation.

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