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The Surrogate

1984, Starring Art Hindle, Carole Laure ,Shannon Tweed, Jim Bailey, Michael Ironside, Marilyn Lightstone. Directed by Don Carmody (Cinepix Films).

Cinepix first made its name in the late 1960s with a series of highly popular softcore sex comedies, but once the home video revolution changed the face of the industry two decades later, the company found itself increasingly out of touch with modern movie trends. One of only a handful of erotic thrillers made in Canada in the 1980s, The Surrogate is Cinepix veteran producer/director Don Carmody's tale of murder and passion set against a steamy Montreal backdrop. Boasting an all-star Canadian cast, this film may be little more than a cookie-cutter skin flick, but, it represents a passing of the torch from the old guard of Canadian sex stars to a brand new generation of straight-to-video vixens in the wake of the tax shelter heyday.

The Surrogate  stars the ever-reliable Art Hindle (Black Christmas) as Frank, a stressed-out Porsche salesman who has had just about enough of his ball-breaking, trust fund-toting wife Lee (Shannon Tweed, No Contest). Fuelled by Lee's frigidity in the bedroom, Frank's hot temper has gotten out of control, resulting in outbursts so violent that he blacks out and can't remember what happened the next day. To solve their troubles, a psychiatrist advises the lovelorn pair to hook up with Anouk (Carole Laure, IXE-13), a "sexual surrogate" who will share their bed and "fulfill their fantasies." It appears to work, but Lee is ridden with guilt over the therapy, and demands to put an end to the surrogate's treatments. Even after Frank dismisses her, Anouk still won't leave the couple alone, however, calling at their condo day and night and pushing them into increasingly violent sexual acts. Meanwhile, a local cop (Michael Ironside) is investigating a series of murders in the neighbourhood, and Frank has become convinced that he is to blame, since his rage-caused blackouts coincide with each killing.

Once the erotic thriller replaced the sex comedy as the softcore movie selection of choice for consenting adults, it was only natural for Cinepix to jump on the slash 'n' strip bandwagon that had paid off for so many other distributors. One of only a few films cranked out by Andr Link and John Dunning during the decade, The Surrogate actually refers to a real (but highly controversial) field within sexual therapy, where couples look to a third person to help them intimately reconnect with their partner through hands-on help. This real-life basis provides an interesting angle for the film, but it's ultimately mishandled, paired with a conventional murder mystery subplot that sends this novel twist crashing into mediocrity.

Though noticeably light on both skin and sin, The Surrogate does crank up that old exploitation film standby, sadomasochism, as Anouk drops by repeatedly to tie up the scared couple and coerce Frank into rough sex. It's an interesting gambit that separates it from many later erotic thrillers, but The Surrogate never feels quite as dangerous as it should, despite the increasingly risky behaviour of both Anouk and the unknown murderer, who is stabbing poor innocents in the pair's trendy, upscale neighbourhood. Frank and Lee do spend several scenes worrying that Anouk's apparent obsession with their sex life will also end in bloodshed, but it's never very believable that the diminuitve therapist is truly a threat to their well-beingespecially when they keep commenting on how Anouk's stalking actually seem to be helping their relationship by giving Frank another person to focus his anger on.

As opposed to Cinepix's earlier, flesh-baring films like Valerie and Love in a 4 Letter World, the scenes of comedy in The Surrogate seem to be wholly unintentional this time, as Anouk arrives in Frank's condo to bat her eyes and spout gut-busting lines like "I love music of longing and desire," and "touching is the first stage of passion," against a soundtrack of suggestive synthesizer beats. More weirdness comes via Canadian character actress Jackie Burroughs, who appears briefly as one of Anouk's more eccentric clients who requires a giant lollypop and a pint of ice cream to get off.  Still, the strangest addition to the cast is  internationally-known drag queen Jim Bailey, who plays the part of Eric, Lee's fey confidant. Bailey was trying to parlay his success on stage into a film career in the early 1980s, but his attempts to out-swish Liberace in The Surrogate are so far over the top that it's embarrassingoffered up as little more than a red herring, Eric's overbearing mincing just doesn't fit the sombre tone of the film, and significantly distracts from the main thrust of the plot.

Before she appeared in The Surrogate as Anouk, the enchanting Carole Laure first rose to prominence in the wake of the late Cinepix's sex comedy boom, appearing in such films as Gilles Carle's La Mort d'un bcheron and L'Ange et la femme, which made her a recognized star in Quebec, as well as one of Canadian cinema's first sex sirens. By the 1980s, she had more or less broken out of the exploitation ghetto and was making serious dramas in both Quebec and France, further cementing her stardom. Interestingly, this film casts her opposite Newfoundland-born Playboy Playmate (and Gene Simmon's long time partner) Shannon Tweed, who was on the cusp of spawning a small cottage industry around sultry glances herself. It's clear that Laure is by far the better actress, but Tweed managed to achieve a long-lasting, international popularity that would rival her co-star, by making her name synonymous with softcore film. Not only did she go on to appear in selected Canadian efforts like Meatballs III, Electra, and No Contest, but Tweed later emerged as a producer of her own straight-to-video erotica, truly representing the modern B-movie queen in the home video agean actress totally in charge of her own sexy image.

Beyond this interesting piece of casting, The Surrogate doesn't have much to recommend about it, even paling in comparison to other, similar Canadian genre entries like Bedroom Eyes and Blindside. Ultimately, the film's obviously tacked-on murder subplot never properly gels with the sexual surrogate storyline, and despite the presence of two of Canada's best known B-movie actresses, this erotic thriller is nether sexy nor very suspenseful.

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