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September 15, 2012

The Id is a Lonely Hunter: A Review of Shaun Costello's Midnight Desires

 “We hide our desires, even from ourselves.”

The way a person approaches their sexuality can often reveal a lot about their innermost workings, to the extent where that is often more fascinating to explore than the act itself. But how many people can honestly face their sexuality and the mental machina behind it? You are probably wondering where in the hell I'm going with all of this, but never fear, since this psycho-sexual road leads directly to Shaun Costello's mid-70's film, MIDNIGHT DESIRES.

After some disconcertingly nice instrumental music (think the bastard offspring of Leonard Bernstein and 1,000 Strings), the film begins with a chauffeur, finishing his cigarette and waiting. Not for too long though, as John (Eric Edwards) and Amy (Karen Regis aka Jenny Baxter) soon arrive and are escorted to the spacious estate belonging to one Martin (Jamie Gillis) and Elaine Van Nostrand (C.J. Laing). On the way there, Amy warns him not to talk about pedestrian sports like football and stresses the importance of being “socially acceptable.” He's less status conscious than his wife and reminds her that they were invited simply for “an evening of games.”

 The evening of games is about to begin.

Right after arriving, Martin is handed some bad news in the form of a newspaper headline announcing “Hitler Invades Poland.” Having family in Warsaw, he is naturally upset and cries out about the world being “swallowed up by global holocaust” before walking off. Elaine takes them aside and implores them to play along with whatever she does to lighten her husband's mood. The evening of games soon begins with Elaine wanting something risky and “dangerous.” John, seeming every bit the square, suggests charades, which is rightfully squashed. Instead, Elaine brings up the idea of everyone divulging their wildest sexual fantasies with the best and most honest being the winner. Initially hesitant, John and Amy decide to play along.

 Bad news.

Since it was her idea, Elaine goes first. This is really where things start to get interesting, with her fantasy involving having an experience that is so good, that it is riddled with guilt. Like a lot of bourgeoisie types, she possesses the deep need to be punished. She is locked in a stark, white room, completely naked except for chains around her wrists and ankles. The camera, seemingly stilted before, comes alive with some ghoulish and beautiful fluidity. The sexy-horror movie style show continues with the door opening, revealing men in dark hoods and even darker intents. They lead her to a shadowy room littered with candles and bondage equipment. Her hands and neck are bound, leaving her open for some good ole pre-Meese commission style whipping and action of a more primitive sort with her yelling out “I'm scum! Fuck me!”

 Waiting for the threshold: Elaine's fantasy.

Elaine's fantasy gets a good response from the group, though Martin, playing armchair psychiatrist, starts to analyze her fantasy. He points out that it is inherently dishonest. Why? Because while she is playing the role of helpless submissive, she is ultimately the one in control. In other words, she is a bossy bottom.

After that, Martin gets more bad news, this time in the form of the headline, “France Surrenders.” Okay, now, this is just getting silly. Elaine comments that it makes sense due to the fact that “The Germans are very industrious people.” Martin's response? “Shut up, Elaine.”

 "Shut up Elaine."

The game must go on, with John being the next up. His fantasy starts off deceptively pedestrian, with him playing the role of a businessman who hires a pretty hooker to come into his motel room and seduce his girlfriend. The prostitute, played by the raven haired Brie Anthony, enters the room dressed up in a black tuxedo, complete with matching top hat. (Nice little nod to Marlene Dietrich.) She starts to seduce the passively passionate girlfriend, a lithe blonde in a violet top, but soon enough lets John  take over. She watches them for a couple of minutes and then slowly starts to disrobe, ultimately revealing a male-shaped apparatus. In a surprise twist, John is the one she focuses her dingus related attention on. Undoubtedly this scene has probably made some of the straight guys in the audience very, very uncomfortable, which I fully endorse. The whole scene is pretty bold on both the filmmaker's and certainly Eric Edwards' part. Imagery like this is rare in film, especially those aimed towards a presumably heterosexual audience. Having it entrenched in something so standard, like a menage a trois with a man and two women, is borderline brilliant.

Passive male madness: John waits and watches

 The amazing Brie Anthony.

Amy actually loves his fantasy though expresses some subtle jealousy at the same time, obviously feeling a little left out. Martin discusses the fact that John, with his fantasy, was exploring his homosexual side in a safe, straight-guy sort of way. Having a masculine, handsome guy like John possessing this deep rooted desire to go beyond the standard confines of his orientation is a ballsy move.

 A pensive Amy.

Martin is up next, with his fantasy revolving around a sport he loves very much, boxing. Growing up in a family born and bred into old money, however, his mother forbade him from ever pursuing this dream. Which is a great irony given how worried Amy was in the beginning of the film about John revealing his love of blue collar sports. Anyways, Martin's fantasy is that he is Kid Kelly, a brash, up and coming boxer clobbering his way to the top. His career looks promising until he is asked to throw a big fight by a local mob boss. Kid storms over this until he decides to take it out on the  gangster's gum chewing, eye rolling moll, Lola (Vanessa Del Rio under the weird pseudonym Ursula Pasarell). After roughing her up a bit, he drags her into the locker room, where it basically becomes mook a go-go on poor Lola, with Kid's assorted friends having a time. This is the big ugly, folks.

 Kid Kelly is not pleased.

Elaine scoffs at Martin, calling him a literal “motherfucker,” while John agrees that the Lola character is basically a receptacle of all the anger and hostility Martin felt towards his mother for squashing his unborn dream. Martin seems fairly open to this assessment, which is fascinating, since admitting some kind of violent Oedipal complex is a pretty outre thing.

 Highwaymen, though they are FAR from dandy. 

This leaves Amy, who is initially resistant to tell her fantasy but of course gives in. She is a medieval peasant girl who ends up at a tavern with a couple of highwaymen and one saucy bar-wench. (Note  that the highwaymen are strangely cleaner looking than any of the guys from the boxing segment. This despite being set in an age where regular bathing was not that common at all. Not a complaint, if anything it's a relief. Trust me.) This segment out of all of them has a quiet and almost romance novel element to it, especially compared to the others. This is certainly not lost on the group, with everyone noting that Amy's fantasy is the purest since it is less sexual primal scream and more just a nice, randy daydream. Therefore she is the winner! As dawn breaks, John and Amy leave, thanking Martin and Elaine for a fun evening. As they watch their guests ride off, the butler hands Martin one last newspaper, causing him and Elaine to burst out laughing. The headline? The End. Cute.

MIDNIGHT DESIRES was Costello's first 35mm film and despite being limited by an extremely tight shooting schedule, he made a film with some smarts and ambition. While the print that has made it on to this DVD has seen better days and looks like it may have come from a VHS master, it still looks uncut. Big kudos to Video-X-Pix for releasing such a bold and unique film.

Despite some of the obvious budgetary restrictions, the cast and crew really made the most of it. The whole psychological examining aspect is great and usually lacking in films of this stripe, especially as open and in your face as it is. It does make one wish that they would have more time to flesh out some of the ideas and characters,  especially since there is a slightly stilted feeling with the non-fantasy segments. On the flip side of that is the fact that the wraparound scenes are a nice contrast to the color and energy of the fantasy segments.

Actor wise, this is a great little cast, with C.J. Laing and Eric Edwards coming off the best. (Though Brie Anthony gets a special mention for her striking appearance as the Dietrich inspired hooker. She honestly looks like she was born to wear that suit and hat.) Gillis is good, though he doesn't really shine until he is playing the Kid Kelly character, where he is instantly inhabiting that role like a second skin. Laing's raw charisma is in good bloom here. Given the fact that her filmography is fairly small, it's a testament to how standout she is that she remains one of the bigger cult stars from the '70's. Eric Edwards is uniformly great here and is one of the most underrated actors in the business. Like he does with all of his roles, he manages to bring a sense of depth and interest to John. There should be shrines built to this man.

If you like your fringe cinema to be on the smart side of sleazy with some talent on the film making front, then definitely give MIDNIGHT DESIRES a go. It's not for everyone but anything worth watching usually isn't.

Review by Heather Drain

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