Schlock Junkie #2: Mantis in Lace

Mantis in Lace / Lila (Color, 1968) 87 min.
Something Weird Video / Image Entertainment
Directed by William Rotsler
Executive Producer: Harry Novak
Produced by Peter Perry and Sanford White
Written by Sanford White
Cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (as Leslie Kovacks)
Original Music by Frank A. Coe
Title Song Lila by Vic Lance and Lynn Harper
Format: Full Frame (1.33:1)

Supplementary Material: Alternate Psychedelic Murder Sequence, Over 100 Minutes of Never-before-Seen Outtakes, Theatrical Trailer, Archival Short Subject #1: Sid Davis’ LSD: Trip or Trap, Archival Short Subject #2: Alice Goes to Acidland, Archival Short Subject #3: Girl in a Cage, Gallery of Harry Novak Exploitation Art with Radio Spot Rarities, Something Weird Trailer Park, Scene Access, Audio Enhanced Menus, Easter Egg
Audio: Dolby Digital (Mono)

Cast: Susan Stewart, Steve Vincent, M. K. Evans, Stuart Lancaster, Vic Lance, Pat Barrington, Janu Wine, John Caroll, John LaSalle, Hinton Pope, Bethel G. Buckalew, Lyn Armondo, Norton Halper, Judith Crane, Cheryl Trepton

In 1964, while working as a booking agent for the JEM distribution arm of Seymour Bordy and Associates, legendary huckster Harry Novak was relieved of his position when he chose to independently distribute Peter Perry’s mindblowing montage of mammalian protuberances, Kiss Me Quick (originally released as Dr. Breedlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to capitalize on the success of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove). Forging his own production and distribution outfit, Boxoffice International Pictures, in the wake of his departure, the Chicago-born shyster followed Kiss Me Quick‘s monumental success with Perry’s The Wonderful World of Girls and a stunning string of sleaze epics directed by William Rotsler: The Agony of Love, The Girl with the Hungry Eyes, Suburban Pagans, and, arguably the film for which the company is best known, Mantis in Lace. A dispute between Rotsler and writer/producer Sanford White resulted in Mantis in Lace — ironically developing a split personality very much akin to that of its buxom, bananaphobic main character — being released as two separate entities: an R-rated, sexually-charged psychodrama aimed at the drive-in crowd, and, to appease White, Lila, a more explicit version containing fifteen extra minutes of nudity and gore devised to stiffen the willies of the grindhouse ghouls.

It’s her way or no way, baby! Horny, headstrong, and incredibly hard-to-please, hot-to-trot exotic dancer, Lila (the sultry Susan Stewart, who later went on to strut her stuff in Mark Haggard and Bruce Kimmel’s underrated The First Nudie Musical), lures a scandalous succession of salivating strip club patrons back to her warehouse pump palace, forcing them to bend to her every whim. Things take a decidedly deadly turn, however, when hunk-a hunk-a hippie love, Tiger (Vic Lance, also responsible for the film’s mind-altering title song), introduces Lila to the wonders of LSD, the brainblasting blend of sex, psychotropic drugs, and a lifetime of repressed emotions wreaking havoc on the leggy lass’ tormented psyche. Reeling under the effects of a particularly nasty trip (illustrated by a mindblowing melange of neon flesh, exploding fruit, diabolical doctors, a fat masked man grasping a bunch of bananas and a handful of greenbacks, and, serving as a wellspring for the incomprehensible events to follow, the suggestion of a history of rape) Lila repeatedly skewers her ill-fated suitor in the back with a screwdriver, punctuating her assault with a few whacks from her trusty meat cleaver. The body count rises as Lila develops an affinity for the drug, capping off each carnal encounter in the same grisly manner. When the police, fronted by Sergeants Collins (Steve Vincent) and Ryan (M. K. Evans), find the body of high-profile psychologist, Frank Ackerman (Russ Meyer mainstay, Stuart Lancaster), lurking among Lila’s leftovers, the doctor’s connection to the local strip clubs brings them one step closer to bringing the killer to justice. Or does it?

With the exception of exploitation pioneer, David F. Friedman, no one working in the business pandered to the proclivities of his patrons better than sleaze merchant, Harry Novak. Knowing full well what it took to fill a theater, Novak carefully cultivated pictures that would garner the most appeal, which, in his line of work, meant sex, and lots of it. No exception to the rule, Mantis in Lace‘s barely-there narrative exists as nothing more than an excuse for the filmmakers to festoon the feature with more boobs per minute than most softcore quickies of the period, a pulchritudinous parade of female flesh focusing on the awe-inspiring assets of Susan Stewart. Eye candy of the highest order, Ms. Stewart appears both bemused and confused, pooting forth a stream of horribly hackneyed one-liners that would make even Spider-Man’s Mary Jane Watson wince (“Face it, Tiger, you’ve hit the jackpot!“). Unveiling much more skin than the film’s top-billed temptress, Orgy of the Dead‘s Pat Barrington lends her topheavy talents to the production, stealing the show during an eye-popping backstage toke-a-thon with sour-puss, Janu Wine (“Well, don’t fall in love with it! Toss it over!“). His mere presence lending a shred of respectability to the proceedings, B-movie veteran, Stuart Lancaster, is exceptional as the overly-inquisitive Ackerman (his character’s name quite possibly a tip of the hat to the onetime editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland). While it’s safe to assume his participation did little for his bank account, at least he got to suck face with the steamy Ms. Stewart. Fleshing out the ghastly goings-on with surprising skill, Rotsler and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who returned to psychedelica, albeit briefly, a year later on Dennis Hopper’s landmark Easy Rider) provide work far more accomplished than necessary under the circumstances. Lila’s drug-induced nightmare sequences, achieved by projecting abstract still and motion photography onto the actors and sets, are worth the price of admission all by themselves. Best of all, Lila‘s infuriatingly infectious theme song — the staying power of which is either attributable to the skill of composer Vic Lance and the haunting vocal stylings of songstress, Lynn Harper, or the fact that its repeated ad nauseum throughout the length of the picture — will bury itself between your ears for some time to come. Approached from any angle, Lila is undoubtedly a stunner.

Calling the version of Lila presented on Something Weird Video’s DVD complete is an understatement, to say the least. The source print used for the transfer, a shockingly pristine 35mm negative comprising the longest cut of the film ever witnessed, also contains a lengthy sex scene between Bethel G. Buckalew (after playing a bartender in both Lila and Don Brown’s The Satin Mushroom, the Buck went on to direct a slew of cornfed curiosities for Novak, including Tobacco Roody, Country Cuzzins, Southern Comforts, and The Pigkeeper’s Daughter) and an up-and-coming stripper that has never been seen before! An exploding palette of psychedelic hues and razor sharp detail with nary a blemish to be found, Something Weird’s new wetagate transfer is, like Lila herself, absolutely gorgeous. As has become the norm for the Seattle-based sleaze king, Mike Vraney has come very close to maxing out the disc with an astounding array of extras. First up, Mike has managed to unearth an alternate, extended murder sequence depicting the deadly dancer, like the creature from which she derived her nickname, chowing down on her still-warm victim! The sequence, infinitely more brutal (buckets of blood are tossed on a nude Stewart as she mercilessly hacks away at what will eventually become her lunch) and trippy than the passage making it into the final cut, will blow the minds of those familiar with the feature.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Vraney manages to pull another white rabbit out of his hat, in this case a jaw-dropping collection of one hour and forty minutes of outtakes that no one, save Novak himself, even knew existed until this time! Spanning four reels (that’s eight thousand feet of film, folks), the added footage, bursting with even more sex and slaughter (one has to wonder why the hallucinatory hoagie cutting sequence, complete with ghost-like bloody hand, was excised in the first place), is I daresay better than the feature itself. Lovingly overlaid with raw audio Vraney found in Novak’s archives, the rarely-seen montage features a steamy dance routine from a veritable goddess making Lila’s comely cohorts seem like withered crones by comparison! Along with a beautiful representation of the film’s theatrical trailer (“Lila inhabits the buggy world of fruits and nuts!“), the disc contains Sid Davis’ 20-minute classroom scare film, LSD: Trip or Trap?, loaded with the usual frightfully funny anti-drug propaganda and some of the most disturbing images of deformed infants you’re ever likely to see. When Chuck tires of getting his kicks from smearing mustard and motor oil on his face, he moves on to stronger stuff, his attraction to acid prompting his buddy, Bob, to try and get him to kick the habit (check out the carpet of hair covering the back of Goody Two Shoes’ hand as he hastily scrawls his doomed friend a letter — the missing link has been found!). Alas, Bob’s intervention arrives far too late to do Chuck any good. Next, a snippet from the Cheshire Cat’s Alice in Acidland (starring Wanda, the Sadistic Hypnotist’s Patty Roberts) proves that not only can LSD turn a cute-as-a-button stripper into a homicidal maniac, it also transforms women into sex-starved lesbians, as well! Girl in a Cage, the last of the archival shorts, contrary to what one may assume, is not from Civirani and Martinelli’s Sexy Proibitissimo, but one of four rotating shorts that toured grindhouses in the late ’60s as a theatrical short subject. Heads will turn as the double jointed damsel coaxes some life out of a turgid cockatoo! Rounding out the package, Vraney has assembled a fantastic series of promotional material culled from Harry Novak’s career. Enveloped in a progression of raunchy radio spots plugging Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Kidnapped Coed, and Novak’s latest, The Child, among others, the set includes one sheets and ad mats for Kiss Me Quick, Venus in Furs, The Toy Box, and many more. As if all of the above weren’t enough, Vraney has also thrown in another Easter Egg, once again located on the disc’s Special Features menu. Highlight any menu item and press the right arrow on your remote for more Novak insanity. Every bit as potent as LSD, Something Weird’s Mantis in Lace is a trip from which you’ll not soon recover.