... aka: World of the Depraved
Herb "Jefferies" (Jeffries)
Herb Jeffries had a very interesting show biz career leading up to this hilariously sleazy “sinerama of sex and fear,” which turned out to be his only directorial effort. A mix of many difference races, Jeffries had blue eyes and (depending on whichever interview one reads) was of Irish, Italian, Sicilian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, African, Creole and / or Native American ancestry. Though light-skinned, he was clearly neither fully Caucasian nor fully black, and identified himself as either one or the other, or neither, at various stages of his career. Yes, labels are moronic and most of us are beyond all that now, but we're talking about what a man of some color had to do to try to navigate his way through the racist entertainment industry of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Jeffries dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a singer and was discovered by Louis Armstrong performing at a speakeasy. He quickly moved his way up the ladder to performing with the Earl Hines Orchestra and began a recording career in 1934. Three years later, he conceived, starred / sang in and wrote music for the low budget western musical Harlem on the Prairie (1937), which was shot in just five days and became the first all-black western of the sound era. The film was profitable enough to spawn three more similar vehicles for Jeffries, who'd gained a reputation as the black answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Because of his lighter skin tone, he was forced to use dark face paint to look more “black” by the studio financing these films.
After making his mark on the western genre (he'd later become one of the only non-white actors ever to be inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame), Jeffries began an acclaimed performing / recording career, becoming best known for his work with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. He had numerous Billboard charting singles throughout the 40s, including “Flamingo,” which sold in excess of 14 million copies. He'd later relocate to Europe, open several nightclubs in France and continued recording jazz albums after moving back to America. In 1957, he had another starring vehicle in Calypso Joe (1957) alongside a then-unknown Angie Dickinson, but the film was unsuccessful and now has seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. Two years later he married world-famous stripper / burlesque queen Tempest Storm. Storm, a redhead with 44DD-25-35 measurements, made headlines with such publicity-generating stunts as having her breasts insured by Lloyd's of London for a million dollars and romances with the likes of Elvis and JFK. She was also no stranger to the nudie movie, having already stripped down in such films as Striptease Girl (1952), Teaserama (1955; also with Bettie Page) and Buxom Beautease (1956; also with fellow burlesque queens Lili St. Cyr and Blaze Starr). One thing Storm had never been asked to do before was act... and this movie certainly proves why!
After receiving a dirty, heavy-breather phone call (“Do you know what I'd like to do to you?”), young Arlene Marshall leaves her home and is chased down the street by a psycho wearing a long coat, hat and stocking over his face, who corners her in a closed-down doll factory and stabs her to death. Cops arrive on the scene and have a hilariously tasteless conversation about the victim having visible bra lines even though she's not wearing a bra (?) and wondering how she could have possibly died; a mystery that is finally solved when one guy flips her over and sees a stab wound on her back. The lead cop then lowers the woman's blouse down to expose her breasts so a press photographer can get a nice photo of the body for the evening paper. A narrator's voice suddenly kicks in as he tells us Arlene had “a pair of eyes that will never seen again” and then the body is hauled out on a stretcher past a small crowd, including one guy who is obviously laughing. This first scene wonderfully sets the tone for the horribly-acted, tasteless, lowbrow shenanigans that will follow.
Clues first lead detectives Ronnie Riley (Johnnie Decker) and Ham Hamilton (Larry Reed) to a strip club called The Gayety Theatre where Tango (Storm), who's “stacked like a 1987 locomotive,” is the star attraction. A pudgy, voyeuristic doorman named Hot Shot, who frequently sneaks backstage to steal bras and g-strings belonging to the dancers and whose hat was found within a few feet of Arlene's body, proclaims his innocence but is hauled off to the station for questioning anyway. He's just one of the many male degenerate perverts we'll meet over the course of the next 70 minutes... and that includes our two so-called heroes! Riley and Ham find out that that Arlene was an aspiring actress who worked as an exercise girl on an early morning TV fitness show. The show's host, bearded fitness guru Ray Revere, promises his audience “For youth and beauty year by year follow the course of Ray Revere!” but behind-the-scenes uses a peephole in his office to work up a sweat spying on his girls changing clothes. Tango is a co-sponsor of Ray's show and also runs a health club called “Tango's Temple of the Perfect Body,” where many of the exercise girls also work.
We meet Arlene's former roommate Bobette Chapman, as well as the Euro-accented Doris and deaf-mute Connie, who live right across the hall. All of the girls are understandably weirded out by Burt, the leering elevator operator in their apartment house. The cops visit Burt, discover he's stolen a photo of Tango and has porno pictures plastered all over his walls, but don't have enough evidence to arrest him... yet. Meanwhile, exercise girl Edna (Bunny Ware), another real life stripper / burlesque performer) has just inherited 10 thousand dollars and is “tired of being Little Miss Prim,” so she decides to treat her girlfriends to a party with 10 whole bottles of champagne. They all get drunk, dance around and then Edna shows them how wild she really is by performing a strip tease. Burt spies on it all through a vent in a broom closet, then watches another couple have sex through a keyhole before attempting to rape Edna as she's passed out on the couch. Edna returns the favor by beating the shit out of him with her shoe while shrieking “I'm not a sex-starved girl!” Afterward, she confesses to Bobette that she actually has a crush on her attacker (!), to which her friend responds, “Don't worry. He'll try again... but with more finesse next time!"
Despite ample warning from the cops that there's a “sex monster” on the loose and likely living in their building, Bobette decides to go down to the cellar's laundry room all by herself because she doesn't have a clean blouse. She's stabbed to death and her body is stuffed inside a furnace. After discovering the killer's bag of goodies hidden behind a hilariously archaic piece of 50s exercise equipment, Connie is up next and gets beat to death with a barbell. When news that three of her girls have now been killed gets back to Tango, she mumbles “It's horrible and so unnecessary” in her monotone voice. However, it's not so horrible it needs to cut into business. “Whether someone lives or dies,” Tango adds, “The show must go on.” She then incorporates the crimes into her new act called “Tango and the Sex Monster.” Setting herself up as bait, will Tango, uh, bust the killer, or instead become his latest victim?
Jeffries (who passed away at age 100 last year and was just featured in the “In Memoriam” tribute during last week's Oscar ceremony) and Storm (one of the worst actresses you'll ever see) were divorced shortly after this film was released. The music is credited to “Francesco Ballantine,” though considering Jeffries' real name is said to be Umberto Ballentino, it may have been him. Something Weird has released this on VHS as part of the Frank Henenlotter “Sexy Shockers” series and on DVD, where it was paired up with Barry Mahon's The Love Cult (1966). The DVD also includes some rare outtakes for the film. It's pure trash... but fun trash!