Friday, May 22, 2009

The Literary Output of Jonathan Ross (With a Digression on the Subject of The Illinois Enema Bandit)

While Jonathan Ross is an institution in the U.K., those of us who live in other countries have only seen him on our televisions sporadically. My first encounter with him was his 1987-88 television series The Incredibly Strange Film Show. He introduced me to the cinematic creations (some would say atrocities) of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ted V. Mikels and Ray Dennis Steckler and fed my curiosity about John Waters and Russ Meyer, whose works I had only barely sampled. I think his show was also the first place I heard the name Jackie Chan. So I owe him a debt of gratitude for getting me hooked on the forbidden delights of trash cinema. Sometimes literally forbidden in Australia. Water's Pink Flamingos and Lewis's The Gore Gore Girls are both still banned here.

The first series of The Incredibly Strange Film Show can be downloaded from Surreal Moviez or you can watch both series (I think) on YouTube.

In 1993, Jonathan Ross published his first book, a belated accompaniment to this television series called, appropriately The Incredibly Strange Film Book. It's a lively, funny guide to all the varieties of trash cinema, from porn to horror, teensploitation to blaxploitation, and including a history of movie gimmicks from the flying skeletons and seat buzzers of William Castle to 3D. Exemplary films are discussed in detail and notable stars are profiled.

But what probably affected me most when reading The Incredibly Strange Film Book was Ross's account of a deranged, but surprisingly well-made, porn film he knew only as The Enema Bandit. He gave a detailed description of the film's plot, but said he could find out nothing more about it. He didn't know who made it and could only speculate on why it was made. It told the story of a man who developed an obsession with giving women enemas and would break into their houses and hold them at gun point while cleaning them out with his home-made enema kit. Ross says that, leaving aside the enema scenes, it has something of the feel of a Scorcese film. I was so intrigued by Ross's description of this film that I once embarrassed a friend by telling him about it in intimated detail while we were travelling on a crowded commuter train. I imagine people were probably moving to seats further away from us but I was so caught up in freaky film frenzy that I failed to notice. Now the internet makes finding information about sick films much easier. So it is that I discovered from IMDB that the 1977 film's proper title was Waterpower, that it was directed by one Shaun Costello (whose first film Forced Entry (1973) is equally notorious) and that the "Italian-looking, sweaty nervous guy" who plays the title role is none other than Jamie Gillis, the Al Pacino of porn. The plot summary on the film's IMDB page is actually a detailed account by Costello of how he came to make the film and how it died in the arse (so to speak) in the U.S. but was a surprise hit in Europe.

Here is a six minute condensation of the film (cleansed of its more disgusting imagery) that was posted to YouTube as a promo for a DJ mix which has been made using some of Gillis' voiceover from the movie. Some of the music used on the film's original score was lifted from Bernard Hermann's soundtrack for the Brian De Palma film Sisters (1973).

What Jonathan Ross also didn't know when he wrote about the film is that it was inspired by a true story, that of Michael H. Kenyon (aka The Illinois Enema Bandit) who in March 1966 broke into a home in Champaign, Illinois wearing a ski-mask and carrying a gun. He administered enemas to two sisters aged 16 and 18, stole $70 from their father's wallet and left them tied up. For nine years he continued to commit similar crimes. After leaving Champaign he continued his attacks in other U.S. cities ending up in Chicago where he was arrested for questioning about some robberies. The authorities might never have discovered what he had really been up to if it hadn't been for the fact that he kept talking about The Enema Bandit while being questioned. He was given a psychiatric assessment and found sane. He was sentenced to six to twelve years prison and released in 1982.

Costello's movie was not Kenyon's only appearance in pop culture. Frank Zappa wrote a song about him. The Illinois Enema Bandit first appeared on his 1978 live album Zappa in New York. While it is true that Kenyon's obsession with enema's was ridiculous, that can't have made the experience any the less traumatic for his victims, so I tend to wonder how they might have felt if they ever heard Zappa's band performing a supposedly humorous song about what was done to them. Having said that though the song is infectiously funky.

Anyway I did eventually get a chance to see Waterpower. It is a unique (if completely indefensible) film, and, it goes without saying, not for the squeamish.

With this film easily available on the black market, the Holy (or rather Unholy) Grail for the sick porn connoisseur would have to be Him (1974), a gay porn film depicting Jesus having sex with his disciples. For many years this was believed to have been a hoax perpetrated by Michael and Harry Medved in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. They admitted that one of the films described in the book was a fabrication, but now it turns out that the made up film was Dog of Norway and the existence of Him has been confirmed by the fact that Al Goldstein reviewed it in his magazine Screw and that the newspaper ad artwork has been found. However it seems unlikely that a copy will surface at this late date. There are no studio vaults or government-funded archives for obscure porn films. Companies like Something Weird Video and Alpha Blue Archives hunt for this kind of stuff in decaying warehouses and grindhouse projection booths (or did when such a thing still existed). If they haven't found it yet the chances are its just not out there especially considering the fact that there can only have been a handful of prints if it was not shown widely enough for word-of-mouth to attract religious protests.

Last year Jonathan Ross came out with another book Why Do I Say These Things? This time the subject is not the world of weird movies but the weird world of Jonathan Ross. Not an autobiography, but a series of essays on his experiences and obsessions which meander off in tangents almost as much as I have here. It would seem that if there is a wrong way to do anything Jonathan Ross has done it and isn't ashamed to tell you about the dire consequences in all their gory detail. From this book you will learn to think twice before exposing your testicles (assuming you have some) to playful kittens, treating a case of Montezuma's Revenge with the date-rape drug Rohypnol or buying pornography for a paraplegic. You will also learn more than you ever wanted to know about hair lice, the contents of Ross's wardrobe and what middle aged women sometimes get up to in optometrists' offices. The book is consistently amusing and at times fall down funny. Some of my favourite stories involve animals, especially an account of a disastrous Christmas that began with a cat eating the tinsel off the tree and just got worse from there. It's a must for any fans of Jonathan Ross, especially those of us who don't see him on the telly as often as we would like.

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