Gums (1976) -*
I don’t know when or where the practice of making porn parodies of hit mainstream movies originated, but I do remember the first such film I ever heard of. It was called Gums, and it was a Jaws parody, of all things, in which the shark was stood in for by a deadly, fellatio-mad mermaid. Seriously, people— what the fuck?! I suppose “cocksucking mermaid” is sort of the logical next step from “porn parody of Jaws,” but how do you get to “porn parody of Jaws” in the first place? In any event, I sorely wish I could have been there to witness that pitch meeting. The really impressive thing about Gums, though, is that neither the cocksucking mermaid nor the pornification of a story that does not even faintly suggest the porn treatment is the weird part once you factor in the rest of the film.
Lance Sterling (Ed Krane, of Through the Looking Glass) and his girlfriend are charging across the beach under a day-for-night sky, discarding their clothes as they go; you might have seen this opening gambit before somewhere, albeit with considerably less bouncing and flopping. But rather than dive into the sea, Lance falls to his knees a few feet above the high tide line, digs a treasure chest full of porno mags out of the sand, and begins masturbating. He also dons a French Foreign Legionaire’s field cap, but that’s neither here nor there. Lance’s girlfriend, knowing when she isn’t wanted, stomps disgustedly off. Upon attaining orgasm, Lance decides that now he’s ready for a swim, and wades out into the breakers. No sooner is he more than waist-deep in the water than he is attacked by something beneath the surface, but his screams of terror soon turn to moans of delight. In his great bliss, Lance forgets to tread water as his attacker draws him out into the deep water past the sandbar. He drowns, but the only piece of him that washes ashore to be found the next day by Deputy Dick (Ras Kean, from Candy Lips and The Opening of Misty Beethoven) of the Great Head, Long Island, police force is his severed penis.
You already know the outlines of the story from here. Dick’s boss, Sheriff Rooster Coxswain Jr. III (Paul Styles) quickly begins to suspect a rogue great white mermaid, and tries to close the beaches, but Mayor Ike White (Expose Me, Lovely’s Ian Morley) is having none of that. The most Coxswain can finagle is permission to summon marine biologist Dr. Seymour Smegma (Robert Kerman, from Sex Wish and Cannibal Holocaust) to study the situation. More deaths provoke a town hall meeting, where the mayor issues a bounty on the mermaid, arguing that word of a $500 prize and a blowjob-happy mermaid will actually make this Great Head’s biggest tourist season ever. He is scoffed at, though, by Captain Karl Clitoris (Brother Theodore, of Nocturna and Massage Parlor Hookers), skipper of the SS Cunnilingus and escaped Nazi war criminal. Clitoris says the mayor and his people have no idea what they’re up against, and volunteers to kill the creature himself— but he rather eccentrically insists upon being paid in oil. Whether that means petroleum company stocks, oil-well drilling leases, or whatever is up to the mayor. The mermaid (Terri Hall, from Suzie’s Take Out Service, who played one of Humpty Dumpty’s dancing nurses in Alice in Wonderland) begins making her presence more personally felt for Sheriff Coxswain, attacking both Deputy Dick and Coxswain’s randy, bisexual secretary, Miss Mayhem (Jody Maxwell, of Unwilling Lovers and The Devil Inside Her). Inevitably, it all comes down to Coxswain, Smegma, and Clitoris together on he latter’s boat, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that they don’t use compressed air to blow up the mermaid when they catch her. Meanwhile, because this is a porno movie, Gums does not leave out Peter Benchley’s subplot about the sheriff’s wife (Crystal Sync, from Teenage Runaways and House of De Sade) screwing around on him— but also because this is a porno movie, Rooster knows about and indeed encourages Dora’s infidelities.
I want to draw special attention to that last bit, because it says something about how the American porn industry has changed since 1976. The line about pornographers in the 70’s aspiring to be genuine filmmakers as well gets seriously oversold, but it isn’t total bullshit. By reinstating an element of Benchley’s Jaws that Spielberg dropped from his version, Robert J. Kaplan and the Cohen brothers, Sam and Paul (as opposed to that other set of Cohen brothers you might have heard of…), demonstrate not only that they were familiar with the source material in both its guises, but that they made conscious adaptational choices between those guises when devising their own take. A pretty low bar to clear, I grant you, but it still represents an altogether higher level of artistic engagement than the modern standard of pointing the camera at a rutting couple and shouting “Cut!” when somebody reaches a suitably photogenic climax.
That said, Gums is an amazingly awful failure on nearly every front. Its sense of humor has three of four grade levels to advance yet before it will qualify as sophomoric, and it is dick-shrivelingly un-sexy except during the dance of triumph that the mermaid performs over Miss Mayhem’s corpse. The filmmakers’ technique might be critiqued most succinctly by saying simply that they hadn’t any. For instance, I honestly can’t tell whether the print Sinful Mermaid used for their DVD edition was cropped incorrectly at the lab, or whether cinematographer Eric Shiozaki was just that bad. Most of the acting is barely worthy of the name, in that typical 70’s porn way, putting Brother Theodore’s ridiculously broad yet commanding performance as Karl Clitoris in danger of swallowing the entire film. (Fans of the Rankin-Bass Tolkien cartoons may, however, get a kick out of hearing Gollum’s voice emanating from the mouth of a deranged former U-boat commander.) The other standout performer, not surprisingly, is Robert Kerman, who slips in a halfway creditable Richard Dreyfus impression underneath all the dumb gags about wetsuits and inflatable sex dolls. I expect most viewers will be irritated to see that the mermaid has no tail (the makeup people merely painted Terri Hall gold from the waist down), although a moment’s pondering will suggest a few reasons why a proper, fish-tailed mermaid might be undesirable from a pornographic point of view. At least Hall’s fish-scale eye makeup goes some way toward making her look a bit weirder than she would otherwise as just a naked girl with a spiky tiara. The money that wasn’t spent on a tail prosthesis presumably went instead toward constructing the mermaid’s lair, with its towering, phallic corals and whatnot, and the grotesque, priapic puppets that replace the surviving members of the cast for the final six minutes. Wait— what?!?! No, you read that right. At right about the hour mark, the screen is largely obscured by a caption reading, “From the producer: Get rid of that sheriff guy! A puppet could act better than him!” The next thing we know, everybody but the mermaid is a hideously deformed hand puppet with a colossal erection. And you know what? It’s true. The puppet version of Sheriff Coxswain is a better actor than Paul Styles.