Vibrations (Joe Sarno, 1968)

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Vibrations is, to put it mildly, a weird trip. Made in the middle of Joe Sarno’s incredibly prolific 1960s output, the film is the story of two sisters, reunited after years, both of whom have acute personal and sexual issues, likely due to a highly dysfunctional childhood. While this may seem like the subject matter for a recent Sundance drama, in Sarno’s hands, it’s mostly sex scenes, interspersed with scenes of actresses walking around. This isn’t a bad thing! If you’re a Sarno fan, it’s what you’ve come to expect. This film stands out from others of this era (like the earlier Flesh and Lace, which I was recently not impressed with) because of its deeply weird subject matter, and its even weirder take on the subject matter.

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Julie and Barbara are sisters who, apparently after some trouble when they lived together on Prince Street, haven’t seen each other in a while when Barbara shows up at Julie’s apartment door. Julie lets her stay, because they’re sisters, but they have a troubled past. Barbara constantly comes on to Julie, getting into bed with her naked “like [they] used to” when they were girls. Julie is, understandably, troubled by this behavior, but it seems like their past has affected her in a different way. While Barbara is compulsively sexual, Julie is introverted and sexually frustrated. She works as a typist and aspiring poet, and it seems like her closest friend is a new male acquaintance who brings in his first short story for her to type.
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Not finding any “action” at Julie’s house, Barbara starts to go stir-crazy until one night, she hears action through the paper-thin walls. Lots and lots of action. As Barbara, Marianne Prevost gives an astonishing performance – though Sarno may have been going for sexy with Barbara, Prevost’s performance is troubling. When she hears an orgy through the wall, Barbara masturbates with a compulsive ferocity that is difficult to watch. Barbara doesn’t love having sex, or having orgasms; she needs to. While (unsurprisingly for the film) this isn’t tied to the childhood incest she committed with Julie, it’s likely not unrelated.

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Barbara’s visit is in the “visitor that changes everything” mode of Teorema or this year’s The Guest. Once she hears, and sees, Barbara frequenting the house of sin next door – a rich girl’s storehouse! – Julie eventually opens up and attends an orgy with Barbara. Julie has sex with Park (credited on IMDb as “Park – the hairy man,” with good reason) while Barbara is tied to a post and two women use the titular vibrator on her, and while they don’t have sexual contact here, their eye contact is constant, and disturbing. Eventually, Barbara forces herself on Julie, and makes Julie tell her “it’s good” as she performs oral sex on her, in the most upsetting scene in the movie. Interestingly, it’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be titillating or a painful coda on Barbara and Julie’s relationship. It’s likely both.

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Vibrations is shot in Sarno’s trademark of the time, rich black and white with deep shadows and light. The beautiful, intense chiaroscuro of Sarno’s 60s films really make me believe that if they were rescored (the film’s score consists of organ noodling) and re-released, they would be seen as sex-art classics. Instead, they’re relegated to Something Weird releases, waiting to be dug up and watched for any number of reasons, prurient or not. The excellent documentary The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Pictures did a great job of portraying Joe Sarno’s quest to make erotic art, and that’s what Vibrations is: disturbing, erotic art. The film ends with Barbara tied to a post, crucifixion-style, with two women using a vibrator on her, and goading her about how much she can take. It’s a weird, powerful ending for this weird little film.