Sunday, January 25, 2015

Newsploitation: The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is an odd one because this film didn’t become a box office hit and only became a cult classic to a small subset of people. But if we ignored those films, we’d only be writing about stuff like TITANIC (1997) and where would the fun be in that?  So today’s date, January 25, 2015, marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. release of THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984).  Now say that title three times fast.

The fact that a film based on a famous BDSM comic even became a movie is kind of amazing, but then you realize the French were involved.  The concept was born from the mind of one John Willie (real name: John Coutts), a British artist and photographer known for his fetish work in the 1940s/50s.  Yes, your parents were freaks too!  Of course, S&M stuff was kept on the downlow and while Willie was living in Canada he started up a magazine called Bizarre.  It was a self-published work that allowed Willie to exorcise some sexual demons as the issues were filled with drawings and photos of bondage.  In issue no. 3 he debuted the character of Sweet Gwendoline, a damsel in distress in the tradition of Hollywood serials.  The only difference is when Gwendoline found herself tied up there was lots and lots of rope involved.  Willie only published 23 issues of the magazine before he passed away in 1962. Sweet Gwendoline, however, would live on.


In 1974, a collection of Willie’s work was republished as The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline.  It became a worldwide success, selling in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and – you guessed it – France.  It had that certain joie de vivre that they enjoyed, so it should be no surprised in June 1980 that Films de L’Alma (Alma Films) announced in Variety they had bought the rights to the series and planned a feature film (“a team of six screenwriters is currently working on adaptation” said the piece).  In January 1982 it was announced that director Gerard Zingg would be writing and directing the adaptation.  He has previously helmed AT NIGHT ALL CATS ARE CRAZY (1977) starring Gerard Depardieu and written NEXT YEAR IF ALL GOES WELL (1981) starring Isabelle Adjani.  Not sure a guy known for comedy-dramas was the best fit for this project and someone behind-the-scenes must have agreed as six months later a new writer-director was attached.  In June 1982, it was announced Just Jaeckin – France’s premiere softcore erotic director – was taking over as writer-director.

Jaeckin has burst onto the scene when his debut film, EMANUELLE (1974), became a worldwide box office smash.  Not only did it launch his career, but it brought Sylvia Kristel to sexual icon status.  Jaeckin followed up his first film with a succession of sexually tinged flicks like THE STORY OF O (1975), MADAME CLAUDE (1977), and THE LAST ROMANTIC LOVER (1978).  His film right before signing on to GWENDOLINE (as the French version was titled) was LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (1981), an adaptation produced by Cannon that reunited him with Kristel.  Alma (now co-producing with ParaFrance Films) ran ads for the film which featured nothing but some S&M drawings by Willie and Jaeckin’s name.

Original Varitey ad (click to enlarge):


Interest was minimal.  Haha, just kidding, interest went through the roof and in July 1983 the company bragged in Variety that they had raised the film's entire budget of 35,000,000 franc ($4,500,000) in presales. Looking to play to an international market, the filmmaker opted to cast two Americans in the lead roles.  For the male lead, they recruited former male model Brent Huff.  For the titular role of Gwendoline, they cast another relative unknown in Tawny Kitaen.  Filming took place the summer of 1983 and the film debuted in France in February 1984.  It would hit most of the rest of the world throughout the year.

In the United States, the film was picked up for distribution by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.  Started by the son of Samuel Goldwyn in the late 70s, the company had an unusual track record, bouncing from distributing art house and foreign films to horror and cult oddities.  This was going to be their first big theatrical nationwide release.  Well, the first release to crack 500 screenings.  The company ended up cutting the film down from 105 minutes to 87 minutes and, hoping to piggyback on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1982), designed a poster emphasizing the action.  They also gave GWENDOLINE the incredibly awkward title of THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984).  Despite being ushered out on a healthy number of screens, PERILS  fared poorly, coming in 9th place with a weekend total of $1,337,274, well behind the other new releases THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN (1985) and TOMBOY (1985).  To show how little respect the film gets, Box Office Mojo only reports that weekend haul, as if the film disappeared on the Monday after its release.  However, a search through Variety shows it reported a tally of $2,189,663 in February 1985.  That same month Vestron announced they had picked up the film and were quickly sending it to video in April.  That is really where PERILS found its audience with young males looking for adventure and getting a movie packed with a whole different kind of adventure.  You can read the thoughts of one of those transformed boys in Tom’s review.

Amusingly, things came full circle in the early ‘90s as EMANUELLE sequels producer Alain Siritzky tried to get a TV series launched from Willie’s work.  Much to the dismay of young lads everywhere, it didn’t get off the ground.

Pre-sales ad for proposed series:



Moments of Clarity:

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