EMANUELLE IN AMERICA: Joe D’Amato’s Transgressive Sexploitation Rollercoaster

Joe D’Amato directed nearly 200 films during a career that spanned three decades.  He plied his trade in many genres but was best known for horror and sex films, softcore and hardcore alike. A particularly interesting and Italian quality of his work is that he did not hesitate to blur the line between those two genres, resulting in a string of films where intense carnality sits alongside gruesome excesses.  You can see this tendency on full display in Emanuelle In America, one of his most notorious and popular films with the exploitation film crowd.

As is the case with most of D’Amato’s Emanuelle films, Laura Gemser stars as the title character, a photojournalist with a healthy sex drive and a yen for controversial assignments that plunge her into the seamier side of international news. She’s willing to use her sexuality to get behind closed doors and that trait serves her well as she travels the world, chronicling the many ways powerful people use their influence to obtain forbidden and dangerous forms of sex.  Her destinations include a zodiac-themed harem owned by a rich man (Lars Bloch), the palace of a Duke (Gabriele Tinti) who likes to share partners with his wife as they stage opulent orgies and a rendezvous with a senator (Roger Browne) whose extracurricular interests include watching snuff films.

Emanuelle In America fully lives up to its reputation as the wildest film in this series, which is saying a lot when you consider that this string of films also includes the softcore/cannibal horror crossover Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals. The interesting thing about it is how it sneaks up on you while having its seamy view of the world out in plain sight. It establishes that worldview in the first reel when an angry, virginal loner pulls a gun on Emanuelle, sentencing her to death for shooting nude layouts of his girlfriend and bemoaning the sick state of the world. Emanuelle keeps her cool, seducing him with oral sex until he drops his gun and runs away in a panic.

That scene sets up two key motifs of Emanuelle In America: it takes place in a world where (A) frustration about the topic of sex drives people to extremes and (B) sudden, shocking outbursts of sex or violence can happen at any moment as a result. 

The film’s shock moments first happen as aberrations amid more typical moments of sleaze, like a jaw-dropper of a subplot in the “rich man’s harem” sequence where one courtesan has a Tijuana show-style attraction to a horse(!), but they get progressively more intense as the film progresses.  However, as the movie approaches its midpoint, it begins sneaking it gritty elements of hardcore that come to dominate the previously softcore nature of the film.  In the third act, the film delivers its punch to the solar plexus with some brief but vicious simulated snuff footage: D’Amato throws over glossy eroticism for lurid realism and convincing splatter FX here. The results are psyche-scarring.

The finished product holds up as one of the most memorable experience of the ’70s grindhouse ilk.  The typically Italian variable pacing is not for all tastes, as is the oddly lighthearted coda, but D’Amato pushes the viewer’s buttons and pulls tonal switcheroos with the best of them.  The result is a sexploitation-goes-transgressive rollercoaster that will leave even the seasoned viewer reeling at times.

The shocks are reinforced by the calm, matter-of-fact approach D’Amato takes in the director’s chair.  As he usually did, D’Amato shot the film himself and often gives the proceedings a visual polish that offsets the heavy-duty grindhouse elements: his location photography of 1976-era NYC is particularly stunning.  Equally worthy of note is the score from Nico Fidenco, a regular contributor to D’Amato’s Emanuelle films, who mixes together a lavish blend of lounge, funk, disco and soft-rock elements. The theme song, “I Celebrate Myself,” is a Yacht Rock-goes-Euro earworm.

That said, the key element anchoring Emanuelle In America is the star herself, Laura Gemser. Like the filmmakers, she underplays the shock elements, functioning as a kind of “eye of the storm” for viewers to focus on when the story around her gets rough. Her mellow, earthy sensuality and her comfort in displaying it made her a perfect partner for D’Amato – and it says a lot about her screen charisma that she is able to the film’s wild excesses a likeable center.

To sum up, Emanuelle In America should be approached with caution but it provides a one-of-a-kind experience for the exploitation fan, mixing the erotic with the raunchy and the exciting with the overwhelming. In a career full of celluloid provocations, this remains one of D’Amato’s most potent assaults on the audience’s sense of what is good/fun in an exploitation film.  If that sounds like a recommendation to you, this film will give you all you can handle.

Blu-Ray Notes: this film recently made its blu-ray debut thanks to the wizards at Mondo Macabro. It is currently available as a limited edition “red case” release with a stunning new 4K restoration of the film’s full, uncut version.  Extras include a new commentary track, a retrospective piece on the Emmanuelle cinematic phenomenon and the second half of the killer “Totally Uncut” documentary on D’Amato’s career. A retail version will be made available later but the red case edition also throws in a liner notes booklet and a set of eye-popping, postcard-size reproductions of stills from the film.  Grindhouse devotees should grab it while they can at the Mondo Macabro store.

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