The “roughie” was a subgenre of sexploitation that mixed the kind of soft-focus, waist-up nudity with a hard and dangerous edge of violence of some sort. Invented (accidentally, probably) in 1963 with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Scum of the Earth, the roughie gave audiences of a certain stripe the ability to indulge in a motion picture focused solely on their specific fetish, already a staple for pornographers who shilled their wares in the back of adult magazines and distributed stills and the like through the postal service. Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole is a mad slice of sexploitation that, like Scum of the Earth three years before it, wallows in the world of mail-order pornography. But despite ostensibly being a cheap-thrills quickie, Mondo Keyhole artfully subverts the audience’s expectations while also giving them what they came for (and then some).
Mondo Keyhole concerns the exploits of Howard Thorne (Nick Moriarty), head of a shabby, mail-order pornography clearing house that sends out still photographs, 8mm S&M films, and 33 LP’s containing ersatz sounds of Sadean pleasure. Thorne is also an inveterate rapist to whom it makes zero difference whether he’s committing his vile crimes while carrying out a nighttime home invasion or during a stalk-and-assault in the bright, mid-day outdoors. This generally leaves him retreating to his (impossibly cool) Hollywood Hills home totally spent and without anything left for his amorous wife, Vicky (Adele Rein), who has become addicted to heroin out of pure boredom and likes to meet him at the door while wearing a revealing neglige and a fright mask.
So far, this thing sounds typical to the genre and possibly boring. However, when the worm turns as the film enters its final set-piece, you can almost hear Keith Morrison’s voice in the back of your head saying “But this is exactly the point where things began to (pregnant pause) take a turn for old Howard Thorne. And not a pleasant one, either.” For in act one, Vicky reminds Howard of the costume party they have to go to the following evening. Act three is the party itself and… hooboy… it would be criminal to spoil it.
To be up front, this is very much an exploitation film. But while it’s not necessarily something I would recommend to my mother, I would be more than comfortable screaming about its virtues at the top of my lungs after a couple of glasses of wine among friends with likeminded taste. Primarily, this is very much a Jack Hill film and it reveals itself as such due to its female characters. If they don’t show up strong, they learn to become so. While the film sets the audience up to think the narrative is going to be all about Howard’s criminal misogyny, it smartly pulls the rug out from under by ultimately making the film about Vicky s journey out of her drug-fueled doldrums and into a sexual fantasia of personal agency and a more independent life. As Vicky makes love to herself in the mirror in a truly remarkable moment halfway through the picture, Mondo Keyhole shifts from a film you want to sneak home in a brown paper bag to a celebration of sex as a mutual adventure of understanding and unbridled joy. That’s Jack Hill all over; the guy who could make a trashy cheerleader movie do double duty as a sociopolitical treatise.
Not to oversell it but the orgiastic party at the end is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen captured in a non-pornographic motion picture and it needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, it’s not exactly something that would see a lot of traffic on Pornhub and likely will be seen as pretty tame by most these days but there is a meditative quality to it as you realize that what’s unfolding in front of your eyes isn’t at all scripted. What kind of party is this? What are we not seeing that’s just out of frame? Except for those that we know are actors, this feels like a very real party thrown in the very large abode of the film’s producer where the lights of Los Angeles tinkle down below and god-knows-what kind of hedonism is happening behind closed doors and tall hedges, the warmth of the summer night fueling the notion that the endless possibilities of the time were all for the taking.
Mondo Keyhole is definitely what it purports to be but, due to the uncanny filmmaking skill of Jack Hill, it’s even more than that. It’s a slow-walk of genre material through a door and into a place where it could have deeper dimensions, loftier intentions, and artier craft, yet still remain wickedly entertaining.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain