“Superb, you’re superb!”
Even if you’ve never watched this movie, you probably remember seeing the VHS case for it sitting there collecting dust on video store shelves years ago. That’s back when it was known as The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak. Yes, a title that uses “the” three times.
I too used to walk past that old VHS rental tape back in the day. The video promised Indiana Jones-style adventure combined with sexy girls, but I never did get around to renting it, opting instead for, you know, good movies. And yet, I have to admit, the pop culture-obsessed geek part of me always did want to see the movie for curiosity’s sake, to witness for myself whether it lived up to the sexy promise of the packaging.
Well, my day has come. The movie has now arrived on DVD with a new unrated director’s cut, with its title shortened (re-shortened?) to Gwendoline. The packaging now promises a lot more sex and debauchery than it ever did, replacing the old Drew Struzan-inspired cover art with a stark shot of star Tawny Kitaen (Witchboard, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) wearing nothing but a pair of handcuffs and some tiny underpants. But the time for looking at the cover art and wondering is over. Let’s put this thing into the DVD player and find out just what we’re in for.
Gwendoline (Kitaen) escapes from a convent and sneaks her way into the Far East, with the help of her serving girl Beth (Zabou, Billy Ze Kick). Gwendoline hopes to find her missing father, who has traveled into an unexplored land called the Yik Yak in search of a new species of butterfly. An innocent stranger in a very strange land, Gwendoline enlists the reluctant help of local tough guy and adventurer Willard (Brent Huff, Nine Deaths of the Ninja) to lead her and Beth into deadly territory. From there, it’s one scrape after another for our heroes, including kung fu battles with slave traders, a showdown with some pirates, a fake-looking crocodile, superstitiously cannibalistic natives, poisonous desert winds, and more. Eventually, Gwendoline and company find a mysterious hidden city deep within the Yik Yak, one made up entirely of women — vicious, dangerous women with a thing for torture and murder.
As I noted above, this film is more widely known as The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak. The creators no doubt feel that just Gwendoline is a catchier and less unwieldy name, but you know what? The longer, geekier title really is more fitting, considering the light, cheesy tone of the overall film. Yes, you’ll find a lot of female nudity and kinky bondage stuff going on here, but there’s sense of gleeful goofiness to the whole thing that shows the filmmakers are more interested in entertaining you than merely turning you on.
The film begins by putting viewers right in the middle of the action, with little to no context about where we are or what’s happening. We’re in a seedy Shanghai-style marketplace with all sorts of unsavory characters running around. Some thieves tear open a crate and inside it is Gwendoline. This attention-getting introduction to the character shows that she’s willing to go to any length to achieve her goals, including locking herself up in a box and shipping herself overseas. And yet, we see a different side of her personality when the crooks who find her try to sell her into slavery. Suddenly, she’s innocent and virginal, knowing almost nothing about the world outside the convent where she grew up. It’s a strange contradiction — at one moment, Gwendoline is a fish out of water, shocked and terrified by everything she sees, but then, at the drop of a hat, she switches to “tough girl” mode, getting her way by being headstrong and confident. This goes for her many, many nude scenes throughout the movie as well. Sometimes, she’s all shy and insecure about revealing it all in front of others, and at other times, she walks around in the buff like it’s no big deal.
It’s not long before Willard arrives to rescue Gwendoline with some serious kung fu action. Once he shows up, there should be no question that this film is borrowing from the Indiana Jones series. Indy has a bullwhip, so Willard has a grappling hook. Indy has a brown leather jacket, so Willard has a black jacket. Indy has a fedora, so Willard has a dinky little sailor hat (no, really). Like Gwendoline, Willard also has a contradictory nature. Throughout most of the film, he doesn’t want anything to do with her. He just wants to sail around on his boat without a care in the world, but she’s always there, pestering him and sometimes tricking him into helping her. His frustration with her is potent, but at times he makes a complete turnaround and admits his undying love for her. This isn’t like most romances of this kind, in which he gradually comes around. Instead, it’s like he’s always flip-flopping back and forth between wanting to spend the rest of his life with Gwendoline and wanting to feed her to that fake-looking crocodile.
Any horndogs interested in this movie only for the nakedness will be surprised to find so much of the story devoted to entomology. Remember that instead of buried pirate gold or a supernatural ark, the treasure desired by our heroes is a rare butterfly. Actually, you won’t need to remember that, because someone will remind you every five minutes. Expect a steady stream of lines like, “We’ve got to catch that butterfly,” and “What are we going to do about the butterfly?” and “I’m not going home without the butterfly.” After a while, I thought they should have just named the movie Raiders of the Lost Butterfly and gotten it over with.
As our three heroes venture deeper and deeper into uncharted territory, I wondered just what sort of land this Yik Yak is. First, they’re in a jungle, and when it starts to rain, Willard insists that Gwendolin and Beth remove their shirts to avoid “dying of thirst.”
Yeah, okay. A few scenes later, they’re in the desert, with nothing but untouched dunes as far as the eye can see. This is where the filmmakers throw in a confusing scene in which the characters cover their faces to protect themselves from poisonous wind, represented as a weird kind of purple light. And then it’s back to another jungle to find the lost city that is the setting for the movie’s final third.
Before that, though, there’s an interesting series of events in which Gwendoline and company are captured by savage natives, who are covered with grayish mud, conveniently allowing extras of various ethnicities to be “native.” Gwendoline and her two friends are tied up — not the last time this will happen in the movie — and locked in a cage. Believing they’re about to be killed, Willard says he can’t let Gwendoline die without knowing what it’s like to make love. Swell guy, that Willard, always thinking of others. Problem is, he and Gwendoline are tied up and can’t move. So he asks her to close her eyes as he describes their imaginary lovemaking to her. As he makes with the flowery sexual prose — helped by his husky, breathy voice — she moans and writhes with pleasure. Many viewers will find this scene laughable, with good reason, but the creators are actually attempting some genuine eroticism here. The easy way out would be to have the two break free of their bonds, peel off all their clothes, and roll around on the floor doing the sinful grunting yum-yum dance, but no. Instead, the creators attempt to take the high road. They know the brain is actually the body’s most potent sexual organ, so they’re playing on viewers’ imaginings of what sex with Tawny Kitaen would be like. Now, does all this make the scene work? Not really. It’s just as ludicrous as anything else that happens during the movie’s runtime, but it’s comendable that the director tried something more than just another sex scene.
There’s an enormous tonal shift to the story when our characters get away from the natives and find the lost city, housing an all-female population. Okay, all you horndogs, forget everything I said in the last paragraph about the filmmakers trying to be high-minded when it comes to sex scenes, because here’s where the movie’s sleaze factor kicks into overdrive. Let’s see, how do I describe the style of dress here? Most of the women in the city wear this suit of armor thing, that isn’t really armor because it’s incredibly tiny and barely covers them, like the stainless steel bikinis worn by so many women in Frazetta paintings.
Of course, it only takes one or two minutes to get Gwendoline and Beth into these outfits — and Willard wears one too! It’s also here that all the weird bondage stuff takes over big time. As Gwendoline explores the city, she walks through a series of torture chambers, featuring nude and semi-nude women chained to walls, hanging upside down, and attached to all sorts of devious-looking devices. Everywhere you look, it seems like there’s something twisted and fetish-y going on. Most of these women wear black metal helmets that obscure their faces. Plus, a surprising amount of them are bald. Seriously, I haven’t seen this many bald women since THX-1138. The obvious argument is that women are being depicted merely as sexual objects, and not as well-rounded human beings. But then, that’s what establishes the lost city as an evil place, where each woman has no personal identity, but is made to look exactly like all the rest, robbing of them any individualism. Who would create such a society, where women are treated in such a way? Why, an evil queen, of course.
Ah, the queen (Bernadette Lafont, Waiting for the Moon). She’s the antagonist here, one who makes life very difficult for Gwendoline and Willard. She threatens to kill Gwendoline if Gwendoline doesn’t bend to her will. Willard, meanwhile, is to provide his, uh, “seed” for the finest of the queen’s warrior women, after which he too will be killed. The queen’s sense of fashion is…interesting. Unlike most of the women in the movie, she actually keeps her clothes on, but wait until you see some of these outfits, including a tent-like monstrosity she dons during the movie’s finale.
Amidst all the nudity and exploitation in the final third of the movie, there’s some action here, too, notably a not-entirely-uncool fight between four women warriors. There’s also the most ridiculous chase scene ever filmed. Seriously, it’s even more ridiculous than the chase in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. My guess is someone looked at the chariot race in Ben-Hur, and thought, “You know what this classic action scene needs? A whole lot of half naked women.” And that’s just what we get.
As Gwendoline keeps getting captured, rescued, and captured again by the queen’s forces, Beth is always there to help her out. Over the years, many fans of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels have argued that Frodo’s sidekick Sam is actually the “hero” of the story. Frodo might carry the ring, but Sam is the one who sees to it Frodo reaches his goal. The same could be said for Beth. Gwendoline would be dead a hundred times over if it weren’t for Beth’s unwavering loyalty and willingness to do anything to help her. Beth also has some of the movie’s funniest scenes, such as when she stands up to the savages. With one or two rewrites, the movie could have become The Perils of Beth quite easily.
A few other observations:
* The overall look of Gwendoline is tough to describe. At times, it seems like the producers spent multi-millions bringing this fantasy world to life. At other times, it looks embarrassingly low budget, with outdoor scenes clearly taking place inside a warehouse-turned-soundstage.
* What’s new to this director’s cut? The extras reveal that the added scenes aren’t ones with additional sex and violence. Instead, the censors chopped a few of the comedic scenes. The director says in the commentary that he was forced to edit any scenes in which a woman slaps a man. But stuff like a scantily clad Amazon wannabe impaled on metal spikes was just fine, apparently.
* Just what is this movie’s original language? I honestly can’t tell. In English, the main characters appear to be speaking their own lines, while others are quite obviously dubbed. But then I watched the whole damn thing in French, and that seemed like some actors were saying their own lines, but others were still dubbed. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter, because the DVD provides both languages, in 5.1 and 2.0 tracks for each, so maybe someone else can figure out which language is the “right” track.
A lot of DVDs claim to have “lovingly restored” picture and audio, but this is one case where those words are warranted. I doubt Gwendoline’s transfer would look this amazing if the people who worked on it weren’t in love with the movie. There’s not a flaw to be found. Colors are bright and vivid, especially the all-important flesh tones. The 5.1 tracks are booming, and they’ll ensure that you never, ever get the repetitive score out of your head.
The extras start off with a commentary track by the director, whose name is — are you ready for this? — Just Jaeckin. The impossibly-named filmmaker is joined by two journalists who have written about the film and are obviously big fans. Once you get used to everybody’s accents, there’s some interesting information to be found here. However, there are a few strange moments, such as how one journalist seems to be a walking encyclopedia of obscure bondage comic strips, but refers to Spielberg’s adventuring archeologist as “Indiana Smith.”
For more extras, there’s a lengthy interview with Jaeckin, in which he talks about Gwendoline in detail, as well as his other famous films, The Story of O and Emmanuelle, both of which spawned countless direct-to-video sequels. The interview then reveals why Jaeckin retired from filmmaking at age 45 after completing Gwendoline, and it takes you to Jaeckin’s home to show off some of his gigantic sculptures. Next, there’s an audio interview between Dr. Alfred Kinsey — that’s right, the guy the Liam Neeson movie is based on — and John Willie, creator of The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, the comic strip on which the movie is based. I have to admit, the audio on this one was pretty much terrible, and I had a tough time sorting out what anyone was saying. Finally, there are two trailers, one of which features the longer Perils of… title, and some archived photos from Lui magazine from the time of the movie’s release, featuring Kitaen in her revealing Gwendoline costumes. Why aren’t these photos a DVD-ROM feature, so we can turn them into desktops and screensavers? Why? Why?!?
I can’t believe this never got a sequel. Imagine Gwendoline visiting the Old West, where she gets tied up by evil cattle rustlers. Or Gwendoline in London, being chased through opium dens by Jack the Ripper. Or Gwendoline in space, where aliens with giant tentacles…oh, never mind.
If you want to buy this movie hoping that it’ll be nothing but breasts, breasts, and more breasts, you should know that there’s a lot more going on here. The filmmakers have multiple intentions. They’re shooting for sexy eroticism, blockbuster action, sweet romance, and some slapstick craziness all mish-mashed together.
If I were to choose a single word to describe the Gwendoline experience, it’d be “silly.” Everything is just outrageously over the top, but you can’t help but be stunned by it all. This isn’t a good movie in any way. If anything, it’s trash filmmaking. And yet, I must admit I was entertained. It rolls along at a quick pace, and it’s “out there” enough that you never know what crazy set piece is coming your way next.
I’m torn. I’d like to recommend this one because of its silliness, but I can’t call it a good film because of that same silliness. I suppose, then, that viewers had best play it safe with a rental. If the movie gels with your own sense of humor, then it’s one you’ll want to watch repeatedly. But if you’re turned off by the combo of sleaze and cheese, you’ll know this isn’t the one for you.