The Centerfold Girls (1974)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 14, 2010  | 
Dark Sky Films | Region 1, NTSC | 1.66: 1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 93 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Peyser
Starring: Jamie Lyn Bauer, Aldo Ray, Ray Danton, Francine York, Jennifer Ashley, Tiffany Bolling, Andrew Prine
Screenplay: Arthur Marks, Bob Peete
Country: USA
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Made for less than $200,000 while looking a lot more expensive, directed by a man whose real love was making episodes of TV shows like Combat! rather than horror films, to which he never returned again, and boasting a strong cast of actors, and an intelligent, tense script, The Centerfold Girls is a bit of a curio in the annals of US exploitation film. Despite its all-round excellence, it doesn't command the same level of fandom as its proto-slasher contemporaries such as Last House On The Left or Black Christmas, which is a shame as it's nastier, colder and quite simply better than both of those admittedly top-shelf films.

Early 70s US exploitation film, and particularly the rougher end of it, is a genre that I've been sporadically dipping into over the last few years, and I've barely scraped the surface of it. The fact that until I recently bought Sleazoid Express and Nightmare USA (both of these texts were indispensible to the writing of this review, and I thank the authors of both) I never even knew this film existed isn't anything out of the ordinary – think how many drive in curios are still out there to be savoured – or so I thought until I was struck by the high quality of The Centerfold Girls. How has a film this good been kept such a relative obscurity? Thankfully this recent release by Dark Sky Films might help to redress this problem.

"I wanna help you…"

Clement Dunne (Andrew Prine in a riveting performance) just wants to help women. He wants to help them so that they no longer show their bodies in nudie magazines. He wants to help them do this with his straight-razor, which is maybe not such an orthodox way of doing things. But then again, Clement's not an orthodox fellow at the best of times. Regardez-vous his bedroom, where everything is eerily white – and I mean everything (well, except for his collection of shoes he takes as mementos from his victims). His black suits with the just-too-short trousers, which he wears with white socks and saddle-shoes, really just adds to his strangeness. And then there is the really quite unnerving gaze, managing to be somehow dead-eyed and intense at the same time. The jovially contemptuous manner with which he threatens his victims via the phone before becoming more of a presence in their soon-to-be-cut-short lives is just the icing on a particularly rancid cake. When you've seen as many screen psychos as I have, it's nice to know that some actors can still surprise you with a performance that is genuinely disturbing.

The film itself is divided into three stories, the only constant being Clement and his desire to stalk and kill centerfold models. And yet, Clement's not the only bad guy, the only person doing terrible things to the models. It's a harsh world out there – as Stephen Thrower indicates in Nightmare USA, the film's plot reads like something out of the Marquis de Sade. Our heroines move from horror to horror, particularly in stories one and three (story two is much more like a standard stalk'n'slash) – like Justine, just when the heroine appears to be in the clear, something even worse happens to her – we see home invasions by Manson-esque hippies, various attempts at rape, gang-raping a woman who's been slipped a mickey finn, murder (obviously), humiliation, degradation, extreme levels of misogyny – the list goes on. Each of the stories works well as a stand-alone, each with a definite (if not necessarily pleasant) ending.

What makes The Centerfold Girls stand out is not the plot, which is hardly original, but the fact that on a pretty meagre budget, director John Peyser managed to make a film that looks a lot more impressive than it should have any right to. The aforementioned set design for Clement's bedroom speaks volumes about the character, his search for purity and his sexual disgust before he really even opens his mouth (although the opening sequence where he disposes of a semi-naked girl's body, throat slit from ear-to-ear, in a beach-side grave was probably clueing the audience in to his modus operandi). Similarly, the setting for the climactic chase and fight scene could never be recreated without being arrested for arson – it takes place in the black, ashy, desolate remains of a burnt-out forest. It looks otherworldly, and adds to the coldness and comfortlessness of the film as much as Prine's performance. The use of camera and sound design are also much better than you might expect for a film of this type – a lot more sophisticated than you would go in thinking. On a rewarding second watch of this extraordinary film you'll find yourself noticing this.

I've mentioned Prine's performance, but the cast as a whole do a pretty fine job together in selling the film – there are no HG Lewis-style hacks here, even though a number of the actors were first-time-out. I've always had a soft spot for Tiffany Bolling after seeing her fine performance in The Candy Snatchers, and she's in top form here going head-to-head with the killer. So are Ray Danton and Francine York in the second story, playing extremely unsympathetic pornographers (he writes the "stories" to accompany the photo shoots she directs). Jamie Lyn Bauer (who later went on to be in long-running TV soap Days Of Our Lives, and who must have wondered what the hell she was doing here) engenders a lot of audience sympathy as Jackie, the beleaguered heroine of the first story, undergoing ever-increasing levels of humiliation and sexual assault from everybody whose paths she crosses – I actually found some of her story quite distressing to watch. It's not what you see, it's how it's handled. If I were to describe it, it wouldn't get the point across and you'd shrug your shoulders and call me a wuss. But I honestly found myself getting genuinely upset watching it, and it's not even particularly explicit – this film could play on commercial TV (in spite of the incredible amounts of female nudity we get shown – but then look at the title – what would you expect?) without having one frame cut - it's just the tone of it.

Do I need to pimp The Centerfold Girls to you any further? It's undeniably ruthless and unsympathetic in the extreme towards the potential victims of the misogynist razor-wielding nutcase, and is an interesting historical marker in the world of the sleazy slasher film, taking up the mantle from Peeping Tom, before handing it over to Maniac in turn to be passed on to Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. There's a definite line that can be drawn between the four, through a grimy tone, superior direction and a central performance that is actually downright scary. This isn't like the faceless supernatural killers of Friday the 13th, Halloween and the like, or the Nietzschean ubermensch Hannibal Lecter – these are the kind of guys you could be standing next to at the counter of some corner store buying cigarettes. Makes it that little bit more gritty and real.

I'll leave you with this interesting aside: according to Sleazoid Express, while Andrew Prine might have been killing centerfolds on-screen, he was actually Viva magazine's "Man of the Month" at roughly about the time the film was made! I guess art doesn't always imitate life, huh?
Now apparently this print has been "transferred and restored from the original 16mm camera negatives". If that's the case, those negatives must have taken a little bit of a beating. There are some instances of damage to the print (minimal and infrequent, really, but I thought I'd mention it all the same), but generally the picture is good, but not great. It's certainly showing its age. But, knowing Dark Sky, this was most likely the best they could make the image look – they are one of the few companies to have maintained an admirably high standard of release.
The soundtrack is a lot better than you might be expecting. I don't necessarily mean in terms of clarity and crispness, although the 2.0 mono track is just fine, as far as I'm concerned – no, I mean the actual sound design itself. Just as the camera uses a lot of wide angle shots and simply strange angles to create a sense of unease, the music particularly adds to that.
Extra Features
There's a pretty good informative and interesting 15 minute featurette called "Making The Cut: A Look Back At The Centerfold Girls", interviewing a number of the cast and crew about their experiences with the film – no Tiffany Bolling, unfortunately. Besides that, you get isolated parts of the soundtrack, red and green band trailers (the latter of which shows you that alternate footage had been shot, cleaning up some the action, as it were, of blood and boobs), two different TV spots and a radio spot.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
The Centerfold Girls is quite simply 5-star exploitation gold. A mean-spirited, downbeat, vicious assault on the audience's sensibilities, it gets rather greasily under your skin and at times can become actually quite distressing. The term "no holds barred" comes to mind when thinking about this film's approach. If 70s US exploitation film is your thing, you need to get this film immediately; it won't disappoint.

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