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Plot: Sheherazade tells tall tales on the day of her execution.

In 1990 the peplum, or sword and sandal genre, was all but extinct. In that barren wasteland of a ten-year period the last and dying embers of the peplum revival of the seventies – and Paul Naschy’s The Cantabrians (1980) utter failure at the box office a decade earlier had already signaled that there no longer was a market for grand historical - or expensive costume epics. Not even the troubled big budget Terry Gilliam production The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) could stave off the inevitable. Just like the swashbuckling adventure and Oriental fantasy movies in the fifties and sixties, the sword and sandal genre no longer found an audience in the cineplexes. The 90s were unkind to any number of genres, and 1001 Nights would be (and, in all likelihood, is) an obscurity if it weren’t for the presence of one actress who would become a beloved Hollywood superstar and celebrity a decade hence.

1001 Nights was released, to little fanfare and acclaim, in 1990. It was a firmly tongue-in-cheek send-up to the Arabian Nights adventures of the fifties and sixties. Apparently the subject of some budget principal photography took place in France with additional location shooting in Malta, Morocco, and Tunisia and production lasting from April 17, 1989 to August 1, 1989. For 1001 Nights special effects man Christian Guillion had 8 million French francs at his disposal and the costumes were inspired by 19th century paintings.

Everybody has a skeleton or two in their closet. In case of Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones there are, well, more than a few. The at the time 21 year-old Zeta-Jones was performing at the West End theatre in London when she was spotted by director Philippe de Broca. 1001 Nights was her first major role, long before The Phantom (1996), and The Haunting (1999) sullied her reputation. We all start somewhere and before Catherine Zeta-Jones was in The Mask Of Zorro (1998), High Fidelity (2000), Traffic (2000), Chicago (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Terminal (2004), The Legend Of Zorro (2005), and No Reservations (2007) she played Sheherazade in a little seen and zany subversion of the classic Oriental fantasy adventures of old. If it’s remembered for anything, it’s for Zeta-Jones’ wide array sexy costumes and one spectacular nude scene.

Philippe de Broca was a French director that made a name for himself as a specialist in breezy comedies and riveting action/adventure romps. De Broca began as an intern under Henri Decoin, and from there worked his way up to assistant directing under the aegis of domestic masters of cinema Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Pierre Schoendoerffer. Among de Broca’s most remembered titles are his films with Jean-Paul Belmondo, including the swashbuckling adventure Swords Of Blood (1962), the spy-action/adventure romps That Man From Rio (1964), as well as The Man From Acapulco (1973) and Incorrigible (1975). De Broca often worked Jean-Pierre Cassel, Philippe Noiret and Geneviève Bujold. In the late eighties and nineties Philippe de Broca primarily helmed a number of TV movies, of which 1001 Nights was one. 1001 Nights (or Les 1001 Nuits as it was domestically released as) was the only Arabian Nights production that de Broca ever helmed and it allowed him to play up to his penchant for comedy and high-octane action/adventures set against an Oriental fantasy background. Whether director de Broca intended it as a spiritual successor or homage to 1001 Nights (1968) with Luciana Paluzzi is presently unclear, but the similarities are striking indeed.

In Baghdad around the year 1000 astronomer Jimmy Genious (Gérard Jugnot) defies Allah by insisting that his destiny lies in the stars and not on Earth. Allah decides to teach Jimmy a lesson by sending him to 20th century London, England where he’s cursed not only with perpetual rainfall, but is locked in said time and location unless someone summons him back to Baghdad with the magic lamp wherein he's imprisoned. Around this time Sasanian king Shahryār or simply The King (Thierry Lhermitte) decides to take more wives besides his Queen (Farida Khelfa). One of the candidates for that position is the daughter (Florence Pelly) of Grand Vizier Ja'far ibn Yahya (Roger Carel). The Grand Vizier shrugs off his daughter’s idea as he considers her not attractive enough for the King’s liking. The Grand Vizier summons The Executioner (Georges Montillier) to the court, who brings his two kids Aziz (Faycal Smaili) and Azaz (Omar Zerrei) with him. Brought to the public square and before her executioner Sheherazade (Catherine Zeta-Jones) decides instead of undergoing her fate to spin a wondrous tale of how she came in the king’s harem. Each tale leads into a new one and at one point Sheherazade has to admit that the grand tale she has been spinning has turned “a bit episodic.”

As a courtesan in the king’s court Sheherazade is expected to satisfy the King’s carnal needs, something which she doesn’t look forward to. Instead she decides to do a sultry dance which the King doesn’t mind. As a token of appreciation she is given a jewel-encrusted ring while continuing to spur the King’s advances to consummate their relationship. One day Sheherazade flees the court and escapes into the dusty streets of Baghdad. There she’s promptly bought by a slave trader (Abdelkader Lofti) but she’s able to sneak away long enough to offer up her ring as collateral to a benevolent stranger as a means of regaining her freedom. In the streets she comes into an old lamp that she decides to clean up to obtain some much-needed currency. In doing so she releases Jimmy Genious from bondage, who will prove vital to her survival.

The benevolent stranger introduces himself as Aladdin (Stéphane Freiss), an aspiring young philosopher, but Sheherazade leaves him to fend for himself when things start to get too hot and heavy for her liking. Meanwhile she has to continually escape the royal guards who the King has sent to look for his prized possession. “I am very good at running away,” chirps Sheherazade at one point. Fortunately Jimmy Genious is on hand whenever Sheherazade’s womanly wiles, strong legs and quick wits are not enough to keep her out of harm’s way. After one such daring escape Sheherazade ends up naked in the lap of Sinbad (Vittorio Gassman), a full-time drunk and over-the-hill sailor who due to seasickness prefers to imagine his travels across the open seas rather than to actually undertake them. How Sheherazade ends up in Sinbad's lap is one of the production's greatest gags.

Sheherazade, beautiful and in an absolute minimum of fabric, performs another sultry, hip shaking dance that causes middle-aged Sinbad to faint in awe. In company of Sinbad, Sheherazade reinvents herself as a fearsome pirate queen. Sinbad, who isn’t the sailor as the stories have made him out to be, is rescued from dying at sea by Jimmy on multiple occassions. Her conquest of the seven seas brings her on to the shores where the King is camping out. Believing her perished in the sea Sheherazade finally gives herself to him and together with Jimmy and Sinbad they form a travelling roadshow in a soon-to-be very famous showgirl / magician double-act. At long last Sheherazade has realized her life-long dream.

Sheherazade’s traveling roadshow extravaganza becomes such a rousing success that they draw the attention of the Grand Vizier who sabotages her show when they land in Baghdad. As through no choice of their own The King and Jimmy are thrown back to contemporary London, The Grand Vizier condemns Sheherazade to death on trumped up charges of regicide. In the absence of a ruler The Grand Vizier crowns himself king and orders Sheherazade to be executed. The Executioner refuses to behead the lovely courtesan and everything comes to a head when Sheherazade finishing her story coincides with the belated arrival of Jimmy and The King in Baghdad by helicopter. The King ousts the scheming Grand Vizier, putting Jimmy Genious in his stead, and crowns Sheherazade to be his queen. Supposedly, although it’s never explicitly mentioned, all live happily ever after.

To her credit Zeta-Jones worked her way up from television to the big screen and avoided the early pitfall of doing the typical cheap horror film early on in her career. It wouldn’t be until The Haunting (1999), a loose adaptation of the Robert Wise 1963 original, that Zeta-Jones indirectly worked with legendary American exploitation – and pulp producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. Like most big budget, special effects-driven Hollywood horror movies in the nineties The Haunting is infinitely inferior to the original and maddeningly mediocre otherwise. In a rather interesting decision Zeta-Jones was dubbed in 1001 Nights despite her being fluent in four languages, including French. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to see 1001 Nights for the story. Just like nobody endures 1001 Nights (1968) voluntarily for the story, but rather to see Luciana Paluzzi. The only reason to even search out 1001 Nights is Catherine Zeta-Jones before she became a megastar – and does it ever deliver. Whether she's performing sultry dances as a harem girl, charming her way out of a bind, or parachuting from a biplane whilst losing her clothes, 1001 Nights is all about Zeta-Jones and her frequently disrobed shenanigans. It does everything that the earlier Arabian Nights adventure with Paluzzi couldn’t.

As far as early career embarassments go a young actress could fare far worse than 1001 Nights. There’s a child-like innocence about the project and as a spoof of the Arabian Nights genre it works wonderfully well despite, or in spite of, its light science fiction zaniness. For a spoof to work the most effectively it needs a screenplay that understands the conventions of the genre it is parodying. 1001 Nights writer Jérôme Tonnerre understood that and by making it a pastiche of several known Arabian Nights properties he and director de Broca effectively satirize the conventions of the genre while staying faithful to the source material. The screenplay is also largely a preamble to put Catherine Zeta-Jones in whatever colorful, sexy or crazy outfit the writers could dream up. Zeta-Jones takes it in stride and 1001 Nights combines her love for dress up, song and dance into one. No wonder she chose this part as her first major role. It's everything an up-and-coming theater actress could dream of, even if it required her shedding fabric at one point.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that 1001 Nights even got made in the first place. The peplum had been extinct for a decade by that point and it wouldn’t be until Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) ten years later that the genre experienced a brief big budget resurgence. Gladiator proved not strong enough to revive the genre and neither did surrounding productions Troy (2004) and Kingdom Of Heaven (2005). No wonder then that 1001 Nights is has been relegated to a footnote in the genre and is completely forgotten otherwise. Catherine Zeta-Jones has since become a Hollywood darling and in most of her official biographies 1001 Nights curiously isn't mentioned while her work in the London theater, the very thing that led to her discovery, is. Everybody has to start somewhere and Catherine started here. Even here it was clear that she was destined for superstardom.

Plot: can Pervirella save Condon from the evil Queen Victoria?

After the fall of the great houses of Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon and with directors-producers as Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker moving out of the filmmaking business British exploitation – and cult cinema seemed destined for obscurity. For a while, at least, that was indeed the case… until 1997. That year two figureheads of counterculture, two masters of fringe cinema joined forces for Perverilla, a vaudevillian throwback of deliberate kitsch and cheese that, for all intents and purposes, was to be a celebration of yesteryear’s celluloid heroes of the preposterous, and the grotesque. Far from a critical – and commercial success upon original release it attained something of a rabid cult following in ensuing decades. In no small part responsible for that following was it being an early outing for two future British television personalities, the last great hurrah for ailing British - and Italian exploitation mainstay David Warbeck, and a showcase for the considerable assets of a young (and often very naked) Emily Booth.

The mad genius behind Pervirella is Josh Collins - a first class honors graduate from Central St. Martins school of Art and Design in London in 1990 - who made a name for himself in British nightlife with his underground cabaret and burlesque club The Frat Shack, RHB Exotic Entertainment as well as his bars in Melbourne and Perth. Collins and his entourage are behind the annual retro music festivals Wild Weekend Festival in the UK and Spain as well as the Las Vegas Grind in Las Vegas, Nevada. With his Zombie Zoo Productions production company Collins conceptualizes, designs, and manufactures everything from sets, costumes, and props for the various live performances of his artist collective. As an avid fan of cult cinema from the sixties to eighties Collins was bound to envision his own deviant feature and with The Perv Parlor (1995) that was indeed what happened. Helming The Perv Parlor (1995) was underground filmmaker Alex Chandon who by then had helmed micro-budget splatter epics as Chainsaw Scumfuck (1988), Bad Karma (1991), and Drillbit (1992). In short, Josh Collins is the embodiment of decadence and excess, and more or less the British equivalent to notorious boob-lovers as Jim Wynorski, Andy Sidaris, or Bill Zebub.

Pervirella was to be Collins’ most ambitious and engrossing production up to that point. A spiritual successor to his The Perv Parlor (1995) filled to the gill with oneiric fantasy images, Victorian Age period costumes, ornately designed candy-colored full-size sets, cartoony miniatures, and model animation. It was to be the scion to everything from School For Sex (1969), Zeta One (1969) and Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) to Flesh Gordon (1974), Marie, the Doll (1976), StarCrash (1979) and Galaxina (1980). Following in the footsteps of Luane Peters, Judy Matheson, Kirsten Lindholm, Yutte Stensgaard, Pippa Steel, and Mary and Madeleine Collinson was 21-year-old Cheshire hottie Emily Booth, a curvaceous cutie with an aversion to clothing. As Pervirella Booth was modeled after Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and the Roger Vadim adaptation from 1968 where female libido is the strongest currency, as well as Modesty Blaise. Collins’ creation had a penchant for dressing in pink just as Hanna-Barbera's Penelope Pitstop from Wacky Races (1968) and there never was a situation where Pervirella couldn’t get out of by flashing her breasts or swinging her ass. Among the many guest stars are Redemption Film muses Eileen Daly, and Rebecca Eden, as well as the controversial, BAFTA award winning Jonathan Ross (BBC’s highest paid star as of 2006) and The Word and Never Mind The Buzzcocks host Mark Lamarr. Early in the production Caroline Munro was to guest star as well, but she left after a few weeks. That Pervirella was a satirical jab at the the Royal House of Windsor is an added bonus. Before America got in on the action with Superstarlet A.D. (2000), there was Pervirella.

In the realm of Condon, evil Queen Victoria (Sexton Ming) has decreed that dissidents – intelligentsia, perverts, and otherwise - are to be rounded up and summarily executed. To that end the Queen orders that a wall be built around Condon establishing her long pined after “Monarchy of Terror”. In the underground dissent and discord with the establishment are rife and soon a rebel alliance is growing in the bowels of the city. The rebels call themselves The Cult of Perv and are presided over by the Demon Nanny (Rebecca Eden). For as long as she has been their ruler the Demon Nanny and her Cult of Perv have indulged themselves in the “Sins of the Depraved”. In her death throes she gives birth to a girl (Anna McMellin) who within seconds grows into a voluptuous babe that the Pervs name Pervirella (Emily Booth, as Emily Bouffante). In Pervirella the Cult see their long prophesied savior and a fellowship is soon formed. Professor Rumphole Pump (Ron Drand), Monty (Shend, as The Shend), Sexton Ming (Anthony Waghorne), and special agent Amicus Reilly (David Warbeck) are to embark on a “Crusade Of Doom” and assist Pervirella in any way they see fit. On their zany globetrotting adventure Pervirella and her fellowship are besieged by agents of the malefic Victoria and a trio of witches. If her journey wasn’t dangerous enough Pervirella has one tiny problem: within her bountiful bosom resides a sex demon and whenever she loses her magic talisman she’s overcome by raging nymphomania and an urge to tear her clothes off; both of which she finds impossible not to indulge…

First and foremost Pervirella aimed to revitalize the British sex comedy by taking it back to its Benny Hill roots. Next to that it’s also a very lively steampunk fantastique that lovingly spoofs Eurospy conventions and that two decades prior would probably have been made in either France or Spain. It looks as if Monty Python, Peter Jackson, Renato Polselli, and Luigi Cozzi went on a bender and in their collective state of inebriation produced a screenplay that defies description. In other words, Pervirella is delightfully insane on about every level. It also happens to be Alex Chandon’s most entertaining feature by a wide margin. Here Chandon merely serves as a conduit to Collins’ vision and most, if not all, of his shortcomings are wholly absent. The candy-colored, circus sideshow, Victorian steampunk production design is a wonder to behold. It took cosplaying (a phenomenom that originally came from early 1980s Japan) and LARPing to a then-unprecendented level and we wouldn’t be surprised if much of its cult following derived from those spheres. Also not unimportant is that Pervirella at no point takes itself seriously and that its primary concern is to have fun, above all else. It’s also a good excuse to see freshfaced 21-year-old Emily Booth cavorting around in what seems like a permanent state of partial undress. Pervirella was the injection that the very British and all but extinct knickers and knockers subgenre needed. In any case, there’s an abundance of both but it never reaches Zeta One (1969) levels of camp. Pervirella even has her own swanky, sexy theme song, just like Barbarella (1968) and Galaxina (1980)!

What to say about Emily Booth (here still calling herself Bouffante) without becoming redundant? For one thing the Bouff debuted simultaneously in Hollywood as well as in British (and, by extent, European) trash cinema. Not only did she play the lead role in a vehicle with her mind, she also made a cameo in Paul W.S. Anderson’s failed sci-fi/horror hybrid Event Horizon (1997). If anything else, it goes to show that a terrible screenplay cannot be salvaged by a swathe of respectable Hollywood actors or a big budget. Event Horizon (1997) was a lot of things, but it wasn’t good by any metric you choose to employ. Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, and Joely Richardson couldn’t save Event Horizon (1997) – so how was the Bouff going to stand a chance? No, Ems did right by focusing her mad energies on Pervirella, which was never going to have any mainstream appeal. To her credit the Bouff was able to parlay her turn in Pervirella into a lucrative television – and modeling career. Just two years later Emily rechristened herself Booth and went on to host Bits (1999–2001), season three of outTHERE (2003), as well being a regular presenter on Eat Cinema (2006) (now My Channel), videoGaiden (2008), and the Horror Channel. In between her television gigs Ems found time to act in Alex Chandon’s Cradle Of Fear (2001) anthology and Inbred (2011), among many others. Not bad at all for a bubbly British lass never afraid to take her top off when and where it mattered.

The other big name was late New Zealand actor David Warbeck, a veteran of nearly 80 films in a career that spanned a quarter of a century, then in his twilight years. Warbeck started out in theater productions, and performed with a small touring company in New Zealand before being awarded the New Zealand Arts Council scholarship in 1965. The scholarship allowed him to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England which he did for four terms. Sources differ whether Warbeck quit or was expelled (he was rumoured to have had an affair with Geraldine McEwan, the wife of Academy principal Hugh Cruttwell) which led him to a modeling career wherein he figured into various print – and television commercials as well as a number of fotoromanzi with Marisa Meil. His modeling engagements quickly led to opportunities in acting and Warbeck’s first role of note was in Trog (1970), the swansong of Hollywood Golden Age leading woman Joan Crawford. From there David was whisked to Italy by spaghetti western specialist Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). He returned to England for the Hammer horror Twins Of Evil (1971) from director John Hough and with Mary and Madeleine Collinson. In 1973 he was tipped to play James Bond in Live and Let Die (1973) before producer Albert R. Broccoli vetoed up-and-coming television actor Roger Moore from the spy-action series The Saint (1962-1969) who cut his teeth for the role as suave Simon Templeman.

In the years that followed Warbeck alternated between horror and action-adventure working for directors Lucio Fulci and Antonio Marghereti on The Last Hunter (1980), The Beyond (1981), Hunters Of the Golden Cobra (1982), and The Ark Of the Sun God (1984). Before Pervirella Warbeck’s last notable effort was Rat Man (1988) with Nelson de la Rosa. Warbeck famously shared the screen with everybody from Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Jack Palance and Peter Cushing to embattled Italian exploitation babes as Janet Ågren, Laura Trotter, Tisa Farrow, Catriona MacColl, and Cinzia Monreale. While doing Pervirella Warbeck was under investigation for running a brothel out of his restored high Victorian gothic Hampstead palazzo, a colossus built by associates of Sir George Gilbert Scott at the time of the construction of St Pancras station. It was custodian to a miniature salon theatre that witnessed performances from Gilbert and Sullivan, George Grossmith and Ellen Terry.

That Pervirella is acquired taste almost goes without saying and it definitely isn’t for everybody. It’s intentionally kitschy in every aspect and the pastel – and cotton candy production design is enoug to send anyone away screaming. Yet there’s something strangely appealing about a steampunk pastiche that closely mirrors Flesh Gordon (1974) in terms of plot but is completely its own beast otherwise. It wouldn’t be until some twenty years later that Josh Collins took to directing his second feature with the equally irreverent and satirical Fags In the Fast Lane (2017). In the two decades after Pervirella Alex Chandon went on to produce a number of music videos for British extreme metal band Cradle Of Filth which culminated in the band featuring in his proper debut Cradle Of Fear (2001). While Cradle Of Filth exploded into the mainstream (at least in metal terms) and have carved out a very… er, interesting career path for themselves Chandon remained a humble unknown. Chandon’s most recent feature is the suprisingly entertaining Inbred (2011) and the short film compilation Shortcuts to Hell: Volume 1 (2013). Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the Pervirella universe was never expanded or explored with a sequel. Or perhaps not, as Pervirella draws as much strength from not having been tainted by sequelitis. Only one question that remains: who will replace Emily Booth as Britain's n° 1 bra-busting cult babe?