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Plot: high-class escort Sarah Asproon moonlights as a novelist researching a new book

Let it be known that Joe D’Amato can never be accused of not completely milking an idea while it was still profitable. A year after Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) old Joe returned to New Orleans for Top Model (1988), a sequel of sorts to his earlier Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986) knockoff. Back again is ravishing Luciana Ottaviani and in what would be her swansong in the franchise she's given every chance to show off that impressive body of hers. With a screenplay from Rossella Drudi and Sheila Goldberg (as Gloria Miles) Top Model does have an unexpected romantic undercurrent. Which still doesn’t make it anything more than a bog-standard inexpensive soft erotic potboiler for late night cable. At least a Joe D’Amato soft erotic feature isn’t as heinous and painful as some of his infamous horror movies.

The success of a soft erotic movie is relative to the willingness of its star to shed clothes and cavort around naked. Ottaviani, to her everlasting credit, doesn’t shy away from either – even though she’s hardly what you'd call an actress. Ottaviani is exactly what Laura Gemser was in the 1970s. Gemser, three years away from announcing her retirement in 1991, will not be shedding any garments but she still looks rather dashing at 38. The cast is nothing but unknowns. James Sutterfield and Lin Gathright were in Killing Birds (1987), one of the many unofficial sequels to Lucio Fulci’s often imitated Zombie (1979). Gathright would resurface in the series American Horror Story (2014). Jason Saucier had guest roles in Dawson’s Creek (1999) and One Tree Hill (2004). Top Model was Laura Gemser’s first venture as a costume designer and unfortunately she never transcended beyond D’Amato and his ilk. There's something inherently ironic about Gemser, famous for getting out of her clothes for a living, making sure that other actors stay in theirs.

After having engaged in a brief but steamy affair with a dopey construction engineer the year before alleged novelist and present high-end escort Sarah Asproon (Luciana Ottaviani, as Jessica Moore) is working on a new book about high-class prostitution. To legitimize her efforts Asproon and her publisher Dorothy Tipton (Laura Gemser) set up a call-girl agency. Tipton adopts the alias Eva North while Asproon calls herself Gloria. To maximize efficiency and to keep track of customer information and appointments receptionist Sharon (Lin Gathright) and shy programmer Cliff Evans (James Sutterfield) are hired. One of Sarah’s clients Peter McLaris (Ale Dugas) threatens to expose Asproon to the police, which would ruin her career as a novelist. Despite the threats Sarah continues to work and finds herself falling in love with Evans, who initially remains reserved towards her advances. Jason (Jason Saucier), Cliff’s apparently homosexual friend, competes for Sarah’s affection after she properly rode him. Spurring Jason’s advances and foiling McLaris’ blackmailing Sarah and Cliff choose each other. Asproon bids her life of prostitution farewell and focuses on her new career as a novelist. The two move to another city to start anew.

The dreary, humid New Orleans locales ooze with all the depravity and sleaze you’d expect of a Joe D’Amato movie. The men that circle Asproon come from both ends of the spectrum. Cliff and James are regular guys confused why a sensual vixen like Sarah would take an active interest in them, let alone a sexual one. Peter the blackmailing toy factory owner is a sleazebag of the highest order that it makes you wonder why he wasn’t played by Gabrielle Tinti or David Hess. Asproon’s clients are the usual variety of reptilian abusers, including an exploitative photographer, a profusely sweating toned African-American that should have been Fred Williamson, and the client that books Sarah for himself and requests that her friend Eva North rides him like a bull. An entire subplot is dedicated to the sexual dynamic between Cliff and James, who are obviously attracted to each other, sensual Sarah cures both men of their confusion by mounting and riding them, seperately. In fact Sarah rides James to such an extent that he becomes straight. Cliff, feeling merely sexually inadequate in Sarah’s presence, is mounted creatively into self-confidence.

It’s hard to believe that Top Model was helmed by the director that gave the world Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the gothic horror-slasher hybrid Buio Omega (1979), and the splatter classic Anthropophagus (1980). There's an inherent sweetness to the entire thing that you'd earlier find in Bitto Albertini's erotic potboilers. Luciana Ottaviani wasn’t much of an actress, and she was cast in movies mostly to take her clothes off, but she never deserved to dwell in the muck that she did. Ottaviani had a body similar to Serena Grandi, Donatella Damiani, and Debora Caprioglio, and it’s nothing short of puzzling that she never appeared in a Tinto Brass production. Ottaviani had junk in the trunk and Brass loves a baby that got back as much as Sir Mix-A-Lot. That she somehow never entered the sphere of Jess Franco is a miracle in itself. It stands to reason that luscious Luciana was tainted by her exploitation beginnings, and she would never ascend to the A-list erotica of, say, Bernardo Bertolucci. Not that she would be able to carry such a movie by herself, mind. Top Model is curiously low on dialogue for a reason and that the plot is moved forward by every other character that isn’t Sarah Asproon should clue anybody in exactly how much of an actress Ottaviani really was.

After Top Model Ottaviani moved on from the franchise and D’Amato continued with new lead Kristine Rose, who prior to acting appeared in Playboy (August 1991, February and April 1993 – never making it to the cover). Rose starred in a further third sequel confusingly titled Eleven Days, Eleven Nights 2 (1990). Like in much of his 1980s output Laura Gemser has only a supporting role, and unlike in The Alcove (1985) she refrains from shedding fabric. A year later Moore would be starring opposite of Pamela Prati, Loredana Romito, Laura Gemser, and Gabrielle Tinti in the erotic potboiler Reflections Of Light (1988). That one did give her a chance to act. After her tenure with D’Amato Rose made appearances in the actioner Total Exposure (1991), the Charles Band production Demonic Toys (1992) and the Zach Galligan-Corey Feldman comedy Roundtrip to Heaven (1992). Rose has filmography so depressing that she played second fiddle to latter-day Andy Sidaris regulars Julie Strain, and Teri Weigel. Not exactly something to be very proud of, or at all.

That Joe D’Amato’s voluminous softcore output is far more enjoyable (and often technically superior) to the many and maddeningly wild exploitation – and horror movies that made him famous was a foregone conclusion. What is also evident is that D’Amato’s direction is technically solid, workmanlike, and indifferently professional, even when Ottaviani is naked and in the frame. D'Amato doesn't exude any kind of the artistry, individuality, or thematic follow-through that made Tinto Brass such a revered household name. Luciana Ottaviani is given enough flattering angles whenever possible and D'Amato will let his camera glide across her curvaceous canvas every chance he gets, but isn’t nearly enough to make Top Model anything more than a bog-standard erotic potboiler marginally better than late night skinflicks headlined by the likes of Shannon Tweed, Julie Strain, Lisa Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, or Tanya Roberts. Joe D'Amato was infamous for a reason, yet Top Model isn’t nearly as grime and sleazy as you’d expect. In fact it's stoically demure and unrepentantly utilitarian. Everything works and everything is where it should be, yet if this was meant to be Luciana's star-making vehicle, it missed the mark.

As part of his prolific 1980s period, a decade wherein D’Amato concentrated almost exclusively on soft- and hardcore pornography, Top Model is an unassuming and ultimately forgettable exercise in softcore tedium were it not for the illuminating and arousing presence of Luciana Ottaviani, the embodiment of curly 1980s sassiness. The score consists of pulsating electronic music from Piero Montanari, René de Versailles, and Jacob Wheeler. This should have been the Black Emanuelle series for the eighties. Ottaviani's premature departure deflated the franchise before it could begin, and that was very unfortunate indeed. Eleven Days, Eleven Nights never recovered from the exit of its original and biggest star, and the numerous in-name-only sequels only made that more obvious.

Plot: Hercules falls under the spell of a mysterious queen

On the back of the international box office smash that was The Labors Of Hercules (1958) (hereafter Hercules) the inevitable sequel came with the following year’s Hercules and the Queen of Lydia (a direct translation of the Italian title Ercole e la regina di Lidia) that was released in North America as the abbreviated Hercules Unchained. Both leading man Steve Reeves and director Pietro Francisci moved onto greener pastures. Reeves would play a succession of mythological strongmen while director Francisci delved into more historical territory with Siege Of Syracuse (1960) and closed the gates on the sword-and-sandal genre with Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963). Hercules Unchained managed to top its box office breaking predecessor on every front. Armed with a much more engrossing story, an epic array of quests and tests of strength, and with the stakes raised that much higher for everyone involved. The sets are more elaborate, the combat scenes are more involving, and the women are universally and uniformly breathtaking. Hercules Unchained set the template for the b-grade peplum to follow for decades to come, ensuring its survival well into the mid-seventies.

This time around the basis for the screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Pietro Francisci were Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Returning home from the previous movie’s quest for the Golden Fleece Hercules (Steve Reeves), Iole (Sylva Koscina), Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi), and Ulisses (Gabrielle Antonini) barely have time to recover. On the road to Thebes Hercules is challenged by the giant Antaeus (Primo Carnero) but can’t defeat the behemoth on land. Hercules and Ulisses are asked by Edipus, the dying king of Thebes (Cesare Fantoni), to negotiate a heavily escalated royal succession dispute between his warring sons. En route Hercules is seduced by a harem girl dancing the “Dance of Shiva” leading him to drink the Waters of Forgetfulness from a nearby magic spring, the Lethe. Without memory Hercules becomes a willing captive of the wicked Queen Omphale (Silvya López, as Silvia Lopez) of Lydia. As Hercules finds himself in the gardens of Omphale, unaware that Omphale embalms her playthings once she’s grown tired of them. Ulisses pretends to be Hercules’ deaf-mute servant in order to survive in the Queen’s opulent court, all while figuring out a way to restore Hercules’ memory. Meanwhile Iole is beset by Eteocles (Sergio Fantone) as Polinices (Mimmo Palmara) assails Thebes. Will demigod Hercules be able to both save Thebes from the warring brothers and rescue his wife?

The practice of sequels is almost as old as Hollywood itself, but it wasn’t always that sequels were alotted bigger budgets and higher productions values than the original. In case of Hercules Unchained, once again directed by Pietro Francisci, there isn’t too much of a difference between both titles. Hercules was significant for setting in stone many of the conventions of the more pulpy and kitschy variety of peplum. Hercules Unchained on the other hand was key in introducing future genre conventions such as court – and political intrigue, magic, and embalming – as well as bellydancing interludes, wild animal fighting, and hand-to-hand combat. Hercules Unchained saw much of the same talent, both in front and behind the camera, returning and it allowed for a distinct sense of continuity. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, Mimmo Palmara, and Primo Carnero all make their return in either the same role or a similar one. Exclusive to Hercules Unchained are Silvya López, Marisa Valenti, and Colleen Bennett all of whom function as eyecandy in either a greater or smaller capacity. The prima ballerina (Colleen Bennett) at Omphale’s palace court paved the way for Cuban imports Chelo Alonso and Bella Cortez, both of whom would become genre fixtures in the coming decade. Hercules Unchained was not necessarily bigger in scale, but it took on a much darker tone than the whimsical Hercules. (1958).

Hercules was a pretty straightforward recounting of Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem Argonautica with a giant rubber monster thrown at the end for good measure. Hercules Unchained puts a greater focus on court intrigue and the stakes are raised much higher for everyone involved. Hercules has to leave his beloved Iole in the claws of the reptilian Eteocles, Ulisses is powerless as Hercules walks blindly into the trap that Queen Omphale has laid out for him – and he spents a good portion of the feature trying to break Hercules out of her spell. Thebes is under the threat of war making Hercules’ diplomatic mission all the more important. The political class, corrupted by the power bestowed on them, has descended into squabbling and scheming, often to the detriment of the very citizenry that has entrusted them with said power. Rivalry is another big theme in Hercules Unchained, whether its two brothers vying for kingship or two women fighting for the affections of the same man. Omphale’s embalming theatre is fairly dark stuff for a kitschy peplum, as is the body count and predilection towards bodily harm and cold blooded murder. Steve Reeves is actually given the chance to showcase his acting chops and the entire middle-section is probably the most sumptuous as Hercules is a captive in Omphale’s court. Hercules Unchained is romantic the old-fashioned way as Iole desperately longs for her man to come home and gives lovelorn Queen Omphale of Lydia a boy-toy until Hercules regains agency. It’s an ingenious piece of screenwriting that doesn’t cast any of the parties in a bad light. Unfortunately there are no big rubbersuit monsters to defeat, but for good measure Hercules throws his behemoth nemesis Antaeus into the ocean.

As these things tend to go Hercules Unchained couldn’t escape its share of tragedy. Silvya López, the actress playing Queen Omphale, would die at the tender age of 28 from complications arising of leukemia just one year after the film’s completion. López was born Tatjana Bernt in Austria to Slavonic immigrants. Prior to taking up acting López, who was fluent in six languages, did modeling work with Jacques Fath for Vogue magazine in France. She debuted in an uncredited role in the musical Baratin (1956) and the comedy Five Million Cash (1957). It wasn’t until the Richard Pottier directed drama Tabarin (1958) that she adopted the Silvia López alias. Pottier would attain cinematic immortality himself with The Rape Of the Sabines (1961), a peplum comedy with future Bond actor Roger Moore, Mariangela Giordano, and Marino Masé, that undoubtly was an influence on Terence Young’s own zany mix of peplum and commedia sexy all’italiana The Amazons (1973). The loss of López overshadowed, at least in part, the release of Hercules Unchained. Tragic in a completely different manner was that Sylva Koscina in a decade hence would be working with trash specialist Jesús Franco on the Harry Alan Towers produced Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969) with Romina Power.

Hercules Unchained is an old-fashioned popcorn flick clearly intended as a second feature for a movie matinee headlined by an American production. As a peplum from an earlier generation it spearheaded elements that in a few years time would become standard for the sword-and-sandal genre. It has a hunky bearded hero, two classical beauties to appeal to everybody’s liking and enough comedy, action, tests of strength and romance to appeal to a broad audience. Hercules Unchained might not have been bigger per se than its predecessor. Hercules (1958) was whimsical and kitschy. Hercules Unchained is surprisingly dark at times for what all intents and purposes is a more fantastic inclined peplum rather than the more classical inspired Hercules a year earlier. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, and Mimmo Palmara all would feature in peplum for several years to come, and Pietro Francisci’s two Hercules epics heralded the beginning of a cheaper, more philistine peplum movement that would last until the mid-seventies. Obviously Hercules Unchained had more than enough resources and budget to outclass the cheaper imitations it ended up inspiring.