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Top Model (1988)

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.