by Michelle Clifford and Bill Landis

Candice Rialson’s Erotic Allure
(1974) Director: Raphael Nussbaum
Pets is notorious and more than lives up to its kinky reputation. Pets’ blatant focus on sadomasochism, indicated by its startling ad campaign featuring the star, Candice Rialson, on her knees, in lip gloss and a dog collar. This extreme campaign and the film’s fly by night distributor (Burbank International) were factors in relegating Pets to what’s known in exploitation parlance as a brief “specialty” run. Pets’ director, Raphael Nussbaum, is one of the most enigmatic of exploitation directors and is known for relatively few films. Nussbaum’s style would lead you to believe that he works in pornography under a pseudonyn. The only other Nussbaum film in recent memory – and this was over a decade ago – was W.A.R. (Women Against Rape), in which low heeled brothers of Hollywood actors (Frank Stallone, Don Swayze and Jerry Van Dyke) play rapists targeted by a women’s self defense group. Of all Nussbaum’s films, Pets remains the most fully realized and best remembered.

In Pets, Candice Rialson plays Bonnie, a pretty young drifter with no family and only her looks to get her by. Her sexy stray kitten vulnerability attracts a succession of freaks willing to keep her. Bonnie winds up in high intensity situations with severe individuals that come to sudden bitter ends. The looming threat of being thrown out into the street at any minute or an insane outburst of violence constantly puts Bonnie on the defensive, making her as confrontational as she is vulnerable.

S&M iconography is the film’s driving force. Pets kicks off with a female dominance scenario familiar from the artwork of Eric Stanton and Bill Ward. Bonnie hooks up with Pat, a sassy, psychopathic, knife wielding black scamstress. Together, they hitch a ride off of a thrillseeking middle aged married man. They leave him bound, humiliated and robbed. Bonnie taunts the old fart, jealously calling him his “wife’s lapdog,” but then throws sex on the guy, anyway.

Bonnie is then picked up by Geraldine, a lesbian painter, who spies her stealing fruit near the beach. Geraldine turns Bonnie into her model and plaything. As inevitably is the case where a homosexual keeps a heterosexual drifter, Bonnie grows bored, surly and sexually unsatisfied. In desperation, Bonnie fucks a poor dope who breaks into Geraldine’s house. Geraldine shoots the horny B&E artist in a fit of jealous rage.

Bonnie flees to to her final, most warped benefactor, Vincent, a wealthy, insouciant art connoisseur. Vincent had greatly admired and purchased Geraldine’s portrait of Bonnie, so why not own the real thing? He’s obsessed with collecting paintings, zoo animals and females. Vincent trains his “pets” to make them submissive. He gives Bonnie a taste of the whip, leaving marks, before making her the centerpiece of the private zoo that he keeps in his mansion’s basement. She languishes on a velour bed in a giant cage surrounded by tigers, German Shepards and other aggressive creatures. Vincent carries the looming threat of Sadean zoophilia. He isn’t having sex Bonnie, so there’s the degenerate hint that he’d enjoy some of the most depraved S&M voyeurism – watching Bonnie fucking one of the animals.

Pets relentlessly fulfills its prurient promises. There is a great deal of dressing up and down by Ms. Rialson. Although the narrative is visually propelled, Pets is filled with pointed dialogue that constantly compares humans to animals in a manner usually heard in dominance houses. (The movie was based on a play). The S&M depictions are brief but graphic, and resemble the kinkiest peep booth loops. The straightforward sex scenes have the feel of early 1970s hardcore, down to the grinding organ music and purposefully raunchy camera placement.

Pets also has its special erotic aura because it’s the debut of exploitation icon Candice Rialson. Rialson was the embodiment of the blonde, wholesome, yet sexually aggressive California beach girl. She appeared in innumerable New World releases like Candy Stripe Nurses. However, even in the exploitation world, one wrong part can derail a career. Candice Rialson disappeared from view after the faux pas of appearing in Chatterbox, a barely released AIP comedy about a girl’s problems with her talking pussy. Chatterbox was an R-rated xerox of the landmark French hardcore skinflick, Pussy Talk, and was directed by Tom DeSimone, who’d also known for making gay porn. Look again at Jackie Brown and you’ll see Bridget Fonda playing Candice Rialson.

Pets was the surprise sleeper at the SLEAZOID EXPRESS film festival held last June at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco playing to an audience consisting mostly of couples. The local gay press appreciated the camp aspects of the film and affectionately referred to it as an “S&M soap opera.”

For those desiring to keep Pets in the privacy of your home, Tapes of Terror offers the theatrical print followed by its sleazy sexy fuck me trailer.