Although it’s not the out-and-out porn film its reputation might suggest, Flesh Gordon is a cheerfully filthy spoof of the old Flash Gordon movie serials—the picture tries to blend satire with titillation by bombarding viewers with crude jokes, nudity, and sex scenes. The movie is quite awful, of course, but it moves along at a breakneck speed and, in its best moments, approaches an anything-goes party vibe that suggests a low-rent version of the comedy style perfected a few years later by the makers of Airplane! (1980). Obviously, the big difference is that the makers of Airplane! had real actors and a real budget, to say nothing of the fact that the Airplane! team didn’t have to interrupt their movie periodically for lingering close-ups of genitalia.
The plot of Flesh Gordon is adapted from the first Flash Gordon serial, released in 1938 and starring Buster Crabbe. (Another version of the very same plot was employed for the big-budget Flash Gordon movie released in 1980.) When Earth is bombarded by a sex ray from outer space, which drives victims to uncontrolled lust, dashing adventurer Flesh Gordon (Jason Williams), his new girlfriend Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields), and kooky scientist Dr. Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgins) fly into space to find the source of the sex ray and save the Earth. Arriving on the planet Porno, the heroes battle minions of evil Emperor Wang the Perverted (William Dennis Hunt), along the way encountering monsters and other fantastic creatures. This being a sex comedy, those fantastic creatures include the flamboyantly gay prince (Lance Larsen) of a men-in-tights troupe and the Amazonian leader (Candy Samples) of a lesbian cult.
Ninety-nine percent of the jokes in Flesh Gordon are painfully stupid, the performances are terrible, and the editing is so choppy that some scenes appear as if from nowhere. However, writer/co-director Michael Benveniste and his collaborators cleverly shield themselves from legitimate criticism by framing the movie as a campy goof—the worse the acting gets, the better. Yet some aspects of the picture run perilously close to real filmmaking. For instance, the flick includes several elaborate scenes of stop-motion animation fused with live-action, leading to Harryhausen-style scenes of real actors fighting stop-motion monsters. This stuff is executed fairly well, given the budget constraints.
That said, the way Flesh Gordon devotes long stretches of screen time to pure adventure would seem sure to infuriate the heavy-breathing crowd more interested in Flesh than Gordon. But then again, that’s why Flesh Gordon is so peculiar—it’s a kiddie movie for pervs. Consider this amusingly infantile chant, delivered by bottomless cheerleaders (!) in Wang’s palace: “Emperor Wang is the one for me—without him, the planet Porno would be ever so forlorn-o.” Or consider the very strange finale, which involves a giant, cloven-hooved monster who chases after the heroes while speaking in smooth, lounge-lizard patter. (Craig T. Nelson, the only familiar actor involved with the project, voices the monster in one of his earliest film performances, though he’s not credited.)
FYI, there are two versions of Flesh Gordon in circulation. The original 78-minute version carried an X-rating, even though it’s not hardcore, and the 90-minute version available on home video is unrated. In the 90-minute version, the only full-on porn action involves a few extras making out on the periphery of crowd shots. Oh, and one more thing: Howard Ziehm, who co-directed and co-produced Flesh Gordon, resuscitated the character by directing a 1989 sequel, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders, with an almost entirely new cast. Suffice to say the picture was not well received.
Flesh Gordon: FREAKY