The Flesh Merchant is a sleazy 1993 SOV thriller following two LA cops hunting down a sex trafficking operation. Starring Joe Estevez, Michelle Bauer, and Neil Delama this cautionary tale narrowly balances grimy cop action with seedy exploitation. As a late-night VHS thriller, it bangs on all cylinders providing topless girls in peril, cop shootouts, and a grimy LA detective story. The Blu-ray from Culture Shock Releasing provides a respectable A/V package given the film’s VHS roots. Limited bonus features include new interviews with the cast and a director’s commentary. For Fans Only.
“That’s what a good owner does, inspect the merchandise.”
Slimeball sex trafficker Valentino (Neil Delama, Emmanuelle: A World of Desire) has a major problem on his hands. “His most admirable and royal sheik of the ordained state of Berenia” is coming to LA and needs some quality “merchandise” ready to go. Unfortunately, his newest batch of ladies includes the sister of LA cop Darleen (Margo Romero, Feast) who is out for justice with her street-smart partner Mac (James Adam Tucker, Death House). Holding up their investigation with red tape is the constantly drunk Captain Jameson (Joe Estevez, The Roller Blade Seven). Now breathing down Valentino’s neck is boss man Delambre (Don Stroud, The Amityville Horror) whose admiration for his employee’s operation is only matched by his obsession with testing the merchandise. Can the cops bust the sex slave operation before it's too late?
Part sleazy kink-fest and part grimy cop procedural, The Flesh Merchant reaches for higher ambitions showing the dehumanizing and humiliating lengths to which sex traffickers will go to prepare their merchandise for sale. Director Tristano begins the film as a cautionary tale with busty dive bar waitress Jennifer (Elizabeth Chambers, A Horse Called Jester) telling her uptight cop sister that she’d do anything for the so-called “movie producers” who frequent the bar. Naturally, she’s abducted by Vanentino’s goons along with her roommate Karen (Twila Wolfe, Champagne and Bullets) and whisked away to the basement processing center of Valentino’s operation. From here the film shows no mercy in displaying Valentino’s raw power of sexual dominance and intimidation.
Scenes between the goons and ladies feature full-on slaps, hair grabs, and groping, It's all real without stunt actresses taking the hits. For a seasoned exploitation actress Michele Bauer, it's another day on set, but the other actresses are new to the fray. Margo Romero gets pulled up a flight of stairs by her hair. You can see the pain on her face as Delama commits to the scene. I wouldn’t call The Flesh Merchant a rougie per se, but it's damn close.
The practical effects in the film are few but very effective. Blood appliances look fantastic with bullet hits looking passable. No squib effects are used but blood drips and wounds are impressive given the film’s SOV pedigree. As the bodies hit the floor look out for an exciting moment when an unsuspecting character gets an axe through the chest!
Maintaining a police procedural backbone, the film uses plenty of naked flesh and kink to move the proceedings along. Even though Darleen and Mac are going through the investigative motions these scenes never have a sense of urgency to them. Tristano saves the tension for the frightened girls about to learn BDSM techniques from a lingerie-clad instructor named Kitty Genovese (Michelle Bauer, Nightmare Sisters).
Performances are verge on camp but are spot-on in delivering the exhaustive dialogue exchanges with the proper amount of commitment. Bauer, Delama, and Estevez know the assignment and are clearly having fun with their respective characters. The supporting cast includes a surprising mix of independent directors and writers including Jay Woefel, Adam Rifkin, and C. Courtney Joyner.
Tristano hints at more story behind the Valentino/Delambre relationship which could have been useful in developing the narrative beyond their intense love affair with nabbing waitresses and topless hikers. At every turn, The Flesh Merchant delivers exactly what you want from a sleazy thriller and nothing more. But don’t worry, you’ll satisfy that late-night VHS nostalgia easily once this scummy thriller gets rolling.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Flesh Merchant arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Culture Shock Releasing. The Region A B-50 disc is housed in a transparent keepcase with reversible artwork. Loading the disc presents the Culture Shock Releasing logo before landing on the Main Menu screen with scenes from the film playing behind typical navigation options.
The Flesh Mercant eyes the merchandise with an AVC-encoded 1080p image in the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Primaries are strong within costuming and locations when given enough light in the frame. Fine detail is obviously limited though on closeups facial features and textures are evident. Contrast is adequate for an SOV feature. Black levels are solid with even the darkest interiors showing some limited detail in shadow. In the special features interview, Tristano reveals that the grain in the image was achieved by passing his original VHS cut through a filter achieving a desired “film” look.
The sole audio option here is a 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio mix that is pleasing with dialogue exchanges free of hiss or pop. Echo is apparent in larger set pieces like the hotel though not enough to hinder clarity. Synth scoring from Jay Woelfel, who also directed the trippy Beyond Dreams Door, is rad as hell and offers plenty of 90’s VHS vibes electrifying the experience.
Culture Shock Releasing provides an informative audio commentary and new interviews for this release of the film giving fans plenty to enjoy.
Riding the line between Skine-Max thriller and cop procedural The Flesh Merchant never quite works to satisfy either camp fully. Filled with lingerie-clad ladies in peril, the film easily establishes sex and sleaze on screen with nods to BDSM kinks. Tristano confidently handles the grimy LA cop sequences, but momentum slows when the two worlds collide and becomes a wholly dull endeavor. However, as a late-night VHS thriller, it bangs on all cylinders.
Culture Shock Releasing brings the film to Blu-ray with a respectable A/V package given the film’s source materials. Special features are limited but give fans something to enjoy after the film. For Fans Only.