1974 / Director. John Payser.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
John Payser’s THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS announces itself as an exploitation film within seconds. A naked woman graces the screen with her throat slit and her nipples erect. The title cards adorn a grainy backdrop and the camera makes sure to catch every inch of nudity. And so the scene is set for a gratuitous and unapologetic grind house film that holds up as a trashy cult classic with more substance than it ought to have.
An uptight, moralistic religious crusader is working his way through pornographic catalogues and killing the women within it. Ignoring that the ladies live decent and respectable lives in reality, the killer taunts them with preachy, tormenting phone calls before stalking and ultimately slitting their throats with a razor.
THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is a film that I always knew of but never saw. Watching it for the first time, some thirty plus years since its release, I was genuinely surprised at how well it plays. Being an exploitation film, of course, most of the women appear topless for many of their scenes. I suspect that director John Payser knew that there was some real substance to this story and so he wisely gave the women actual reasons for being nude. Most of the female characters are introduced in environments that would require the removal of clothes. Be it in the wardrobe, bedroom or bathroom. We are given an eyeful of beautiful boobs before their clothes are put back on and the plotline continues.
If you were to remove the peep-show aspects of the film and focus on the story itself, it plays out as a stylish psycho thriller that’s not too far removed from the likes of DIRTY HARRY or any number of gritty hardcore thrillers of the 1970s. There are echoes of Brian De Palma and Alan J Pakula throughout the film with subtle winks at Hitchcock and Argento. The kills are brutal and beautifully conceived. We are introduced to victims well ahead of their final moments and we get a look into their lives, as though they were central characters. I found myself so wrapped up in their own individual stories that I forgot that they were secondary characters with a violent fate looming over them. When the killer strikes his lethal blow, the bloodletting is graceful and creative and far too glorious for an exploitation film.
There’s no shortage of films of this type and the 1970s were riddled with them. These titles were made quickly and cheaply with mass consumption in mind. Drive-in theatres snapped them up and moviegoers flocked to them. THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS struck to the brief and delivered nudity and gore, while also offering unsuspecting viewers a taut and merciless thriller with a vibrant production design and a creepy as fuck psycho killer. This is the good stuff.
A small Australian distribution company called Glass Doll Films have put their money into this film and have produced an amazing blu-ray edition, complete with an in depth booklet and a fantastic audio commentary from two American podcasters. This isn’t the sort of detail I would ordinarily put into a review, however, the attention to detail they have given THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, as well as the amount of restoration put into this release deserves acknowledgement. If you decide to watch this film then this is the release to look for.