Red Roses of Passion is a completely bonkers film that came out of the sexploitation boom of the early to mid-’60s. The genre is somewhat unfairly maligned as being nothing but softcore porn, but the reality is that there are proper films with a plot, etc. The most famous personage of the movement is of course Russ Meyer, who was very much a part of the more glitzy west coast school of sexploitation. Red Roses of Passion was directed by Joseph W. Sarno who, unlike Meyer, would later gladly move into the bulging hardcore porn industry of the ’70s and ’80s, including directing the sequel to the most famous porno of them all, Deep Throat.
Sarno was at this time interested in the occult, so it was reflected in some of his films. Red Roses of Passion is one of those. It’s about a repressed housewife who gets involved with a sex cult of witches whose main way to achieve sexual pleasure and spiritual awakening involves red roses. The entire thing has this otherworldly quality that sexploitation films of that time had, which they had in common with the weirdest B-movies you can imagine, like Dementia or Spider-Baby. It’s a strange crossbreed of almost Sirkian melodrama at times and Kenneth Anger-esque occultism. It was obviously shot on a tiny budget in a couple rooms: Sarno was not a big fan of location shooting, and his choices give the film a very strange, studio-bound quality.
It’s a really oddball film from one of the main filmmakers of a misunderstood film movement. It’s also extremely tame in terms of nudity for these types of films—all you really see is some scantily-clad women in see-through negligees during the ritual sequences. The sex cult is into Pan, which anybody with any understanding of the occult will know was fairly common in those circles (the anarchist rocket scientist Jack Parsons and Aleister Crowley were both very interested in invoking Pan).
The film looks a lot better than it has any right to because it’s been mastered from the original negative. The disc, as is typical from Vinegar Syndrome, includes the film on Blu-ray and DVD. The disc’s sole extra is an excellent interview with Michael Bowen, Sarno’s biographer, who goes into fascinating detail about Sarno’s life and work, and the unclear production history of the film.