In “La représentation de la mort dans le cinéma américain,” eccentric sociologist Roger Caillois examined the depiction of the afterlife in a handful of postwar American films. He was surprised to find a seemingly coherent mythology emerge, one which seemed to easily map onto the collective imagination. According to Caillois, the films suggested a consistent collapse of the old dichotomy of the sacred and profane. In their place, the worldly and heavenly, the living and dead, all became enmeshed in an apparently infinite bureaucracy.
As a consequence of this reconfiguration of mortality, you are unlikely to encounter Death as a towering figure, but instead as a set of bureaucrats. Even the death of your body occurs in a silky world of tailored coffins decorated to appear perfectly at peace in the luxury cars that escort them to their holes. A world of soothing funerals devoid of the funereal, safely settled so as to never upset a manicured lawn.
The taming of the infinite comes with the erosion of the grotesque. Replacing it is the banality of the bureaucratic imagination with its formalized hospitality, its politeness, and strict accounting procedures. So, Caillois explains, “The other world is thus presented under a bureaucratic aspect which relates it to reality and prolongs it. We are in no way disoriented. The officials are affable and complacent. Nothing essential distinguishes them, except their cordiality. […] We cease to report to one administration to depend on another, almost identical to the first.”
But such deaths, stylish in a way defined by being so devoid of the scandalous, would prove to be surprisingly central to a set of films that began at the height of America’s brief era of “porno chic.” Coined as such by Ralph Blumenthal in the New York Times in 1973, it described the trend that saw large, diverse crowds (and celebrities) flocking to the grindhouses of Times Square. The lightning rod for this was Mayor Lindsay’s bid to clean up the area and a censorship battle over Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972), a comedy its defenders insisted made sex seem more harmless and could be socially redeemed because it encouraged the sexual gratification of women.
However, the surprise hit in this brief moment in cinematic history was the extraordinarily morose The Devil in Miss Jones (Gerard Damiano, 1973). Like many of its fellow porn epics it ran afoul of the law and wound up in court. But in public opinion, among critics like Roger Ebert and Judith Crist at any rate, the film was accorded accolades that the genre never had the chance to get used to. Part of this was because it was so unusual in its mood, its artistic references, and the solemnity that it returned to sex at a time when it was ostensibly being treated with great looseness. Much of this is due to the quality of Alden Shuman’s soundtrack. Uniquely, the film played in both straight and gay theatres and ran the art circuit. Newsweek claimed the film dissolved the distinction between art and porn.
In retrospect, this praise has also given it a staying power that many of its contemporaries lacked. I can recall that when I worked at a porn store many customers would simply laugh at classic porn because of its style, more particularly its hairstyles, which obliterated their erotic value. However, every so often a customer would mope in to return a copy of The Devil in Miss Jones, visibly annoyed and complaining that it made his wife cry, rather than horny, and ruined their weekend.
The Jones character was loosely suggestive of several sources: the Hollywood screwball comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 1941), where she was a naïve socialist who wins over her undercover millionaire boss at the department store, and de Sade’s Justine, the sanctimonious and naïve young woman doomed by an evil world. It may also reference the medieval legend of the pagan Cyprian who sold his soul to attain the love of the pious Justine, only for them to ironically be bound in faith and go to martyrdom together.
The original Justine Jones was played by Georgina Spelvin, a 37-year-old actress who had mostly done training films. The character was a frumpy spinster, a loser in the sexual revolution, and the film can easily be read as a denigration of the promises of sexual liberation.
Once the miserable Jones has ceremoniously killed herself, she wanders into the afterlife, which appears rather like a country club sparsely decorated with colonial furniture. She’s confused because it is indistinguishable from her recent job interviews. The man interviewing her labors his politeness, explaining they have instituted less “traumatic” ways of dealing with the population that filters through his firm. Her file indicated she was supposed to go to Heaven but suicide doomed her. She doesn’t mind but at least wishes she’d done more to warrant damnation. To kill the monotony of waiting for her spot in Hell to open up, she’s allowed to indulge in the lusts she denied herself. She’s initiated into oral, vaginal, and anal sex, before having sex with a lesbian. To the sound of an Ennio Morricone tune, she has her first enema orgasm. A threesome and double penetration never entirely satisfy her and she runs out of time.
After being assured there is no fiery furnace and Hell is “quite comfortable,” she’s sent to a small white room containing a man, played by the film’s director. He explains Hell has no rats or roaches; the most terrifying thing he’s discovered is a speck of dust. That’s given him the hope that a fly could exist there. Something with a digestive track at least, suggesting something biological would be possible. She’s wet and begs him to touch her and penetrate her, but he won’t. A woman whose greatest joy was an enema is stuck being no more than damp for eternity. To the film’s credit, this is moving.
Likely unconscious of the Hollywood tradition of the afterlife that fascinated Caillois, Damiano took his inspiration from godless Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (1944), which re-imagined Hell as a windowless and mirrorless hotel room where you were stuck with two strangers for eternity. If you’re religious, you can take this as a sign that even atheists like Sartre understand that spending time in their presence is worse than eternal physical torture.
The softcore Swiss-German remake of the film, Der Teufel in Miss Jonas (Michael Thomas, 1974), is strikingly different because it is so European, relying on the continent’s lengthy and rich history of depicting Hell and the tortures of the Inquisition. It even borrows its harrowing use of crimson interiors as the space of death from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), all while undermining the original film’s grim pessimism by ending not with eternal damnation, but in lighthearted dismissal of the film’s events as no more than a dream.
The Devil in Miss Jones spawned more than half a dozen sequels in its series. While that may not be much of an achievement when Dirt Debutantes ran nearly 400 volumes, of legacy porn series from the golden era it was one of the most profligate. It was also the most respectable. As hardcore moved further away from plot-oriented films, Miss Jones could be relied upon as a uniquely respectable way of branding a film. The major couples-friendly studios of the turn of the millennium would attempt to revamp the series and in doing so, symbolically assert their position in the tradition of semi-respectable pornography.
In 1982, the series had its first sequel from VCA. Henri Pachard’s The Devil in Miss Jones 2 opens with Spelvin still intoning the speech that concluded the first film. But the 70s are over and she’s no longer in an austere flyspeck of a room but a smoke-filled cave, uttering the same words as she crawls to Cyrano, sporting a cock for a nose, and rides his face. As she hits the forbidden tones of orgasm, a squad of cock-headed anti-orgasm cops drag her off to Lucifer with his Caesar haircut and red jumpsuit. Gay porn icon Jack Wrangler played the chief administrator of Hell and claimed that he wanted Lucifer to be soft-spoken and vulnerable, like anyone else who comes from old money.
Hell is now an exotic underground disco filled with doomed historical figures. Lucifer is a bored but neurotic bureaucrat having a nervous breakdown and the underworld is run by efficiency experts who carefully monitor and control the expenditure of sexual energies, allowing plentiful sex but no orgasm.
Once Jones breaks the rule on edging and gives Lucifer his first orgasm in millennia (he ejaculates fire), he allows her to return to earth for a life of eternal lust in the body of a callgirl. Displeased as he watches her adventures via TV, he dumps her soul into a Tupperware salesgirl only for her to turn nympho. After fighting with St. Peter when he moves her into the body of a nun, Lucifer realizes he’s fallen for Miss Jones and decides to follow King Edward’s example, abdicating for love and promising to get a job with Procter & Gamble.
While there are ten sex scenes, they are all exceptionally brief and barely graphic. The film could easily have trimmed them and been an R-rated sex comedy, filled with banter that might have been written for a film decades earlier.
The series underwent an equally substantial upheaval when it was helmed by Greg Dark. He had already established an unusual reputation for films like Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout White Chicks (1984) and the New Wave Hookers series (1985-1994), which were episodic, racially charged, and used the aesthetics of directors like Rinse Dream, fusing a music video style to lewd sketch comedy humor. Dark films work because they are funny in a way that is caustic and deliberately offensive. Although they were commercially successful, they tended to appall the older generation within the industry by being deliberately ugly and divorcing sex from all the liberatory rhetoric of the 60s and 70s, replacing it with cynicism and the depiction of sex as simultaneously mechanical and bestial.
Over The Devil in Miss Jones parts 3 and 4 (both 1986), she is given a makeover as a young blonde new wave chick. She’s a recent college grad dating a blind man, studying anthropology, and obsessed with civil rights (black men) until she disappears after a one-night-stand with a man she picks up at a singles bar.
The two parts form one complete film. Stylistically they borrow from 50s exploitation films and older low-budget horror films. There is grotesque humor milked from both. The former helps structure the films through a series of interviews conducted by what amounts to a satanic investigative journalist. A successfully sleazy comedy of talking heads passes by, people who supposedly knew Justine from high school or the dating scene: bimbos, creeps, and man-hating lesbians.
Hell is a sound stage with few props and no bathroom where you can find relief. Her guide is a black pimp in a transparent raincoat and yellow rubber gloves riding a pendulous-breasted horsewoman. Not a suicide, Jones cracked her skull and is informed she can only crawl out of Hell through an ocean of cum. The lack of clarity about how (or if) she died or if the Hellscape is just a hallucination is the primary tension. Rather than being condemned for deeds performed in life, the dead are punished for the desires in their hearts.
On the way through the underworld, she has to travel the rooms of Hell. In one, virgins are condemned to watch people fuck for eternity. In another, a gangbang never ends in satisfaction. On her journey over a rocky road, she has to blow a hideous homeless man to pass by, and in another room, racists are condemned to eternal interracial threesomes with Zulu warriors. The cave of the perverted contains cosplayers, transvestites, lesbians, diaper fetishists, and others dripping from eternal VD. Finally, she ends up in the room of taboo, where she is forced to watch herself having sex with her father.
Working in a more minor key with heightened music video style, DMJ 5: Inferno (Greg Dark, 1995) has a vaguely new-metal soundtrack, opening with a logo that looks like a cheap bar sign and a video montage of its stars groping their bodies against back projections. We are introduced to Jones at her funeral in an all-white room decked out with TV screens. It resembles less the austere cell of the first film than a cable access show. She doesn’t have a corpse, only a video image propped up in a coffin. The devil is a fat ringmaster in red with his own little disciple wearing a giant clock like Flava Flav.
Justine leaps through periods, historical and mythical. The space of innocence as represented by an Edenic grove of pink flamingos and angry garden gnomes gives way to a sequence of mechanical latex dykes and numerous double penetrations. Her body is returned to her as she lays in the coffin, only to wake up screaming as the devil laughs. If it lacks the scope of the earlier films, it has begun to make clear that Hell is not only other people, it’s having to deal with them through technology. The film also lacks the crudity of language and racial humor that dominated the two films that preceded it. Hell is cleaned up and brightly lit, more like a showroom in a department store.
DMJ 6 (Antonio Passolini, 1999) maintains the comic quality of the Dark films. The devil is now a woman with a vaguely British-Australian accent and she has her own incompetent tranny secretary. The narrative is constructed around a series of satirical skits and assumes more of the TV aesthetics hinted at in the earlier films. It opens with a trailer trash sitcom, complete with laugh track, includes a cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf having sex with Little Red Riding Hood, a casting couch scene with a distracted producer, and even an intermission featuring a Mexican wrestling match.
Rather than a virgin, Justine is an engaged infomercial actress trying to break into Hollywood who accidentally calls a pair of Russian succubi from Hell. They go on a rampage sucking men to dry husks and the devil recruits Justine to send them back to the underworld. The devil just wants pizza and is disappointed the world isn’t more like a porno. Hell itself is rather sparsely decorated in black and red with some attractive area rugs. But the entire sense of doom and damnation is gone in this installment. Sex has lost any residual seriousness and percolates from one scene to the next with the logic of changing channels. With its heroine far from frumpy with physically inflated star Stacy Valentine, Hell has been renovated from Sartre to sitcom.
DMJ 6 had been made when VCA was revisiting several of its more established series and giving them a final revamp. However, after the turn of the millennium, Miss Jones moved to a new studio, Vivid, one even more focused on couples and the dubious premise that porn needs plot. The New Devil in Miss Jones (Paul Thomas, 2006) is more remake than sequel. Original star Georgina Spelvin makes a cameo appearance as a cleaning woman, but it closely follows the first film’s plot of a frumpy woman who kills herself. Hell has become a dystopian romance novel company. Justine is an unfortunate editor who can never live out her sexual fantasies until it is too late.
The devil is still a woman, this time blandly performed by Jenna Jameson. Previous depictions of Hell that made it look like it was decorated with the remainders from a Halloween store fire sale are abandoned, as is the humor. The underworld is psychologized, only barely leaking out through projections, and flashes of hallucination. Played completely straight, a generic horror movie atmosphere pervades, complete with bad synth cues and hallucinatory flashes. It is a film of open office design for a metal and glass cube. The only Edenic space of erotic desire is the manicured lawn around a pool outside in the smog-filled air.
The clothes are trashy but designer, a Dolce and Gabbana collar sported by Satan, and oily, stringy hair is everywhere. Kinky group sex is completely filtered through deluxe sex toys and the sex scenes dramatically lit to obscure the gynecological carnival of the earlier films, trimming the short scenes into the neatly tied plotting. The sex is anti-septic condom porn. This gives the final sequence, borrowed directly from the original, its strange resonance. Justine is trapped eternally in the dank closet of a janitor, always wet and never fucked because it can be deferred indefinitely.
Devil in Miss Jones: The Resurrection (Paul Thomas, 2010) recasts the protagonist as Melinda Jones, an ambitious Seattle journalist. Gone again are all notions of her sexual inhibition. Instead, the sex is more about relations between the characters as she enters into a hierarchy of the damned. At first she fucks her boyfriend as a spectacle for the workers watching at the window. Finally, she is initiated into damnation and success in the media through the rituals of orgiastic sex. If this forms the basic structure of events for the film, its narrative significance seems to be more about how easily journalists claiming to look for the truth simply serve corruption and Satan.
After exploiting a story about the cross-dressing homeless “Halloween robber” being shot by the cops, she tries to leverage her way in the publishing industry only to discover her new bosses — a female publisher and several fake preachers — are a satanic cabal. The problem of ecstasy that haunted the other films is gone. Instead, she seems to have become fully immersed in the recognition that Hell is not the underworld, it is the imaginary world of the media.
From recluse to social climber, the Jones character ranged from the aging loser of the sexual revolution to a frosty new wave bitch, from the stripper bodies of voluptuously inflated blondes to end with Belladonna as the gap-toothed, tattoo-titted anal whore. The almost monastic austerity of Hell was replaced by a series of increasingly gaudy variations that incorporated a hodgepodge or ironic tortures. If Hell became comically grotesque in its bureaucracy, it eventually lost all the grandeur of doom (and enervating politeness) by being rendered in the banal cliches of narcissistic psychology and the narcosis of media.
— PFG is an art historian, photographer, curator, and soap opera enthusiast. He has a Twitter account.