Her films were crass, coarse and camp, and fell into such exploitation categories as “nudies,” “roughies,” “chesties” and “slashers"--perfect fodder for a cult following.
But nobody was more surprised at such film-festival idolatry that developed over the last 20 years than the woman at its center--independent filmmaker Doris Wishman. The best of her 30 films with the bargain-basement budgets and racy titles is generally acknowledged to be 1965’s “Bad Girls Go to Hell.”
Wishman, whose final movie, “Each Time I Kill,” is expected to be released later this year, died Aug. 10 in a Miami hospital of complications from lymphoma. Refusing to divulge her age, she was estimated to be from 77 to 90 and had lived in Coral Gables, Fla.
Born in Manhattan, Wishman attended Hunter College and studied acting, hoping to become an actress. But the only role she could land was as a secretary in a relative’s film distribution business. She married adman Jack Abrahms and moved to Florida.
When he died of a heart attack at 31 in 1958, Wishman looked for an all-consuming job--"something to fill my hours with,” she told The Times in 1988 when Los Angeles’ Four Star Theater was preparing to show her 1962 film “Nude on the Moon.”
When Wishman decided to direct and produce films and took a crash course in filmmaking, she said, “I got the challenge I was looking for.”
Operating on typical budgets of $70,000 to $100,000, Wishman quickly found a salable niche--pseudo-documentaries of nudist camps, the only films allowed by courts in the 1960s to depict nudity. “Nude on the Moon,” in which astronauts were greeted by naked beauties with makeshift antenna poking from their bouffant hairstyles, was banned in New York state, among others.
But much of Wishman’s work--eight “nudies” in all--passed legal muster. Her personal favorites were the moon flick and “Blaze Starr Goes Nudist,” the only feature film made by the notorious Baltimore stripper.
Wishman not only produced and directed but wrote, cast and edited most of her films. Her nudies were innovative because she added plots and stories to the usual fare of nature boys and girls frolicking in the altogether.
By the late 1960s, she had switched from simple nudies to grittier film-noir roughies--sexploitation melodramas with lots of gratuitous nudity and violence in which innocent girls are corrupted by the big city and the men they meet there. Those movies featured Wishman’s quirky style that utilized bizarre cutaways to ashtrays, lamps and squirrels and suggestive lesbian subplots. Among her roughies were “The Sex Perils of Paulette,” “Bad Girls Go to Hell,” “Another Day, Another Man” and “Love Toy.”
Wishman’s third phase may have become the most popular--her more openly pornographic (court strictures continued to ease) “chesties” featuring Chesty Morgan, the Polish stripper with a 73-inch bust. Morgan made two features for Wishman: “Deadly Weapons” in 1973, in which the heroine seeks revenge for the death of her gangster boyfriend and smothers the killers; and “Double Agent 73,” in which she is a spy with a camera implanted in one breast.
What the director really wanted to do was make horror films--or “slashers.” Despite a lack of money and expertise, Wishman started in that genre with “A Night to Dismember” in the 1980s. She followed that years later with “Satan Was a Lady” and “Each Time I Kill.”
Wishman’s film-credit pseudonyms were almost as colorful as her titles--Doris Chasnik, Dee Ess, Luigi Manicottale, O.O. Miller, Lazarus Volkyl, Doris Wisher.
“I don’t really like my movies,” Wishman said in an interview earlier this year. “Some of those actors were so ugly.”
“I felt if I had the money,” she told another interviewer, “I could have done better.”
Nevertheless, fans--particularly those who flock to art houses and film festivals--decided that they did like her films.
Los Angeles’ Nuart invited the director to attend its 1998 offering titled “Doris Wishman: Queen of Sexploitation.” The selective retrospective included “Bad Girls Go to Hell,” “Double Agent 73" and Wishman’s graphic documentary about transsexuals, “Let Me Die a Woman,” which she made in 1978.
A Times reviewer evaluating Wishman’s films at that showing praised her as “an instinctive, dynamic storyteller with a camera” whose style “at times recalls [directors] Sam Fuller and Russ Meyer.” The transsexual film, the reviewer added, was “replete with graphic surgical details and dramatized scenes in which tastelessness vies with compassion and even tenderness.”
Joe Bob Briggs, the self-styled Drive-In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas, has called Wishman “the greatest female exploitation director in history.”
Michael Bowen, a Brown University graduate student in visual culture, is preparing a biography of Wishman titled “It’s Better Than Sex,” referring to Wishman’s attitude about filmmaking.
Seattle-based Something Weird Video last year produced a “Drive-In Double Feature” DVD containing two Wishman films, “Bad Girls Go to Hell” and “Another Day, Another Man.”
“Her movies,” Something Weird founder and owner Mike Vrany told The Times last year, “are actually the epitome of what fascinates me about ultra-low-budget movies--the fact that they were ever made.... Doris is a perfect example of anarchy filmmaking.”
Wishman, whose second brief marriage ended in divorce, had no children. She is survived by a sister, Pearl Kushner, of Coral Gables, Fla.