After losing acting titan Ben Gazzara, 81, to pancreatic cancer the morning of February 3, the entertainment world took another hit when legendary softcore director Zalman King passed away Friday after his own battle with cancer at age 70. Gazzara and King are known primarily for their film work, but both also logged tons of hours in TV dramas and procedurals like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Justice, and Arrest and Trial. While Gazzara was typically cast as a doctor, lawyer, or ex-soldier, King’s much more minor acting career was marked by a lot of portrayals of dirtbags, junkies, and slimeballs. But the time logged playing skeevy dudes served King well when he transitioned into his real legacy: directing a series of erotic thrillers that might never make it into the Criterion Collection, but were no less well-loved as worn VHS tapes and in vividly recollected bits from twilight premium cable viewings.
King directed a blonde Sherilyn Fenn into ecstasy with a rugged carnival drifter in Two Moon Junction, an extra-swarthy Mickey Rourke as a self-made millionaire out for kink and kicks in Rio in Wild Orchid, and a cuckolded David Duchovny in the original Red Shoe Diaries — which you may remember from desperately trying to watch it scrambled until somebody’s parents walked in. King cowrote Adrian Lyne’s mid-’80s sex epic 9 1/2 Weeks and generally pioneered the cinematic eroticism of glossy ’80s, post-Hays Code sex, which existed somewhere between the general weird dark-room sensuality of movie watching and the raincoat-required provocations of straight-up pornography. He bridged the gap between the film industries of Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, pushing the sex thriller with satiny decadence and S&M stunt work.
He took the classical softcore aesthetics of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Anais Nin (whose Delta of Venus he adapted in 1995), with their focus on feminine pleasure and subjective erotic experience, and honed it into a sweaty midnight jungle cruise. At the time of his death, he had just directed a video for a Traci Lords single that made it to no. 4 on the Dance/Club Play Chart and was in postproduction on a new erotic thriller called Kamikaze Love. In 2012, when plot is less necessary than ever when it comes to seeing humans having sex onscreen, the most arousing thing is not necessarily the clearest or most high-def. The work of Zalman King serves as a reminder that although what once was considered explicit will often seem tame after time, suggestion and fantasy still beat all.
Watch Zalman King as a gang member in the “Memo From Purgatory” episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Season 3, Episode 10), on an episode of Adam-12, and as the eponymous outlaw in the “Muley” episode of Gunsmoke on The GunsmokeChannel on YouTube.