In their book Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema, Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris describe the moment that the floodgates opened allowing nudist films to legally screen in New York City theaters:
On July 3rd, 1957, Judge Charles Desmond issued a landmark ruling, stating that nudity, per se, was not indecent. He wrote that “There is nothing sexy or suggestive about it… nudists are shown as wholesome, happy people in family groups practicing their sincere but misguided theory that clothing, when climate does not require it, is deleterious to mental health by promoting an attitude of shame with regard to natural attributes and functions of the body.”
Almost immediately following this decision, there was a glut in the market of nudist films from a number of fly-by-night filmmakers looking to make a quick buck on the grindhouse circuit. Most of these films follow a strict formula: a non-nudist ends up at a nudist camp. They’re initially shocked, but then they learn about this wholesome, healthy lifestyle by talking to nudists and watching them playing sports (volleyball is a staple) and sunbathing. In the end, the protagonist/audience surrogate has changed their mind about nudism and everyone has learned an important lesson about how fantastic the nudist lifestyle is.
These films were hugely popular for a short time because they were the only place moviegoers could actually see bare breasts and asses on the big screen — the pubic region was still strictly off-limits for a while yet. However, they were also fairly dull: a person can only watch so much half-naked volleyball. So when soon-to-be legendary exploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman decided to produce her own nudist film, she took a different approach. In her film Hideout in the Sun (1960), a pair of brothers make a getaway from a robbery and end up hijacking a woman who works at a nudist camp. They make her drive them to the camp so they can hide out until the heat dies down and they can make an escape. While they’re waiting, though, one brother falls in love with their beautiful hostage and her happy, healthy lifestyle.
Wishman went on to make eight nudist films between 1960 and 1965, but the most infamous was easily Nude on the Moon (1961). Ever the pioneer, Wishman wanted to enliven the nudist film formula by cross-breeding it with sci-fi trappings as she did with the crime thriller in Hideout in the Sun. Nude on the Moon sent a pair of rocket scientists to the moon where they discovered a society of nudist humanoid aliens with bouncy antennae. There were certainly science fiction films made before this one that banked on sex appeal to bring in audiences, but Nude on the Moon was the first to hit big screens that featured actual nudity. The story and tone were typically chaste, but the film arguably marked the beginning of sci-fi sex cinema.
Soon after the legalization of nudist films came the “nudie cutie,” a cycle of deeply goofy “adult” comedies kicked off by Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959. These films frequently featured a bumbling protagonist who sees a lot of naked women and rely largely on sight gags for other entertainment value. One of these films that came after Nude on the Moon with some light sci-fi elements was 50,000 B.C. (Before Clothing) (1963). In this film, a husband locked out of the house by his wife sleeps in a taxi that is actually a time machine. He is transported back in time where he encounters nude cave people. The “nudie cutie” would remain popular long enough to spawn a few other sci-fi hybrids.
Kiss Me Quick! (1964, the first film shot by legendary cinematographer László Kovács) is built on a sort of inversion of Devil Girl from Mars (1954) from a decade earlier. Instead of an alien woman coming to Earth to find males to breed with her race, Kiss Me Quick! follows an alien named Sterilox who is sent on a mission from the Buttless Galaxy, where the inhabitants are all humanoid males that reproduce asexually, to bring back a perfect specimen of the human female to spice things up a little. Sterilox hangs out in the lab of Dr. Breedlove, who is attempting to engineer just such a creature, and they watch women dancing, writhing, and stripping while the boys provide a running commentary of groan-inducing one-liners. In The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964), a mad scientist dumps chemicals into a river that cause the groundskeeper at a nudist camp to turn into a rampaging monster. While these films and the nudist film/”nudie cutie” cycle are largely forgotten today except for dedicated cult and exploitation film fans, these early sexploitation films established tropes that persist in the genre to this day.
Obscenity laws changed throughout the 1960s in the United States and the restrictions on sexual content in films were loosened. The popularity of nudist films and the “nudie cutie” gave way to other sexploitation films like the black & white “roughies” of Herschell Gordon Lewis (1963’s Scum of the Earth), Joseph Mawra (1964’s Olga’s House of Shame and its sequels), and many others. Sexploitation films of the mid-60s with sci-fi elements followed suit. In Electronic Lover (1966), a man called Master pontificates about the misery of existence and sits at a giant computer while his servant sets up hidden cameras to let Master peep on people. The dingy look and bleak tone of the film are strongly reminiscent of Doris Wishman’s contemporary films like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). The Girl from S.I.N. (1966), directed by Wishman’s frequent cinematographer C. Davis Smith, shares the look of those films but is considerably goofier in tone with its story of a criminal organization based out of a New York apartment accidentally brought down by a scientist who invents an invisibility pill and his frequently nude female assistant. After these films, 1968’s Space Thing looked positively lush with its color photography used to tell the story of a sci-fi obsessed nerd who falls asleep next to his wife and dreams of sexy alien women and cardboard spaceship interiors.
In 1968, the major Hollywood studios tried their hand at the sci-fi sex film when Paramount Pictures distributed Barbarella in the United States. A French-Italian co-production, Barbarella was a lavish adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic of the same name starring Jane Fonda in the title role. It likely had a budget exponentially higher than all the other sci-fi sex films made in the 1960s combined. The film also had an impressive pedigree, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Roger Vadim. Vadim had scored a huge worldwide hit and helped make Brigitte Bardot one of cinema’s immortal sex symbols with …And God Created Woman in 1956, and no doubt the producers of Barbarella were banking on the same thing happening for Jane Fonda. As it turned out, audiences were largely uninterested and the film was a box office disappointment on its original release. However, with its psychedelic imagery and elaborate production design, Barbarella made the brightly colored cardboard sets of the same year’s Space Thing look even more hilariously quaint.
It also made Henry’s Night In and 2069 A.D.: A Sensation Odyssey (both 1969) look legitimately prehistoric. Black & white films about a henpecked husband turned sex-crazed invisible man and a time-traveling ring from the future sending wearers into the past for sexual adventures, these two movies probably had a combined production budget less than one can of Jane Fonda’s hairspray for Barbarella. They were also released at the worst possible time. Independent exploitation films had continued to ramp up not just production values but the explicit nature of their content through the 60s. Matt Cimber’s Man & Wife: An Educational Film for Married Adults (1969) finally showed unsimulated intercourse in the context of a “white coater” — a film that purportedly depicted explicit sexual content for strictly educational purposes. The vast market for softcore sex cinema that had existed throughout the 1960s rapidly imploded as hardcore moved onto the scene, instantly making all those nudies and roughies obsolete.
Meanwhile, producers in the UK took advantage of government tax breaks and subsidies for home-grown productions and pumped out sexploitation films of increasing explicitness throughout the late 50s through the early 1980s. The trajectory closely mirrored that in the States, kicking off in with nudist films like Nature’s Paradise (aka Nudist Paradise, 1958), For Members Only (aka The Nudist Story, 1960), and Naked As Nature Intended (1961). Later, filmmakers used social issues to get racy content on the screen in films like The Yellow Teddy Bears (1963, in which teenage schoolgirls wear the titular pin as a secret code to show they’ve lost their virginity) and That Kind of Girl (1963, warning of the dangers of VD). As the decade progressed, British screens saw more skin in “Mondo” style films (1965’s Primitive London), sleazy dramas (1967’s Her Private Hell), and pseudo-documentaries (1968’s Love In Our Time) until the blockbuster success of The Wife Swappers (1969) ushered in the boom years of the British sex film in the early 1970s.
While 1969’s The Nine Ages of Nakedness featured a segment including scantily-clad aliens, the first UK-produced full sci-fi sex feature was Zeta One (1969). In this film, secret agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) investigates a series of disappearances. He discovers the culprit is an envoy of alien women from the planet Angvia who have come to Earth to take women back to Angvia to help repopulate. She’ll Follow You Anywhere (aka Passion Potion, 1971) and I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight (1976) both featured scientists who create aphrodisiacs. Girl from Starship Venus (aka The Sexplorer, 1975) played on what would become another popular trope in the genre: the alien who comes to Earth and learns about sex. Spaced Out (1979) had an alien ship with a crew of beautiful women land on Earth and kidnap a few Earthlings. Sexy hijinks aboard their ship naturally ensue.
Back in the States, a number of both hardcore and softcore sci-fi sex films were released throughout the 1970s. 1972's The Orgy Machine (aka The Incredible Sex-Ray Machine) strung together a series of unrelated hardcore sex scenes (including one featuring John Holmes) by suggesting they were the results of a mad scientist’s “sex ray.” The softcore karate sci-fi epic Cries of Ecstasy, Blows of Death (1973) depicts life in a post-apocalyptic hell on Earth where the last surviving humans roam the wastelands in gas masks to scavenge when they’re not having sex in inflatable shelters and desperately trying to forget their impending doom. Jack Deveau’s gay porn Drive (1974) pits a government agent against the evil drag queen mastermind Arachne (Christopher Rage, credited as “Mary Jim Sstunning”) and her plot to steal a formula that kills the male sex drive. Sexploitation legend Joe Sarno directed a sci-fi sex comedy entitled The Switch or How to Alter Your Ego — in which a female scientist creates an aphrodisiac perfume — in 1974, the same year the most well-known American 1970s sci-fi sex film was released. Flesh Gordon (1974), a relentlessly goofy takeoff of the classic Flash Gordon serial, helped establish the “porn parody” as a style associated with sex films in the popular consciousness and cemented comedy as a component of the majority of sci-fi sex films going forward.
Adult filmmaker Carter Stevens contributed a major non-parody hardcore sci-fi feature to the canon with 1976’s Rollerbabies. Taking place in a future where overpopulation has led to sexual intercourse being outlawed and thus only performed by licensed performers for the entertainment of others. Rollerbabies caught the attention of the science fiction community at large for its inventive dystopian concept, although now it may be best remembered as being “that movie where people have sex on rollerskates.” Unfortunately, the release of Star Wars the following year would signal a big change for Hollywood that was echoed in the adult film industry. As the major studios became increasingly reliant on blockbusters from the mid-1970s, genre-based hardcore became dominated by the blockbuster parody. Star Wars (1977) was followed quickly by the hardcore sci-fi comedy Star Babe (which features “aliens” wearing Stormtrooper and Darth Vader masks and a gorilla suit-wearing sidekick named “Loogie”) the same year. Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened in December of 1977, followed not too long after by Carnal Encounters of the Barest Kind in 1978. Even non-parody genre hardcore films relied heavily on comedy: in 1979 Howard Ziehm, one of the co-directors of Flesh Gordon, returned to sci-fi with Star Virgin. In that film, the last human female in the universe learns about sex (which “began in 1950”) from a series of hardcore vignettes.
One other major hardcore genre feature from the 1970s that could have easily been another faceless parody was Anthony Spinelli’s Sex World (1978). Inspired by Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976), Sex World must have seemed like the obvious thing to do in order to capitalize on the success of those films. The setup is fairly predictable: a number of people visit a resort called Sex World to live out their sexual fantasies. Once they arrive, they learn that acting on their ultimate fantasies has serious consequences and emotional fallout for both themselves and their partners that they could not have foreseen. In other words, while Sex World could have been just another spoof of a popular franchise, instead it was an intelligent, artful film in its own right and — like some of Spinelli’s other films like Cry for Cindy (1976) — not afraid to be kind of a downer.
Throughout the 1980s, the majority of sci-fi hardcore features were comedies and/or parodies like King Dong (aka Lost on Adventure Island, 1984), Sex Wars (1985), The Xterminator (1986), and The Load Warrior (1987). However, there were still a few films that attempted to follow in the footsteps of more serious hardcore genre films of the 70s. Gerard Damiano, assured porn film history as director of Deep Throat (1972), wrote and directed The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue in 1980. Alpha Blue takes place in a utopian future where “Satisfiers” are sex workers — overwhelmingly female, although there is one male “Satisifier” in the film — whose job is to fulfill their clients’ every sexual desire. One man longs for a romantic connection and tries to make one of the “Satisfiers” fall in love with him. While hardly a serious examination of sex and relationships, The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue is not a parody of a mainstream film or even a comedy, although it does have moments of humor despite the more troubling aspects of its supposedly “perfect” future. These issues, including compulsory pregnancy for women whose names are apparently drawn in a lottery, are unsuprisingly not really addressed in the film itself.
One 1980s genre film that followed in the footsteps of the darker strain of hardcore features of the 1970s was Café Flesh (1982). Directed by Stephen Sayadian (co-writer of 1981’s surreal sci-fi/horror hardcore feature Nightdreams) under the name Rinse Dream, Café Flesh calls to mind a bleak, post-apocalyptic Rollerbabies. After a nuclear war, most of humanity’s survivors are “Sex Negatives” who can’t even touch another person without becoming violently ill. The few “Sex Positives” are required by law to perform bizarre, theatrical live sex shows for the entertainment of the Negatives, and government patrols perform occasional raids to find Positives and force them into service. Lana (scream queen Michelle Bauer, under the name “Pia Snow”) is secretly a Positive and has managed to hide it from everyone including her boyfriend Nick (Paul McGibboney). Max (Andy Nichols), the vindictive host of Café Flesh — the club Lana and Nick go to every night to watch the show—finds her out. When Positive superstar Johnny Rico (Kevin James) joins the show, Max hopes Johnny’s sexual powers will coax Lana out of hiding and away from Nick. Café Flesh features a lot of sex, but it’s a profoundly un-sexy film.
The home video market saw a massive expansion throughout the 1980s as the VCR became widely adopted and video stores became a fixture in even small towns throughout the United States. The focus for adult film distribution rapidly shifted from porn theaters screening film prints to home video, and production likewise transitioned from shooting features on film to much cheaper video. The decreasing costs of production and possibility of easy profits through home video led to a boom in production companies and home video imprints able to release much more product than ever before. While the adult industry was leaping into video and flooding the back rooms of video stores with cheap product, the home video revolution also worked to the benefit of low-budget filmmakers in general.
Throughout this video boom, savvy producers and filmmakers like Charles Band (Empire Pictures/Full Moon Entertainment), Roger Corman (New World Pictures/New Horizons), and Fred Olen Ray made and/or distributed low-budget films that reached their biggest audiences on home video and cable. These companies released many sci-fi, fantasy and horror hybrids throughout the 1980s that used nudity and sex as a selling point, including a series of films inspired by the box office success of Conan the Barbarian (1982) such as Sorceress (1982) and Barbarian Queen (1985). Corman’s Concorde Pictures distributed an English-dubbed version of Emmanuelle IV (1984), establishing a relationship to the most well-known franchise in softcore film history. Empire produced and distributed Stuart Gordon’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), both heavy on sex and gore. Ray directed Star Slammer (1986), pitched as a “women in prison” space opera, and The Phantom Empire (1988), starring Euro sex symbol Sybil Danning. Band’s companies distributed the sci-fi sex comedy Galactic Gigolo (1987), Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987), and Dr. Alien (1989), productions that wed the promise of T&A with classic B-movie sci-fi tropes. Near the end of the decade, Corman produced a remake of his own 1957 sci-fi/horror film Not of This Earth (1988) starring former porn star Traci Lords in her first “mainstream” feature, and New Horizons distributed Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders (1989).
While there was plenty of nudity on display in these films, their focus was not primarily on sex. Genre-based softcore was something of a rarity in the 1980s. In 1985 Alain Siritzky, the producer of the Emmanuelle films starring Sylvia Kristel, produced a film adaptation of Milo Manara’s graphic novel The Click. In this film, a man called Dr. Fez (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) takes revenge on his crooked employer by stealing a device that allows him to trigger a sexual frenzy in his boss’s young wife Claudia (Florence Guérin) via post-hypnotic suggestion. Shot in New Orleans, the film’s leads were both French actors and all the other characters were dubbed. In 1989, Corman’s company New Horizons produced an American version entitled The Turn-On which redubbed the leads and included several new scenes giving Dr. Fez a chance to try out the device on a series of other women before going after Claudia. In addition to retaining pretty much all the creepiness inherent in the story of the original French version, The Turn-On includes much more nudity and one presumably fatal gas truck explosion. Interestingly, these new scenes were shot by Kenneth Barrows (who worked as a 65mm camera technician on Ron Fricke’s Samsara in 2011 and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012) and future Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski.
One other softcore curiosity released near the end of the decade was also an alternate version of a different film. Droid (1988) is a re-edited version of the shot-on-video hardcore features Cabaret Sin (1987) and its sequel Empire of the Sins (1988). Running over two and a half hours together, the films are a bargain basement knockoff of Blade Runner: Taylor (Greg Derek) is an “eliminator” who tracks a stolen MacGuffin to Cabaret Sin, where he finds his ex-wife Nicola (Krista Lane) doing some sort of shady business with crime lord Turk (Herschel Savage). Nonsensical in the form of two sex-heavy hardcore features, the story is totally incoherent in the 67-minute Droid cut, which still retains a fair amount of nudity and sex.
While softcore genre features were rare in the 1980s, the increasing prevalence of VCRs and cable television in the home set the stage for an explosion in production of these films in the 1990s. While there were barely enough features of this type to count on two hands throughout the 1980s, several dozen were produced from 1990 to 1999. The adult film industry kept pace, producing considerably more genre-based films during the same period. While it had always been something of a fringe cinematic interest before, the sci-fi sex film would move much closer to the mainstream and become much bigger business starting with a familiar name in adult entertainment and a shift in popular culture away from science fiction being solely the purview of kids and “nerds.”
Huge thanks to Alpha Blue Archives, AVN, Charlie Jane Anders, Distribpix, Internet Adult Film Database, Rolfe Kanefsky, Mitch O’Connell, Simon Sheridan, Something Weird Video, Whit Strub, and Vinegar Syndrome for their work making these films available and for help both direct and indirect in compiling this list.