A world-weary hooker named Liz (Theresa Russell) recounts her sorry life directly to camera while hustling curb-crawlers on the seedy streets of LA. We learn Liz is trying desperately to avoid her psychotic pimp Blake (Benjamin Moutin). Though they are ostensibly in a relationship, his violent temper has Liz fear for her life. Between picking up johns and reminiscing about the past including a failed marriage, a son she was forced to give up for adoption and horrific incidents where she was raped and brutalized, Liz waxes philosophical about men, relationships, sex and whether her life has any real purpose or value. She also strikes a friendship with a Jamaican street musician (Antonio Fargas, yes Huggy Bear himself from TV's Starsky & Hutch!) who gets on the wrong side of Blake. With a murderous pimp on the prowl, Liz must bang one more high-rolling john if she is to survive the night.
Always one to blow a raspberry in the face of Hollywood, ageing British enfant terrible Ken Russell produced this sleazy satirical drama as a riposte to the glossy fairytale of happy hooker-dom that was Pretty Woman (1990). However, Whore drew a far harsher critical response and sadly it is not hard to see why. Russell sets the tone from the opening shot of cars driving through a tunnel, the least subtle of all cinematic sexual metaphors, then sledgehammers it home with a crass reggae song called "Doing the Bang" performed by Fascinating Force ("I want to bang her! I want to bang her!") Seemingly picking up where his earlier, acclaimed psychosexual drama Crimes of Passion (1985) left off, Russell adopts a similar strategy of cartoonish neon visuals paired with caricatured performances that in this instance undoes the attempt to posit a gritty, cynical counterpoint to the Hollywood rom-com. He assembles the film from scattershot elements that don't gel, juxtaposing an often horrific expose of LA's seedy underbelly with strangely shrill Fifties style melodrama (something reinforced by Michael Gibbs' score though it also features some very Nineties dance tracks) and a familiarly saucy sense of humour that too often trips into the plain crass with vomit gags and a comedy Indian caricature straight out of a mid-Seventies sitcom.
The film was adapted from "Bondage" an award-winning monologue written by David Hines whose eclectic career encompassed an acting role in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) along with a stint as a London taxi driver. In fact Hines was inspired by a conversation shared with a prostitute he drove. Russell conjures a neon lit hell that proves depressing without being particularly affecting (save for the moment Liz reminisces about the son she had to give up) and crassly comedic without raising any real satirical insights. At times the director's attitude towards Liz teeters uncomfortably between empathy and patronising bemusement at her gauche behaviour in a French restaurant where Ken cameos as a snooty waiter. Also look out for a young Danny Trejo as a philosophical tattooist. The two primary messages: that prostitutes lead miserable, degrading lives and men who pay for sex are quite often nasty individuals, are hardly earth-shattering revelations though Russell does raise the salient point that things would be far better if society did not heap disdain on sex workers themselves and instead sought to legalize prostitution and eliminate pimps from the equation.
Throughout a brief time as a major star Theresa Russell took on riskier roles than your average sex symbol. Not all of them panned out. Her very broad and brassy turn as Liz undeniably fits the tone of a Ken Russell movie but now and then she slips in winning notes of pathos and melancholy. Saddled with an NC-17 rating that put paid to its commercial prospects in the US, Whore slunk onto home video and pay-per-view in R-rated and unrated versions, in some instances adopting its tagline ("If You Can't Say It, See It") as an alternative title. It proved the last major theatrical release from Russell who, despite helming a well received BBC adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1992), never really regained his standing until after his death and ended his career with a run of low-budget obscurities. Remarkably, this film spawned an entirely unrelated sequel: Whore 2 (1994) written and directed by Amos Kollek featuring a cast of real prostitutes.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.