The Erotic Shades of Zalman King, Part I

April 11, 2012 | By

I’ll always contend that somewhere during the run of Red Shoe Diaries, the 1992-1996 erotic series conceived by Zalman King for Showtime, King realized he was a brand name, and spent much of his remaining years exploiting that brand in lesser creative venues.

Prior to his passing at the age of 69 in February, King seemed to be prepping an extension of his brand via a new website,, which espoused “It’s not just a website. It’s a lifestyle.”

It’s a tagline that’s catchy, cheeky, but also saddening because it represents the final shift for a filmmaker who had creatively downsized from theatrical feature films to an interactive internet venture that’s plainly undistinguished. Whatever the site may have ultimately matured into, at least from the wan promo tease, it’s as indistinct as generic softcore fodder, with cheap reality-based, interactive extras ranging from ‘never before behind-the-scenes’ materials to “Amateur video submissions from the girls next door hoping to be discovered by Zalman.”

The promised site is neither interesting nor particularly creative, and it makes you wonder how the former TV actor, who successfully journeyed into writing and directing, lost his mojo as a brand supervisor.

There are some filmmakers who have a mere handful of stories to tell, but I doubt that fully applied to King, because even if one can see a recurrent story in his work – often it’s a woman (usually an ingénue type) who becomes wiser, stronger, and emancipated after an intense sexual journey – there were character nuances which distinguished his films from the banal fodder designed to fill cable TV slots during the eighties and nineties.

King’s writing – solo, or as collaborative works – was often unintentionally amusing; it’s not hard to pinpoint specific scenes or dialogue in his breakthrough script, 9 ½ Weeks [M] (just released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video) because there’s a pretense for erotic poetry and deep thought. It’s a style that remained constant in most of his work, including In God’s Hands (1998), the surfing film he co-wrote with the film’s co-star, Matt George. The movie is about surfers, but it’s also filled with a pretense of Deep Drama that in the finished film comes off as silly and tin-eared, but what makes the film kind of work is King’s innately sleek visual style, which he arguably gleaned from Weeks director Adrian Lyne but refined into his own commercial style: rich, saturated pastel colours, ever-moving camera, kinetic editing, and the use of music to either propel montages or slow down seductive sequences so characters had a detailed arc towards their points of emotional or sexual high.

Debauchery may have gotten similarly nuanced treatment, but sexual violence in King’s oeuvre happened fast: his handling of Blue’s indoctrination into a chicken house versus her near-assault by a smooth talking client in Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue is respectively epic and compact because King’s sensibilities weren’t into violence, but the path of a character’s self-fulfillment, which sounds like an utterly pretentious claim except for the fact there are plenty of examples within King’s film and TV work. Even in Weeks, the film’s strongest scenes deal with the seductive, power-struggling dance between John and Elizabeth; that film has more psychological depth than King’s own efforts – Wild Orchid 2 excepted – but it’s a signal of where King’s keen interest lay.

I hypothesize that during Red Shoe Diaries he had pair of epiphanies: he realized his fixation on Seduction was unique, and could be re-exploited time and again in familiar variations (hence the show’s 4-year run, cranking out 50+ episodes); and he realized the show signaled an opportunity to brand himself.

‘Zalman King’ became synonymous with sophisticated erotica – at least that’s what the brand espoused and pretended to sell in spite of some truly nutty film scenarios. During the Red Shoe Diaries period, King produced several TV movies which served as vehicles for some of the production members of his TV series, and they propagated the formula, or at least ensured it remained in line with the commercial qualities inherent to the King brand.

1998 was the year where King peaked, but the brand had creatively run its course due to the dramatic banality of the TV movie stories, the sameness of the look and sound of each teleplay, and networks that didn’t seem to care anymore about his work.

This is pure theory, but one need only look at Steven Spielberg for some contrast: after the massive success of E.T. (1982), Spielberg executive produced films designed to exploit his commercial view of fantastical events in middle class suburbia in films – Poltergeist [M] (1984), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), *batteries not included (1987) – and TV – Amazing Stories (1985-1987) – with very mixed results, but being a greater visionary (and more business savvy), Spielberg alternated between family fantasies and adult-styled dramas to maintain a creative edge while ensuring his brand name still offered variations on suburban misadventures for nuclear families in cinemas and TV.

Like Spielberg, King also produced films prior to his own directorial efforts, working with directors like Alan Rudolph – Roadie (1980), Endangered Species (1982) – but on a much smaller scale, and with indie filmmakers sharing similarly rich visual styles. King’s early directorial efforts were significant (and admittedly dramatically goofy, if not slickly trashy) – Two Moon Junction (1988), Wild Orchid (1989), and Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue (1991) – because they contained the key stages where his style advanced from rough to refined, and by the time he’d made Wild Orchid 2, King had found the look and sound that defined himself as a filmmaker, and perhaps his creative biggest gamble was the film adaption of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (1995), starring Red Shoe Diaries alumnus Audie England.

In 1998, however, whatever material bore his imprimatur was decidedly less earnest, and it presaged his creative downslide. His NBC TV series Wind on Water, starring Bo Derek, was axed after 2 episodes had aired, and pieces of music from his company’s stock library – songs and score cuts from Wild Orchid in particular – were repurposed in episodes of Red Shoe Diaries, and in the films Boca (1994) and In God’s Hands. It sounds trivial, but the re-use of images, tired themes, and music showed a producer trying to stick with a brand instead of venturing into new territory, and showing less interest in testing his creative drive. Most of his TV fodder degenerated into tales of strippers, sultry radio DJs, a repurposed tanker packed with naughty buffed models, or revisiting the Red Shoe Diary brand.

By the mid-nineties, King was no longer working with name actors or up-and coming talent, the music in his films was banal, and it was rare when a feature film enjoyed a theatrical release. (A colleague who said he’d attended In God’s Hands at TIFF said the screening was peppered with laughter from the fickle audience.)

Perhaps more grating to fans, there was no interest in exploiting the brand name on home video. Early theatrical films were released on DVD as part of studio commitments, and prior TV movies appeared on VHS during their initial release and the odd Region 2 DVD, but Red Shoe Diaries – perhaps his perfect cash cow – was never given a full series release on DVD. Soundtrack albums regurgitated songs he owned and had re-used in other films and TV, and the lush scores by George S. Clinton, who scored 5 films & teleplays for King, were never commercially released.

There were also no special editions of his best films – either because the labels didn’t care, or King himself showed no interest. Perhaps he felt the past should stay in the past, or the past reminded him of better days. Perhaps he felt there hadn’t been a project about which he felt sufficiently passionate enough to discuss, or maybe he was a private person who just didn’t like discussing his career. Not everyone can sit through their work and provide a compelling narrative, and King’s passion seemed to be to press on with the next project; home video special editions just weren’t that important.

In their tribute blog post to King by home video label Code Red, they mention an audio commentary he recorded for their planned DVD of the 1975 exploitation film Trip with the Teacher, in which he played a psycho taunting leggy teachers in the desert, and after recording 75 mins. worth of reminiscences, King seemed to realize there was some personal reward in revisiting older works and recording one’s own history for posterity.

With his passing in February, so disappeared an important pioneer of American erotica, and while his best work was far behind him, fans never doubted there was a passion behind the man – it just got a little misdirected, or perhaps overwhelmed by the demands of brand management.

The only significant interview King gave that comes to mind was for Premiere magazine, during the making of Wild Orchid 2, which was likely around 1990, when the film was known as “Blue Movie Blue” before it was slapped with a franchise name and number that bore no relation to the original Wild Orchid. At least, that’s the tone I recall from the piece because Premiere is long gone, and my hardcopy is probably buried in deep storage, far away from my hands.

I would’ve liked to have added a second and more detailed Q&A from my end, but that never happened – most likely because the project slipped my mind far too many times, and whenever his name appeared on a new project, it sounded so remote from his best (and more earnest) work that there seemed no point. Maybe he would’ve been surprised and annoyed by the interest and dissection of his themes and peculiar fixations, but the conclusion of the proposed piece would’ve been simple: the man deserved his due. It’s not hard to find his influence, in terms of style, within commercial TV erotica because he figured out a formula that sold well, but it only works if there’s a heart behind the filmmaker, and it’s there in his best work, which I’ll revisit in the coming months, perhaps trying to write the retrospective that never came to fruition.

Why Zalman King, you ask?

Why not?



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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