Nudist camps, transsexuals, penis transplants, exploding breasts...these are the plot devices that distinguish the work of the woman who ranks as one of the most prolific female directors in film history. Doris Wishman worked solely in the realm of adults-only pictures, stuffing more than two dozen films with nudity, simulated sex, and other exploitable elements. A fiercely independent director, Wishman wrote, produced, and distributed most of her films herself (often using pseudonyms to conceal her one-woman show). Her idiosyncratic style, lurid subjects, and low budgets have kept her movies under the radar of mainstream tastes, but a devoted cult has grown that appreciates her bizarre tales of sexual tension.
Originally trained as an actress (a classmate was Shelley Winters), Wishman first found work in film distribution. After the death of her first husband, she decided she needed to take her mind off the loss and embarked upon production of her premiere film, Hideout in the Sun (1960). Financed by a loan from her sister, it was the first of several nudist colony films that Wishman would make over the next four years. While not the only filmmaker exploiting the legality of nudity set within such camps, Wishman often supplied more imaginative plots than her peers, such as Nude on the Moon (1961), which concerned a pair of amateur astronauts who discover an idyllic paradise of naked beauties on the lunar surface.
When the innocent aura of the nudist film began to lose favor at the box office, Wishman followed pervading trends and moved to a darker, more violent style. In films like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Another Day, Another Man (1966), and Indecent Desires (1967), stark black-and-white photography and hand-held camerawork added unsettling touches to stories of sexual obsession, rape, degradation, and murder. While supplying the brief moments of nudity that her grindhouse audiences demanded, Wishman was also serving up a paranoid vision of womanhood that revolved around frustration and repression. Wishman's sole intent was to titillate her viewers and turn a profit, but these films had a different flavor than the "roughies" made by her male counterparts and they remain her most interesting work.
As the next decade dawned, Wishman changed again with the times and allowed her pictures to become more sexually explicit and thematically wild. The Amazing Transplant (1970) followed the sexual and criminal exploits of a man who goes insane after having his dead friend's penis grafted onto him. Two of Wishman's best-known films from this period star the massively endowed Chesty Morgan, a Polish stripper with a 73" bust. Deadly Weapons (1973) found her avenging a lover's death by smothering those responsible with her tremendous chest. Double Agent 73 (1974) cast Morgan as a spy with a secret camera concealed in one breast that will self-destruct if her mission isn't completed on time. Let Me Die a Woman (1978) was a unique (if factually suspect) documentary about sex change operations, complete with graphic surgery footage, simulated sex scenes, and actual nude transsexuals displaying their refashioned genitalia. Wishman avoided pornographic detail in these films, instead opting to please her viewers with outrageous scenarios and copious nudity. Despite her distaste for hardcore, Wishman reportedly helmed a few full-on porn titles in the mid-'70s, though the director has disowned these productions.
With adult cinema focused squarely on gynecological close-ups, Wishman decided to follow a new exploitation angle. She began work on A Night to Dismember (1983), a gory slasher film that might have provided a new career path. Unfortunately, the movie took several years to complete, thanks to budgetary concerns and a bizarre incident in which a disgruntled photo lab employee destroyed a large portion of the negative. Wishman finished the film against all odds, refashioning the story with outtakes and overdubbed narration. The result is an incomprehensible, yet uniquely surreal take on the splatter genre. The film was barely released, and Wishman retired in its wake.
Wishman's films have gained a new audience in recent years amongst cult film fanatics who are drawn to the director's unique visual and narrative style. Each film is filled with non sequitur close-ups of lamps, ashtrays, and other mundane household items. Plots move sluggishly (or not at all), jumping suddenly to violent, dreamlike twists in logic. There is a strange focus on her characters' feet and jittery hand-held cinematography. While initially disorienting to viewers accustomed to mainstream films, Wishman's bizarre non-techniques are so recognizable in all of her work that they become endearing. Her career resurrected by retrospective screenings of her productions at film festivals, Wishman returned to directing, releasing Satan Was a Lady (1999, not to be confused with her 1975 porn feature of the same title) and Dildo Heaven (2001).