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RED LIGHT IN THE WHITE HOUSE (1977).

Writer-director Paul Leder is best known for effective low-rent horror dreck like MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING and I DISMEMBER MAMA, but he took a very different route with this post-Watergate tale of sex, corruption and abuse of government power. Although chock full of lurid, exploitable elements -- nudity, rape, prostitution, lesbians -- its refreshingly cynical attitude nudges it above the usual drive-in drivel. It also poses an intriguing question: should an honest politician be destroyed by immoral past actions? Karin Mary Shea stars as Su-Shan Andrews, a Senator's widow who's running as a no-bullshit indie candidate, but male fat-cat politicians hope to sabotage her campaign by paying newspaper columnist David Sutton (Frank Whiteman) 50 grand to dig up dirt on her past. An orphan of English missionaries, Su-Shan was raised in Taiwan, until a teen-marriage to a G.I. brought her to the US, and Sutton tracks down her subsequent string of stateside lovers. There's a black boxer who refused to take a dive for the mob and is saved by Su-Shan, who agreed to work off his debt as a hooker; a female night-school-teacher who bedded the underage girl; plus a '50s movie-star stud who married her so she could (1) be a beard for his queer lifestyle and (2) fulfill his fetish to watch Hollywood's leading men screw her. Sutton easily uncovers these sordid secrets, but no matter how tawdry they initially sound, they ultimately make Su-Shan sound like a caring saint who only used her sexuality for good -- which soon has Sutton questioning his destructive mission. He also gets a face-to-face interview with Su-Shan, who recalls how her job for a California liberal's (Clayton Wilcox) Senate campaign led to marriage and even dirtier laundry involving the highest levels of government. The film's title is a bit deceptive though, since nothing actually occurs around the White House until the end, when Su-Shan services the President in exchange for her hubbie's V.P. nomination. The melodramatic territory might be cheesy, but Leder maintains a dead-serious tone, with outstanding work from the raven-haired Ms. Shea. From all indications, this was her only film, but Shea's natural appeal makes her stand out amongst the usual '70s sexploitation fixtures. The rest of the cast is also populated by unknowns, but none are too embarrassing. Downsides include atrocious old-age-makeup and a few bizarre moments that detract from the overall story. What's with the mobster threatening someone with a live parrot? Or Su-Shan forced to strip in a boxing ring? Of course, nowadays its biggest leap of logic is seeing a reporter who actually has scruples, but since this was created in the altruistic era of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, I'll give its naiveté a pass.

© 2007 by Steven Puchalski.