In director José Ramón Larraz’s sexploitation debut, young model Tulia accepts an invitation to stay at middle-aged photographer Sarah’s country house. There she meets Sarah’s nephew Theo, also a photographer. The pair try to seduce Tulia, who’s torn between hedonistic desire and cautionary anxiety. As Theo’s methods grow more extreme, Tulia uncovers a mystery surrounding her predecessor, a model named Rhonda.
The opening scenes of Theo rowing around an algae-leaden pond under overcast skies and surrounded by barren trees establish the ominous atmosphere. A similar barren chill would permeate Wes Craven’s debut, The Last House on the Left, two years later.
But Larraz feels far less assured than Craven. Rather that trust his audience, Larraz spoon feeds the mystery, lingering on shots to hammer home their importance. Rather than trust his cast, Larraz has them verbalize their emotions and deliver stilted exposition. For example, an early scene has Tulia saying, “I feel overpowered by you, Sarah,” and then a moment later, when talking about the surrounding woods, Sarah says, “It’s a place where reality and fantasy mix.”
But I can look past cringe-worthy dialogue if it’s in service of an arresting story. Whirlpool idles. None of the characters display any depth, which hinders our emotional investment in Tulia, who remains no more than a pretty face. Instead, we get scenes of Sarah, Theo and Tulia sitting around the living room drinking, playing cards, and taking walks in the woods. A flimsy mystery emerges that we suss out long before Tulia, leaving us little reason to engage outside of an incestuous threesome sequence where Theo ignores Tulia in favor of his aunt.
This scene will nauseate some viewers, while others will appreciate the audaciousness. It succeeds in its intent to shock, but the relative dead air surrounding it disappoints. By the time Tulia intuits what we’ve already suspected, the big reveal in the Rhonda mystery feels tame in comparison.
Indeed, the Rhonda plot proves a MacGuffin, a point Larraz emphasises with a nihilistic ending that almost pushes the film into mean-spirited territory. But an early scene showing another model opting to leave after one night in Sarah’s company conveys Larraz’s intent of the story as a dark fairy tale.
Tulia strays from the path and suffers because of it. A theme that would become a trope in later slashers with the sex-equals-death formula that saw teen couples killed post coitus. Whirlpool isn’t that reductive—offering Tulia an out after the threesome sequence—but it’s in the neighborhood.
Thus the film, like much of Larraz’s work, lands in a middle-ground between sexploitation and horror. The violence may repulse sexploitation fans, while horror fans may struggle to engage with the languid pacing and deviant sexuality.
As an academic exercise, horror scholars should appreciate the film’s place in ushering in the wave of gritty 70s horror with its rural setting and unflinching look at deviant family dynamics and sexual aggression, but others may come away disappointed. I admired Larraz’s commitment to telling an unpalatable story, but the result underwhelmed.