In the landmark 1964 essayiii “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag also draws the squiggly historical line from opera to 1960s camp. She even goes so far as to list early 19th century Vincenzo Bellini operas as part of the “canon of camp” - that and Flash Gordon comics. The camp-opera comparison doesn’t fully work, but then maybe that’s what makes it camp. There’s no over-the-top singing in Sins of the Fleshapoids (though the narrator, Bob Cowan, does adopt a nice vibrato), and in fact, Fleshapoids doesn’t even have sync sound. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome, dialogue is relayed through poorly placed speech bubbles. Stylistically, however, operas probably pioneered some of the best old-time melodrama and outright outlandishness that money can buy – and camp definitely borrows from that theatricality. But you don’t have to speak Italian to go to the opera, and you don’t really have to know what the hell is going on in a camp movie to appreciate the goodness that is badness in camp.
What is going on in Sins of the Fleshapoids is that human beings a million years into the future have managed to survive ‘The Great War’ that nearly wiped out the entire planet. Humans decide that their pursuit of knowledge and science got them in that big, giant nuclear mess, so they decide to do nothing instead. Well, nothing except gaze at jewels, “pump their mouths with nature’s fruit,” and “indulge in the fulfillment of the senses.” Basically, they have a lot of sex. To make their lives as lusty and lazy as possible, human beings managed to create a slave race of robots draped in flesh (hence, "fleshapoids") to do their every bidding. You know, real human hardships like bathing yourself. Eventually, though it’s not totally clear why or how, certain fleshapoids evolved to develop their own emotions and sensations. Suffice it to say that Xariv (Bob Cowan, who also plays the narrator), one such sentient fleshapoid, was bound to turn on a master whose most demanding part of the day was covering herself in glitter and flowers and gazing at her own reflection. Xar kills his master to be with his true love Malenka, another sentient fleshapoid who serves Prince Gianbeno (played by Kuchar brother George), and they make crazy, wild finger sex. Then the sins of the fleshapoids are on. After some more murders, betrayals, and general infidelity, Malenka (spoiler alert) gives birth to a humming baby robot in a scene of disturbing mechanical-childbirth agony. It’s interesting that the positive and negative opposite charges coursing through the love-oiled wires of Xar and Malenka are the jolts that both create and destroy. But maybe that’s just life, fleshapoid or otherwise.
Like the baby toy robot was born out of fleshapoid finger sex, Sins was engendered by factors so quintessentially 60s that it’s hard to imagine it being made in any time other than the American Underground movement. Fleshapoids came out just a few years after Tsar Bomba, the world’s largest tested nuclear weapon, was released in a fractional state by the Soviet Union. At full force, Tsar Bomba (or Big Ivan) would have been hot and heavy enough to cause third-degree burns even 62 mi away. Three years before Fleshapoids was released, the United States experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). With contemporary films like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), a sci-fi movie premise based on an earth-shaking nuclear war and ultimate rejection of science-based destruction (excluding beating your fleshapoid) was one that, all campiness aside, questioned the times it lived in.
Despite the nuclear scares and occasional cloud over Nevada, Sins also came in a time of free love! And what love could be freer than the liberated love of two enslaved robots? Due in part to relaxed censorship laws in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the sexploitation genre was just taking off. Sexually explicit films could actually be distributed – but not without a fight. Contemporary filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith had their films (Scorpio Rising and Flaming Creatures, respectively) yanked by the police at the premieres for obscenity, but a slew of Supreme Court cases such as MANual Enterprises v. Day, Memoirs v. Massachusetts, and Redrup v. New York redefined what it meant to be “obscene,” thereby putting more work under the protected by the First Amendment umbrella. From our perspective, Sins of the Fleshapoids is pretty tame. There’s no real nudity, hyped up on sexuality (both fleshapoid and human in nature) as it is. At the end of the day, Sins of the Fleshapoids is too romantic to be a show of sexploitation. The unlikely love of robots implies that any being, no matter what matter, can experience love. Xar and Malenka’s show us that aluminum hearts can be softened just as human hearts can be hardened, and that perhaps pleasure is not independent of work.
Ok, maybe that’s stretching it. Part of the inherent contradiction of camp is that to succeed, it must fail; and to fail in camp would be to succeed. For a camp movie to “work,” it can’t work at all. It must be off from the status quo of taste and aim directly at missing the mark. Sontag writes, “A work can come close to Camp, but not make it, because it succeeds.” Perhaps, then, the way the Kuchar brothers slip our minds (if faded underground allowed them to slip in, in the first place) makes Sins of the Fleshapoids the ultimate camp film. The Kuchar brothers forgotten influence and meager cult following is at once a successful failure and a failed success, like the turn of a fleshapoid on an unruly master.
i Mike and George Kuchar also worked on many movies independently. In Sins of the Fleshapoids, for example, George Kuchar stars in the movie as Prince Gianbeno, but Mike Kuchar is the only brother who directed the film.
Other works consulted:
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.