Lila AKA Mantis in Lace (1968)

To Love Her Was to Die!

Theatrical poster for 1968's Lila AKA Mantis in Lace

Lila (sexploitation startled Susan Stewart) is a stripper at a burlesque house who has a tendency to select a male member of the audience and take them out for a night they won’t ever forget. After one such encounter leads to her taking a hit of LSD, though, she spirals into lunacy and introduces drugs and bloody murder into her evening routine. As hacked-up body parts begin being discovered around town, the case lands on the desk of homicide cops Sergeant Collins (Steve Vincent) and Lieutenant Ryan (James Brand).

This is a sleazy, cheesy, psychotic, and psychedelic sexed-up romp from start to finish. It runs much longer than the story necessitates, and devolves into repetition too often, but when it is actually moving forward, there’s a bit of fun to be had. Not for the faint of heart or the sexually repressed. Or for anyone afraid of bananas.

To say that this movie is heavily padded would be putting it lightly, but it would also be missing the point. The intention behind the film wasn’t to tell a great story, but rather to pander to two distinctive audiences: the nudie set, and the horror set (and if the two of them intersect, then that’s all the better). The real point of the movie is to show off a little gore (that cheap, down-and-dirty drive-in style stuff) and a whole lot of gyrating and jiggling flesh. That’s why we spend such an inordinate amount of time with people who have no bearing whatsoever on the story, like the other dancers in the club who exist only to climb on stage and exhibit their mammaries for five minutes at a time. There’s even a completely random scene smack dab in the middle of the movie where a wannabe stripper gets the casting couch treatment from the owner of the club. If you’re thinking that either of these characters are going to become important members of the cast, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

Sex scene from 1968's Lila AKA Mantis in Lace

Unfortunately for us, the striptease scenes drag on well past the point of titillation and quickly become rather tiresome. Even the actual sex scenes are rather dull, unless you enjoy looking at a man’s bare back for extended periods of time. LILA was made a few years before hardcore pornography would be available theatrically, so I guess this is what audiences had to make do with. Poor schlubs.

The acid trip scenes are done in the way that was typical of the era—a lot of colored camera filters and weird lighting effects—but there were occasionally brief glimpses of some bizarre hallucination (at one point, Lila sees a surgeon that isn’t actually there). They’re entertaining in a naive sort of way, but would have been better if they pushed the envelope farther than the standard. To go along with the mod acid scenes, we get a lot of groovy dialogue that is charmingly dated (if indeed people ever spoke like that).

Dr. Franks from 1968's Lila AKA Mantis in Lace

One of the best scenes involves psychologist Frank (last name unrevealed, played by Stuart Lancaster), who hangs out in gogo clubs and strip joints under the auspices of doing research on the “psychedelic generation”. As soon as Lila shows an interest in him, though, he is just as interested in her body as he is her mind—but at least he remains professional enough to refuse the LSD she offers him, and to attempt to analyze her during foreplay (“Interesting…interesting case.”). This scene would have been the perfect time to expose why Lila had gone bonkers, but it simply was not meant to be.

Oddly, it’s never exactly revealed why Lila suddenly becomes a homicidal maniac. It’s unlikely that it all stems from a bad trip—if that were the case, you suspect she would stop dropping acid—and there is some indistinct trauma in her past that is only hinted at. “They made me do things I didn’t want to do,” she tells one of her victims, and then proceeds to ramble on about her hatred for cucumbers, watermelons and bananas. Especially bananas. Always with the bananas.

Just like Sister Sarah in EVIL COME, EVIL GO, Lila has her own theme song (“She’ll take your hand/she’ll understand/she’ll take your heart and soul/young or old/mantis in lace”), but unlike Sister Sarah, Lila puts it on whenever she feels the need to perform a striptease. It was written by Vic Lance, who composed music for other “classics” like THE JOYS OF JEZEBEL (1970), THE EXOTIC DREAMS OF CASANOVA (1971), and THE DIRTY MIND OF YOUNG SALLY (1973). He was something of an actor, as well, and even appeared in this film as Tiger, Lila’s first victim who turned her onto LSD.

The song was performed by Lynn Harper, who had once been a country western singer, as well as an actress on classic sitcom MY THREE SONS and the biopic THE CHRISTINE JORGENSON STORY (1970). She has worn a lot of hats since, including radio personality, talk show host, and newspaper columnist, and these days frequently shows up as a commentator on CNN and MSNBC. When I asked her, Harper did confirm that she and the “Lila” singer were one and the same, and that while under a recording contract to Gene Autry, she was sometimes required to record songs for films. She even attended the film’s premiere, and was greatly impressed that she not only received screen credit, but credit in all of the advertisements, as well.

Susan Stewart as seen in 1968's Lila AKA Mantis in Lace

Most of the cast and crew had a hand in other sexploitation films. The script was written by Sanford White, whose only other credits are 1967’s FREE LOVE CONFIDENTIAL (writer and producer) and 1970’s THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION (director). Director William Rotsler, on the other hand, seems to have lived a life big enough that even a book couldn’t hold it all. He grew up on a ranch, participated in WWII, attended a year of college, went to art school, became a sculptor, became a nudie photographer, helped Marilyn Monroe shop for a house, appeared in films, began making industrial films (for Carnation, Mattel, Lockheed, etc), began making feature films, began writing non-fiction books (Contemporary Erotic Cinema), began writing fiction, began writing licensed material (for Marvel Comics and STAR TREK, among others) and novelizations (THE A-TEAM, GREASE 2, a “Plot Your Own Adventure Story” for STAYING ALIVE, and even JOANIE LOVES CHACHI!), and wrote for, drew for, and published fanzines. He published more than 50 books, titled Harlan Ellison’s famous short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, supplied Uhura from Star Trek with a first name, was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo awards, and I have barely even scratched the surface. He was the sort of person who alters pop culture from beneath the surface, so you are familiar with him without even knowing it. He also brought us movies like AGONY OF LOVE (1966), THE GIRL WITH THE HUNGRY EYES (1967), SUBURBAN PAGANS (1968), THE GODSON (1971), and STREET OF A THOUSAND PLEASURES (1972). He passed away in 1997 at the age of 71, but left behind an epic and expansive body of work.

Stuart Lancaster, who played psychologist Frank, has the most interesting filmography, running the gamut from Russ Meyer films (MUDHONEY and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, both 1965) to sleazy softcore (THAR SHE BLOWS, 1968, and THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF ROMEO AND JULIET, 1969) to TV shows (THE OUTER LIMITS, 1963, and THE FUGITIVE, 1966) and mainstream features (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, 1990, and BATMAN RETURNS, 1992), His grandfather, Charles Ringling, was one of the founders of the Ringling Brothers Circus, of which Stuart Lancaster became a stockholder in after both of his grandparents died. At the time of his death in 2000, he was married to Russian actress Ivy Bethune.

LILA is also known as MANTIS IN LACE, and was released in at least two different theatrical versions—one capitalizing more on the sex, and one capitalizing more on the violence. The version appearing on the Something Weird DVD release appears to combine elements of both, and is said to be the most complete version available. Included as a bonus feature are outtakes and unused footage that runs longer than the film itself, so an industrious superfan could theoretically piece together an extended fan edit that would defy all comprehension.

On a side note, there are multiple synopses of this film written online that state Lila’s modus operandi is that she murders men with garden tools. These synopses all appear to have been written by people who have not actually seen the film. Aside from a single murder utilizing a garden hoe, everyone is dispatched with either a screwdriver or a meat cleaver, and if you think those constitute garden tools, it’s no wonder your tomatoes are garbage.


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