Harry H Novak: 'The Sultan of Sexploitation' behind cult hits like 'Mondo Mod' and 'The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet'


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The Independent Online

Between 1964 and 1978 the American producer and distributor Harry H Novak put B-movies such as the "monster nudie" Kiss Me Quick!, the needs-no-explanation The Secret Sex Lives Of Romeo And Juliet and the low-budget crime drama A Scream In The Streets into grindhouses and drive-ins and gave millions of teenagers throughout the US cheap thrills and scares-a-plenty. Known as "the Sultan of Sexploitation", Novak was a contemporary of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman, as well as the producer David F Friedman, the "Trash Film King", and shared the latter's penchant for lurid posters that promised more than they delivered.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Novak began working for RKO Pictures in his teens, distributing posters and lobby cards to exhibitors. After a spell in the army he returned to the company controlled by Howard Hughes and switched to booking and selling films and designing ads. Handling a wide range of movies, including the Walt Disney pictures that were distributed by RKO until 1953, provided the perfect training for his subsequent activities.

Purportedly the last employee to leave the RKO lot after the company's collapse in 1957, he switched to distributing exploitation fare. He masterminded the dubbing into English of Flamman, a Swedish melodrama about a girl in a reform school, and gave it the more alluring title Girls Without Rooms. He turned a decent profit with this venture and reinvented several foreign films for the US exploitation market after forming the grandly titled Boxoffice International Pictures company.

In 1964, using the pseudonym Seymour Tuchus he produced Dr Breedlove, a demented spoof of The Bride of Frankenstein and Dr Strangelove, shot in six days and swiftly renamed Kiss Me Quick! to avoid a lawsuit from Stanley Kubrick. Novak mined the "nudie cutie" seam with movies like The Agony Of Love and The Girl With The Hungry Eyes but also jumped on the "Mondo" documentary bandwagon with the pseudo-Hollywood exposés of Mondo Mod and Suburban Pagans. In 1968 the genuinely disturbing counter-culture slasher horror of Mantis In Lace, directed by William Rotsler, made excellent use of the Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács, a Novak regular before he worked on Easy Rider.

Even more than Meyer, Novak drifted towards "hicksploitation" with Country Cuzzins, Southern Comforts and Sassy Sue, when he wasn't milking the classics with The Notorious Cleopatra and The Exotic Dreams Of Casanova. Another of Novak's notorious productions, Please Don't Eat My Mother!, was an adult riff on exploitation auteur Roger Corman's masterpiece The Little Shop Of Horrors.

In the 1980s he directed a couple of hardcore films under the alias H Hershey before enjoying something of a renaissance with the re-release of his "Harry Novak presentations" on video and then DVD, for which he provided hilarious commentaries. He was interviewed alongside other maverick independents for the 2001 documentary SCHLOCK! The Secret History Of American Movies. "When I was a kid, my daddy told me, 'There's a buyer for everything,'" he said. "And I lived to find out that he was right."

Harry H Novak, film producer and distributor: born Chicago 12 January 1928; died Los Angeles 26 March 2014.