She'll Take Romance

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NOW, JUDD, KISS THE BACK OF HER leg. Suck her toe," says the director, an attractive woman dividing her concentration between a yellow legal pad and a pair of writhing actors under a hot bank of lights. "Thank you. That's enough of that."

Time was when 42-year-old Deborah Shames, an award-winning Sausalilo-based industrial and documentary filmmaker, fretted more about getting her facts right than about the proper placement of a heaving gluteus max. Her early films include such titles as Treating the Chemically Dependent Woman and Her Child and the American Academy of Ophthalmology's Patient Education Series. But eight years ago, in a conversation with her friend, sex therapist and author Lonnie Barbach, Shames was lamenting the dearth of video erotica for women—and vowed she could do better than traditional, male-oriented porn.

The result is Cabin Fever, an older woman-younger man saga that, with its emphasis on subdued lighting and romance rather than anatomy, is blazing a trail in the nascent market of erotica by and for women. Softer than hard-core and embellished with classical music during the heavy-breathing scenes, Cabin Fever tells the story of Lenore, a middle-aged artist who falls for Jack, a well-muscled handyman, in a secluded mountain retreat. It may not be Shakespeare (Jack: "You want me to scrub your back?" Lenore: "Actually, that would be nice." Jack: "Your bathtub needs caulking"), but it has scored big-time with viewers, selling about 3,000 copies nationwide (at $29.95 each) in the three months since its release. "It's been pandemonium," says Rick Zea, co-owner of Borderline Entertainment video store in Santa Clara, Calif., who has sold some 400 copies. In July the Playboy Channel will begin ailing the 45-minute video—exactly one year after Shames and her crew began Cabin Fever's four-day shoot. The director, whose four-year marriage to filmmaker George Burdeau ended in divorce in 1981, had exactly two actors in her employ. Her leading lady is 48-year-old Belinda Farrell, mother of two and a onetime Snow White at Disneyland, who most recently starred in an oral-surgery film. The handyman role, meanwhile, went to Judd Dunning, 26, an aspiring actor and graduate of the Anaheim Psychic Institute. Fortunately for Shames, whose relatively meager $125,000 budget did not allow for many retakes, the actors were quick studies. "A couple of times I yelled cut," says the director, "but they didn't even hear me."

Not that Shames' first-time erotic foray was without headaches. "Ordinarily when you're making love, you don't think about how you're going to set up the next scene," she says. "But you do when you're shooting an erotic film."

She also had to keep her visiting 15-year-old nephew, Joshua, from getting too much of an eyeful on the set. "He was helping the grip, the makeup department and the caterers," says Shames. "But the deal I made with my sister is that he couldn't watch the actors or the monitor. He said he wasn't interested, but no one believed him."

Despite some initial trepidation, Shames' family is enthusiastic enough about her venture that her mother, Mickey Fishman, 65, a Chicago housewife, is even marketing Cabin Fever to her local video stores. "I tell them, 'It's not what you think. I'm Deborah's mother,' " she says. " 'I've got five grandchildren!' "

So successful is Cabin Fever, in fact, that Shames plans to film a series of three one-hour erotic videos aimed at the women's market. For now, juggling work for clients like the American Medical Association—and a telephone jangling with Cabin Fever orders—she manages to walk the fine line between the scientific and the scandalous. Some callers may be given information on Shames' latest technical film. To others, though, she says simply, "Don't worry, it's being sent in a plain brown paper bag."

JOHNNY DODD in San Francisco

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