Several years before his first mainstream film — and the controversy surrounding it — Trigger & Sledge director Russell Kandar made his name with low-budget pornographic movies. Kandar prided himself with his voluminous output, releasing over 40 adult films in 1970 alone. In some of his later works, particularly Meeting Richard Johnson and Missy Lou’s Dairy Farm, Kandar began to show off a previously unseen flair for storytelling, even mixed with the hardcore pornography inherit to his career field. The best example of Kandar’s cinematic eye has to be Columbus: The Devil Explorer.

Columbus is Kandar’s take on the Christopher Columbus story, but told through a twisted, dark lens. Taking a cue from the exploitation films that were growing in popularity, Kandar infuses the film with a griminess that truly gets under your skin.

His Columbus, played by Italian theater actor Lorenzo Giacomo, is downright reprehensible, groping women and slurring most of his lines, giving truth to the rumor that Giacomo was constantly drunk on set.

The movie doesn’t bother tracing Columbus’s steps leading up to his famous voyage, but rather begins with the crew already at sea. Columbus is in the middle of whipping a man in front of the others for a crime that is never revealed. This sequence is brutal, the whip tearing the man’s skin open, his cries of agony filling the soundtrack. Many believe this scene actually occurred, because the whipped man had been caught stealing from Giacomo’s trailer. After the movie’s release, director Kandar came out and said the scene’s very-real nature was due to their master special effects artist Rory Bluestone, but most weren’t convinced, and the actor portraying the Whipped Man (as he was listed in the credits) never came forward to talk about the scene.

The film’s budget was never made public, but whatever the cost, Kandar ensured all the money made it onscreen. The ship in particular is well-constructed, realistic and looks like it just sailed out of the fifteenth century. The production values alone almost make you forget you’re watching a porno.

It doesn’t take long to be reminded of this fact, though, as within five minutes of the opening, after an impressive storm sequence, the crew has made landfall and met the naked, unnaturally-attractive natives. It only takes another minute before an explicit native group sex sequence begins. The natives are performing this act as a sign of respect for the visitors, and Columbus watches with a terrifying gleam in his eye. Kandar chooses to take the audience from sheer eroticism to utter horror by slowly zooming into Giacomo’s face until the screen is filled with his twitching right eye.

The film is notable in its use of actual adult film stars as some of the Native Americans, though the majority wore body paint to make their skin appear darker. Most of the male actors played dual roles, as both natives and Columbus’s crew, which leads to a few awkward scenes where Columbus’s men are watching themselves as natives engaging in sex acts.

After an encounter with the native elders and the sharing of a peace pipe, Columbus and his men take a few of the more attractive native women (one portrayed by celebrated adult film actress Maggie “Mamms”  Malcolm) back to their ship and proceed to have sex with them in a series of dimly-lit sequences. These sequences are fairly unremarkable with the exception that most of the actual sex footage seems to show a different actor in the role of Columbus. Rumor has it that Giacomo refused to perform his own sex acts, as he felt it was beneath him. Many believe it was because he was constantly intoxicated and therefore unable to achieve arousal. Because of this, Kandar had to splice in footage of another actor cavorting with Mamms Malcolm. There’s a brief moment where the actor, most likely Kandar-staple Rodney Jerkins, looks toward the camera, but he resembles Giacomo enough to not ruin the sequence.

For those wondering where the devil is in The Devil Explorer, he makes his appearance during Columbus’s post-coital rest period. In a dream-like sequence, the room is bathed in eerie red light and a horned figure is glimpsed in the shadows. His otherworldly voice wakes Columbus and instructs him to kill his crew and live with the native people as a king.

In a move that defines historical inaccuracy, Columbus is soon wielding an axe and hacking up members of his crew. During every kill, Columbus is awash in the same red light from his bedroom and after the massacre has concluded, the horned creature appears over Columbus’s shoulder and congratulates him on the first step. These moments are effective and downright terrifying, with Columbus acting like an animal, cackling and drinking the blood of his victims. This sequence was filmed when Giacomo was supposedly undergoing cocaine withdrawal and his twitchy performance truly sells Columbus’s possessed state of mind.

Columbus then appears on land, covered in blood and axe in hand. He’s soon cutting a swath through the rest of his men and forcing himself upon the native women. There are additional sex scenes throughout the murder sequence, something that Kandar was forced to insert to ensure playability in adult theaters.

Columbus finally reaches the Native American camp and finds them waiting for him. Apparently, the supposed devil that is controlling Columbus is actually one of the natives in a decorative disguise and it was all a ploy to make Columbus kill his own men. Soon, Columbus has been captured by the natives and tied to a sacrificial altar. The blood-soaked finale, with one of the natives being split in two but continuing to move around, is something that must be seen to be believed. The beautiful last shot shows Columbus clinging to a piece of driftwood, alone in a vast ocean, unsure of what comes next.

Kandar definitely steps up his game here, and creates a beautifully shot, brutal work of psychological horror. Perhaps the only area of the film that actually needs work is in the depiction of the natives. It’s a fairly stereotypical affair, but as Kandar was not an educated man, it’s easy to forgive him. Sadly, porn theaters found the film too dialogue-heavy and strange, and Kandar was forced to fund its release through R.K. Pictures, his personal production company.  He did attempt to resell the film with the hardcore sequences removed, and it’s this version that caused Jackson Dill to take notice and provide funding for Trigger & Sledge.

Unfortunately, as is common with Kandar’s more ambitious works, this film is extremely difficult to locate in its unedited form. The sex scenes are a bit excessive after a while, especially during the prolonged murder sequence toward the end of the film, but without them, the work is missing the poetry and flow of the original.

If you’re able to come across an unedited version of Columbus: The Devil Explorer, snatch it up as fast as you can. It’s an interesting take on a historical tale and showcases the maturing voice of one of the most misunderstood directors of our time.