Hi, Devlin here, and welcome to my long, long-in-the works guide to the maverick independent filmmaker Russ Meyer! I’m joined for a very special podcast episode by an incredible guest: Patrick Crain, film writer, Meyer fanatic, and programmer for the Oklahoma Film Society, who was kind enough to join me for an in-depth overview of the career of a prolific, influential, controversial and remarkable figure who helped usher in a newfound sexual liberation in American cinema across six tumultuous decades of feature filmmaking.
Listen and download above, or come and find us on all your favourite podcast platforms here. You can find all of Patrick’s incisive film-by film chronological reviews of Meyer’s filmography at his site Apollo Twin, along with his other writings on great American maverick directors like Robert Altman and Roberta Findlay. And please enjoy my own contribution below – what I hope will be a subjective gateway of sorts to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful movies that I am eager to share with you all. Whether you’re already a fan, or you’ve seen a few films and want to dive a bit deeper, or especially if you’re looking to discover Meyer for the first time, I hope you find something to dig into here!
For those interested, you can buy this episode’s cover image as a poster print here. I have a few Russ Meyer-inspired clothing lines, including Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen! available at my Teemill store, and limited edition high quality giclee prints of my hand-drawn Lorna poster at my Etsy store. Check out my website for more information and other artwork!
The first thing that struck me was that the films are good. That’s kind of a ridiculous point to make, I know, but I think somewhere in my pop culture-addled brain, Russ Meyer’s name had been partially grasped and filed away as a sort of ironically appreciated half-wit, a tits-obsessed Ed Wood type cranking out laughably poor Poverty Row sex movies with a carnival barker’s ability to somehow lodge them in to the wider general public’s consciousness through sheer bloody-mindedness. Which was a wildly dismissive misapprehension, albeit one that I’m sure a certain section of the audience might agree with.
I’d seen Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! years ago at a sort of arts space cinema in Newcastle. I knew of Meyer’s name and was curious – and as it happened, I really, really liked the film. It was weird and intense and fun and I had a blast. But, I couldn’t really find any of his other work, and in all honesty I don’t think I put much effort into looking. Things tapered off. Then, perhaps a decade or more later, I chanced across a mention of Jimmy McDonough’s Meyer biography Big Bosoms and Square Jaws in an article in Dark Side magazine. Just a little paragraph in a related article, but it really piqued my interest, at least in the book. I’m a sucker for stories like this – outsiders who are driven to create works that could only arise from the fevered minds of that specific individual, battling against ridicule and indifference but in service of art that is considered disreputable trash. It’s admirable, mad, and more often than not ends up being quite tragic – Quixotic, I guess.
“Nothing is obscene, provided it is done in bad taste.”Russ Meyer
The book didn’t disappoint. It’s brash and unrepentant and delivered everything I hoped it would and more in terms of the wild and eventful life of Russell Albion Meyer. The Freudian open goal of his relationship to the towering figure of his beloved mother, Lydia, who pawned her jewellery to buy his first camera. His stint as a combat cameraman in World War 2, the self-proclaimed greatest years of his life where he learned his trade, developed his fearlessness, and lost his virginity to a buxom prostitute, which was paid for by none other than Ernest Hemingway, (allegedly), igniting a lifelong love of a very specific type of female figure. Returning home to find Hollywood a closed shop, so building his reputation and sharpening his talents by simultaneously creating respectable industrial films and cheesecake erotic photography. His early days filming burlesque shows and tentatively milking his mammarian monomania for profit. And then, finally putting it all together and building an empire from it, creating a unique oeuvre of work that challenges any auteur before or since in terms of thematic consistency and formal experimentation.
I was hooked. Having devoured 1/3 of the book in one sitting, and finding that Meyer’s films were unavailable anywhere online (except his one notable ‘mainstream’ feature, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, of which more later), I instead had to track down Arrow Video’s 2003 DVD boxset, long out of print and highly prized on the secondary market. £100-odd later (and I was lucky at this price!), this hefty parcel finally arrived, the large cardboard outer case held together mostly with tape, but all 12 discs intact and in good working order. I was ready to see the fruits of Meyer and his minuscule crews’ labours, trying and failing to stave off my curiosity by attempting to read the appropriate chapters alongside watching each film. I caved, of course, and raced ahead with the book to the end, instead coming back to pore over details once I’d seen another to catch things I may have missed first time around, and to keep in mind the real life madness that seeped in to each of these deeply strange movies.
And that’s when I realised that they are, indeed, good. Very good. I understand that this is a foolishly subjective appraisal, so instead perhaps I should say that they are, in many ways, technically extremely competent, and formally daring. That, I had not expected. Reading the book, I was clued in to the fact that Meyer clearly had talent, but seeing the work he managed to conjure up with no time, no money, and a crew that you could often fit in to a standard 4 door estate car, was revelatory. The lighting was crisp, flattering, and rounded – none of the harsh, bare bulb grunginess you might imagine from 60s and 70s sex cinema. This was glamorous, stylish, professional. And the compositions were uniformly excellent, creating depth and unafraid to adopt unusual angles that wouldn’t look out of place in William Dozier’s Batman series, with pin-sharp focus on the characterful casts in some eye-popping sets and desert vistas. And perhaps most vitally, the editing was so precise as to appear almost fevered. I’m sure many of you who have dipped into the exploitation space are used to films that are riddled with longueurs, endlessly drawing out individual shots and go-nowhere scenes in order to scrape over the line to barely qualify as a feature length film without having to expend any extra effort. Well, Meyer was all effort. His meagre runtimes were the result of ruthless cutting and inventive use of cutaways and B-roll. He never wanted to see his cast blink – if he came across a blink in the footage, he changed the shot. He drove himself, his cast, and his crew with the military precision he always cherished. He was almost always his own cinematographer and editor, employing only a small cadre of trusted insiders who would, periodically, be cast out if they ever dared cross their fearless leader by, say, sleeping with his comely cast members against his strict ‘no sex on set’ policy.
“What the public wants are big laughs and big tits and lots of ’em. Lucky for me, that’s what I like too!”Russ Meyer
What we’ve not yet got into here is what, exactly, Meyer was filming so exquisitely. And that’s where things become truly fascinating. Meyer seemed to be a man of extreme contradictions – a shameless exploiter who proudly called himself a pornographer (albeit a high class one) yet whose early narrative features took influence from the lofty likes of John Steinbeck and Italian neorealism. A misogynist who nonetheless handed huge amounts of control of his business affairs to his wife, the stunning and formidable Eve, after whom he named his production company – a woman with whom he continued to work and place massive trust in despite his having collapsed the marriage with his constant affairs. A meat-and-potatoes, missionary-position-only Middle American ‘traditionalist’ whose sex scenes included at-the-time taboo-breaking depictions of interracial couplings and adulterous lesbians, up to still-shocking brother-on-sister shower sex and, eventually, Adolf Hitler being penetrated by a hugely endowed whip-wielding man in a dungeon. A domineering man who hired women solely for their physical attributes and put them through hell on set, while also creating fascinating and powerful roles for them, and toward whom many of his actresses held extremely fond feelings for the rest of his life. His plots are sex-drenched, yet far from wall-to-wall filthy, often possessed of a weird innocence among all the bared flesh but prone at any moment to break into a scene of distasteful sexual violence against women that is frequently handled with shocking insensitivity. And then, sometimes even in successive scenes within the same film, Meyer’s beautiful stars are most often portrayed as imperious, statuesque icons, able to destroy any pathetic man in their path with the most devastatingly acidic assessment of their lack of sexual prowess. His filmography ran the gamut from candy coloured go-go dancing frivolity to bleak and brutal freak show gothic to Chuck Jones-ish madcap Pop Art slapstick violent sexcapades, yet managed to retain an unmistakable watermark that was entirely his own.
These apparent contradictions, added to the all-American kitsch, make for a most unique study in auteur theory – a chance to revel in some truly absurd and genuinely enjoyable films while playing armchair psychologist to the mind that created them and the wider national consciousness that made him a millionaire. Russ Meyer’s version of sex captured the imagination of America in a way no other individual skin flick producer had. It was essentially Year Zero for the ‘sex film’ as a genre, which amplifies and accentuates every individual peccadillo to try and fathom where that fits into the desires and fears of the audiences that sat in the drive-ins, fleapits, and eventually, respectable picture houses over his 20 year theatrical career. And what of Meyer’s intent? Was he really just trying to get himself off and make himself rich? How much of these films is camp, pastiche, parody, satire, and how much is his authentic attempt to express his innermost weirdness? Does it mean anything at all; does he actually have something that he wants to say? If not, why work so feverishly for so long? Can a man really love looking at boobs so much that he dedicates his entire adult life to depicting them in increasingly mad ways? Did he love and respect women, or just want to see them jiggle around and occasionally suffer for his entertainment?
“I exploit women with zeal and gusto.”Russ Meyer
“[Russ Meyer] is the first feminist American director.”B. Ruby Rich
I think that’s why so many viewers become evangelical about the subject once they catch the bug – that, and the films’ lack of ready availability meaning that this is still a journey of discovery that requires some amount of investment, both in time and finances. There are few true cults left in the era of media overload in which we live, few avenues that haven’t been excavated and hot-taked to death. The strange, sad circumstances of Russ’s last days means that we’re unlikely to see the kind of lavish 4K restoration his work warrants any time soon as his films languish in a garage, tied up in mean-spirited legal limbo, so investigating all this insanity requires one to jump in with both feet. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of quite why it has all captured my attention so feverishly – I definitely don’t think of myself as some edgy contrarian, tilting at the windmills of some perceived godawful repressive dystopia where you can’t say anything these days. I certainly don’t yearn for the return of old fashioned sexism – in fact, an awful lot of what ends up on screen should, and does, run totally counter to my social and political viewpoints. But, maybe the ridiculousness of it all lets it slip by my filters. Or the contradictions contained within the films present the unfiltered id in a way that more sanitised products don’t, provoking actual critical thought and self-reflection – Meyer’s obvious adoration and respect for the objects of his slavering lust creating unexpected nuance amongst the mayhem. Or it’s the time capsule fascination about a generation at once so close, yet so far removed from my own, at least on the surface. The potential toxicity rendered somewhat harmless by the same passage of time that slowly corrodes the celluloid on which these strange little pictures molder in storage. I don’t think I have an adequate answer – and maybe that’s okay?
So, as a recent convert to the Church of Russ, I thought I’d present this primer to you. Meyer’s career can be broken down somewhat into a few ‘stages’, give or take the odd anomaly, and I’ve listed these titles below with an overview, and my pick of the bunch for each. It’s not exhaustive, as I’m still very much on that journey of discovery myself, but I am hopeful that I can maybe invite some of you reading to join me on this weird path and venture in to the life, times, and work, of a most unique filmmaker.
Where to watch
Arrow Video’s boxset is long out of print, but can often be found on eBay or other sellers – try CEX and Music Magpie if you are in the UK. Prices range up to £300 or more for a ‘new’ set, but if you keep a saved search on eBay you can find it for as little as £80-90. If you’re unlucky there, Sloppy Second Sales in the US has a bootleg up-res’d Blu-ray that compiles all the DVDs. Europe in the Raw is only included in the reissued digipack boxset, and is on Sloppy Second’s Blu.
Other early films that are more difficult to find include This Is My Body/The Naked Camera, Erotica, and Heavenly Bodies. All except The Naked Camera can be found on the Russ Meyer Films-issued DVD Russ Meyer’s Vintage Bodies Set. Region 1 only, and prohibitively expensive, it’s probably one for the completists only.
Fanny Hill is available on a few DVD releases, mostly German and US-released, and has been reissued on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome alongside producer Albert Zugsmith’s entirely unrelated The Phantom Gunslinger.
For Meyer’s 20th Century Fox work, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is widely available on standard DVD, and has a wonderful Arrow Video release here in the UK that can be found on eBay or, if you’re lucky, there may be some copies left at Zavvi, Fopp, or other online stockists. Readers in the US or with multi-region Blu-ray players can also pick up the similarly stuffed Criterion Collection DVD or Blu-ray. I definitely recommend this format – screenwriter Roger Ebert’s commentary is essential. The Seven Minutes is trickier – it was, at one time, included on the Arrow DVD/Blu release, but wasn’t on my copy. There are DVDs in release but often of indeterminate provenance and for sale on…less reputable sites.
Finally, check The Internet Archive and YouTube for sporadic uploads of a number of Meyer’s films. I’ve tried to link out to the best version I could find in the film titles within the text below. While I honestly think it’s worth the outlay for either the official DVD release or Sloppy Seconds’ bootleg, the curious may be able to find a teaser. You may be able to find other rips or uploads elsewhere, but there’s no guarantee of picture quality I’m afraid!
THE EARLY STUFF
French Peep Show (1952)
The Desperate Women (1954)
Meyer got his start in erotic photography, a burgeoning field given the emergence of Playboy magazine right around this time. No longer confined to seedy ‘amateur photography’ magazines posted in plain brown envelopes, Hugh Hefner’s glossy publication catapulted female nudity into the mainstream, with an emphasis on aspirational, glamorous lifestyles. But before Russ’ run of stunning photographs of the likes of June Wilkinson, Marguerite Empey, and most notably his wife Eve, his intense fixation on a very specific part of the female anatomy had found expression in his first ‘movie’ – a filmed performance by the legendary busty burlesque artist Tempest Storm at the notorious El Rey Theatre. Now considered lost, this record of Tempest strutting her stuff alongside some of the other regular acts at the theatre – all of whom Russ was almost obsessively familiar with due to his experience photographing them as a semi-lucrative, semi-legal hobby – was a great success despite the risks involved for Meyer and his producer, Pete DeCenzie. Even processing this kind of picture could get everyone involved – Meyer, DeCenzie, the laboratory – in a whole heap of trouble, especially as Meyer was using the 16mm film camera from his day job as a respectable helmer of staid industrial films. Kodak weren’t thrilled to be roped into this daring escapade.
Yet, via bribery, flattery, and no doubt the lab technician sneaking a few ‘work prints’ of his own, the film was finished and sent out on tour, giving the director his first taste of cinematic success. That was tempered, however, by DeCenzie reneging on his remuneration to Russ, a falling out that preceded all known copies being destroyed (allegedly) by DeCenzie’s incensed wife. While Tempest Storm now has a feature length documentary about her, it’s a tremendous shame that this couldn’t include footage shot by a hungry young Meyer coming into his own, and an important record of the emerging mainstreaming of erotica/adult entertainment is, sadly, gone for good.
Russ followed this with a lurid feature about abortion – The Desperate Women. It was very common before Russ’ preferred medium of glamorous comedic nudity was acceptable in cinemas for producers at the sleazier end of the industry to instead try to lure in audiences with tales of what would be seen at the time as shocking immorality – in a pre-Roe vs. Wade America, this certainly would have counted. Of course, the films largely had a tone of prurient leering underneath the surface chastisement. Again, this film is lost – only a pressbook seems to have survived, and Russ himself seems to have rarely mentioned it beyond a quick reference in the later stages of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
From this era, clearly, Russ was learning very quickly what sells, and, after his fingers were burned in the French Peep Show affair, how to control the selling all by himself. From hereon out, as far as possible, he would be in charge of every aspect of his films.
THE NUDIE CUTIES
The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)
This Is My Body/The Naked Camera (1960, shorts)
Eve and the Handyman (1960)
Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962)
Europe in the Raw (1963)
Heavenly Bodies!/Skyscrapers and Brassieres (1963)
Mondo Topless (1966)*
*a later film, but very much in the lineage with the others
Meyer’s first ‘feature’ (albeit one whose runtime barely tiptoes over over the hour mark) The Immoral Mr. Teas was a revelation upon release. Cooked up in a hurry and starring one of his old Army buddies, Meyer scraped together the cash to craft a bizarre and unique spin on the industrial films he had been working on for the last decade, setting out his visual and thematic stall for so many of the films that followed. The Immoral Mr. Teas follows our titular straw-boater wearing denture delivery man as he tools around town on his ostentatious red bicycle, ogling various pretty women who work as secretaries, waitresses and the likes, and occasionally getting stones thrown at his head by schoolgirls. An administration of sedative before a tooth extraction sees him develop a bizarre side effect where, after a swirly-whirly scene transition, he sees those same women now nude or mostly nude, in Looney Tunes-esque block-coloured sets with cartoony props. All the while, a stentorian narrator drones on about a dizzying array of barely related topics, offering ironic counterpoint to the visuals and ramping up the madness by the end as Mr. Teas finds himself ogling a trio of women as they swim in a local stream.
So many Meyer staples are established here: the booming, weird narration; snappy montage sequences filled with shots of gleaming, mid-century products (mainly cars and radios); the cut-and-paste jazzy score; a sadsack, ineffectual man; and, of course, copious busty women. Often filmed while frolicking in nature – streams, deserts, patchy grass, forests…perhaps a holdover from the ‘naturist’ roots of the so-called educational films that preceded it, or perhaps just how Russ liked it. The way he framed the women is, of course, downright lascivious, but still wedded to the burlesque tease to an extent. Partially, I’m sure, due to the restrictions of the era, but also I think just due to the man’s preference. He had an insatiable desire to capture these figures on camera, but even later in his career, when society became more and more explicit around him, he chose to avoid showing anything too graphic.
The film’s unprecedented financial success paved the way for an avalanche of imitators, not least Russ himself. Eve and the Handyman, while marking the only time Meyer turned the movie camera on his beloved wife and business partner, doesn’t grab the attention in the same way, and gets a little tiresome despite its short duration, as Eve stalks an oblivious handyman and tracks his movements for some unknown reason through a series of set ups contrived to deliver a few random nude scenes. Although, I’m almost certain that an Eisensteinian montage of trains entering tunnels and thrusting rockets to visually suggest sex towards the end was the progenitor of the similar one in The Naked Gun, and definitely holds educational value for that. Wild Gals of the Naked West contains some brilliantly creative and weird sets and some genuinely head scratching surreal physical comedy, but grinds each and every gag in to the ground with endless repetition and will likely test your patience. Europe in the Raw and Heavenly Bodies! are harder to find, and the stories regarding the unusual manner in which Meyer managed to capture his footage of European strippers is kind of more interesting than the films themselves, at least for casual viewers. 1966’s later Mondo Topless, scraped together after the failure of eventual classic Faster, Pussycat! amps up the volume, and sees a bevy of women gyrating madly to skronky rock and roll in various locations while narrating their thoughts on sex and dancing while yet another booming narrator educates us on “THE TOPLESS CRAZE THAT’S SWEEPING THE NATION”, which is all genuinely fun but probably unlikely to pass for a night’s actual movie viewing entertainment.
That kind of sums up this whole period of Meyer’s career, really – if you are interested in the era, in seeing first-hand sociological documents that record the prevailing attitudes towards gender and sexuality as the 50s gave way to the 60s, or if you find the aesthetic of the time appealing, you’ll enjoy a lot of these films. The talent is already there – they’re attractive, snappy films across the board, and possessed of an immediacy and energy which will pull you through most of them. But as a viewing experience, they don’t really stack up if you’re hoping to enjoy some actual movie nights, and I would suggest not dwelling too long on this section unless/until you find yourself being drawn a bit deeper in to Meyer’s work. For my money, The Immoral Mr. Teas remains the best of the bunch. As a fascinating historical record of the first film to break down the taboo of showing nudity on screen without the thin patina of ‘educational’ content, as an urtext for so much of the style we’ll come to see throughout the next 20 years, and as a genuinely fun little oddity, it’s well worth an hour of your time. Mondo Topless is also a lark as the (il)logical conclusion of this most bizarre subgenre, and without a shadow of a doubt the product of a very weird mind operating with virtually no filter.
THE EUROPEAN OUTLIER
Fanny Hill (1964)
The success of The Immoral Mr. Teas caught the attention of an enterprising German producer, Albert Zugsmith. Adapted from the bawdy 18th Century novel by John Cleland, this remarkably chaste production sees our titular character unwittingly stumble in to a brothel house – her near-total naivety both shielding her from the reality of her situation, and instigating the various mishaps and misunderstandings that lead to the exploits and shenanigans that make up the lightweight bulk of the film’s not-inconsequential running time.
Constrained once again, for the first time since The French Peep Show, by outside financing and this time by an interloping producer, Meyer struggles to impose his full-blooded craziness on proceedings, occasionally getting to let loose on some madcap physical comedy bits but always being dragged back to the centre ground by the requirements of the script. Typically pretty to look at, even (or perhaps because of) considering the cheap-looking sets, this is nonetheless a film to consider as a curio rather than an integral piece of the filmography.
More important to the canon is the effect this working experience had on Meyer. Right after production, he cut loose and tore through Europe in a fancy black Porsche (later immortalised as Varla’s car in Faster, Pussycat!) grabbing quasi-legal topless dance footage that he later cut together to create Europe in the Raw!, and returned to the States having completed a ‘real’ film, a new nudie cutie, and with one of Fanny Hill‘s supporting cast on his arm as his new mistress. Rena Horten would play a role not only in the upcoming feature Mudhoney, but also in finally fracturing Russ and Eve’s marriage.
THE GOTHIC PERIOD
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
This is where things get really interesting as a Russ Meyer fan. Lorna was Meyer’s big swing for the fences after the nudie boom died down and the box office receipts dried up. Having now had the experience, albeit an unpleasant one, of directing a narrative feature, Meyer and screenwriter James Griffith hashed out a pared-down moral fable-like story about a poor sap of a husband, his dissatisfied bombshell wife, the brutish criminal ‘real man’ that she falls for, and their inevitably tragic coming together. I was absolutely blown away by this one on my first viewing – the camera, rolling down a desolate highway, comes upon a wild looking preacher (played by Griffith himself) who warns us of the moral degradation that awaits us if we continue on. The camera swerves around him and sets off into a broken down, middle-of-nowhere town, passing shattered clapboard houses and dilapidated stores until we see two scumbags stalk and beat an inebriated woman in a shocking and vicious scene-setter. One of them men especially, played by the craggy and reptilian Hal Hopper with genuine menace, leaves an immediate and lasting impact on the audience. The gritty monochrome photography still retains the snap and clarity of the earlier colourful films, but the harsh contrast and mucid texture creates a clean break between this bleak vision and the frivolity that preceded it.
While the overall atmosphere is swampy and mean, Meyer still takes time to craft a snappy, multiple-exposure montage of neon signs and champagne as Lorna, drifting off to sleep detailing her dissatisfaction at her little lot in life, dreams of magnificence and indulgence in the big city. It’s one of a couple of daring visual indulgences – also including a positively Bergmanesque appearance from the Reaper himself, and a striking scene of star Lorna Maitland swaddled in salt. In her only lead role, Maitland radiates an impressively natural mixture of bratty impatience and sympathetic loneliness, which shines through Meyer’s covetous camera coverage of her. As a short, sharp, brutal introduction to this vital period in his career, it’s an absolute knockout and demonstrated his undeniable technical prowess that far outstripped his competitors and later copycats. The movie was a huge success – arguably, this was the first American film that integrated actual nudity into the plot, and that delivered what it promised on those terms. Audiences had gotten used to the bait-and-switch, of lurid posters and trailers for films that delivered baggy, amateurish results and always, always cut before the sex. Lorna was rewarded handsomely for daring to keep the camera rolling. It would run in cinemas for months, even years, in some cities. It was a sensation. It was also prosecuted for obscenity in at least 3 states. Meyer happily fought these battles – controversy equals attention, attention keeps arses in seats. Bids to ban his films were better advertising that he could ever afford.
Meyer was clearly on a high, yet there are far fewer flights of visual fancy in follow up feature Mudhoney, an even meaner Depression-era tale featuring a mesmerisingly hateful turn from Hal Hopper as a crazed, drunk, abusive husband who is impatiently waiting on his kindly but ailing father-in-law to finally die so he can drink away the profits from selling off his farm. But the bravura opening sequence, as we follow only the feet of Hopper’s Sidney Brenshaw as he stumbles, inebriated, from a bordello house and stomps to his car, before crashing it in to his own home and finally revealing his face to the audience as he menaces his terrified wife, is a masterfully constructed.
Where Lorna was a contained, streamlined little tale with a sting, Mudhoney is a messy and sprawling concoction with very little light to counteract the shade. A down-on-his-luck drifter is taken in to the farm and bonds with Brenshaw’s wife, which sets the jealous man off on an increasingly frenzied path of brutal bullying and unravelling sanity. It’s frantic, sour, and most definitely won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but despite Meyer’s own low opinion of the film, it really strikes a chord with me as an uncompromising and unique piece. While it features a few requisite scenes of Meyer showing off his at-the-time paramour Rena Horten, a German actress whose limited English required her character be rendered mute, in her altogether, and another of stunning returning star Lorna Maitland skinny dipping, it’s the film’s wretched vision of humanity that is the most shocking thing about it. That a filmmaker could conjure something so fetid and wild just to convey a few nude scenes is a crazy proposition, and cements the fact that Meyer was now making real movies, not just cheesecake picture postcards. Both this, and Lorna, are phenomenal slices of legitimate Southern Gothic, positively drenched with overheated sex and violence and amped up to just the right degree of menace and madness.
Mudhoney sputtered at the box office, perhaps too weird, too long, too mean to crossover in the same way Lorna did. Follow up Motorpsycho was a tactical switch, an attempt perhaps to update the 1950s biker gang pictures for the 1960s. But despite an ace title, it didn’t work for me in the same way. Meyer’s movies tend to play best when he allows his women to dominate at least some of the time, a battle of the sexes. Lorna Maitland delivers some choice and cutting lines in both Lorna and Mudhoney, and Princess Livingston is an indelible character as the cackling brothel owner Maggie Marie in the latter. Both feature scenes of sexual violence which are, of course, horrendous to watch, and may understandably be traumatic to many viewers, especially given the exploitative nature of the films. But both stories couched those sequences in at least a semblance of narrative that allowed for some form of context, however tenuous. Mudhoney, especially, did not seem to revel in its brutality, with Antoinette Cristiani’s Hannah Brenshaw the focus of the audience’s sympathy and Hopper as the loathsome outright villain. And Lorna‘s scene where Lorna begins to lust after the creep who forces himself on her is patently absurd – although, I’d understand audiences recoiling at this unfortunate old trope.
But Motorpsycho‘s tale of three twisted biker hoodlums raping the wife of Alex Rocco (later to memorably appear as Mo Greene in The Godfather), triggering a pre-Death Wish revenge adventure, features a scene where the screentime dedicated to the act and its depiction went, at least for me, far beyond the pale and dissipated any enjoyment that could be found elsewhere. The only other significant female character, played by Meyer mainstay Haji, is put through the wringer as well. While she’s clearly a badass, she’s still treated horrendously by both Rocco and the story as a whole. On the road with the wronged man after the bikers also murder her husband in cold blood and leave her for dead with a glancing gunshot to the head, she is taken as an unwilling passenger as he tracks the fracturing gang to an abandoned quarry. The scene where Rocco barks at her to suck snake venom out of his ankle would be bleakly funny if it weren’t surrounded by so much misery.
But your mileage will always vary in these things, and the fact that the gang’s leader is a traumatised young man who returned from Vietnam unable to switch off his violent impulses is notable, given both Meyer’s personal high regard for the military, and the film having been released only 1 year after conscription started. Plus, Meyer really was on the pulse in this rekindling of the soon-to-be-burgeoning bikesploitation subgenre, which gives it more historical intrigue, and Rocco is nothing if not committed to his role. It’s probably the only film I’d skip from this era, but it definitely has its fans, and if you have the stomach for the harder edge of exploitation this may play better for you.
While I don’t believe he created it as a rebuttal, Meyer’s next film, the iconic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! flipped the gender roles and gifted the world with three phenomenal, amoral, ass-kicking women in a film which reintroduced some of the cartoon wildness of his early non-narrative features and really cemented his reputation. Rightly influential, still sharp and a total riot, it’s the obvious on-ramp for the rest of Meyer’s filmography. Many before me have waxed poetic about its oddball charms, so I’ll just confirm that pretty much everything you’ve heard is true. Both this film and Motorpsycho actually feature no on-screen nudity, but Faster, Pussycat does of course take time out to appreciate the incredible physiques of its three leading ladies – sultry returning star Haji as Rosie, perky Lori Williams as perma-shimmying wild gal Billie, and living comic book character Tura Satana as the fearsome Varla – as we open on a wild scene of the three go-go dancing, leering old creeps and their catcalls intercut at a dizzying pace. Suddenly, we’re whisked to a wide open desert landscape that may as well be on the moon, as our trio barrel across the blazing ground in high speed open top sports cars. They bully some poor sap in to a race, and Varla snaps his neck in an ensuing kung fu scuffle. Barely breaking stride, they kidnap his bikini-clad girlfriend and take off to hide out on a ranch owned by a sleazy old wheelchair-bound farmer (Mudhoney‘s Stuart Lancaster, a Meyer staple all the way up to Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens) and his two sons – one, a near-mute muscle bound lunk who draws admiring attention from both Billie and Varla. They scheme, argue, plot, fight and flirt among themselves before Varla decides she wants to rob and kill the family for the riches she’s reliably informed are stashed somewhere on the land.
Former child star Jack Moran was hired to write, having also worked on Erotica and Wild Gals…, and conjured up a script packed with endlessly quotable, iconic lines for the cast to bark out. The beginning of a fruitful collaborative run, Moran’s sensibilities meshed perfectly with Meyer’s, injecting a sense of blackly comic irony in to the films that retains the misanthropic view of humanity, but amps up the fun.
It’s hard to suggest anything other than Faster, Pussycat! as the key films of this era, as iconic and brilliant as it is, although I personally think that both Lorna and Mudhoney are extremely worthy films and would recommend both highly. I love Lorna‘s gnarly streamlined fable, and Mudhoney is just a stunningly strange and impressively aggressive melodrama. A remarkable run, really – three fascinating and unique pictures in barely a year. Only Motorpsycho really didn’t gel with me, but even there, you’ll find at the very least some fascinating elements and a solid exploitation picture.
THE COLOUR MELODRAMAS
Common Law Cabin (1967)
Good Morning…and Goodbye! (1967)
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! (1968)
Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1970)
Moran returns to scripting duties and continues to crank out excellent purple prose in Common Law Cabin, which in now-standard fashion opens with a booming and bizarre narration about MIGHTY RIVERS over some very impressive boat-mounted footage. Happening upon the rundown Colorado Riverside holiday resort of sweaty mess Dewey Hoople, played by Moran himself, we also meet his cartoonishly proportioned French wife (Babette Bardot) and his ‘jailbait’ teen daughter Coral. The patriarch pays off a drunken local boat owner to sucker three unwitting tourists into whiling away the day getting sloshed at his threadbare Tiki bar, including a warring married couple (mainstay John Furlong and the crackling Alaina Capri) and a mysterious detective played by Ken Swofford. The film entertains throughout but sputters its way through a very confused plot that fails to ignite, although myriad joys can be found in this first dip in to full colour narrative filmmaking – not least the innovative use of on-set practical signs for the credit sequence (perhaps a decision Meyer regretted when changing the title in post-production from How Much Loving Does A Normal Couple Need?, necessitating an awkward superimposed title overlay), Bardot’s almost surreal level of conviction as she gleefully mangles her dialogue, and the gloriously bitchy Capri’s zingers.
Much as Motorpsycho may have inadvertently been a bit of a dry run for the more successful Faster, Pussycat!, Common Law Cabin was followed by the magnificently mad Good Morning…and Goodbye!, a film which shares plenty of details with its predecessor but sticks the landing far better. Its plot is still a hell of a tangle, but it’s hard to care as Alaina Capri outdoes herself with her pitch perfect delivery of some even more outrageously malicious Moran-penned insults. Directed again at her husband, in this film played by returning Stuart Lancaster as wealthy, sexually impotent farmer Burt, Capri’s ironically monikered Angel taunts and teases and flaunts her affairs, including with the aptly-named brutish construction worker Stone. A wounded Burt finds his mojo reignited by some sort of supernatural forest witch played by Haji, who performs sex magic on him or something.
Working with another of his now-trademark small ensemble casts of archetypes that the plot proceeds to smash into each other like an overeager kid with his action figures, Meyer skewers smalltown sexual mores with a gleeful, anarchic cynicism that he would try to recaputure multiple times later in his career, but he struck gold on this first try. It’s an absolute belter, perfectly balancing the bitterness and venom with an effervescence and it’s-all-a-big-laugh-really charm that keeps everything on the right side of fun. Doesn’t hurt that it starts with an entirely gratuitous and laughably weird sequence featuring a nude women running through a field while a by-now traditional booming voiceover yells about nymphomania. The woman isn’t seen again for the rest of the film.
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! retains Good Morning…‘s newfound freedom of, erm, expression, including one of Meyer’s most memorable sex scenes – a swimming pool tumble intercut inexplicably with footage from a demolition derby. A go-go bar manager is lured to a brothel by the feline madam, played by Lavelle Roby, allowing two crooks time to case the joint for a very undaring robbery for which they prepare by hiding in a toilet for half the film’s duration. Some sequences seem intriguingly inspired by Japanese street-level thug movies of the era, but despite some typically inspired visuals, it falls flat in focussing on the barman’s underwhelmingly put-upon wife Kelly, one-shot writer Richard Zachary eking out a thin A-plot about safecracking and potentially burying a more interesting B-plot headed up by the sultry Roby. Kelly’s weepy portrayal by Anne Chapman fails to anchor proceedings, illustrating the trend of Meyer movies working best when giving centre stage to fierce women who control the narrative, at which Roby would surely have excelled. A grim ending that piles on the torment to Kelly doesn’t help matters. Plus points for the bizarre balls-shaving scene though (you really, really do need to see it to believe it).
Meyer took on writing duties alongside long-time associate and Eve and the Handyman star Jim Ryan, and the resulting Vixen! corrects the fierce woman problem from its predecessor and then some. Erica Gavin is a nuclear reactor of energy and charisma as the title character, a sex-obsessed wife to a Canadian cargo pilot who passes the time in the wilderness trying to bed literally everyone that crosses her path, including the tourists her husband brings home to their cabin (male and female), and her own dropout biker brother. Everyone, that is, except for her brother’s best friend, an African American conscientious objector hiding out from the Vietnam draft. Even with the aforementioned brother-sister shower scene, the film shocks most with the constant stream of racial invective Vixen throws his way: Meyer loftily and laughably believed he was helping to confront the racial divide in America, but I’m not sure he needed to include this many gleefully sneered epithets to do so. Harrison Page, the stolid recipient of these often bewildering slurs, more than holds his own on screen and was rewarded with a sizeable role in Meyer’s big Hollywood break 2 years later.
A phenomenal box office hit on release that facilitated that big break, Vixen! is utterly bonkers, in extremely poor taste, and an absolute blast. Containing more Meyer visual innovation, including a sex scene partially shot from underneath the bare bedsprings, and one of his most consistently committed and crazy casts, it absolutely rattles through its 70-odd minutes. Erica Gavin tears into every scene, utterly believable as a woman so insatiable in her appetites that she seems at times to honestly be on the verge of sinking her teeth into the poor sap who she’s bedding. Also, the film ends with a Scottish Communist hijacking, which is if nothing else, a big screen first.
Sadly, Gavin, after also appearing in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, would suffer the same fate as so many Meyer women in trying to further their careers. Just as Lorna Maitland was never able to properly capitalise on her notoriety (‘starring’ in only 2 more films by barely making an appearance in either of director Dale Berry’s truly inexplicable shitshows Hot Thrills and Warm Chills and Hip, Hot and 21), and Alaina Capri disappeared from showbusiness immediately after being so impressive in Good Morning..., so too did Gavin struggle to find any outlet for her undeniable presence, with some stray footage of her appearing in sleazy cash-in Erika’s Hot Summer in 1971 before winding up her career a scant 6 years after Vixen! in Jonathan Demme’s cheapie women-in-prison debut feature Caged Heat.
Speaking of Jonathan Demme, one of his most frequent collaborators actually got his start in Meyer’s next film, the legitimately confusing Cherry, Harry & Raquel!. If you’ve ever wondered who the impressively square-jawed ‘guy from that thing’ is – the brusque, often irate guy-in-uniform from films as diverse as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Silence of the Lambs and Ernest Goes To Jail – well, that’s Charles Napier, an 80s/90s supporting cast staple who was snapped up by Russ at a time when the struggling actor was living out of his car and all but ready to quit Hollywood, and handed his first ever leading role. Showing the kind of bug-eyed commitment that marks the best of Meyer’s filmography, Napier plays a corrupt border town Sheriff Harry Thompson, who is embroiled with hot stuff English nurse Cherry, smoky-eyed local prostitute Raquel, and a labyrinthine marijuana-smuggling plot that nobody, neither the characters nor the creators, seems equipped to unravel. The film itself starts with a bang – a completely self-contained, bumptious on-screen text crawl where Meyer rants about the puny protestors who are trying to take away his inalienable right to create and release dirty movies (Vixen! having run in to a heap of legal trouble with various regional do-gooding crusader faith groups across America) that rolls atop a magnificent montage juxtaposing random nature shots and increasingly graphic softcore imagery. It’s a full-throttle insight in to the glorious hubris of the man, his whole worldview condensed into barely a minute. It’s impossible to tell where the irony line is; it’s unlikely that even he knew, really. The film then starts all over again, this time with another barking voiceover that tells us first about the dangers of Mexico, and then the even worse dangers of the country’s exports of the devil’s leaf, marijuana. Another step in to the eye of the Meyer mind-storm. The films starts for a third time when finally introducing us to our central cast, with a hippy-dippy title song co-written by Stu Phillips (of whom more below, in Beyond the Valley…) and the appearance of a gross old man named Mr. Franklin (played by regular cast member Franklin Bolger), evidently the figurehead of whatever dodgy dealings Harry is party to.
The opacity of those dealings can be attributed to many things – Meyer’s palpable disinterest in the mundanity of coherent plot construction, the disorientating effects of his rat-a-tat editing style being cranked up even more intensely than usual, or the fact that Meyer had to essentially make the film up as he went along when co-leading lady Linda Ashton, as Cherry, abandoned ship during production in protest at the conditions in which she was being expected to work. Sgt. Meyer, resourceful as ever, parachuted in a stunning Swedish softcore film star who had caught his eye for two very obvious reasons – Uschi Digard, who became another staple of his unusual entourage from hereon out. Digard stars as Soul, mostly naked except for a comically large Native American headdress, who seems to randomly substitute for other characters completely unacknowledged by those she interacts with. Or, she appears instead in random flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways scenes to operate a telephone switchboard, nude, on a train track, or fellate a vegetable in a hotel room, or pantomime sex on a rock in parallel with another sex scene.
Continuing Meyer’s increasing use of nudity in each successive film over this period, this one also includes another indulgence of Meyer’s newfound affinity for boob-squished-on-boob, wildly inaccurate lesbian sequences and, in a rare display of parity, a shot of Napier barrelling through a desert with his chap flopping in all directions after a painful-seeming sandy tryst. The whole insane affair wraps up with a bravura montage scene that flips back and forth between a saucy weed-fuelled encounter between Cherry and Raquel, and Harry engaging in a Peckinpah-aping bloody last stand against ‘The Apache’. Our narrator returns to spin a nonsensical would-be moral to the story that refers to women as “pretty toys to play with, but so necessary to our way of life”, before another specially written (and brilliant) outro track echoes those sentiments over the closing credits. Our director, having gotten away with all of this, was now emboldened to drift further and further away from the safe shores of coherence (a shore which was already a pretty small speck on his horizon) and anything resembling real life. We are, by now, fully immersed in Meyer World.
It’s difficult to look past Vixen! as the defining film for this era, in terms of its importance in the lineage of exploitation cinema, but I have a huge soft spot for Good Morning…and Goodbye!, the sheer madness of a film taking a wild detour to present us with a subplot about a sex witch in what is ostensibly a family melodrama, and where the drama almost entirely takes the form of completely over-the-top, bruising insults and bitchiness. And Cherry, Harry & Raquel! represents the absolute hands-down maddest thing Meyer had committed to film by this point in his career, which is definitely saying something – an almost parodically sexist kaleidoscope that endears despite, or maybe because of the brazenness of, its backwards ideas. It depends whether the intense, superbly-eyebrowed Gavin or the sleekly cutting Capri is your kind of leading lady, or whether you’re more taken with the grizzled craziness of a totally unleashed Charles Napier. It’s a hell of a call to try and make, and yet another impressive hit rate considering the rapid turnaround of each production.
THE HOLLYWOOD PICTURES
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
The Seven Minutes (1971)
The crown jewel in Meyer’s catalogue, his “big budget” studio feature Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (still shot for less than a million dollars, of course) is everything you’d hope the firebrand independent interloper would unleash when he finally, belatedly, kicked in the gates to the kingdom. As the foundering 20th Century Fox struggled to adjust to the sixties revolution, looking on jealously as the likes of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde appealed to the coveted youth demographic while TV continued to chip away at the box office figures for their staid-looking products, they could no longer ignore the potential success that came with spicing up the cinema. And they also couldn’t ignore the phenomenal figures pulled in by the cultural phenomenon that Vixen! had become.
Fox has scored a decent commercial hit with their adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s incredibly lucrative novel Valley of the Dolls, the tale of three liberated women meeting sticky ends, via drugs, alcohol, suicide and dastardly men. After developing a straight sequel from a Susann-penned story, the table was cleared when 2nd generation movie mogul and future Jaws producer Richard Zanuck and his producing partner brought Meyer in and confessed that they were getting nowhere. Giving him $5000 to produce a treatment that could exploit the title but otherwise offering free rein, Meyer seized the opportunity with both hands, and dragged along a bright, 26-year-old movie reviewer (and avowed fan) from Illinois who had no experience in Hollywood whatsoever to write the script for him – future Rewind Critic’s Corner staple (and, less prestigiously, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most famous critics in history) Roger Ebert.
Taking the central conceit of 3 young women being put through the meat grinder of emerging fame from Valley, Ebert and Meyer dashed off an insane, freewheeling, psychedelic phantasmagoria of a story that defies categorisation or explanation – one that so horrified Susann that she subsequently sued the studio for $10 million for the affront, resulting in a pre-movie text/voiceover categorically stating that this film will stand alone as its own entity. And stand alone, it does. We meet our core trio, rock band The Kelly Affair (Playboy models Dolly Read and Cynthia Myers, and Marcia McBroom) just as they embark on a fame-seeking cross-country jaunt to Los Angeles with their manager in a mixed-media montage sequence that sees Meyer further sharpen his editing and visual trickery combined with a borderline-parodic, yet undeniably brilliant pop folk banger on the soundtrack. On arrival, the girls find themselves embroiled in the weird and glamorous world of music mogul Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell, who renames the band The Carrie Nations and helps them spread their Stu Phillips-penned anthems across the airwaves. Incidentally, I’m not exaggerating to say that these are some of the very best ‘fake movie songs’ I’ve ever heard:
From this relatively prosaic setup, Meyer and Ebert construct a film that defies whatever categorisation one tries to throw at it. It’s a parody, its melodrama so magnificently overwrought, and so po-faced from most of the cast, that there’s no denying that it is hilarious, but one that roves so wild in its targets and shows such ambition that it transcends that tag pretty quickly. It’s not quite a musical but the songs are, as previously stated, glorious, and plentiful. It also absolutely can’t be contained in Meyer’s previous favoured category of high-class sleaze. The film contains minimal nudity and while it is, as ever, fixated on the power struggle between weak men and the übermädchen who torment them, it largely eschews the kind of extended nude frolics that Meyer had previously laced his movies with (a decision that resulted from a botched attempt to avoid an X rating – he got one anyway, and lamented his inability to splice the sauce back in before release), perhaps even seeming tame when compared to other contemporaneous films that emerged. But tame doesn’t describe either the wildly ambitious (and often extremely successful) visual trickery on display – see the glorious multiple exposure recording sequence for In the Long Run that manages to be hilarious, catchy, technically brilliant, and narratively vital all at once – or the ratcheting madness as the plot careens towards a full-blown, acid-dropping, gonzo freakout of an ending via punch ups, betrayal, greed, vanity, Nazi butlers and lesbian superheroes. Cast standouts include Meyer’s 3rd wife Edy Williams as adult star Ashley St. Ives, intent on corrupting the band’s long-suffering manager, Duncan McLeod as a snivelling, uptight underling who tries to swindle Carrie Nations leader Kelly’s inherited fortune, and most notably John LaZar as Z-Man, whose angular, androgynous charm becomes more manic and sinister as the girls gain in popularity. That two such square looking dudes as Meyer and Ebert could produce such gloriously twisted, anarchically cool piece of counterculture (or counter-counterculture, depending on perspective) is nothing short of astonishing.
Meyer’s joyride through Hollywood was, sadly, shortlived, due to the commercial failure of his follow-up film The Seven Minutes. Tasked with adapting the namesake novel by Irving Wallace (acquired as part of a 3 book deal Fox had signed with the author a few years before), it’s easy to see why the higher-ups called Meyer in for the task – and why Meyer might appreciate the opportunity to belt out a message he could get behind to a bigger audience. The story, concerning an erotic novel also, conveniently, called The Seven Minutes, allowed the director to directly address the moral panic and subsequent political censorship that his films had attracted over the preceding years.
The ensuing film is a surprisingly straight, competent, brisk courtroom drama, oddly visually resembling Columbo in places (even in Russ’ very occasional bursts of his trademark visual flights of fancy, as Columbo was not averse to such indulgences from time to time). The story centres on a sensationalist rape trial, in which the young scion of a wealthy family is roped into blaming his actions on the influence of the once-banned book having inflamed him past the point of responsibility for his actions. A careerist D.A. with sights on higher political office, and a local ‘decency league’ collaborate in concocting the story, which an idealistic lawyer seeks to unpick in order to secure the release of a young bookstore employee arrested for distributing obscene material, and to defend the book’s publisher (holy shit, it’s Tom Selleck!)
I can’t make any great claims for this being a lost masterpiece or anything – the muting of Meyer’s madhouse instincts does mean that the moments in which he does indulge his immaturity (essentially the scenes featuring the ditsy go go girl Babydoll dancing her way through the scenes where mean grey men plot and scheme) do stand out as jarring. As an avowed fan of Columbo I’m very indulgent of shaggy mystery stories with leftfield conclusions but the film’s evidence trail does get a little lost in the weeds at times, and the pat conclusion is drawn out past the point of obviousness. But I found the whole thing super easy to watch, it kept my attention easily, and showed that Russ could handle straight material in a competent, albeit perhaps slightly televisual way. Whether this was the best use of his talents is another question – he could surely have helmed other dramatic features, but as a blow struck against the forces of censorship and for the freedom of artistic expression among adults, it’s just not as much fun as his gloriously verbose tantrum at the start of Cherry, Harry and Raquel!, his infamous rallying cry accompanied by a juvenile boob-filled montage. Still, I’d recommend it beyond just its curio factor. It’s a solid slice of early 1970s grown up cinema.
I think it goes without saying that Beyond the Valley… is not just the star attraction for this period, but the most extraordinary work Meyer created. The talent and resources at his disposal came along right as his crazy creativity was really hitting its peak. That’s not to say that it’s either the defining work, nor my personal favourite, although there’s a hell of an argument to be made for both, but in terms of sheer overwhelming entertainment and technical skill it represents a truly unique moment where a firebrand outsider bent Hollywood to his will, if only for a moment. Having said that, for more seasoned Meyer veterans who may have avoided The Seven Minutes due to unavailability, it’s a fascinating glimpse into what the next phase of Meyer’s career may have looked like had Hollywood been willing to take him a little more seriously and given him further chances at constructing somewhat more traditional fare. Alas, as we’ll see in our next section, Russ swerved this on-ramp to respectability and took a very different path, one that was a much bumpier ride…
THE WILD, LATER YEARS – RETURNING TO THE INDEPENDENTS
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)
Well, I had been somewhat dreading reaching this point. It seems utterly pointless to say, but I don’t think the world needed a period piece Russ Meyer film about slavery. A man whose utter shamelessness is usually such a boon, whose tweaking of moral mores and fuck-it bravado when dealing with taboos resulted in films which no other filmmaker, at least not one with his technical chops, would dare commit to celluloid had already provided some…unique perspective on relations between white and black America (and I guess Canada) in Vixen! After wincing through some of Erica Gavin’s more outrageous slurs, the thought of Meyer deciding to go back to sinking his own financing into productions again and thinking that his particular talents should be brought to bear on such a fraught topic seems wildly out of left field even for him. And yet, this is where we’ve arrived – a chastened, yet defiant Russ cast adrift in the Caribbean with a script called Blacksnake, or possibly Black Snake, or again maybe Blacksnake! given his unmatched affection for the exclamation mark.
The opening credits will tell you everything you need to know about whether you’ll even be able to stomach this one. A jaunty Bill Loose jazz score accompanies a rapid-fire montage of racial slurs and shots of the film we’re about to see, heavily focussing on the white mistress of the plantation Lady Susan (New Zealand-born Anouska Hempel, who had walk-on bits in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Carry On at Your Convenience before later finding huge success as an interior designer, boutique hotel pioneer, and high society fixture) brutally whipping her slaves alongside prolific Brit actor Percy Herbert as her second-in-command. While Meyer’s often incongruous use of music is frequently entertaining, it could barely be more ill-judged here. Our plot kicks off in earnest as a foppish 19th Century nobleman informs his butler that he is taking off for Saint Kitts to try to find his missing brother, Lady Susan’s ex, as the pair lay out the exposition as to why this ostensibly-freed British colony still has a slave-owning plantation in operation. As played by fellow Kiwi David Warbeck (of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond renown), Lord Charles Walker dons a questionable Yorkshire accent and sets off for an undercover job as humble bookkeeper Sopwith, quickly being appraised of the brutal methods expected of him in the line of duty by Herbert’s Overseer. He’s filled in on the rest of the island’s weirdness by Lady Susan’s wily associate Captain Daladier, the gay leader of her local ‘police’, who takes quite a shine to the newcomer.
What follows is a cavalcade of queasy violence, punctuated by a few hazy butt shots of Lady Susan in an attempt to retain some sordid sex appeal. The union of the imperious, upper crust Hempel and the gruff Meyer was about as successful as you might expect – Meyer regretted the casting terribly and vocally, and Hempel tried to actually prevent the film’s release in the UK after Meyer inserted some substitute breasts in to her scenes. Warbeck fares a little better, but only by dint of being somewhat of a blank at the film’s centre. However, Bernard Boston as the fascinating Daladier, prolific British-Guyanese stage actor and opera singer Thomas Baptiste as the slaves’ spiritual leader Isiah, and Milton McCollin as his impetuous son Joshua, are all doing some fantastic, powerful work. Baptiste especially handles a third act handbrake turn with more gravitas than the material strictly deserves. Despite myself, I actually found the narrative one of Meyer’s more coherent and propulsive, and can at least say that I wasn’t bored. But a bloodthirsty concluding revolt that Meyer foolishly thought would play with the Blaxploitation crowd further muddies the movie’s (im)morality, doesn’t read as the deserved comeuppance it needed to. Meyer was swimming in dangerous waters here, and the result, is, for me at least, his biggest misfire since Motorpsycho – with the caveat that even Meyer’s biggest missteps are never less than a compelling watch.
Retreating into extremely familiar waters, although certainly not in a way that any viewer could regard as ‘safe’, a snake of a very different type emerges from follow up Supervixens!. An ouroborous tale of no fewer than six stunning, statuesque sirens tormenting one of his standard-issue sadsack blokes, each bearing the name of one of Meyer’s previous movie bombshells (with the prefix Super-, naturally), the film cannibalises former glories and races through multiple cartoon logic vignettes with the kind of total disregard for narrative coherence that Cherry, Harry & Raquel kicked off, but this time fired into the stratosphere.
We open on dopey gas station attendant Clint and his stunning, voracious nightmare of a wife SuperAngel, who, while haranguing him on the phone to come home for some marital time, overhears the wild flirtations of customer SuperLorna and flies into a jealous rage. After a huge blowout argument that culminates in a van-axing that causes a nosey neighbour to call the cops, or more specifically cop – a returning (no longer dead?) Harry Sledge, in all his Charles Napier glory. Alas, this Harry is even crazier than the last. After a spurned, humiliated Harry dispatches SuperAngel in one of the most shocking and brutal scenes that Meyer ever filmed, Clint finds himself framed for the murder and on the run. Stumbling in to the arms, and bosoms, of a string of beautiful women, from returning star Uschi Digard to newcomer (and later, wife of Richard Pryor) Deborah McGuire, Clint usually exits each vignette chased off by some incensed ornery older gentlemen for his trouble, before eventually finding himself at Supervixen’s Oasis, a roadside diner. Somehow, he doesn’t realise that SuperVixen, the sweet-natured owner, looks exactly like the troublesome wife from whose awful murder he is escaping, and stays on, kindling a romance that seems destined to come to an abrupt end once Harry Sledge rolls by (although, again, recognised by nobody).
Supervixens! benefits from its rapid turnover of sketches, and stars, which Meyer likened to ‘rotating in linebackers’, to keep things moving. More than ever before the intent was to create a total sensory overload – give it a few minutes and there’ll be another incredible looking woman, another burst of fisticuffs, a dune buggy chase, and eventually, a full-blown Looney Tunes ending that combines the explosiveness of Motorpsycho! with the dusty bloodletting of Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, but with the violence and the weirdness cranked up further than he’d gone thus far. Shari Eubank emerges as an extremely fun, capable and game double-star as the acidic SuperAngel and the coy SuperVixen, leaning in to the insanity and clearly committing to the cause, and while lead Charles Pitts does little more than sulk about while looking vaguely like Arye Gross, there’s more than enough Napier to pick up the slack. The vicious attack scene on SuperAngel is one of the most technically impressive, affecting sequences Meyer ever filmed, every bit as taut and attentive as Hitchcock and made all the more terrifying by Meyer’s total lack of restraint and ‘good taste’, but that may put it beyond the pale for some viewers. And while it seems folly to try to in any way suggest that the rest of the films aren’t all some stripe of misogynistic (for all the empowerment and scholarship, it’s always possible that these are, at their base, movies about magnificent breasts), the fact that one of Meyer’s formidable, motor-mouthed superwomen gets so brutally dispatched for her trouble does somewhat undermine the agency that he had previously given the likes of Alaina Capri’s Angel in Good Morning…and Goodbye!
The amped-up violence and queasy, encroaching feeling that the joke might not be as funny any more for a section of the audience hangs over long stretches of the following year’s Up!, which contains an early scene of Raven De La Croix’s extremely unlikely roadside jogger (neither those shoes, nor that outfit, are likely available at your local Sports Direct) being beaten and assaulted in a lake by a passing bastard in a pickup truck. Meyer’s films demand a hefty does of levity in order to get away with the things they do, and when winking bad taste veers in to such graphic territory I find it nigh impossible to recover much enjoyment at all from the rest of the film, no matter how gonzo entertaining some passages may be. There seems to be a genuine anger and ugliness that has permeated the previously anything-goes madness – this least hippie of filmmakers seems to have suffered the same fate as so many 60s darlings as they slogged through the hangover 1970s, struggling through that mean and jittery decade that Hunter S. Thompson documented so thoroughly.
Even moreso than in Supervixens!, Russ is stuck replaying the same hits again, but louder. Lines of dialogue are lifted whole cloth from earlier, better films, and references abound – a buxom woman dressed as a Native American, Vixen’s bare-sprung bedframe, a corrupt and horny cop, etc. And where before we had infamous Nazi secretary Martin Bormann appearing as a barman/butler and gas station owner in Beyond the Valley… and Supervixens! respectively, Up! ups the ante and opens on a shot of a giant Schloss, in which a familiar-looking, tiny mustachioed Mr “Adolph Schwartz” engages in some extremely kinky bisexual arse-whipping in its basement. Clearly, the tenor of the times and the increasingly explicitness of films that had lapped Meyer in the fleapits and drive-ins over the last couple of years forced him to up his game, as the film begins with wall-to-wall nudity for almost all of its opening 20 minutes. This dizzying, often full frontal glut includes the aforementioned Hitler S&M marathon, a lesbian tryst, a gyrating Kitten Natividad (Meyer’s last great muse) as the Greek chorus, periodically chipping in with dubbed interjections writtene by a pseudonymous Roger Ebert that only very occasionally serve to explain what the hell is happening, and a long credits sequence montage of random waterside couplings of characters we have not yet met. Oh, and Meyer has apparently discovered an enormous stash of unconvincingly massive rubber penises, which every single male cast member now sports in their sex scenes.
When Adolf/Adolph gets his cock chewed off (to death) in the bath by a piranha deposited by an unseen assassin, this murder mystery ostensibly forms the backbone of a story that quickly changes tack when De La Croix’s Margo Winchester jogs into town, only to be assaulted heinously before murdering her assailant with karate. She later takes up first with the local dim bulb cop, then becomes a waitress at the café run by the guy we previously saw engaged in some pretty graphic shenanigans with the aforementioned Führer, and the whole thing ends with an admittedly very entertaining post-axe murder naked foot chase that sees our cast dump reams of increasingly mad plot exposition while trying not to sound totally out of breath. In theory, it’s an entertainingly shithouse-crazy tangle, and there are always going to be moments of the old gleeful anarchy poking through. But the meanness that surfaced when Harry Sledge goes crackers in Supervixens! suffuses so much of the film – scenes of sexual assault dragging out interminably, with a miserable leering quality – and the visual creativity that Meyer prided himself on seems to have stalled. Repeats of the same crazy angles, the same ironic music cues, but a dullness that disappoints when compared to either the searing monochrome of the early years, or the candy coloured joy of his melodramas. The joyful Natividad provides a rare bright spot of positivity – it’s clear to see why Meyer was so enamoured of her.
So enamoured, that he brought her back for a far larger starring role in his true swansong, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. After a disappointing experience attached to a Sex Pistols picture that the band’s mastermind Malcolm Reynolds was trying to mount – the unmade Who Killed Bambi?, on which he was due to collaborate with Roger Ebert again – a once again chastened Russ dived headlong back into the ‘bustoon’ era of his career, albeit one that manages to recapture some of the mad creative energy and unexpected charm of earlier films. It’s largely absent of the violent nastiness that often crept in from Blacksnake onwards, instead contenting to offer something giddy and gleefully immature, an almost Pythonesque farce of bonking, boobs and bush. While not quite matching the soft lensed glamour glow of his best 1960s work, gone too is the visual indifference of Up!, replaced with some of his trademark block colour sets and eye for a unique angle.
Recounting the story, of course, would be a fool’s errand, more so in this film than possibly any other. Ebert-penned narration is handled on screen by Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster as ‘The Man from Small Town U.S.A.’, a continuation of his friendly farmer character Lute Wade from Mudhoney (although no longer dead) and Supervixens! (still married to Uschi Digard’s insatiable SuperSoul, as we find out in the wrap-up), who leads us on an extremely circuitous path through the unlikely tale of moustachioed junkyard worker and half-wit Lamar Shedd, his lusty wife Lavonia, and their marital problems that stem from Lamar’s predilection for…entering via the tradesmens. Even for Russ, and even for Russ coming off a story centred around a bisexual Hitler being murdered by a fish, this is a pretty insane basis for a feature film. Lancaster tools about town in his truck, introducing a bevy of mad supporting characters like the imposing Junkyard Sal, proprietress of Lamar’s workplace and played by real-life call girl June Mack; physics-defying radio evangelist Eufaula Roop; randy garbageman Mr. Peterbilt; howlingly offensive gay stereotype, marriage counsellor and orthodontist Dr. Asa Lavender; old familiars like Martin Bormann; and a whole heap more, and those characters promptly engage in a series of mad, impossibly energetic sexual encounters. Burned testicles, coffins, peepers, dentist office dildos, dress socks, garbage trucks, Spanish textbooks and faith healing via bathtub shagging are just a few of the dizzying array of vulgar delights Meyer tosses into the blender.
Beneath… continues the trend towards increasingly graphic nudity, especially when Natividad is on screen (Russ was very openly in a relationship with her at this point, and his ever-libidinous camera is more forensic than at any other time in his career here) but the smut is delivered with a heavy dose of gross out humour and slapstick, and the mad showman rush of old is firmly back. The film’s ending is, in hindsight, almost wistful, as the director himself appears on screen, lugging his camera gear down a mountainside while Natividad gyrates in the nude around him, delivering a monologue that teases yet another crazy remix of former glories yet to come (titled The Jaws of Vixen) that will, sadly, never materialise. Clearly in his element, the avuncular old pervert had this last chance to indulge himself, and it’s a bittersweet triumph that he managed to produce one more astounding, crude, creative and hilariously weird picture in his now sprawling cartoon universe as the 1970s closed. Already feeling he pinch from the encroaching hardcore sex cinema of that decade, there’d be no room for Russ’ shenanigans in the hard-edged VHS 1980s.
For sheer, unadulterated, insane entertainment in this last run of independent features, for me it’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens that offers the most. While Supervixens! has much to recommend it, especially Charles Napier’s insane commitment and that full-blown cartoon of an ending, Beneath… swerved some of that film’s more violent misogyny and, as with all of his best films, centred around a female lead whose vitality and agency are the driving force. It seems odd to describe something so obscene as charming, but Meyer’s obvious obsession with Kitten Natividad spills on to the screen, resulting in a single-minded, reckless, tangible energy not felt since Vixen!, and that energy is infectious.
Pandora Peaks (2001)
While Meyer’s filmmaking may have sputtered out in at the dawn of the 1980s, the advent of VHS offered him a lucrative way of remaining in the public eye. He found a niche as a kind of semi-ironic cause célèbre. His work was subject to major retrospectives at the BFI in London and MoMA in New York, among others. His patronage by emerging trash-art-pop movie icon John Waters, just as his own career started to really take off, and the likes of Jonathan Ross here in the UK, gave Meyer a platform from which to launch an extremely lucrative mail order business for a proprietary label through which to sell VHS tapes of his movies – ever the hands-on one-man-show, Meyer insisted on retaining all the rights to his work bar the two Fox pictures and Fanny Hill and often literally took phone orders himself in his Hollywood mansion. His work began to be referenced by younger audiences – breakthrough grunge act Mudhoney most notably.
But by the mid-1990s, Meyer was suffering quite severe memory loss, and was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – the same illness that so afflicted his beloved mother Lydia. Coaxed back behind the camera after a lengthy layoff by Playboy magazine, his last ‘feature’ is a straight-to-video advertorial for the astoundingly pneumatic quasi-celebrity stripper and glamour model Pandora Peaks that incorporated some of the elements Russ intended to use in an autobiographical, nudie travelogue of sorts that would allow him another chance to indulge himself with tales of former glories – especially his European wartime escapades. Curtailed in his previously ambitious plans, this rather sad piece aimlessly deploys Russ’ rambles, his listless narration robbed of its former bark and bite as he reminisces and ruminates. Pandora also narrates, her machine-tooled schilling equally failing to ignite.
It stands, sadly, as a painful reminder of the passage of time, of the commodification of his once-daring early work that literally introduced sex and sexuality into the cinema. His early muses, which were, of course, all possessed of stunning but realistic physiques, are replaced with the eye-popping surgically-enhanced assets of Pandora, and the weird, inimitable scrubland frolicking has been sanitised and replaced with far more prosaic setups. The hilarious irony of those bizarre voiceover non-sequitors now speaks of nothing more than tragic, clinical confusion. The great self-promoter and pervert artist is now being used as nothing more than a brand-name asset deployed to bring more eyes onto a now lucrative, corporate Playboy that skillfully harnessed the power of celebrity and sold logo-festooned merchandise in department stores. His one-time glossy outlet for his photography now a multimedia behemoth. Russ was adrift, incapable, and left behind. No one would accuse Meyer’s movies of being innocent, but cast in contrast to the slick and porn-drenched new millennium, he was desperately quaint and out of place. Where in Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens he packed up and strode off into the sunset with his gal, still swaggering and in charge but realising his time had come, Pandora Peaks is a brutal reminder that a happy ending is only dependent on where you place it, and that life, sadly, will always continue past the end credits without a script to follow.
Unfortunately, Russ’ health continued to decline – passing away only a couple of years after turning in Pandora Peaks, his last years were marked by the great exploiter himself falling victim to numerous shady operators who exploited his fading faculties to enrich themselves, and in the process deny the world access to these strange, seminal works of sexual id. Russ’ legacy, his phenomenal work, is still out there to discover, but we can’t go to raucous public screenings in costume and yell along with our favourite lines, or watch a flawless high-definition remaster of his gleaming cinematography while listening to some slick cultural critic commentary track espousing his genius, as almost all of his works are locked behind the eye-watering paywall of the miserably early 2000s-era webstore of RM Films – $60 or $70 DVDs from sketchy, decades-old transfers available to order alongside LaserDiscs (seriously) or $600 editions of Russ’ last hurrah – his 3 volume autobiography A Clean Breast. This book was painstakingly constructed by Russ and a number of associates and helpers (most of whom an increasingly unpredictable Russ would periodically dispose of for some perceived slight) as his faculties drifted in and out, but contain his last records of boastful sexual conquests, his filmmaking brilliance, and most wonderfully, a huge collection of his early photography. Unfortunately, this eye-watering price tag means that, again, the official release is out of the question to most of us.
So we’re left, perhaps appropriately, to scour the margins of popular culture in order to experience Meyer’s unique world. To trade what few DVDs are still commercially available, dip into questionably legal territory for those that aren’t, to seek excerpts and scans of his books and photography and read the reported words of others who share our weird fascination. Whether Russ would want it this way, who knows – he seemed extremely happy to push the boundaries of bad taste and kick against the normies and the prudes, but acted like the cat that got the cream whenever the straight world would give him attention and plaudits. But, I like to think, he’d appreciate that over 6 decades after he lit the touchpaper that helped open the cinema screens up to the taboo pleasures of the enjoyably immoral, there are still those who stumble upon his labours of lust and find themselves hopelessly seduced. I can only hope that this missive may reach a few people who might want to peak behind the curtain and see what wild, mad pleasures lie beyond.
Russell Albion Meyer
March 21, 1922 – September 18, 2004