With 1963’s Heavenly Bodies! Russ Meyer effectively brought the nudie cutie chapter of his life to a close, summarizing nearly all of his post WWII pin-up work in a single, enjoyably frivolous (but financially disastrous) picture. Having effectively invented the nudie cutie with The Immoral Mr. Teas & more or less running into the ground with the five films that followed, it was high time for a change in Meyer’s career path, one telegraphed by his curmudgeony “documentary” on European sex trade Europe in the Raw. What was next for the moustachioed pervert was much darker territory than the playful narration & pastel voids of his nude comedies. Meyer would spend his next four or so features pioneering an entirely new kind of sexploitation picture: black & white “roughies.” Far from the hokey vaudevillian gags of nudie cutie titles like Mr. Teas & Wild Gals of the Naked West, roughies were vicious, often hateful pictures that would lean toward the violent & the salacious, but were also quick to damn the very characters they leered at with (in the films’ view) well-deserved deaths for their transgressions. Russ Meyer may have not made the very first roughie (many attribute that milestone to fellow schlock peddler David Friedman), but it was a genre he would eventually damn near perfect with his cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.
Although Lorna may not have technically been the first roughie, it was easily one of the first recognizable & successful examples of the genre. A twisted tale about sexual inadequacy, adultery, and betrayal, Lorna paints an ugly, ugly picture, one that’s only made more ugly by the harshness of its vivid black & white cinematography. In the film’s opening minutes a preacher stops the camera from cruising down a desolate highway to ramble vague, Biblically-themed warnings about loose morals. The following scenes feature a pair of rough drunks following an intoxicated woman home, only to beat & undress her once she spurns their sexual advances (thankfully leaving the scene before it escalates to rape). As the horrifying, leather-faced bully Luther (played by Meyer-newcomer Hal Hopper) rolls out his dim accomplice in tow, his victim shouts “You bastard! You dirty bastard!” & a lounge lizard song (composed & sung by Hopper) about the titular Lorna overtakes the soundtrack. All of this unpleasantness before we even meet the main characters. With this slap to the unsuspecting audience’s face Meyer effectively drove the last nail in the coffin of the nudie cutie & revealed the weirder, meaner brute that had been lurking under his surface all along. And he hadn’t even really gotten started.
The central couple in this sordid tale is Jim (a square-jawed James Rucker) and his wife, duh, Lorna (a most buxom Lorna Maitland), prototypes of what would eventually solidify as the typical soldiers in Meyer’s never-ending war of the sexes. Jim is ostensibly a nice guy. He’s sweet to his wife, studies to better himself, etc., but these character traits actually play like flaws in Meyer’s fucked up sense of logic. In Meyer’s view, Jim is an irredeemable weakling who gets less & less admirable with every “I love you” he coos to his nonplussed wife. Jim’s major malfunction is that he’s bad in bed. In an early scene Lorna lies in post-coital boredom, musing about her husband’s “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” approach to lovemaking, asking “Why can’t he make love to me the way he should?”, and slyly suggesting that he just flat out does not provide her orgasms. There’s some classic Russ Meyer insanity in these moments, like when disorienting shots of running water appear as Lorna recalls a more lustful time in her relationship with Jim or when her daydreams about moving from their remote marital cabin to the big city devolve into rapid-fire montages of the well-endowed actress drunkenly dancing topless among flashing neon signs. It’s in these moments that Lorna shines brightest.
Unfortunately, the generally sour vibe of the roughie format drags the film down a great deal more than it should. When Jim leaves for work it’s revealed that his co-worker is none other than Hal Hopper’s leather-face Luther, a real prick who incessantly teases Jim about his white-hot wife & the distinct possibility that she might be committing adultery behind his back. This tension amounts to an on-the-job fistfight & near-fatal stabbing. Meanwhile, an unattended Lorna actually does become an adulteress at the roaming hands of an escaped convict (Mark Bradley). More than happy to play house for a “real” man, Lorna invites the convict home & into the bed she shares with her husband, which eventually leads to (of course) their infidelity being uncovered & nearly everyone involved getting fatally wounded in a bodycount-heavy finale that’s faithful to the chaos of a traditional stage tragedy. Somewhere in the kerfuffle the Grim Reaper makes an onscreen cameo & the preacher from the opening monologue returns to babble about the definition of adultery & the fate of Lot’s wife. It’s fairly straight-forward stuff, unpleasant or not.
Shot in just two weeks with a five man crew, Lorna featured Russ Meyer’s biggest budget to date & marked the first time he shot a feature on 35mm film. Meyer’s most vocal critical supporter & improbable friend Roger Ebert calls this picture the start of the director’s “Gothic period” & some credit it as the first mainstream film to combine the nudie picture with high stakes drama. Prosecuted in vain on obscenity charges in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Florida (courtroom battles that later New Hollywood productions would greatly benefit from), Lorna is unfortunately much more interesting as a historical milestone than it is as an actual film. There were elements of Lorna that really worked & you could tell that Meyer was really stretching himself thin trying to grasp for something new & exciting, but much of the film reads dull at best and heartlessly cruel at worst. The best five or so minutes of the picture arrive very early, when Lorna’s daydreaming about better orgasms & dancing topless in an urban, neon-lit fantasy world. Meyer would later learn how to better consolidate these more out-there moments with a feature-length narrative, but Lorna never quite reaches an enjoyable cohesiveness, which feels just out of its reach, thanks to the constraints of the newly found roughie genre holding it back.