While filming the atypical yuck-it-up comedy Fanny Hill in Europe, Meyer received word from wife/producer (and titular star of Eve & The Handyman) Eve that his first venture into black & white “roughies”, Lorna had racked up a nice chunk of change in his absence. How did Meyer celebrate? He took his lastest white hot mistress Rena Horten (who played a sex worker in Fanny Hill) on a lavish mini-vacation. This affair, of course, ramped up some pre-existing marital tension & lead to a rather speedy divorce back home. Not to let a little old speed bump like the dissolution of a marriage get in the way of making a buck, however, Russ immediately talked his now ex-wife to produce his next venture in to pitch black roughies: Mudhoney, starring (of course) Rena Horten.
Reportedly lifting the title from, of all places, an Oscar Wilde quote, Meyer set Mudhoney in a Depression-era Missouri, later referring the film as his “homage to Grapes of Wrath.” Despite the incongruity of the setting, the film was in fact filmed in the desert, a tumultuous terrain that fondly reminded the director of his glory days as a WWII combat photographer “because you could die there”. Of course, Mudhoney actually has much more in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the ancient freak show Spider Baby than it does with The Grapes of Wrath, no matter what Meyer believed to be true. Depicting a maniacal family of impossible, sex-starved, rural lunatics & the small town of simple farm folk they terrorize, the film has the vibe of an unhinged party that’s taken a peculiarly violent turn after a marathon of day-drinking. Sidney, played by a leather-faced Hal Hopper (who starred in & sang the lounge lizard theme song for Lorna) sets the tone early after getting ejected from his favorite drinking hole with shouts of “Why don’t you go home to your wife for a change?!”. Unfortunately, he does go home to his wife (played by Antoinette Christiani, for whom this is her sole film credit), only to force himself on her in a truly grotesque display. Even in these opening minutes Meyer establishes that Mudhoney firmly in the roughie territory, the carefree days of the nudie cutie firmly in the rearview.
Despite a distinct, depraved atmosphere, however, Mudhoney doesn’t have too much going for it. A lot of the problem is its very slight narrative, the same Achilles heel that sunk the almost-enjoyable Lorna. A city boy drifter (John Furlong, who ended up working on many Meyer films & enjoyed a second life as a character actor) finds his way to Meyer’s warped version of Missouri & decides to take up work as a farmhand on Sidney’s property despite so, so many red flags. A nearby house that functions as a sort of brothel/drinking hole offers a gateway to vice that eventually drives Sidney & his corrupt priest cohort to a violent madness, intensified by the farm hand’s designs on his wife & his property, eventually leading to his public execution in the town square. Somewhere in there is the usual Meyer jabs at the city boy’s supposedly unmasculine weakness, best exemplified by Luther’s acidic line, “She needs a man. A real man! Not some gutless boy.” In this case, though, it’s Luther who’s punished for his transgressions. His wife spits the line, “I hate everything about you! Don’t ever touch me again!” in his face, threatening to stab him with a gigantic kitchen knife and, of course, the film concludes with his public execution, Meyer himself making a cameo among the lynch mob. The film may fail to sympathize with the violent alpha-male Meyer would usually side with (although his escalating mental illness in the back half does help a bit in that respect), but it does at least typify the adversarial war of the sexes vibes that plagues nearly all of the director’s onscreen romances.
Although Mudhoney doesn’t quite work on the whole, it has a great deal of killer atmosphere, of which I have a hard time finding any comparison points besides the aforementioned Spider Baby. So much credit for this has to go to the cast. Hal Hopper holds it down as a vicious brute as usual, but this time he’s backed up by the wild, toothless coot Princess Livingston (featured before in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West & Erotica), a hot to trot, go-go dancing Lorna Maitland (star of Meyer’s Lorna, duh), and, of course, Rena Horten, who portrays a deaf/mute beauty tactlessly described in the film as “the perfect woman” due to her handicaps (yikes!). The dialogue is a nonstop barrage of atonal yelling without any real breaks for breath or traces of human behavior, the exact kind of stuff that must’ve inspired many a John Waters performance down the line. The unhinged living room dance parties (accompanied by Princess Livingston’s one of a kind cackle) & moonshine swilling are a sight to behold, feeling like true glimpses into a maniacal, rural underwold that must exist somewhere, right? With all of this going for it, it’s no wonder that Mudhoney has sort of persisted as a cult classic despite its initial commercial flop, even going so far as to inspire the name of an infamous grunge-era punk band. Still, the bizarre atmosphere rarely overpowers the weak plot & the movie unfortunately works a lot better as a strange afterthought & a memory, like a half-remembered nightmare, than it actually does as a movie-watching experience.