“Is she woman or animal? TOO MUCH for one man!”
While Russ Meyer was cranking out a string of vitriolic “soap operas” about couples on the verge of murdering each other – Common Law Cabin, Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, and Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! – his career was somewhat compromised by a sudden change in the cinematic landscape. Suddenly, in the freewheeling sexual revolution of the late 1960s, films bordering on hardcore pornography were beginning to play in somewhat respectable venues instead of underground porn theaters. In order to keep his career alive & relevant, Meyer had to adapt. It was difficult to sell a picture that teased, but never delivered onscreen sex if the public could get the goods elsewhere, so Meyer’s next couple of pictures– Vixen! & Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! – took a much harder turn to match the competition. Meyer’s first “hard sex” film, Vixen!, was the first American-made release to receive the “X” rating from censorship boards, an honor Meyer initially wore like a badge. Unfortunately, the director dulled down a lot of his more outlandish eccentricities, including his vitriolic dialogue & rapidfire montage edits in order to appeal to a larger audience, so the resulting film, however financially successful, plays a little dull after the darker, more bizarre territory of its direct predecessors.
As always with Meyer’s pictures, Vixen!‘s plot is razor thin. The titular hellcat, played by Erica Gavin, is an adulteress archetype we’ve seen before in Meyer films like Lorna & Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, but while her cuckold husband may be shamed for paying more attention to his work than his wife’s sexual needs, Vixen herself suffers no consequences from her cheating ways. The lack of punishment with Vixen’s adultery isn’t necessarily a problem for the film. It’s kind of a cool idea that she’s a sexual healer who leaves a positively-changed trail of lovers behind her. First she seduces a visiting, married stranger. Then she seduces his wife (in Meyer’s first homosexual scene, which is very much against his film’s typical, no-frills, all-American sex). And then she seduces her own brother, who’s somewhat of a biker & a reprobate (in a depiction of incest that has got to be the closest thing to kink that Meyer had filmed outside the chest-shaving scene in Finders Keepers). Nothing of consequence comes of these encounters & they’re presented more or less for pure titillation. The problem with this formula is that instead of having hateful, knockdown arguments with her unsuspecting husband, Vixen directs her vitriol into racist attacks against a young draft-dodger named Niles. In her racist rants against Niles, Vixen drops words like “boy”, “watermelon”, “spade”, “chocolate drop”, and “Sambo” with hurtfully nasty abandon. For instance, when her brother asks her, “Is there anyone you wouldn’t make it with?” she replies “Only spades & cripples.” Fuck, that’s fucked. The thing is that Vixen is mostly portrayed as a positive character & the film’s concluding conflict involves an airplane hijacking that just skips right over the central couple’s adultery issues & just barely touches on the fact that the star of the show is a raging bigot, so then what’s the point of that character trait at all? At least when Meyer was depicting romantic monogamy as a hate-filled cesspool of bruised egos, I could tell what he was getting at, even if he was off-base. Here, I’m a little more confused & uneasy.
Still, it’s impossible to brush of Vixen!‘s significance as a Russ Meyer classic altogether. Meyer’s plan to make “hard sex” films (it’s not actually that “hard”, y’all; it’s barely even softcore porn) marketable to large audiences in Vixen! payed off nicely. The film cost very little to make, but made more than $7 million in its first year alone. As Meyer himself explains it, making a porn-leaning film palatable for couples instead of lone-masturbators “was the basis for Vixen!‘s huge success. Once you have that happen your gross doubles, even triples. It’s not just the raincoat brigade.” Unfortunately a lot of the old Meyer charm was lost in the translation as he reached for a more mainstream crowd, leaving the film with a distinct made-for-TV feel that would’ve left it to fit right in with the Skinemax market that followed decades later . . . if it weren’t for the not-sexy-at-all racist rants. Still, a great deal of Meyer’s weirdness shines through. If nothing else, Erica Gaven is a knockout as the titular Vixen. She’s more rabid animal than human sexpot & it’s great to see a woman take so much command of her own sex life in a skin flick from this era. It also helps that Gavin is a gorgeous actress with particularly striking eyebrows . . . and Meyer-approved breasts.
When she’s not screwing unsuspecting couple or ranting about the inferiority of other races, Vixen also is afforded some of Meyer’s strangest details to date, including a shot of her having sex framed from under a seemingly invisible bed as she bounces on the bare springs & an all-too-memorable scene in which she flirts by sticking a dead fish between her breasts & then mocking fellatio on its little, lifeless fish head. Even when Meyer was trying to tone himself down to appeal to larger audiences, he had a hard time concealing the fact that he was a total madman. This is also evident in a scene where Vixen is making love to her husband (for a change) that’s intercut with a separate pair of characters discussing the merits of Communism as a political system & in the lesbian seduction centerpiece where Meyer obsessively focuses on the image of boobs touching boobs as if he’s working out a new fetish for himself on camera (without bothering at all to discover how two women would actually have sex in the process). In a quicker paced, less-racist film with a true narrative conflict in any sense, these strange details could’ve amounted to something special, perhaps one of Meyer’s greatest films. As is, though, Vixen! is more important because it made Meyer a shit ton of money, money that afforded him more personal projects down the road. Some of his best work was just ahead of him.