After Roger Ebert’s first & final official screenwriting credit in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls his employers at the Chicago Sun-Times gave him an ultimatum: either to further pursue his journey under the wing of sexploitation schlockmeister Russ Meyer or to continue his career as a newspaper man & a film critic. They wouldn’t allow him to do both. It’s just as well, since Meyer’s post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls work witnessed a decline both in quality & in financial success, something that might’ve done damage to Ebert’s reputation on the snobbier end of film critic circles. Although he officially cut professional ties with Meyer, Ebert did continue to contrite to the director’s work behind the scenes, sometimes under a pseudonym. These contributions included generating the dialogue for Kitten Natividad in the sexploitation comedy/murder mystery Up!. Natividad functions as Up!‘s Greek Chorus. How do we know this? She helpfully explains, “I am your Greek Chorus,” in her opening monologue. Meyer instructed Ebert to produce something, anything for the buxom Greek chorus to blabber as a means to tie his 20th feature together and that method of storytelling is exactly how loose & pointless Up! feels as a final product.
Sometimes the film’s who-cares? approach to narrative structure or general cohesion can be sublimely refreshing. In fact, in its first fifteen minutes Up! seems as if it might amount to one of Meyer’s finest works of rapidfire inanity & sexually charged nihilism. Images of bananas being eaten through zipper holes of S&M masks & disembodied tongues (much like off-screen gloved hands of giallo films) licking dangling cherries mix with ecstatic, nature-set fucking & close-ups of pubic mounds during the opening credits. This out-the-gates visual assault is followed by a scene of Adolf Hitler (billed here as Adolph Schwartz for reasons unknown) being whipped by a Pilgrim in a dungeon while motorboating a woman in an S&M hood, an onlooker stirring a mysterious cauldron & acting like a kitten in the background. This bizarre, ritualistic act is followed by Hitler paying extra for the Pilgrim to fucking him with his comically oversized dildo-dick while of one of the other participants sneaks out to have sex with a lesbian trucker who sports a strap-on dildo so large that it requires shoulder straps for extra support. These representations of homosexual kink are far from progressive in their intent, but they at least bring the homoerotic subtext of Supervixens out in the open where it cannot be denied. It’s a bewildering sequence, one that concludes with, of all things, Hitler being murdered via a bloodthirsty piranha dropped in his private bathtub.
The sublime pleasures of this opening assault fade hard & fast, unfortunately. The 1970s were a particularly gross time for the exploitation trade, leaning heavily on sexual violence for shock value in a way that always leaves me cold. Every time I watch a slice of 70s schlock I always prepare myself for the possibility of a grotesque rape scene, which makes the era my least favorite cinematic run for B-movies. Not one to miss a beat in following/pioneering the evolving tone of the sex film, Russ Meyer includes two extensive rape scenes in Up!. An early sexual assault of a jogger immediately ruins the good vibes of the film’s opening. The film almost recovers when the jogger immediately breaks her attacker’s neck & kills him, but that retribution is muddled by her decision to then have vigorous, consensual sex with the cop assigned to the scene (immediately following her assault). This is repeated later when a gigantic Franken-brute simultaneously rapes two women in a bar until he’s murdered with a chainsaw & the two freshly-assaulted women immediately engage in consensual cunnilingus. There’s so much cartoonish insanity in Up! that makes it an ultimately worthwhile oddity, but Russ Meyer’s irreverent approach to sexual assault makes the film impossible to defend in its entirety. It’s difficult to say if he was aware of the full impact of what he was representing in these ugly scenes of sexual violence, but the effect is troublesome nonetheless.
Where Up! escalates its sexual content to an unfortunate degree, finally earning the “hard sex” label only feigned in films like Vixen! & Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!, its violence is also exaggerated for an over-the-top effect. The film’s chainsaw, axe, and piranha murders build on the violence of Supervixens‘ vicious bathtub stomping, suggesting what almost amounts to Russ Meyer’s version a of a slasher film, a concept that would be worth drooling over if Up! were only more focused & discarded its irreverent representations of rape. Instead, its bloodshed plays just as pointlessly nihilistic as the films pornstar fuck sessions & references to old Meyer one-liners like “I’d like to strap you on sometime” (this time said by a man) & “Taste the black sperm of my vengeance.” A few of Meyer’s critics & friends cite Up! as an early sign that the director’s mental facilities might’ve been slipping (although I’d say traces of that were visible in Supervixens) and there’s some legitimacy to that theory, especially in the film’s ecstatic adoption of kink, something Meyer would normally avoid like the plague.
At the very least, it’s safe to say that the director was losing grasp of how to control the tone & effect of his work, which means that Up! comes across as the ultimate mixed bag, a collection of Russ Meyer’s best & worst tendencies presented side by side without rhyme or reason. Ebert was a good friend for contributing his isolated aspect of the film, but also smart to keep his name off a project I doubt he, or anyone but Meyer himself, could defend in its entirety. Up! is a fascinating mess of a misfire, one that soars in its finer moments of wild abandon, but is barely watchable in its darkest impulses. It’s 100% Meyer, but in an unfortunately unfocused way that makes no effort to keep his vilest id in check.