Supervixens (1975)

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fourstar

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“Is the fucking you get worth the fucking you get?”

The back-to-back financial failures of Russ Meyer’s near-campless Blacksnake & The Seven Minutes left the director pretty shaken. Runaway successes like Vixen! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had inflated Meyer’s already oversized ego to the point where he was convinced that the sex film was a fixture of his past, something he had outgrown. Although I felt the vicious critical reception of The Seven Minutes was largely unjustified, audiences were very clear that Meyer films without over-the-top silliness (& endless parades of gigantic breasts) just weren’t doing it for them. The director heard them loud & clear. Supervixens was supposed to be Meyer’s return to his roots, a back to the basics tour through his (recent) past life as a sexploitation schlockmeister. Self-reflection wasn’t the only thing on the director’s mind, though. Fresh from a nasty divorce from actress Edy Williams (a featured player in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Meyer let his troubled love life poison his work even more than it ever had before. The vitriolic war of the sexes the director had explored before in his delightfully hateful soap operas Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin paled in comparison to the (literal) romantic warfare he punished the world with in Supervixens.

In its own strange way, Supervixens plays like a greatest hits of Russ Meyer’s past achievements. The film is crawling with “super” versions of bombshells from Meyer’s past work: SuperCherry, SuperLorna, SuperSoul, SuperHaji, SuperVixen, etc. Callbacks to classic lines like the “Suck it!” snake bite scene from Motorpsycho! & the “Can’t wait to strap on your man sometime” line (wow, that really has changed meaning over the past few decades) are almost word-for-word passages from old screenplays. Then there’s the farm life pastiche from Mudhoney, Mudhoney‘s despicable portrayal of a deaf & mute “perfect woman”, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!‘s desert sands drag racing, and the mindless go-go dancing of his “documentaries” Mondo Topless & Europe in the Raw. The difference is that the ugliness of Meyer’s past work is cranked up to an impossible heat, one that intentionally corrupts the frivolity on display with a severely misanthropic take on the state of male-female romance.

At first it may seem that the war of the sexes on display in Supervixens is no more dangerous or violent than it is in Meyer’s past films, but it gets rough. Clint, a brutish gas station attendant, is shamed for ignoring the advances of his oversexed wife & eventually blows his top, berating her in the following tirade: “Always dealing from a position of strength, blowing my hard-earned  bread . . . Angel #1, screw everybody else. Giver her what she wants, when she wants it, how she wants it. Money! A shit pile of it, just lay it on Angel. Forget where it comes from, right?” Not one to take this lying down (after she’s through having sex, anyway), SuperAngel taunts Clint into a frenzy until he punches her & winds up in trouble with the law. SuperAngel then seduces Harry, the police officer in charge of the case, in order to further punish her husband, only to discover that Harry is impotent (another classic conflict in Meyer’s work). SuperAngel then turns her womanly villainy on Harry, taunting him with homophobic slurs & shouts of “All those muscles & not the one that counts! Get out of my  bedroom, you phony!” Henry reacts . . . poorly, stabbing SuperAngel in the shoulder just before stomping her to death in a bathtub. That bathtub stomping is one of the most violent attacks I’ve ever seen on film, much less in Meyer’s work, and it’s followed by a ridiculous, cartoonish death-by-electricity finisher. As a whole, the scene is Supervixens in a nutshell: horrific violence in one breath & over-the-top camp in the next. It’s a difficult combo to rationalize, but so is most of Russ Meyer’s catalog.

After the brutal bathtub scene, Clint is convinced that he’ll be blamed for Harry’s murder of his wife, so he hits the road in an attempt to escape the charges. It’s on this cross-country trip that he has run-ins with hot-to-trot bartenders, farmer’s wives, motel owner’s daughters, and diner waitresses (all of which sound like the set-ups to bawdy jokes or letters to Penthouse) in a Middle-America take on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. After that bit of adultery-laden silliness, SuperAngel magically reappears both as a goody-two-shoes version of herself named SuperVixen and as a Greek chorus ghost version of her former incarnation. I’m not going to pretend that this particular detail makes sense in any way, because the movie doesn’t either. Following SuperAngel’s transformation, the Supervixens‘ war of the sexes becomes literal as Harry catches up with the now-happy  couple of Clint & SuperVixen, attempting to blow them up with stolen dynamite on a desolate mountaintop while SuperAngel’s ghost comments on the action from the mountainside perch of out-of-nowhere bathtubs & bed frames. It’s pretty nuts, but it’s also so vile in its violence that it’s difficult to fully enjoy as campy entertainment.

A few people cite Meyer’s next film, Up!, as the early signs of the director’s gradual mental decline & as a hint that he may have dealt with unaddressed issues of repressed homosexuality. Although many of the director’s friends & fans would deny both accusations outright & chalk up the bizarre crumbling of Meyer’s plots and his newfound interest in gigantic dildos & half-dressed beefcake to a growing disinterest in traditional narrative structure, I find that there’s a good deal of credence in those two claims. In fact, I think traces of Meyer’s mental decline & possible bisexual attraction surface as soon as Supervixens. There’s no doubt that there’s some sort of subliminal symbolism at work in Clint & Harry’s violent war over SuperVixen, but what it means exactly is anybody’s guess. At times it feels like it could be that Meyer’s conscience (Clint) & his violent sexual id (Harry) are battling it out as an external projection of an internal struggle, whether that was a conscious decision or not (probably not). Still, there’s enough homosexual subtext to support a possible romantic connection between the two characters. The two are shown congenially entering a bathroom together, sensually fellating cigars, stroking police batons, and often spurning the sexual advances of women they obviously hate.  Even with all of the film’s the-lady-doth-protest-too-much homophobic slurs (when Harry turns down a blowjob from SuperAngel, for instance, he spits “Knock that queer shit off!”), there’s way too much macho beefcake on display between the pair for that reading to be dismissed entrirely. Even their character names, Clint Ramsey & Harry Sledge, sound like the lead credits for a gay porno.

Russ Meyer made a deeply strange film with Supervixens, one that earned its X-rating from its violence alone (not that the boobs didn’t pitch in). It was validated both  by the public at large (making an impressive $17 million profit from a measly $221,000 budget), but also from Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock himself, who reportedly had immense respect for the brutality of the bathtub stomping scene. It’s tempting to read a lot into the film’s homoerotic subtext mentioned above, but there’s just so much unusual-for-Meyer weirdness going on in this film– female on male rape, gigantic breasts used as weapons, sudden use of Nazi imagery & sound cues, female masturbation, rampant F-bombs, Olympic fucking that tears down beds & buildings, reincarnated ghosts — that it’s difficult to say if Harry & Clint’s potential romantic attraction means any more or less than anything else in play.

The only clear thing going on in Supervixens is Meyer lashing out at ex-wife Edy Williams and, thus, womanhood at large (it’s probably no coincidence that the title sounds similar to “supervillains”). I think the rest of the film is a coin flip between either Meyer’s growing indifference for  clear narrative structure or the early signs of his fading mental facilities, something apparently very recognizable in his final three films.  The result of that dichotomy’s internal struggle is a strange work both at times deliriously campy & disturbingly misanthropic. It’s difficult for me to say if these dueling tones ever reach a harmonious balance. It’s more like they co-exist side-by-side, difficult to digest, amounting to the cinematic version of what Clint orders from his reincarnated wife when he finds himself in her roadside diner: “a cheeseburger with everything.” It’s just that the “everything” in question sometimes includes enough hatred & violence to spoil the trashy, fast-food charms of the cheeseburger camp.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seven Minutes (1971)

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fourstar

“The sex film? I think it’s on the way out. I want to get into horror films. Suspense, mystery.” -Russ Meyer

Russ Meyer may have been done with sexploitation (if you believe that for a second) but the bosoms weren’t done with him. The director’s follow up to his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls may have pretended to be a straight-laced courtroom drama, but The Seven Minutes was just as plagued with Russ’ sexual id as any of his nastier works. Reportedly, Fox Studios took the opposite approach to its hands-off policy with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & pressured Meyer into not only adopting this specific property (an Irving Wallace novel) for the screen, but also demanding that the film achieve an R-rating from the MPAA, perhaps as a reaction to the sting of the studio’s X-rated disaster Myra Breckinridge. High octane Meyer works like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! had established a certain maniacal standard for the director’s work that The Seven Minutes demonstrates little-to-no desire to fulfill. Still, I find that the negative reaction to The Seven Minutes was largely unwarranted. It was far from Meyer’s most personal picture, but I found it to be more enjoyable than a majority of his catalog, much to my surprise.

Despite how subdued The Seven Minutes may come across at first glance, it actually commanded twice the budget of Meyer’s previous big studio effort & the director’s all-time longest runtime. There’s no doubt that the director initially intended the film to be his grandest work, his once chance to be taken seriously. So, where did he choose to set his sights for his major studio manifesto? Now on top of the world (in terms of ticket sales, anyway; most critics still scoffed at him), Meyer gloatingly fired back at the censorship boards & moral policing that plagued the theater run of his otherwise-successful film Vixen! just three years earlier. The Seven Minutes (named for the average time it takes for a woman to achieve orgasm), revolves around a courtroom battle in which an oversensitive moral vanguard attempts to convict a sexually-oriented novel guilty for the rape of a young college student by providing “living proof that a dirty book can destroy a  clean boy.” Of course, Meyer’s tirade stands firmly on the other side of the issue, railing against the hypocritical piety of the prosecutors looking to condemn this piece of fictional smut and, by extension, condemning the work of Russ Meyer himself. In a lot of ways The Seven Minutes is a highly paranoid piece of art, one that thumbs its nose at the extensive past of Meyer detractors in a grandly expensive display of gloating.

Solidifying the film’s straw man argument against the freedom of expression of sexual liberation in art, The Seven Minutes openly mocks the fictional Strength Through Decency League. One of the best stretches of dialogue in the film is the following rant at one of the STDL’s political rallies; “There is virtually no area that remains untainted by the quick buck artists who pander to our lowest forms of taste, and the public be damned. Just the other evening, my first night off in weeks, I decided to take my wife Mary & our three children to the movies. In our neighborhood, we had such subject material as rape, lust, motorcycle gangs, homosexuals, lesbians, drug abuse, you name it. Whatever happened to the movies we used to be able to take our children to?” What’s so great about this speech is that it not only jokingly jabs at the exact smut Meyer had himself been peddling for over a decade, but it also serves as a distinct antithesis to the anti-censorship rant that opens Meyer’s Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. Meyer never forgave the goody two shoes who complicated his otherwise-successful run with Vixen! He wasn’t satisfied with protesting them at the beginning of his modest indie movie Cherry, but waited to use the big time stage of his second major studio release to portray censorship-happy do-gooders as two-faced monsters who pretend to be “protecting the public”, but behind closed doors are hoarding pornography for themselves while maintaining a holier-than-thou public persona.

This aspect of The Seven Minutes positions the film as a personal work for Meyer, even if his personal interest in the work is centered mostly on a vicious pettiness. It’s not the only thing that distinguishes the film as a uniquely Meyer work, though. Old Meyer standbys like Charles Napier, Stuart Lancaster, and Uschi Digard appear in the film, as do old-hat Meyer tropes like themes of male sexual inadequacy and the idea that heterosexual romance is a form of emotional pugilism, an antagonistic back & forth  seeped much more in vitriol than sexuality. Perhaps the best metaphor for what the film accomplishes can be found in the character Babydoll, played by Shawn Devereaux. As rooms full of law men argue about decency & censorship, Babydoll undulates like the go-go dancers of yesteryear, purring like a high-pitched kitten, blaring hip dance music, and trying to make innocuous acts like eating potato chips the most seductive transgressions imaginable. When her lecherous, lawmaking cohorts bark commands like, “Babydoll, shut off that damn radio!” the push & pull between Meyer’s natural absurdity & the studio’s forced browbeating can be felt in full effect.

The difference between my reaction to The Seven Minutes & that of the film’s contemporaries is that I find that compromised dichotomy fascinating, while critical publications like Playboy Magazine called it “a losing battle of mind over mattress.” In short, The Seven Minutes featured a lot of dudes talking & not a lot of boobs bouncing, something that couldn’t be saved by Meyer’s trademark rapid-fire edits or lip service paid to the virtues of smut in the eyes of the film’s contemporary audience. The critics & the box office returns had their way with the film, making sure that it stood as the very last major studio production that Meyer saw to completion.

Although I’d sympathise with the idea that The Seven Minutes‘ courtroom procedures & undercover police work aren’t as interesting in the abstract as Meyer’s feverish nudie pictures could be, I still stand by the film’s quality as a finished product. I think that being the very first Russ Meyer film that couldn’t be read as a campy trifle may have clashed harshly with what people had come to expect from the director, resulting in a vicious reaction to a decent film that didn’t deserve to be met with such an easy dismissal. Meyer himself had even distanced himself from The Seven Minutes in the end, blaming a lot of the film’s shortcomings on the studio’s oppressive influence. I’m willing to chalk that reaction up to wounded pride resulting from the film’s hurtful reception, though, as The Seven Minutes reads as far too distinctly personal for me to dismiss it outright.

-Brandon Ledet

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (1969)

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threehalfstar

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When Russ Meyer voluntarily adopted the “X” rating for his first “hard sex” picture (read: softcore porn) Vixen!, he thought the distinction would serve as great free press. In a lot of ways he wasn’t wrong. Vixen! turned a huge, multi-million dollar profit for Meyer & opened a lot of doors to successes he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Unfortunately, not all of the attention of being the first American-made, X-rated release brought Vixen! was positive, though. A lot of moral policing followed the film across the country, resulting in, among other complications, arrests of projectionists & audience members at multiple screenings in the Deep South. In response, Meyer opened his next “hard sex” picture with the following rant:

“IN THE FACE OF RECENT EVENTS, SOME OF WHICH THREATEN OUR VERY EXISTENCE, THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO CONCENTRATE THEIR PUNY EFFORTS IN AREAS WHERE NO CONCERN IS NEEDED. THEY CALL LOVE EVIL . . . THE HUMAN BODY OBSCENE . . . WHERE THEY CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN BEAUTIFUL. OUR LAKES AND RIVERS FILL SLOWLY WITH DEATH. THE AIR WE BREATHE STRANGLES THE MIGHTY OAK. LITTLE BY LITTLE WE CAN SEE HUMAN COMPASSION AND LOVE GROWING LESS. AND STILL THERE ARE THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR TOY BANNERS OF PROTEST. THEY ATTEMPT TO THINK FOR THE REST OF US. DICTATE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE. THEY, THE STRONG AND PURE OF HEART, MUST PROTECT THOSE OF US WHO “THEY” HAVE DECIDED ARE WEAK. WE DO NOT QUESTION THEIR RIGHT TO PROTEST. BUT LET THEIR DECISIONS BE FOR THEMSELVES, FOR NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANOTHER. THINK ABOUT IT!”

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens in this way, with that full rant scrolling in ALL CAPS on top of a frantic montage of pornographic & industrial imagery, announcing that Russ Meyer’s id was back in full swing. In a lot of ways, Vixen! felt like a toned-down Meyer trying to reshape his bizarrely straight-laced perversions into a  marketable commodity, his weirdo tendencies only showing at the fringes. Cherry ditches that pretense & lets Meyer’s freak flag fly. Here, the chaotic montage work of Mondo Topless meets the soap opera, soft crime machinations of Common Law Cabin to reveal a new, fully-realized Meyer aesthetic that would soon reach its full potential in the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Not wasting any time in unleashing its madness upon its victims . . . I mean audience, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens with no less than three separate introductions. After the contextless, anti-censorship rant transcribed above, the film’s second opening rails against the “Evil of Marijuana” that “caresses all it comes in contact with.” Adopting some of Europe in the Raw‘s xenophobia (now directed at Mexico) & the industrial narration/pin-ups-in-motion formula of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, the film immediately launches into a second rant, this time against recreational marijuana use. The narrator flatly intones, “Pity the poor potheads, innocent victims subjugating their own free will at the mercy of the pusher, the real predator. Scant sympathy can be given to the parasites who would profit from the weaknesses & fragilities of the ill-informed.” Unfortunately, the film that follows is not exactly Meyer’s version of Reefer Madness. In fact, it has very little to do with marijuana at all. The best I can guess of what he was trying to accomplish there was in saying that just because he was willing to cash in on hippie counter-culture & “free love”, he in no way condoned the drugs that accompanied the scene. That’s Meyer in a nutshell. He’s willing to rail against censorship in one breath, but then chastise the youth for their recreational drugs in the next. To him, an unnatural, fetishistic obsession with gigantic breasts is wholesome & American. Marijuana? Not so much. That egotistical moralizing about What is Right & What’s Not often provides some of Meyer’s most fascinating work. For instance, the director’s new-found love of boobs-touching-boobs lesbian scenes wasn’t nearly as interesting when it was introduced in Vixen! as it is when paired in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! with lines like “I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.” Meyer’s films work best when you can see his own self-contradicting moral core battling itself on the screen.

If you’re wondering why I’ve only touched on the film’s introductions so far, without even mentioning its central narrative, it’s because they’re relentless. Reportedly, actress Linda Ashton (who played the titular Cherry) stormed off set mid-production, leaving Meyer with a half-completed picture. Perhaps this is what saved Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! from Vixen!‘s made-for-TV-esque mediocrity. After a third introduction sequence (keep in mind this film is only 70 min long) that features a  psych rock theme song, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! finally launches into action, telling an absurdly thin story about Harry, a corrupt, drug smuggling sheriff at the Mexican border, who’s ordered by his higher ups to take out a mysterious whistle-blower/assassin named Apache. Oh yeah, and he’s involved with a red hot nurse named Cherry. And other beautiful women are around also, including a prostitute named Raquel. And these women like to have sex. Some people die. It’s all very loose, as Meyer filled in the gaps of his half-finished scraps with his infamous sign & landscape montages, a naked mystic character named Soul (who recalls Haji’s distinctly similar role in Good Morning . . . And Goodbye!), and levels of sex & violence previously untouched in Meyer’s oeuvre. It’s a beautiful mess.

There are very few innovations brought to the table in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. It’s the first Meyer film to graphically suggest fellatio (which is pretty racy for him), the first to feature full-frontal male nudity, and the first to feature a black actress in the raw (a nice change of pace after the racist rants of Vixen!). Instead, Cherry is more remarkable for the way it brings all of Meyer’s old-hat tropes together for a single, incomprehensible picture. The lesbianism & food-fellation of Vixen! (this time it’s a celery stalk, not a dead fish) are back. Reaching further in the past, the violence of Meyer’s black & white roughies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! return here in full color this time in the form of decapitations & bloody gunfights. Also present are the strange back & forth cuts between the sexual & the innocuous, this time mixing the image of the titular Cherry & Raquel making love with Harry fighting Apache over possession of a rifle. There’s also the aforementioned industrial montages, naked frolicking, Wild Gals of the Naked West‘s cowboys & Indians cosplay, and misguided, far-reaching statements about women like a closing monologue that calls them “bi-products of our society, pretty toys to play with, superficial in their make-up, but so necessary to our way of life.” It’s all there.

At the time of its release, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! was the most Meyerest Meyer picture, a huge improvement upon the largely personality-free Vixen!. It’s a distinction that would be immediately surpassed in his next picture, but it still made for an interesting slice of over-sexed chaos nonetheless. It ended up being a blessing that Meyer had to piece together a half-completed picture in the editing room. I doubt the film would be nearly as fascinating if it were filmed as originally planned.

-Brandon Ledet