Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

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“The ultimate Russ Meyer film has already been made: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Something special happened with that film . . . I’d never be able to approach it again.” – Russ Meyer

A lot of people would argue that the ultimate Russ Meyer film was made years earlier in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but I tend to side with Meyer himself on this issue. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his masterpiece, a grand manifesto of of the sex-crazed vitriol the director had been cultivating for more than a decade, a vicious satire attacking the “oft times nightmare world of show business”, a relentless display of the maniacal violence Meyer had used as highlights in his past work drawn out to a full length feature. Critics hated the film. A lot of Russ’ longtime fans hated it even more, citing screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) as a deathblow to the high camp value of Meyer’s oblivious earnestness the same way Tommy Wiseau’s self-awareness has ruined everything he’s touched since The Room. I disagree with that sentiment, though. Ebert did not ruin the Meyer aesthetic. He just complicated it with an over-the-top sense of ironic humor that added an extra layer of absurdity to what was already pretty knowingly ridiculous to begin with.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: “It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.” Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘ frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.

Buried somewhere under Meyer’s trademark mania is a story about an all-female rock band called The Carrie Nations getting corrupted by wicked Hollywood types as they try to Make It Big. The small town girls are destroyed by Los Angeles’ unwholesome cocktail of sex, drugs, murder, suicide, abortion, and pansexuality. What’s far more interesting than the band member’s individual downfalls, however, are two absurd party sequences that bookend the film. Hosted by Z-Man, king of the Hollywood weirdos, these ragers are sickeningly phony & psychedelic, a hateful portrait of Los Angeles’ excess at its most damnable. Even Z-man himself can’t seem to handle these soirées. In the opening party, where a cast of hundreds dance to The Carrie Nations and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Z-Man exclaims, “This is my happening & it freaks me out!” At the film’s concluding party, a much more intimate affair where two same-sex couples pair off for psychedelic drug-fueled lovemaking, Z-Man reveals himself to be an androgynous, sex-crazed supervillain named Superwoman and attempts to murder everyone within reach while proclaiming things like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” I feel deranged just describing that unraveling, let alone watching it. This film is admittedly incomprehensible, but damn, what a ride.

With a $1 million budget & an inflated runtime that dwarfed any of the films the director had made prior to its release, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer going for broke, rightfully fearful that he may never have the opportunity again. The film was produced by Fox studios, but with a hands-off approach that left Meyer free reign to make what pretty much amounted to a big budget indie film under a major studio banner. Much like Myra Breckinridge, Fox’s other X-rated sex comedy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was panned by critics. The difference is that it made money, tons of money. Ten times its original budget, in fact. Meyer somehow made a crowd favorite while sticking to his authorial vision, something he had mostly ditched for modest success in his then-recent, high-profile indie Vixen!. He even populated the film with past players from his oeuvre, including Vixen!‘s Erica Gavin, Fanny Hill‘s Veronica Erickson, and the wonderfully strange Princess Livingston, who brought  lot of proto-John Waters cool to early Meyer productions like Mudhoney & Wild Gals of the Naked West.

Despite rampant nudity & occasional sultry lines like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime,” Meyer had found success while striving for a nasty, hateful vision instead of outright sexiness, something that had made his past work so interesting. Ebert pounded out the entire script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in just six weeks, but by doing so he had managed to tap into something truly special in its loopiness & in its hateful take on Los Angeles as a scene, even poking fun at then-recent tragedies like the Sharon Tate/Charles Manson murders. And because Meyer made sure none of the actors knew that the film was intended to be a comedy, a lot of the campy charm from his past work rolled over to this change in direction in a humorously sinister way.

After revisiting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the dozenth time or so, it’s hard to imagine what the rest of the director’s catalog has to offer me, as I’ve never ventured further into the back end of his career before. As Meyer put it, the ultimate Russ Meyer film had already been made. Where was there left for the director to go but down, down, down? I guess I’ll find out soon in future titles like Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, with peak Meyer perfection now surely in the rearview.

-Brandon Ledet

Vixen! (1968)

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“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.

-Brandon Ledet