Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)

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three star

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For better or for worse, Russ Meyer’s penultimate feature film repeated both the virtues & the failures of his previous film, Up!. With script contributions from a pseudonym-masked Roger Ebert, the film feels in its first 15 minutes as if it might be one of Meyer’s finest works, a vibe spoiled early on by irreverently-treated sexual assault. The film starts with Meyer-vet Stuart Lancaster playing an omnipotent narrator from Small Town, America giving a tour of “beautiful people driving terrible cars & living in squalor . . . all oversexed.” After a brief prologue in which an escaped Nazi general has vigorous sex in a coffin with an Atari-playing religious radio host (the Atari feels anachronistic in Meyer’s universe until she tweaks its controls like nipples) while the pair sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion”, Meyer assaults the viewer with a trademark rapidfire montage of America’s dumps, boudoirs, and radio towers, this time with a welcome return to the pastel voids of his early “nudie cuties”, particularly The Immoral Mr. Teas. I could’ve ridden the wave of that eccentric intro forever, but it promptly crashed on the jagged shores of pointless sexual assault & the fun was over.

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens‘ conflict centers on an otherwise-loving husband who can only perform sexually when engaging in anal intercourse. This plot was reportedly concocted by Meyer when his then-girlfriend (and Ultra-Vixens star) Kitten Natividad introduced the aging director to anal play, a practice he found most distasteful. At first the conflict plays as if the husband is being shamed for working instead of attending to his wife’s sexual needs, a classic Meyer plot. As he crunches numbers in the living room, his wife masturbates with a comically oversized vibrator in a cacophonous attempt to drive him mad. This is an absurdly well-executed example of Meyer’s war of the sexes set-pieces . . . until the husband forces himself on his wife despite her protests. I’m not sure that Meyer realized the full impact his work’s depictions of sexual assault had on his otherwise playful atmosphere. I’m actually not sure that he had much of a grasp on “normal”, healthy sexual behavior at all. That doesn’t make watching it play out any more amusing, though.

It’s no surprise, then, that the husband’s spiritual quest to save his marriage by learning how to “look a good fuck in the eye” is not nearly as interesting as the film’s more general detailing of an oversexed, underserved Middle America. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens has such an uncomfortably surreal view of the world’s garbage men, lingerie salesman, and barroom strippers that they could, with a little tweaking, easily pass for characters in a Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine feature. There are some obscured touches to the film (for example, a coward bleeds yellow; a black man bleeds white; a gay man bleeds pink, all for reasons unknown) & Meyer became increasingly adventurous in his onscreen sexuality, depicting here an extensive pornographic use of a double-ended dildo as well as close-up shots of the head of a penis. Since these weird touches are mixed with the film’s homophobic caricature & clueless depictions of sexual violence, though, it’s impossible to commit to Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens‘ sexually-adventurous charms wholesale. Much like with Up!, Ultra-Vixens features some of Meyer’s best moments when considered in isolation (I particularly like the caveman line “I don’t eat pussy. It’s un-American.”), but they’re poisoned by his most vile tendencies, resulting in the ultimate mixed bag of failure & fascination.

It’s probably a godsend that Ultra-Vixens proved to be Meyer’s last theatrical release (he would later attempt to cash in on the home video market), despite the film’s promise/threat of a The Jaws of Vixen follow-up. Regardless of Ultra-Vixen’s recognizable charms as an over-the-top mess, it’s an ultimately exhausting exercise. Not only is the film exhausting in itself but as yet another assault from a director who had been hammering at the same themes for two solid decades, it was also exhausting in the context of his career at large. The movie concludes with a very touching scene of Meyer himself packing up his camera equipment & calling for his Kitten to pack it in, seemingly conscious that it would be his last outing as a feature film director. Just as with his career as a whole (if not just his post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls work), Ultra-Vixens portrays Meyer as an eccentric character with an overly voracious love of gigantic breasts & a limited understanding of the nature of women & romance that sometimes clouded his more admirable achievements as an intensely-focused artistic eye with a masterful command of the editing process. Even though it’s far from his best film, it’s an appropriately fitting, but complicated end to a bizarre, near-unbelievable career in Hollywood.

-Brandon Ledet

Up! (1976)

three star

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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.

-Brandon Ledet