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

Mudhoney (1965)

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While filming the atypical yuck-it-up comedy Fanny Hill in Europe, Meyer received word from wife/producer (and titular star of Eve & The Handyman) Eve that his first venture into black & white “roughies”, Lorna had racked up a nice chunk of change in his absence. How did Meyer celebrate? He took his lastest white hot mistress Rena Horten (who played a sex worker in Fanny Hill) on a lavish mini-vacation. This affair, of course, ramped up some pre-existing marital tension & lead to a rather speedy divorce back home. Not to let a little old speed bump like the dissolution of a marriage get in the way of making a buck, however, Russ immediately talked his now ex-wife to produce his next venture in to pitch black roughies: Mudhoney, starring (of course) Rena Horten.

Reportedly lifting the title from, of all places, an Oscar Wilde quote, Meyer set Mudhoney in a Depression-era Missouri, later referring the film as his “homage to Grapes of Wrath.” Despite the incongruity of the setting, the film was in fact filmed in the desert, a tumultuous terrain that fondly reminded the director of his glory days as a WWII combat photographer “because you could die there”. Of course, Mudhoney actually has much more in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the ancient freak show Spider Baby than it does with The Grapes of Wrath, no matter what Meyer believed to be true. Depicting a maniacal family of impossible, sex-starved, rural lunatics & the small town of simple farm folk they terrorize, the film has the vibe of an unhinged party that’s taken a peculiarly violent turn after a marathon of day-drinking. Sidney, played by a leather-faced Hal Hopper (who starred in & sang the lounge lizard theme song for Lorna) sets the tone early after getting ejected from his favorite drinking hole with shouts of “Why don’t you go home to your wife for a change?!”. Unfortunately, he does go home to his wife (played by Antoinette Christiani, for whom this is her sole film credit), only to force himself on her in a truly grotesque display. Even in these opening minutes Meyer establishes that Mudhoney firmly in the roughie territory, the carefree days of the nudie cutie firmly in the rearview.

Despite a distinct, depraved atmosphere, however, Mudhoney doesn’t have too much going for it. A lot of the problem is its very slight narrative, the same Achilles heel that sunk the almost-enjoyable Lorna. A city boy drifter (John Furlong, who ended up working on many Meyer films & enjoyed a second life as a character actor) finds his way to Meyer’s warped version of Missouri & decides to take up work as a farmhand on Sidney’s property despite so, so many red flags. A nearby house that functions as a sort of brothel/drinking hole offers a gateway to vice that eventually drives Sidney & his corrupt priest cohort to a violent madness, intensified by the farm hand’s designs on his wife & his property, eventually leading to his public execution in the town square. Somewhere in there is the usual Meyer jabs at the city boy’s supposedly unmasculine weakness, best exemplified by Luther’s acidic line, “She needs a man. A real man! Not some gutless boy.” In this case, though, it’s Luther who’s punished for his transgressions. His wife spits the line, “I hate everything about you! Don’t ever touch me again!” in his face, threatening to stab him with a gigantic kitchen knife and, of course, the film concludes with his public execution, Meyer himself making a cameo among the lynch mob. The film may fail to sympathize with the violent alpha-male Meyer would usually side with (although his escalating mental illness in the back half does help a bit in that respect), but it does at least typify the adversarial war of the sexes vibes that plagues nearly all of the director’s onscreen romances.

Although Mudhoney doesn’t quite work on the whole, it has a great deal of killer atmosphere, of which I have a hard time finding any comparison points besides the aforementioned Spider Baby. So much credit for this has to go to the cast. Hal Hopper holds it down as a vicious brute as usual, but this time he’s backed up by the wild, toothless coot Princess Livingston (featured before in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West & Erotica), a hot to trot, go-go dancing Lorna Maitland (star of Meyer’s Lorna, duh), and, of course, Rena Horten, who portrays a deaf/mute beauty tactlessly described in the film as “the perfect woman” due to her handicaps (yikes!). The dialogue is a nonstop barrage of atonal yelling without any real breaks for breath or traces of human behavior, the exact kind of stuff that must’ve inspired many a John Waters performance down the line. The unhinged living room dance parties (accompanied by Princess Livingston’s one of a kind cackle) & moonshine swilling are a sight to behold, feeling like true glimpses into a maniacal, rural underwold that must exist somewhere, right? With all of this going for it, it’s no wonder that Mudhoney has sort of persisted as a cult classic despite its initial commercial flop, even going so far as to inspire the name of an infamous grunge-era punk band. Still, the bizarre atmosphere rarely overpowers the weak plot & the movie unfortunately works a lot better as a strange afterthought & a memory, like a half-remembered nightmare, than it actually does as a movie-watching experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Heavenly Bodies! (1963)

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In the four years following the breakout success of Russ Meyer’s debut film The Immoral Mr. Teas, the director mired himself (pun intended) in soulless repetition, churning out a mostly dull sequence of Teas-imitating nudie cuties that nearly broke his spirit by the time he made his fourth picture, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Obviously bored with his own creation, Meyer began to branch out genre-wise in the delightfully hateful shockumentary Europe in the Raw & started to show his true colors as an eccentric misanthrope. That, however, didn’t stop him from returning to the well one last time for a fifth & final nudie cutie, the enjoyably low-key Heavenly Bodies!. Meyer was reportedly not particularly proud of the way Heavenly Bodies! came out, both because of his growing boredom with the nudie cutie as a genre & because of the public’s similar boredom that lead the film to flop financially, but I find that to be a shame. Heavenly Bodies! is not quite as historically significant as The Immoral Mr. Teas or Europe in the Raw, but it does feel like a warm, fond farewell to the director’s pin-up & nudie cutie work, effectively closing that chapter of his life before the next, darker saga began.

Heavenly Bodies! is such a fitting tribute to the culmination of Meyer’s previous works that the subject of the film itself is a love letter to nude photography. It opens with intense close-ups of belly buttons, hair, kneecaps, and (of course) breasts while an industrial film-style narrator (Vic Perrin, who also voiced Europe in the Raw) helpfully explains that “You have just seen the component parts of a woman, a very voluptuous woman.” Meyer’s script goes on to espouse lofty platitudes about how nude models have been the main focus of photography since the invention of the camera & even the most beautiful paintings from fine art masters of the past can’t match the beauty of a nude photograph. Meyer isn’t even content to stop there, continuing to claim that nude photographs, the kind that he himself produced for “glamor magazines”, were the backbone of the US economy. Perrin dryly intones, “It is by no means far fetched to state that America’s entire vast fabric of prosperity, from automobiles to frozen foods, depends on this affinity between beautiful women, camera, and cameraman.” Why is that “by no means far fetched”? Because sex sells, dummy.

Although Heavenly Bodies! is by all means Russ’ love letter to himself, one that even name-checks the director as “Russ Meyer, one of Hollywood’s best known glamor photographers,” it at least vaguely pretends to be something more significant: a documentary on nude photography as a business. An early reenactment in the film retraces “glamor photography” back 30 years to stage a silent film shoot on the beach featuring Meyer vet Princess Livingston rolling around in a swimsuit. Anyone familiar with the elderly Princess Livingston’s toothless, maniacal screen presence (first seen in Wild Gals of the Naked West) should have a ball picturing the lovable coot sarcastically pretending to vamp it up for the camera. Another sequence depicts a pin-up cameraman who learned his trade as a combat photographer in the Army Corps during WWII (just like Meyer) feverishly snapping “glamor” photographs of two beautiful models lounging poolside & (in a particularly intense moment) jumping rope. All the while, the narration rattles off long, detailed lists of camera equipment that the Russ-surrogate is using, drooling just as much over the gear as it is over the bare breasted models. Another excursion involves Meyer himself & his real-life 166th Signal Corps war buddies retreating to the woods with two more cuties to snap more “glamor” photos and drool over more top notch analog camera equipment. The narrator cheekily asks, “Was your class reunion ever like this?” The film more or less goes on this way.

In these scenes, all of Meyer’s pin-up & nudie cutie calling cards are present: the rapid-fire editing, the swanky music, the besides the point narration, the self-glorifying cameos & bit roles for his war buddies, the otherworldly pastel voids, the navel gazing philosophy on the nature of photography, and the lingering effects of WWII. By the time he made Heavenly Bodies! Meyer may have have become bored with the nudie cutie as a format, but he also became extremely adept at injecting his eccentric personality into these by-the-numbers pictures, something he had struggled to do since he created the genre in The Immoral Mr. Teas. In every silly, frivolous minute, Heavenly Bodies! is easily recognizable as a Russ Meyer film, something that’s difficult to say about long stretches of lesser titles like Eve & The Handyman & Erotica. It’s by no means a mind-blowing picture, but it is a fairly enjoyable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962)

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After the vignette structure that loosely held together his third “nudie cutie” picture, Erotica, Russ Meyer returned to feature length narratives for his fourth film, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Unfortunately, the same narrative slightness that worked well enough for The Immoral Mr. Teas to become a breakout success & singlehandedly launch the nudie cutie genre had become tiresome as soon as Meyer’s second picture, the impossibly dull Eve & The Handyman, and near sadistic by the time Meyer made Wild Gals of the Naked West. Wild Gals expands upon the strange quick cuts & surreal pastel-colored voids that distinguish Meyer’s work from other Mr. Teas imitators, but outside of a couple sparse visual quirks there’s nothing too remarkable about the film. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Wild Gals was more or less an an excuse for Meyer & friends to play Western-themed dress up in the desert. And, of course, to display bare breasts.

Our host for this burlesque take on playing cowboys & Indians is an old, drunken Western coot played by Jack Moran. Moran had previously provided the besides-the-point narration that made Erotica a mildly enjoyable, disorienting experience, but this was his first full collaboration with Meyer, both as an onscreen presence & as the sole credited screenwriter. Moran would later go on to pen some of Meyer’s best work of the 1960s (including the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), but it’s hard to see too much promise in the razor thin screenplay he provides for Wild Gals of the Naked West. Even less dignified than his razor-thin screeplay is his onscreen portrayal of the old coot narrator, decked out in a hideously cheap costume complete with horrendously fake-looking eyebrows & mustache.

Much more exciting in her introduction to the Russ Meyer landscape is the actual old coot Princess Livingston, a toothless howl of a loon that would later appear in notable Meyer pictures like Mudhoney & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (not to mention an appearance in the Pufnstuff movie, of all things). Princess Livingston has a wild authenticity to her, making crazy eyes for the camera, cackling like a drunken witch, and calling to mind future featured players in Meyer-devotee John Waters’ films like the late, great Edith Massey. Wild Gals of the Naked West tries its best to cultivate a sense of unbridled chaos in shoddy, vaudevillian gags involving gorilla costumes, crossdressing, and pranks involving outhouses, but none of the film’s thematic shenanigans can even approach the cinematic lunacy Princess Livingston commands simply by being her wonderful self.

Besides the introductions of Jack Moran & Princess Livingston, Wild Gals is mostly significant in its over-indulgence in the pastel voids that made The Immoral Mr. Teas‘ hallucinogenic glimpses of nudity quaintly fascinating. Here, all visions of Old West saloons & brothels are confined to these otherworldly, pastel-colored spaces, populated by quick cuts of hand-drawn pianos, pasties-covered breasts, hideous drunks downing untold gallons of liquor, strange rubber masks, and six-shooters going off indiscriminately. If the entirety of the film’s action was contained in these nudity-filled bursts of drunken chaos, Wild Gals of the Naked West might be among the best of Russ Meyer’s nudie cutie work. Instead it’s severely bogged down by hokey gags involving the aforementioned gorilla suit, sex workers lassoing johns onto second floor balconies, and truly awful Native American caricatures (although I did admittedly enjoy the ones where the Native men were operating WWII gear like grenade launchers & Tommy guns). All in all, Wild Gals may be mildly fascinating for a Russ Meyer completist looking for early glimpses of Jack Moran, Princess Livingston, and the director’s trademark rapid-fire editing, but after previously watching three similarly vapid nudie cuties from Meyer in a row, I found the ordeal somewhat tiresome.

-Brandon Ledet