Another Day Another Man (1966)

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three star

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Something I learned from my career retrospective of sleaze auteurist Russ Meyer is that as far as sexploitation subgenres go, I’m much more wired to enjoy the light-hearted kitsch of nudie cuties than the violent leering of roughies. Two films into Doris Wishman’s catalog, I’m only having my bias reaffirmed. The deliriously inane Nude on the Moon was a perfect intro to the world of Wishman, as it was a sexed-up version of the exact kind of cheap sci-fi dreck I often find myself watching anyway. Her black & white roughie Another Day Another Man was a little more outside of my comfort zone. Arriving soon after her roughies era started with Bad Girls Go to Hell, one of her more infamous works, Wishman’s black & white cheapie Another Day Another Man toys with all the hallmarks of the more disreputable end of sexploitation cinema (domestic abuse, misogyny, rape), but never indulges in them long enough to totally sour the mood. Too much of Another Day Another Man is lopsided in a memorably goofy, tangibly dingy way to completely dismiss the film as misanthropic erotica, but it does often come perilously close.

Two female roommates argue about the moral implications of earning rent money through sex work. One is, unapologetically, a prostitute with a brutish lowlife for a pimp. The other is quitting her reputable job as a secretary to pursue her dream career: housewife. Her newfound dependency on her husband becomes immediately troubling when he’s stricken with sudden illness and the housewife is, no surprise, pressured into sex work under the guiding hand of the same low level pimp. She’s initially shamed for flaunting her sense of moral superiority over former roommate’s head, but that’s only the start of her degradation. She’s roughed up for de-masking her first client, a wealthy politician. She suffers great anxiety over sneaking out nightly to cuckold her husband for “easy” money. Her pimp’s tactics of breaking down his employees’ wills and pressuring them into sex work is given great detail (over the course of a clunky dream sequence, oddly), making her plight as a protagonist out to be nothing special. It’s all very standard roughie territory, which leads to inevitable & predictable tragic end, a plot you could comfortably scribble onto a crumpled up cocktail napkin.

What Wishman excels at that makes this exercise watchable is texture. The camera work & production design in Another Day Another Man isn’t exactly masterful; I’m not even sure I would call it competent. There’s something endearingly dirty & off-center about the whole thing, though, that makes for a memorable picture. The movie gets off to a rocky start with a badly dubbed stroll through Central Park between our soon-to-be-doomed newlyweds, but it picks up as soon as the roomates argue about the respectability of the respective ways they earn a living. Drastically lit like a crime scene, the two women’s magazine spread living room is a kitschy nightmare where the roomates argue, undress, and overstuff ashtrays in furious torrents of chain-smoking. The camera slowly pans up from their high heels to their complicated, lacy underwear to their beehives, careful never to show actual nudity, but coming as hilariously close as it can without going there. Weirdly sultry, off-center rock music is a constant, oppressive presence as the film gets lost in minor, unerotic details like shoes & ashtrays and, in its weirder moments, buries its lens, unfocused, in its characters’ cleavage for multiple consecutive shots. It’s a strangely dizzying, convincingly seedy experience even if it refuses to deliver the goods in terms of actual nudity.

As similar as Doris Wishman’s career trajectory seems to be to Russ Meyer’s in terms of following sexploitation trends from nudie cuties to roughies to auteur weirdness to late-period pornography, it’s funny to see the way their visual calling cards differ. Meyer’s work is typified by a rapid-fire, machine-like montage style that smashes images of women’s bodies against inanimate objects like cars & street signs and somehow makes the juxtaposition oddly erotic through the sheer pervy will of its leering filmmaker’s eye. Wishman’s style, if Another Day Another Man is any indication, is a languid, decidedly unerotic version of the same technique. She cuts away from women undressing to focus on a cigarette butt or a clown painting or a bra discarded on the carpet in an amusingly dispassionate way that puts the audience libido on ice. The technique is a lot sillier & less controlled than Meyer’s, but it makes for some interesting camp cinema auteurism. Unfortunately, the rape-oriented seediness of the roughie genre kept me from falling in love with Another Day Another Man and, oddly enough, the film’s story loses a crucial amount of steam after its protagonist starts hooking that makes the film somewhat of a chore. Wishman’s amateurish, but strangely off-center eye kept its dingy visual palette fascinatingly unerotic despite all odds, though, and I’m curious to see how that dynamic is echoed in the rest of her sexploitation work.

-Brandon Ledet

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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fivestar

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An offscreen narrator beckons us into a black & white underworld like a carnie ushering rubes into a mysterious tent, “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word & the act.” Promises of a “salacious new breed” of women whose “very existence are synonymous with violence” are followed by typical Russ Meyer rapidfire images– gogo dancers filmed from empowering low angles, jukeboxes, spinning records, leering men shouting “Go, baby! Go!”, etc. As soon as half a minute into Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! you already get the distinct feeling that Russ Meyer has finally made his masterpiece, eleven films & six years into a bizarre career still with a long way to go, baby, go. It’s a jazzy, psychedelic vibe just as much as it is a feature film, a true work of art that somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a very simple example of the “roughie” picture Meyer had been more or less tooling with since he broke away from his Immoral Mr. Teas-imitating nudie cutie work & decided to get much, much darker in his cinematic hondoggery. With Lorna & Mudhoney, Meyer was on the verge of accomplishing something truly great within the roughie genre, but fell just short. Faster, Pussycat! is that greatness.

At the center of this greatness is three larger than life superwomen: Varla (a beyond real Tura Satana), Billie (newcomer Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji, who was the sole highlight of Meyer’s misogynistic abomination Motorpsycho!). Varla, described here as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron” is the undisputed leader of this girl gang & the undisputed highlight of the film. She runs a tight ship, leading her two cohorts to recklessly drive roadsters across a desert hellscape (Meyer’s specialty, because the perilous locations fondly reminded him of his life-threatening time spent as a WWII combat photographer) & torment any little pissant insects that have the misfortune to fall into her web along the way. While playing chicken & generally causing havoc, they encounter such insects in Linda (Sue Bernard, who is a literal baby) & her dumb-as-bricks beau Tommy (Ray Barlow). When challenged to a time trial race by Tommy, Varla barks “I don’t beat clocks, just people.” She follows up that promise by more or less karate chopping the schmuck to death while his girlfriend is held in captive horror. A lot of the dialogue in Faster, Pussycat! is delivered this way; one-liners are shouted atonally in an adversarial tone Meyer first struck in his near-likeable Mudhoney. Varla & her girls are more female impersonators than actual women, striking the image of exaggerated cartoon versions of violent femininity. When a still-alive Tommy offers Varla a soft-drink she retorts “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we like is hard!,” a line that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a drag show. It’s no wonder that this film turned a young weirdo John Waters into a lifelong Meyer fan.

After Tommy’s early demise, the girls move on to their next male targets: a physically crippled, thoroughly vile curmudgeon (played by a pitch perfect Stuart Lancaster) and his two sons: good cop & dumb cop (Paul Trinka & Dennis Busch, respectively). Varla & the gang arrive on the curmudgeon’s farm practically dragging the traumatized Linda by her hair and immediately start scheming to rob the three men blind. The evil, crippled paterfamilias, of course, has his own schemes, mostly involving unsavory activities targeted at the much younger, much freaked-out Linda. His youngest, simplest son is first depicted as a stuttering mess gently nuzzling a kitten, but is quickly revealed to be quite a threatening tool when manipulated by his old man. Not that any threat they could possibly pose as a pair could match the brute strength of the superhuman Varla, who always seems to be poised to take control of any situation through pure, unadulterated violence. The result of this cosy set-up is a tense, divided household. Two rival, isolated gangs grit their teeth in each other’s presence, aching for someone to make the first move so they can start to draw blood, a true testament to a war of the sexes vibe Meyer introduced to his work as early as Europe in the Raw & Lorna, a contentious atmosphere that would follow him through the end of his bizarre career.

Although Faster, Pussycat! is a brisk 83 minutes of carnage, it’s near-impossible to touch on everything that makes it great in a short-form review. Rapidfire sex jokes, transgressive (for its time) representations of homosexuality, stark black & white cinematography, incredible shots framed by flanking beautiful denim-clad rumps, a classically tragic/climactic bodycount that would make Hamlet sweat, every precious frame of Tura Satana’s performance as Varla, the list goes on. Faster, Pussycat! is the moment when the self-propelling rhythms and seething anger of Meyer’s work really start to take hold. It’s no wonder that Roger Ebert says of the film in his memoir Life Itself, “That was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer, and he was the same man who made The Immoral Mr Teas.” Meyer had arrived as an artist & his first significant work was a real doozy. There was a palpable violence to the film, especially in the scenes were Stuart Lancaster’s curmudgeon angrily mumbles to himself about passing trains and where Tura Satana manhandles underage actress Sue Bernard in a too-believable violent manner. When Linda pleads, “All I want to do is go home! Please let me go home!”, it may as well be Bernard pleading directly to Russ. There is real terror in her eyes.

Still, despite all of its brutality, the film has a compulsively fun vibe to it that makes it perfect fodder for midnight movie screenings & is a decidedly sexy picture solely to the credit of its three leads, given that there is no nudity & no fornication typical to a Meyer film (although it stops just short on both counts). All of this greatness came from a very simple idea: after filming a bunch of male brutes beating on women in the vile picture Motorpsycho!, Meyer thought, “Why don’t I have the women beat up men for a change?” Screenwriter Jack Moran (who had been with Meyer since the nudie cutie days of Erotica & Wild Gals of the Naked West) built a wonderfully strange, violently tense world from there & the rest is trash cinema history. It would be another five years or six pictures before Meyer could even come close to topping this achievement with the beyond-reason Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and some (not me) would contend that even that picture can’t match the lightning-in-a-bottle magic he captured in Pussycat!. The film is that remarkable.

-Brandon Ledet

Motorpsycho! (1965)

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halfstar

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With his first two black & white “roughies”, Russ Meyer was palpably building towards something special that just quite wasn’t in reach. In what critic & friend Roger Ebert dubbed Meyer’s “Gothic period,” the tirelessly perverted director had established a very distinct atmosphere of violent, maniacal, sex-crazed dread in Lorna & Mudhoney that was pushing his career towards the cartoonish war of the sexes trashterpieces that would eventually make him a B-movie legend. Unfortunately, before Meyer would more or less perfect the roughie picture with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he would end up making one of the worst films of his career, Motorpsycho!. Halfway between Marlon Brando’s landmark motorcycle gang classic The Wild One & Roger Corman’s Easy Rider-precursor The Wild Angels, Motorpsycho! is a fairly straightforward proposition of Meyer’s usual bevy of buxom babes recontextualized in a world of instrumental psych rock & loud motorbikes. Too bad it’s a grotesquely misogynistic bore & one of the most vile films of the director’s entire oeuvre. I’m usually on board with Meyer’s peculiar brand of brutish horndoggery, because it reveals such a deeply strange character underneath his militaristic, all-American façade, but Motorpsycho! is honestly too repugnant to excuse on artistic grounds, campy or not.

There isn’t really much plot to speak of here. A biker gang that looks like The Evil Beatles terrorizes a small desert community, particularly preying on isolated women. True to Meyer fashion, tragedy befalls couples wherein a man is inattentive or just generally a bad lover, but in this case the victims are almost invariably female. Early in the film when a man complains that his wife’s noisy playfulness “ruined the fishing,” she cheekily retorts, “You’ve got the best there is on your line right now!” This kind of banter might be entertaining if it weren’t immediately followed by the woman being physically assaulted by a bunch of young male punks in leather jackets. There’s no particular sense of purpose for the film’s ultraviolence. It just sort of happens without rhyme or reason. By the time Meyer appears in the film himself, playing a cop (of course) & remarking upon the body of one of the gang’s victims (to her grieving husband!) “Nothing happened to her that a woman ain’t built for”, the whole affair feels unbearably sleazy, nothing conceivably being able to redeem it from its own pointless, misanthropic cruelty.

As much as I despised Motorpsycho!, I’m still glad it was made. The story goes that after making the movie, Russ was stricken with a brilliant idea: to retell the story, except featuring buxom hotrod women instead of brutish motorcycle men. Thus, the basic idea for the much superior Faster, Pussycat! was born. Motorpsycho! also saw the first appearance of Meyer superstar Haji, who would go on to star in Pussycat!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens!, and so on. Haji only has exactly one memorable moment in Motorpsycho! (being shouted at by a male co-star to remove snake venom from a bite on his leg with hilarious, in bad taste shouts of “Suck it!” & “Spit it out!”), but it’s still a start. Besides its historical significance as a Faster, Pussycat! precursor, Motorpsycho! also partially inspired the White Zombie track “Thunderkiss ’65” & provided the name for a Norweigian indie rock band (much like Pussycat! & Mudhoney) as well as being credited as one of the first on-screen representations of Vietnam War-related PTSD (in the gang leader & last surviving member of The Evil Beatles). It also marks the beginning a period of time when Meyer significantly scaled back the nudity in his films (a godsend in this case), possibly due to the exhausting morality case coutroom battles instigated by Lorna & Mudhoney that later Hollywood productions would greatly benefit from. Otherwise, there’s not much else to see here. The best of Russ Meyer was still yet to come, one of his most repulsive works now thankfully behind him.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudhoney (1965)

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twohalfstar

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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

Lorna (1964)

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twohalfstar

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With 1963’s Heavenly Bodies! Russ Meyer effectively brought the nudie cutie chapter of his life to a close, summarizing nearly all of his post WWII pin-up work in a single, enjoyably frivolous (but financially disastrous) picture. Having effectively invented the nudie cutie with The Immoral Mr. Teas & more or less running into the ground with the five films that followed, it was high time for a change in Meyer’s career path, one telegraphed by his curmudgeony “documentary” on European sex trade Europe in the Raw. What was next for the moustachioed pervert was much darker territory than the playful narration & pastel voids of his nude comedies. Meyer would spend his next four or so features pioneering an entirely new kind of sexploitation picture: black & white “roughies.” Far from the hokey vaudevillian gags of nudie cutie titles like Mr. Teas & Wild Gals of the Naked West, roughies were vicious, often hateful pictures that would lean toward the violent & the salacious, but were also quick to damn the very characters they leered at with (in the films’ view) well-deserved deaths for their transgressions. Russ Meyer may have not made the very first roughie (many attribute that milestone to fellow schlock peddler David Friedman), but it was a genre he would eventually damn near perfect with his cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.

Although Lorna may not have technically been the first roughie, it was easily one of the first recognizable & successful examples of the genre. A twisted tale about sexual inadequacy, adultery, and betrayal, Lorna paints an ugly, ugly picture, one that’s only made more ugly by the harshness of its vivid black & white cinematography. In the film’s opening minutes a preacher stops the camera from cruising down a desolate highway to ramble vague, Biblically-themed warnings about loose morals. The following scenes feature a pair of rough drunks following an intoxicated woman home, only to beat & undress her once she spurns their sexual advances (thankfully leaving the scene before it escalates to rape). As the horrifying, leather-faced bully Luther (played by Meyer-newcomer Hal Hopper) rolls out his dim accomplice in tow, his victim shouts “You bastard! You dirty bastard!” & a lounge lizard song (composed & sung by Hopper) about the titular Lorna overtakes the soundtrack. All of this unpleasantness before we even meet the main characters. With this slap to the unsuspecting audience’s face Meyer effectively drove the last nail in the coffin of the nudie cutie & revealed the weirder, meaner brute that had been lurking under his surface all along. And he hadn’t even really gotten started.

The central couple in this sordid tale is Jim (a square-jawed James Rucker) and his wife, duh, Lorna (a most buxom Lorna Maitland), prototypes of what would eventually solidify as the typical soldiers in Meyer’s never-ending war of the sexes. Jim is ostensibly a nice guy. He’s sweet to his wife, studies to better himself, etc., but these character traits actually play like flaws in Meyer’s fucked up sense of logic. In Meyer’s view, Jim is an irredeemable weakling who gets less & less admirable with every “I love you” he coos to his nonplussed wife. Jim’s major malfunction is that he’s bad in bed. In an early scene Lorna lies in post-coital boredom, musing about her husband’s “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” approach to lovemaking, asking “Why can’t he make love to me the way he should?”, and slyly suggesting that he just flat out does not provide her orgasms. There’s some classic Russ Meyer insanity in these moments, like when disorienting shots of running water appear as Lorna recalls a more lustful time in her relationship with Jim or when her daydreams about moving from their remote marital cabin to the big city devolve into rapid-fire montages of the well-endowed actress drunkenly dancing topless among flashing neon signs. It’s in these moments that Lorna shines brightest.

Unfortunately, the generally sour vibe of the roughie format drags the film down a great deal more than it should. When Jim leaves for work it’s revealed that his co-worker is none other than Hal Hopper’s leather-face Luther, a real prick who incessantly teases Jim about his white-hot wife & the distinct possibility that she might be committing adultery behind his back. This tension amounts to an on-the-job fistfight & near-fatal stabbing. Meanwhile, an unattended Lorna actually does become an adulteress at the roaming hands of an escaped convict (Mark Bradley). More than happy to play house for a “real” man, Lorna invites the convict home & into the bed she shares with her husband, which eventually leads to (of course) their infidelity being uncovered & nearly everyone involved getting fatally wounded in a bodycount-heavy finale that’s faithful to the chaos of a traditional stage tragedy. Somewhere in the kerfuffle the Grim Reaper makes an onscreen cameo & the preacher from the opening monologue returns to babble about the definition of adultery & the fate of Lot’s wife. It’s fairly straight-forward stuff, unpleasant or not.

Shot in just two weeks with a five man crew, Lorna featured Russ Meyer’s biggest budget to date & marked the first time he shot a feature on 35mm film. Meyer’s most vocal critical supporter & improbable friend Roger Ebert calls this picture the start of the director’s “Gothic period” & some credit it as the first mainstream film to combine the nudie picture with high stakes drama. Prosecuted in vain on obscenity charges in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Florida (courtroom battles that later New Hollywood productions would greatly benefit from), Lorna is unfortunately much more interesting as a historical milestone than it is as an actual film. There were elements of Lorna that really worked & you could tell that Meyer was really stretching himself thin trying to grasp for something new & exciting, but much of the film reads dull at best and heartlessly cruel at worst. The best five or so minutes of the picture arrive very early, when Lorna’s daydreaming about better orgasms & dancing topless in an urban, neon-lit fantasy world. Meyer would later learn how to better consolidate these more out-there moments with a feature-length narrative, but Lorna never quite reaches an enjoyable cohesiveness, which feels just out of its reach, thanks to the constraints of the newly found roughie genre holding it back.

-Brandon Ledet