Pandora Peaks (2001)

twostar

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In the two decades between Russ Meyer’s last proper theatrical release, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and his straight-to-video swan song, Pandora Peaks, the once-on-top-of-the-world pervert auteur suffered a long line of never-completed projects. He mostly attempted to continue his thread of warped, post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls retreads of his former glory days that started with Supervixens. This included the never-realized The Jaws of Lorna; The Jaws of Vixen; Blixen, Vixen, and Harry; Mondo Topless, Too; Up the Valley of the Beyond; and Kill, Kill, Pussycat! Faster!. Even more intriguing were the announced anthology projects Hotsa, Hotsa & the reportedly 17 hour in length The Breast of Russ Meyer. Worse yet was the nearly-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?, with a Roger Ebert screenplay ready to go. Dejected by the endless assault of false starts, Meyer had pretty much resigned himself to retiring from filmmaking altogether & focusing on his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast (which actually did see the light of day). It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to the money-making possibilities of the home video market that he decided to return to his home behind the camera.

Pandora Peaks is a home video advertisement for its eponymous stripper/porn star. A supposed “documentary on Pandora at the peak of her popularity, the film plays like an episode of HBO’s Real Sex or a Playboy TV exclusive. Narrated by Meyer himself, Pandora Peaks resurrects the rapid-fire montage & non sequitur background chatter of the feverish go-go dancing nightmare Mondo Topless, but distinctly lacks that film’s white hot passion. You can also find traces of his home movie tourism in Europe in the Raw in sequences featuring a Hungarian stripper named Tundi (whose “interview” dialogue is provided by Meyer vet Uschi Digard), but again the film lacks any of the paranoid jingoism that made that “documentary” special. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole going-through-the-motions affair is that he director continuously references the glory days of past works in the film, particularly the successes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As clips from better Meyer times & shots of Pandora doing her thing at old shoot locations roll in, it’s apparent that the director is in an exhausted, retrospective mood, clearly disinterested in making earnest art out of what ultimately feels like a DVD extra.

There are some residual Meyer charms lurking in Pandora Peaks, mostly in the way the innocuous narration mixes harshly with the supposedly titilating imagery to crate a disorienting effect. As Pandora herself tells fond childhood stories about her enormous breasts & her over-active libido, Meyer blandly intones passages from his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast. His anecdotes about how his boob fetish saved him from a dull life toiling away in a battery factor & why he loves to go fishing with his old war buddies are oddly sober & level-headed, far from the unfocused ramblings of the madman vision in his previous two pictures: Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. The best effect the film has is in its way of lulling the viewer in to a dulled, hypnotic state, one occasionally interrupted by slide whistle & sqeaking toy sound effects. In its worst moments, though, it’s an entirely dismissable home video of a nightmarish Dallas strip club on a field trip. Even excusing his diminished enthusiasm, Meyer’s aesthetic didn’t translate well to the modern, plastic era. The plastic Walkmans & modern street signs of Pandora Peaks have nothing on the old world radios & hand-painted advertisements of Mondo Topless, Similarly, the director’s love of gigantic breasts had reached its crescendo in its final picture, with Pandora trying to pass off her HHH-sized busom as a natural phenomenon, fooling no one.

If Meyer hadn’t already entered the arena of self-parody critics had been accusing him of since Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Pandora Peaks pretty much solidified the transition. It’s a little disappointing that his career ended with such an empty exercise instead of a more ambitious project like Who Killed Bambi? or The Breast of Russ Meyer, but there are honestly worse possible fates. At least Pandora Peaks is far from the morally reprehensible depths of Blacksnake or Motorpsycho!, except maybe in a couple isolated moments of casual homophobia. The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which the auteur & eternal perv is yearning in some way to make sense of his own career, reaching back to past glory & repeatedly cutting to a mosaic representation of his own face as if frustratingly gazing into a mirror & asking what will become of his legacy. 15 years after Pandora Peaks & 11 years after Meyer’s death the answer to that question is still ambiguously hanging in the air. He’s a tough artist to pigeonhole, a complicated brute of a man that defies you to defend everything he’s said & done in its entirety. And yet he’s made some of the most vibrant, idiosyncratic films the world has ever seen. The question is what are we to do with the mess he’s left behind? It’s been fun picking through the pieces of the wreckage, but I doubt I have any significant answer to that conundrum now that I’ve made it through to the other side. I doubt I ever will.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

Blacksnake (1973)

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halfstar

I was quick to defend Russ Meyer’s first supposed foray into territory outside the “sex film”, The Seven Minutes, but I’m afraid the good vibes died a horrific death as soon as the director’s next picture. Hollywood success may have clouded Meyer’s already inflated hubris when he struck it big with his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, (mis)leading the director to believe he had the capability within him to command complexly nuanced, important films about issues like slavery & institutional racism. He was miserably mistaken. Black Snake cost Russ Meyer hundreds of thousands of dollars, a lot of it his own money now that he was back operating outside the studio system, and stands as his worst picture since at least the wildly misogynistic Motorpsycho!. Meyer should’ve known better than to tackle a period piece about slavery and, yet, Blacksnake somehow exists, adding nothing of value to the world but unwatchably dull stretches of wretched dialogue and as yet undiscovered, fresh ways to create corrosively racist art in the guise of enlightened progressivism.

Ever since the pointlessly racist rants in Vixen!, Meyer’s films had gradually escalated the respectability of their black characters. Starting with adding the first black actress to Meyer’s bevy of babes in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (a small step, that), the director went on to cast feature roles for black actors in both Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & The Seven Minutes, a huge improvement on the lack of diversity in his back catalog. All of that goodwill goes out the window as soon as Blacksnake‘s opening credits, which features slaves on a plantation being beaten to the sound of playfully swanky music, racial slurs, and cracking whip sound effects (the film’s title itself refers to the shape of a whip) in an assault of unwelcome irreverence. It isn’t very often that I hate a film before its first proper scene, but Blacksnake is instantly recognizable as vile garbage.

It doesn’t get much better from there. Sexual relations between slaves & their owners are played as comical instead of rape. There’s a perverse amount of whippings & racial epitaphs to the point where it feels like they’re supposed to be a source of entertainment, which is pretty much a worst-case scenario. The worst part is that the slave revolt that concludes the film is excessive in its violence to the point that it plays as if you’re supposed to feel bad for the slave-owners being hung & whipped to death (for a change). While making the film, Meyer was quoted as saying, “Sex is out, violence is in. This film will have every conceivable death you can think of – death by hanging, by double-barreled shotgun, by whipping, by machete, by crucifixion and by shark.” The problem is that the violence in the film plays as nihilistic at best, and deeply, subliminally racist at worst.

With Blacksnake, Meyer had tried to make a Big Issue film & failed miserably. Even his wild rants about the wicked nature of women & heterosexual romance in past works were more nuanced & insightful than his supposedly anti-racist sentiments in Blacksnake. If anything good at all came out of this dumpster fire, it’s that the film’s failure & resulting financial ruin drove Meyer back into the open arms & comforting bosoms of the nudie pic. Meyer may have been done with the sex film, but the sex film was far from done with him, He had no other available recourse but to return to sexploitation in his next picture, Supervixens, having fallen from grace in his two sole self-serious dramas.

-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

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

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (1969)

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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

 

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

Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! (1968)

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The third & final picture in Russ Meyer’s trio of in-color “soap operas” plays very similar to the first, Common Law Cabin. As with Common Law Cabin, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! is more or less Meyer on auto-pilot. With his career finally developing a sense of cohesion, Meyer was now able to make a film that was unmistakably his own without trying very hard to impress. All of the Meyer calling cards are here: buxom women, go-go dancing, bitter marriages on the rocks, non-sequitiur monologues, etc. The only thing missing from Meyer’s pictures in this phase of his career is the aggressive, disorienting editing style that turned pictures like Mondo Topless & Europe in the Raw from straight-forward “documentaries” into something much more sinister & psychedelic. The oddball editing is present, for sure, but it takes a back seat to the bitter war of the sexes that had tinged Meyer’s work since the adultery tale Lorna. Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! unfortunately doesn’t pack quite the same hateful punch that the now ex-Meyer writer Jack Moran’s scripts did in the past, but it does have plenty of bitter weirdness to spare that makes it a moderately enjoyable addition to the director’s catalog.

Starting with the go-go dancing “documentary” Mondo Topless, Meyer had made a habit of delivering early in his runtimes what his core audience had come to expect: gigantic, bare breasts. The opening credits of Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! features a topless go-go routine performed in the desert sand by a model sporting only a tight skirt, tall boots, and a motorcycle helmet. Instead of Meyer’s trademark of besides-the-point opening monolgues, the movie instead begins with a swanky titular theme song, the first since the lounge lizard opener for Lorna. The director also continued his recent trope of representing the opening credits in physical spaces. The credits for Common Law Cabin were displayed on hand carved signs, the credits for Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! were painted on mailboxes, and the credits here are printed on labels of liquor bottles. The claustrophobia of his staged play-like sets is also repeated here, as the film takes place almost exclusively in a bedroom, a brothel, and a go-go club/pool hall. As I said, Meyer had reached groove at this point of his career where his films were easily recognizable as his own, each following a relatively strict pattern.

Although Meyer had captured the unrestrained mania of go-go dancing before in pictures like Mondo Topless & Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, here he for the first time builds a narrative in a go-go club setting, intercutting the violent bursts of topless dancing with shots of money changing hands & alcohol being downed at a maddening pace. My best guess of what he was trying to get across there was something as simple & crass as the thought that big tits are big business. As his pictures are usually centered on the sexual failings of a male lover, Finders Keepers focuses on an adulterous employee of the go-go club featured in these scenes. Between being distracted by the erotic dancing & a side-hustle that connects the club to a nearby brothel, our bonehead antagonist is oblivious to his unattended wife & business, which leads the bored wife to dancing nude & philandering as payback and the club itself being held hostage by a couple of safe-breaking thieves. These themes are surely familiar to Meyer’s previous pictures, but within that framework he injects a couple unexpected touches, ones that oddly stray from his onscreen fornicating’s usual lack of adventure or experimentation.

The sex scenes in Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! are what make the film unique enough to be a wortwhile addition to the Russ Meyer catalog. In one scene, images of flesh bucking underwater are mixed (hilariously) with footage of cars crashing in a demolition derby. In another, a sex worker shaving a john’s chest while recounting her childhood experiments with incest is presented with the dementedly obsessive detail of a fetishist. The oddly arresting chest-shaving scene is certainly the film’s most memorable centerpiece, especially since the bare chest the sex worker is shaving is mixed with closeup footage of a much, much hairier specimen being stripped of its luxurious coat. The film also poses as an alternate timeline in which Meyer was a butt man instead of his obnoxiously apparent preference for breasts. The screen is filled with plenty of butt cheek during the film’s relatively short runtime, including a surprising amount of man-butt for those interested. Throw in a small dose of lipstick lesbianism and you have the director’s most sexually adventurous film at least since the vague BDSM leanings of Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Besides the unexpected kinks & oddities in these details, Finders Keepers stands out as a unique Meyer picture only in its half-assed attempts to establish itself as a crime noir. The hostage situation & safe-breaking scenes fall hilariously short of similar fare in films like, say, Michael Mann’s Thief, and instead feel like a half-cooked afterthought, taking a back seat to the much more detailed sexual perversity (duh). My favorite aspect of the failed noir aesthetic is the heavy reliance on the Venetian blinds lighting of the genre, which is so ever-present that it’s included in exterior shots outside the go-go club, which makes absolutely no logical sense. There’s also a last minute revelation of betrayal that constitutes the closest thing to a “twist” that any Meyer film to date had attempted. Otherwise, the director’s usual themes of adultery & sexual payback play out in typical Meyer fashion. Finders Keepers may only have a few scenes & spare details that distinguish it as a unique work in the director’s catalog, but it does have enough unnatural weirdness in those details (especially that chest-shaving scene) that make it a worthy drop in the Meyer bucket.

-Brandon Ledet