Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! (1968)

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three star

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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

Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! (1967)

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fourstar

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If Russ Meyer’s first venture in in-color soap operas, Common Law Cabin, was a moderately enjoyable sampling of what the director had to offer as a horndog auteur & a misanthrope, his follow up Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! cranked up the heat to an almost insufferable degree, making for a much more memorable picture in its sex-crazed emotional sadism. A lot of what made Common Law Cabin a decent watch was its hateful battle of the sexes vibe. The dialogue had the abrasive quality of a longterm couple breaking up at an impossibly late, drunken hour, unloading all of their aggression onto each other in one last attempt to elicit hurt feelings. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! twists the knife even further, improbably featuring some of Meyer’s most sadistic, anti-romantic exchanges to date. Although screenwriter Jack Moran had penned the early Meyer classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it’s tempting to claim that Good Morning was actually the height of his work with the tirelessly perverted, curmudgeony Meyer. Faster, Pussycat! survived largely on the backs of its over the top performances from the likes of Tura Satana & Haji. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, on the other hand, excels on the spiteful, misanthropic dialogue Moran brought to the screen. It’s terrifyingly bleak stuff. It’s also darkly hilarious.

Of course, Good Morning begins with some true-to-Meyer form, besides-the point narration. The narrator asks the audience,“How would you define nymphomania?” Unwilling to settle for that simple question, he goes on to ask for the definitions of a long list of terms that include “irregular union”, “deflower”, “voyeurism”, “strumpet”, “hedonism”, “promiscuity”, “ribaldry” and so on. Although the narrator goes on to promise the definitions of these terms in the film to follow, along with an exploration of the “deepest complexities of modern life as applied to love & marriage in these United States”, this is all, of course, gobbledygook, as should be made apparent by the image of a naked woman galloping through an open field that accompanies the rambling. It isn’t until the narrator begins introducing the film’s central characters that a clear picture of what’s to come takes shape. He promises the story of “eleven losers in a game all of us play” coming together “like a beef stew, a casserole” (I’m guessing sex is the “beef” in that metaphor), a bit of preemptive plot summarizing that feels more like a trailer than an actual beginning to a movie. The go-go dancing, screwing, fistfights, cars, and skinny dipping that make up this would-be trailer are where Russ Meyer’s America starts to feel familiar & grace the screen. This is solidified by the time the narrator introduces Angel, a woman who serves as a “monument to unholy carnality & a cesspool of marital polution prepared to humiliate, provoke, and tantalize.” He also describes her as a “lush cushion of evil perched on the throne of immorality.” Meyer may not have an entirely favorable view of women (to say the least), but he does make them feel extremely powerful in their supposed wickedness.

The best part about this introduction to Angel’s vicious femininity is that she somehow lives up to the hype. Played by Alaina Capri, who filled a very similar role of a sex-crazed sadist in Common Law Cabin, Angel is an adulteress housewife who hates her husband’s guts because of his erectile dysfunction. She expresses this hatred as soon as the film’s first proper scene, a callback to the sexual failings that started the tragic adultery tale Lorna. After her husband Burt fails to get it up, Angel practically spits this insult in his face:“You’re a turd, Burt.” She goes on to say, “You’re the worst in town. Thank God I know somebody in the country.” When Burt complains about her infidelity, she shoots back, “My life is such a blank. I gotta fill it with something.” To his credit, Burt has some nasty, hate-filled things of his own to say. When Angel twists the knife with the line, “I lead you to it, spread it all out, ready & waiting and suddenly you got no appetite,” Burt retorts, “Well I don’t enjoy a picnic that cockroaches have beaten me to.” Yikes. This conversation is Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! in a darkly bitter nutshell. It’s funny stuff, but goddamn is it ever ugly. Burt is played in the film by Stuart Lancaster, who filled the role of the maniacal, train-hating, crippled paterfamilias in Faster, Pussycat!. By combining Lancaster’s natural ease with bitterness & Capri’s knack for cold, cuckolding provocations, Meyer created a powder keg of seething hatred. It’s a sight to behold.

Besides the film’s acerbic dialogue, there’s plenty of other ridiculousness to enjoy. Most notably, Faster, Pussycat! star Haji returns to the Meyer fold here to play some sort of natural, feral witch that meows like a cat & ostensibly cures Burt’s medical condition through vaguely defined sex magic. It’s ridiculous. There’s also a continuation of the swanky Gidget music of Common Law Cabin that brings some ill-deserved levity to what’s mostly a morbid, hateful affair and the would-be passion of the film’s big love-making scene is interrupted by absurd circumstances – a farmer’s report on the radio & the intrusion of Burt’s drunken teenage daughter. The film also sees the return of a new visual trick Meyer started with Common Law Cabin, displaying the opening credits on physical objects (this time they’re painted on mailboxes), as well as the return of nudity in Meyer’s dramatic work for the first time since the black & white “roughies” Lorna & Mudhoney got him in a heap of not-worth-it legal trouble.

These points of interest aside, it really is Jack Moran’s dark, hateful, anti-romance dialogue that makes Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! such a memorable piece of work. It would be Moran’s fifth & unfortunately final script for Russ Meyer, including the films Erotica, Wild Gals of the Naked West, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and, of course, Common Law Cabin. Besides Meyer’s eventual, unholy union with Roger Ebert, Moran proved to be the best writer the director ever partnered with, especially if you focus your attention on those last three credits. In appreciation of Moran’s contribution to the Meyer aesthetic and just because it’s hilariously inane, I’m going to close this review with his final words on a Russ Meyer project, the closing passage of Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!

“That’s keeping one’s family together the hard way. Yet while history has proven that might does not always make right and possession is 9/10ths of the law, more often than not what’s worth owning is worth fighting for, whether it be life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, Mom’s apple pie, or even something as basic as sex. And don’t go knocking it. That three letter word makes a mockery of the four letter ones that try to cheapen it. It’s a wonderful game for people of all ages. And even for losers it’s worth a try. That’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!.

-Brandon Ledet

Common Law Cabin (1967)

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three star

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With his sixth feature, Heavenly Bodies!, Russ Meyer had more or less perfected the “nudie cutie” genre he inadvertently created when his first film, The Immoral Mr. Teas, became a surprise hit. His career then entered its second phase with a series of black & white “roughies”, a more violent & salacious genre Meyer eventually perfected with the cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. With those accomplishments behind him & the two aesthetics married in the go-go dancing freak show Mondo Topless, it was time for Meyer’s career to again take a new direction. His next three pictures following Mondo Topless would be a trio of in-color “soap operas” that continued to boil down the battle of the sexes theme he had been hammering since he made his adulterous morality tale Lorna. This would prove to be far from the most exciting or notorious era of Meyer’s career, but this “soap opera” trilogy did boast a deeply bizarre sort of misanthropic bitterness that often gets overlooked in discussions of his work.

The first film in Meyer’s series of in-color soap operas was Common Law Cabin, a serviceable effort that more or less amounts to a mixed bag of the director’s highs & lows. Originally titled How Much Loving Does a Normal Couple Need? (which is, funnily enough, featured onscreen in a hand-built credits sequence, over-imposed with its much more easily digestible replacement), Common Law Cabin might just be the first sign that Meyer was reaching a groove where his films have an unmistakable aesthetic. Everything from the film’s buxom go-go dancing (including a performance from Mondo Topless‘ Babette Bardot) & the incongruous party music that makes the film it like a harmless Gidget picture instead of something much darker to a non-sequitur opening monologue about The Colorado River “taking & leaving like a woman, but with a name like a man” all scream pure Meyer, despite the film’s genre skewing toward an aesthetic he had never explored before. What really stands out here as Meyer greatness, though, is the hateful war of the sexes dialogue shared between the far too drunk characters who are miserably isolated at a hellscape resort named Hoople’s Haven.

The story Common Law Cabin tells is admittedly thin & inconsequential (another Meyer trope in a way). There’s a maniacal cop on the lam with some stolen money that keeps two unsuspecting, unloving couples hostage at the aforementioned Hoople’s Haven, beating & seducing everything in sight like a feral alpha male with nothing to lose. Again, that’s not really the heart of the film. The owner of Hoople’s Haven, Dewey, played by Jack Moran (who wrote several of Meyer’s more notable films, including this one), is self-consciously guilty of ogling his teenage daughter because she ‘s a dead ringer for his dead wife (yikes!). His current sexual/business partner Babette (played by Babette Bardot, of course), constantly calls him out on this shortcoming with acerbic statements like “They at least knew the difference between a wife & a daughter,” and “I only say what you think, so you can hear how lousy it sounds.” Another couple made up of a suicidal doctor & his adulterous wife are equally troubled. Calling out his wife for flirting with strangers before his eyes, the doctor asks, “Must you pant? It’s an animal trait.” She retorts, “It’s the bitch in me, dear. Or don’t you remember? It has been such a long time.” Alaina Capri is pitch-perfect in this vengeful, dissatisfied wife role, one she’d develop to an even more ridiculous extent in Meyer’s next film, Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!. There’s a little bit of misogynistic violence that sinks the enjoyable contention in these exchanges, but the way Meyer plays the whole thing out like a soap opera comedy only makes those moments complexly bizarre and, besides, the maniac cop who’s responsible for slapping everyone around (spoiler alert?) gets his bully ass run over by a speed boat at the climax in a satisfying way. Common Law Cabin is far from Meyer’s most significant film, but it works as a typifying example of what the director has to offer, mostly enjoyable for its hateful exchanges between “loving” couples on the verge of strangling each other at any given moment . . . and for the buxom go-go dancers, of course.

-Brandon Ledet

Mondo Topless (1966)

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fourstar

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With his first six films, Russ Meyer pioneered & eventually mastered what is now known as “the nudie cutie”, an antiquated genre that is exactly what it sounds like: a cutesy comedy featuring nude models. His first feature, The Immoral Mr. Teas, is cited as the very first example of the “nudie cutie” and, following a few Teas-imitating stinkers, his final film in the genre, Heavenly Bodies!, proved to be a finely-tuned, navel-gazing example of the limits of what the format could accomplish. The next phase of his career was a series of black & white “roughies”, a collection of crudely violent crime pictures that were about as far from the word “cutie” that the director could possibly get. Again, that phase saw some highs & lows for the director, including the irredeemably vile Motorpsycho! & the indisputable crown jewel of the “roughie” genre, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. For his followup to Faster, Pussycat!, Meyer deviously combined the “nudie cutie” & “roughie” aesthetics into a single, incomprehensible picture, Mondo Topless. Mondo Topless is the cinematic equivalent of a child being forced to smoke an entire pack after failing to sneak a single cigarette. Meyer effectively asks his audience, “You want breasts? Here’s more than you could possibly handle. Choke on them.” The resulting film is an overwhelming assault on the senses, featuring an ungodly chaotic jumble of topless go-go dancing & non sequitur narration. If it were any longer than an hour, it’d be unwatchable. As is, it’s a oddly engaging spectacle of pure madness, one that summarized the full extent of what Meyer had accomplished at that time in his career.

One consistent feature of Meyer’s nudie cutie work is the non sequitur ramblings of an offscreen narrator, often delivered with the blank expression of an industrial film. Like with everything else it delivers, Mondo Topless adds a barely digestible layer of aggression to this Meyer trope. The narrator, John Furlong (who worked on several Meyer features, including Mudhoney & Common Law Cabin), delivers his relentless monologues in a near shout, backing the audience into a corner as the screen is overloaded with go-go dancers doing their thing. He starts by describing an especially salacious view of San Francisco, a city that reportedly “thrusts itself into the bosom of the Pacific” with the “bulging peaks & deep canyons” of its landscape, its trollies “digesting & disgorging humanity at will”, and structures that “thrust their bulk majestically toward the sky.” The rapidfire montage of this opening segment features a nude woman maniacally driving through the Bay Area intercut with images of the skyscrapers, ads, automobiles, and dancing naked women that make up Russ Meyer’s America. In a fit of shameless self-promotion our aggressive narrator promises an expose on the artform of “the topless”, “the phrase & the craze that is changing the mood & the morays of people everywhere […] Here, go-go girls in & out of their environment will be revealed to you in scenes that can only be summarized as a swinging tribute to unrestrained female anatomy. Mondo Topless is believably real in Eastman color. But ‘unbelievable’ just barely describes all of Russ Meyer’s discotheque discoveries: fantastic women, fantastic dances, featuring the world’s loveliest buxotics. You only dreamed there were women like these until now. But they’re real! Unbelievably real!” It’s an onslaught that makes you so dizzy you could puke.

The rest of the film’s dialogue is provided by the dancers themselves. As they answer interview questions that were not included to provide context, performers with names like Donna X & Babette Bardot dance frenetically while making strangely disconnected statements like “I used to play cello in a symphony orchestra when I was 13,” & “All you’re doing is a dance, it has no meaning whatsoever.” The range of topics covered in these “interviews” are as disparate as women’s sexual autonomy to the freedom of not wearing a bra to bed. The narrator only occasionally interjects to literally dare you to focus on what the dancers have to say as they’re violently shaking their bodies for your visual pleasure/motion sickness. When he shouts at you to “sit back!”, “relax!”, or “enjoy!” what the women have to offer it takes immense emotional fortitude to not shout back “Okay! I’ll try! Stop yelling at me!” There’s a very small amount of variety to be found within the film, mainly in the different styles of the featured dancers & the locations where they’re filmed (a rocky beach, near a passing train, underwater, in a mud puddle, etc.), but otherwise Mondo Topless is aggressively one-note: gorgeous women dance topless to portable radios & tape players at a maddening pace that never once pumps the brakes so the audience can catch its breath.

There’s a little bit of cultural context that makes Mondo Topless significant as a historical document, but there’s no way that it can be mistaken for a documentary. It only makes the slightest differentiations between “the erotic” dances of the past & “the topless” dancing (aka go-go dancing) that reportedly started in San Francisco. Erotic dances are supposedly built on the tease of the reveal & use of obscuring objects like pasties, where as topless go-go dancing is an all-out “burst of inhibited frenzy.” Mondo Topless does its best to recreate this feeling of frenzy in its relentless pace, intentionally distancing itself from Meyer’s burlesque nudie cutie past despite re-purposing the exact footage of what seemed to be every single dance from Europe in the Raw in its short runtime. Meyer also takes multiple breaks to pat himself on the back for his own accomplishments, like in an interview with Lorna Maitland, star of his film (duh) Lorna. The narrator brags, “Without artistic surrender, without compromise, without question or apology, an important motion picture was produced: Lorna: A Woman Too Much for One Man.” Maitland then goes on to speculate about her boundless future as an actress, tellingly only describing & showing footage only from the exact two scenes of the film I found worthwhile in my initial review.

Otherwise, Mondo Topless makes no attempt to pretend to be anything more than it is: an overwhelmingly aggressive hour of frenzied go-go dancing, Meyer’s bizarre editing style (that would later reach its apex in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and disorienting, besides the point dialogue that only added confusion & obscurity to the proceedings. But, why should I attempt to describe the overall effect of the Mondo Topless to you when the film was content to review itself in its final monologue? It concludes, “Well, Mondo Topless measures up. The unmistakable Russ Meyer touch makes this more than a gang of great gals. It makes it move. We sincerely hope you enjoyed the flick.” Indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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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

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1964)

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three star

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With the sexploitation picture Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure (adopted from a somewhat infamous erotic novel of the same name) Russ Meyer returned to two things he was not particularly masterful at: broad, yuck-it-up comedy & favorably capturing Europe on film. Meyer was returning to the continent for the first time since he condemned it as a “highway of vice” & “a cesspool of cheap hotels, tawdry bars, and wanton women” in his laughably xenophobic “documentary” Europe in the Raw. He was lured back to Europe with the promise that he would helm the somewhat pricey production of Fanny Hill with complete creative autonomy as a director. Once he arrived, however, it became apparent that the film’s producer, Albert Zugsmith, was eager to double back on his own word. Not only did Zugsmith annoint himself as an unofficial co-director, undermining much of Russ Meyer’s creative vision, he also banned Meyer from the editing room, where most of the artistry of his best films usually come to life. What’s left, then, is a more or less amusing “erotic” comedy about a European brothel . . . just one with absolutely no trace of Meyer’s eccentric personality.

Set in 18th century London, Fanny Hill tells the story of a rural teenager getting bowled over by some big city reprobates more than willing to take advantage of her small town naiveté. A madame of an upscale brothel appoints herself as Fanny’s honorary aunt & claims that all the other sex workers under her wing are also her nieces, “all daughters of my 12 sisters”. There are some interesting characters mixed in these “women of ill repute”, such as a dominatrix, a woman prone to wear a false moustache during her sexual appointments, and a youthful lollipop enthusiast who is especially attractive older male clients (blech.). The men that frequent this bunch are a mixed bag of annoying European caricatures that spoil a lot of the good vibes with their over-the-top character flaws, including a john that leaves Fanny to drown & a sniveling weakling who begs to be punished for being “a naughty boy.” Even more frustrating is Fanny herself, who somehow does not know that she is working for a brothel for the entire length of the film. Frustratingly naïve, Fanny is the kind of girl who can watch every last one of the brothel’s “nieces” service half the Navy in an open field and still not be exactly sure of what is going on. At one point, she even takes on the job of setting up appointments for johns & somehow believes that she’s merely selling hats. Of the oddly frequent hat deliveries made at all hours of the day & night, Fanny says “The busier girls were wearing out several boxes each week.” The script has a funny way of being cheekily salacious in that fashion, purposefully far more aware of its sexual playfulness than its sex worker protagonist.

Featuring no nudity, no rapidfire editing, and no larger than life personalities, Fanny Hill is unrecongnizable as a Russ Meyer picture. There are, however, a few scraps of the director’s personality to be found scattered throughout the film. His second black & white film in a row (after 1963’s Lorna), the film at the very least fits into the current phase of work in a vague visual sense, even if it in no way can be understood as a black & white “roughie” (the genre he was working in at the time). True to most Meyer pictures, there is a weakling male character who gets continually punished for his supposedly unmasculine affectionate love. Fanny’s main beau’s life is intentionally derailed by the film’s Evil Madame to the point where he’s driven to crossdressing in order to sneak into the brothel & come to his fiancé’s rescue (a gag that was repeated in such respectable films as Leprechaun in the Hood). There’s also a repeat of a gag from Europe in the Raw where a chamber pot is emptied upon an unsuspecting passerby, possibly capturing exactly what the fiercely American Meyer thought of Europe in a nutshell. The film’s very light use of S&M and lipstick lesbianism was more of a telegraph of what was to come in Meyer’s work than a reflection of where it had already been. Otherwise, Fanny Hill has essentially no trace of the madman auteur/pervert’s unique touch.

That’s not to say that Fanny Hill isn’t enjoyable as a broad comedy about the sexcapades of a naïve sex worker that has no idea that she’s been employed by a brothel. In addition to erasing Russ Meyer’s personality from the picture, Zugsmith’s production also bears almost no resemblance to its source material, a novel often credited as the first English language example of pornographic prose, but it does squeeze by as a light romp that finds humor in the simple things: raw fish falling into cleavage, men dressing as women & getting hit on by their unknowing bosses, and an onslaught of cheap sex jokes soaring over the head of an unbelievably innocent protagonist. There are certainly much worse fates than that.

-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

Heavenly Bodies! (1963)

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three star

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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