“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.