Saturday, September 19, 2009

Russ never sleeps

Late Friday night-early Saturday morning, TCM Underground trotted out a pair (sorry about the unintentional pun there) of films directed by cult legend Russ Meyer, a man described by the Time Out Film Guide (specifically referencing Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! [1965], which is probably Meyer’s best-known vehicle) as “a fine action director as well as America’s best-known tit man.” Big-breasted women are sort of a hallmark of Meyer’s work; in fact, the only time I laughed during Look Who's Talking (1989) was when a lactating Kirstie Alley catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and cracks: “I look like a Russ Meyer movie!” (I have to confess that I laughed kind of hard at this, so much so that my sisters Kat and Debbie got up and moved to other seats in the theater.)

TCM kicked things off with Pussycat, one of four movies that comprise what many film buffs refer to as Meyer’s “Gothic period”—the remaining flicks (all filmed in black-and-white) being Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965) and Motor Psycho (1965). But Pussycat has acquired a cult of its own, largely due to the hearty endorsement of movie director John Waters, who often cites the film as his personal fave. Three go-go dancing starlets, led by the incredible Tura Satana (who is also no stranger to the world of cultdom) as the beautiful but evil Varla, spend a little R-and-R in the desert racing cars when a would-be dragster (Ray Barlow) and his too-annoying-for-words girlfriend (Sue Bernard) arrive on the scene, resulting in a racing challenge from Varla, her lesbian partner Rosie (Haji) and blonde bimbo Billie (Lori Williams). Varla wins the race but because one of her least admirable qualities is that she can go from zero to surly in 5.2 seconds, she gets involved in a fist fight with the male racer…quickly dispatching him with some impressive karate kicks and breaking his neck for the coup de Gracie.

The three women continue on their crime spree, with the drugged girlfriend in tow, and glean information from a gas station attendant (Mickey Foxx) about an eccentric millionaire (Stuart Lancaster) who lives in the area with his two sons—one a not-too-swift-on-the-uptake muscle-bound creep known as “The Vegetable” (Dennis Busch) and the other a mild-mannered nebbish named Kirk (Paul Trinka) who reads a lot. From this point on, Pussycat’s plot showcases a sort of contest to see which of the two trios—the old man and his sons (who are sort of a dress rehearsal for the demented family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]) and the girl gang—can act the most depraved; Varla and Company are out to rob the lecherous old fart of his money, and the old fart has set his cap for the kidnapped girlfriend, intending to…well, it’s never really made crystal clear what he plans to do…though it’s not all that difficult to put the pieces together. Pussycat concludes with another Meyer trademark—an orgiastic ballet of violence that leaves the two characters you least care about hale and hearty and free to escape their captors.

Pussycat rarely rises above its comic-book action movie origins, but as previously stated, Meyer is a dab hand with hard-hitting violent sequences…and because his intention was to create the kind of drive-in flick that audiences would eat up with a spoon, the sexual content present in many of his films has been dialed down a bit. (At the time, Meyer’s films were criticized as “pornographic” in nature but seen from today’s perspective come across as relatively tame.) The film’s endlessly quotable camp dialogue, chock full of non-sequiturs (“Women! They let 'em vote, smoke and drive—even put 'em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!”), and rambling opening narration, which seems to have been cribbed from a lost Outer Limits episode, is the perfect topper to the delirious, goofy sense of fun.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! isn’t Meyer’s best film (though I will say it’s my favorite)—there are those who argue that Mudhoney (which came on TCM afterwards) is a contender for the top spot in Russ’ oeuvre. In Guide For the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary nailed it when he described the movie as a “hellish version of Tobacco Road.” The tiny town of Spooner, MO plays host to a population where all the men appear to be drooling, inebriated reprobates and the women horny sex kittens with bodacious ta-ta’s. A ex-con (John Furlong) named Calif (short for California) McKinney is on his way to the Golden State when, out of funds, he’s forced to take on employment as farm hand to farmer Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster again) and his niece, Hannah Brenshaw (Antoinette Christiani). Calif’s troubles begin when Hannah’s drunken husband Sidney (Hal Hopper) starts giving him unnecessary grief (if you were to look up the word “dirtbag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s, Sidney’s picture would sure as shootin’ be there) because Calif feels the need to protect Hannah from Sidney’s tirades (he has a nasty tendency to bat her around a lot and he even rapes her at one point in the film). At the same time, Sidney spends quite a bit of his schedule drinking and fornicating at Maggie Marie’s (Princess Livingston), where Maggie makes bootleg whiskey and he can have his pick between her two slutty daughters: Eula (Rena Horten) and deaf-mute Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland). Learning that Wade has put the farm in Calif’s name (and left him all his money to continue helping out Hannah), Sidney goes a bit funny in the head and ends up attacking, raping and murdering the wife (Lee Ballard) of Spooner’s resident fire-and-brimstone preacher Brother Hanson (Frank Bolger)…but comes to a tragic end himself when the townspeople turn on Sidney and decide to dole out a little frontier justice in recompense for Mrs. Hanson’s murder.

Mudhoney is pure morality-play melodrama; with characters so unlikable (even the “hero,” Calif, is a bit of a weasel since he does have designs on the married Hannah) watching them is like not being able to take your eyes off a devastating car wreck. Still, it’s B-movie making at its finest; Meyer deftly blends sex, nudity and violence, the editing (one of Meyer’s strengths as a director) is first-rate, and the dialogue and acting are remarkably good for a film of its type. My only quibble with Mudhoney is that it’s established early on that most of the town’s population has turned against Calif and Hannah (thanks to Brother Hanson’s gossip about the two “committing adultery”) but in the final moments of the film there’s only five or six people riled up—suggesting that either this was something they couldn’t get past in the limited budget or that most of the town stayed home to watch the game. I enjoyed both of these films (which is odd, because Meyer isn’t really my cup of Earl Grey) and am anxiously awaiting seeing Russ become of the subject of one of TCM’s director salutes (“Next: Bill Teas is a middle-aged bachelor with a talent for being able to see through women’s clothing in The Immoral Mr. Teas. We’re getting down to the bare necessities all day here on TCM.”).

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