Tag Archives: Banned

Russ Meyer’s ‘Lorna’ (1964)

22 Sep

1964, the year of Lorna and the start of director Russ Meyer’s Gothic period and obsession with social redeeming value (aka the morals that make smut acceptable). This black and white beauty, Meyer’s first film shot in 35mm and with live dialogue, marked the end of a successful run of nudie cutie features (The Immoral Mr. Teas, Eve and The Handyman, Erotica) and the beginning of his first ‘proper’ foray into theatrical filmmaking. Opening with a shot that tracks a long winding road, we are suddenly met with a maniacal preacher. Spewing the directors first morality tale, the gentleman asks us ‘Do you know where this road leads?… Do you do unto others as they do to you? Do you judge as others judge?… Pass on… There is no return’. And right he is. There is no return from Lorna.

With the tagline ‘Ever wonder why wives WANDER?’ it’s not too difficult to see where Meyer was going with the narrative. Oft referred to as the female Tom Jones, the story focuses on Lorna (Lorna Maitland), a sexually unsatisfied housewife who is married to nice guy Jim (James Rucker), a miner studying to be a CPA. Jim loves Lorna very much but when it comes to bedroom antics he leaves her completely exasperated. Lorna has to be persuaded to have sex with Jim, and not only reluctantly gives in, but has a face like a slapped arse during and after. Cue a cute monologue where Lorna stares out of the window and expresses her disappointment; ‘I’m a woman, not just a tool’. She dreams of another life, one full of excitement and a lot of topless go-go dancing (real footage of Maitland that would also crop up in films Europe In The Raw! and Mondo Topless, not surprising given that she was a Vegas dancer before the film). Instead, Lorna goes for a nude swim one day and gets raped. But instead of being a victim, the attack finally brings her rampant sexuality to the fore.

And what a town to commit adultery in. The picture was shot in Locke, a depressed town in a run down area of Sacramento, with boarded up shops and grimey bars. This is a town that harbors the worst in people and stifles those that genuinely have some good about them. A real boiling point for morals to play out, it was the perfect environment for Meyer’s melodrama and makes the religious element of sinners being punished seem all the more fitting (apparently an added piece of cinematic insurance so it played well within the Bible Belt). Upon viewing it’s hard to ignore the influence of Italian neo-realism, something that Meyer both acknowledged and dismissed quickly along with other academic theories related to his work. In Meyer’s eyes, it was a melodramatic piece shot in black and white because he couldn’t afford colour film stock. That said, like environments in other Meyer feature films, the location is beautifully shot and incredibly lush; run down shops and small houses juxtaposed with lush lakes and shrubbery.

Cast wise, the feature has some memorable creations made all the more comically large by the actors playing them. James Griffith played the formidable preacher; the bearded and somewhat morally rabid provider of the films prologue and epilogue. Griffith also wrote the screenplay, in four days no less, going on to provide Meyer with the story for Motorpsycho the following year before having a long career in as a supporting actor in film and television. The role of the poor, naive husband Jim is played like a total wet blanket by Rucker. His sin is that he could never satisfy Lorna and by the end of the film you end up feeling both sorry for him and his wife; sympathizing towards his wife because bad sex is bad towards him because he genuinely loves her. The real stand out amongst the crowd in Hal Hopper in the role of Luther, Jim’s sadistic co-worker. So slimy and horrible (watch him rape and beat a woman in the opening fifteen minutes of the film in a scene that sets the moral tone for the rest of the picture) that he steals the role of the villain away from the real rapist himself. With rather menacing eyes and a sickly smile, Hopper doesn’t have to do much to get under your skin and it isn’t remotely surprising that Meyer cast him in Mudhoney in a similar role (what is surprising is that he sung the film’s title theme).

The crown jewel of the entire film though is Lorna herself, played by Barbara Popejoy. Meyer christened her with the name Lorna Maitland when he finally cast her in the film, giving her the name that she would eventually be most known for. It’s not hard to see why the sexploitation director liked Maitland so much. With a 42D bust size and breasts that were swelling even more (to 50 inches) with the hormones of a pregnant woman (Maitland was three months pregnant at the time the film was shot), the star also had the wholesome looks that made her attractive to all sorts of clientele that the film would be watched by. It’s hard to believe that Maitland wasn’t the first choice for the role. Meyer had cast another actress, Maria Andre, whom he had used in Heavenly Bodies at the insistence of Griffith. Maitland had made very little in terms of an impression went she went to the casting call for the picture and it was only thanks to her manager who handed Meyer’s producer wife Eve a few Polaroids of her that she ended up with the gig. Eve eventually found them, the day before they were meant to start shooting, and showed them to Russ who knew instantly that Maitland was the one.

That said, it would seem that Maitland and Meyer never quite saw eye to eye, with both parties apparently hating each other and Maitland being quite vocal about it. Lorna would go on to star in Meyer’s feature Mudhoney which was shot and released the following year, somewhat of an expansion on the themes that were explored in Lorna itself. Not that Meyer seemed to care. He complained and told a large number of people that Maitland’s figure had gone post-pregnancy and that her now 42 inch chest was intolerable due to its sagginess. It seems no love was lost between either of them, just as some states in America found it hard to love Lorna as a picture. It was deemed obscene and prosecuted in Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania, despite making a tonne of money on the Drive-In circuit. Meyer even had his appeal to have the seized print returned to him denied by the Florida Supreme Court who decided that it should be burnt instead. Watching it now is hardly shocking in comparison to subsequently released features but it still packs a punch, a rare mix of remotely genuine emotion, sex and the dark side of morality. One of Meyer’s classics.

‘Island of Death’ (1975) review

7 Mar

Where exactly do you begin with a film like Island of Death (Mastorakis, 1975)? Widely banned because of its content, if one film is going to make you wonder why on earth you sat down to watch something it’s going to be this. I was intrigued. So many people had told me to give it a go, ‘I think you’d really like it’ was the phrase mostly used. And so I gave in… And I’m still wondering why I bothered, and still trying to work out why so many people thought I’d really dig it (Answers on a postcard please). It’s not that the film was bad (although arguably many people won’t like it because of its themes), I’ve seen a lot worse, but it wasn’t any good either. It was just weird. Really weird.

Island of Death concerns a young married couple, Christopher and Celia, who go on holiday to a Greek island. Whilst looking relatively normal, normal isn’t a word they clearly understand and instead they slowly start killing off people they don’t like in a bid to rid the island of perversion and make it pure again. This is a little strange because they don’t come across as being overly religious either but since when did plot details start to become important to bad movies?

In fact, that’s the issue with Island of Death. There isn’t much of a plot, more like a threadbare story created to link together shocking set pieces (a little like the Saw franchise but less gory and a lot stranger…). So you get a scene like Christopher humping a goat because Celia is too tired to have sex with him (this is why so many of you told me to watch it isn’t it…). Or Christopher crucifying and poisoning a painter the couple befriend after he’s had sex with Celia. They kill a gay couple, a drug addicted lesbian barmaid, an older female socialite (with a pretty neat and inventive beheading scene involving a bulldozer). You get the idea. Pretty much anyone on the island they can kill, they do. Christopher also happens to be a photographer and likes to photograph scenes of the crime, both during and after, to masturbate over later. Sadly, there’s so much going on during the film that these scenes just aren’t as shocking as maybe the production team had hoped they’d be. It’s a bit like that saying, too many cooks spoiling the broth. At what point does shocking become not shocking? When you watch Island of Death.

Making a list of everything controversial about the film doesn’t really prepare you for the film itself. I’ll say it again, the film isn’t bad. It has some dodgy acting (what exploitation film doesn’t?!), some really cheesy one-liners (‘God punishes perversion. And I am his angel with the flaming sword sent to kill dirty worms!’) and some unintentionally hilariously awful scenes, such as an incredibly unsexy sex scene in a phone booth (True Romance did it better) and some fellatio techniques on a gun (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls did it better). The problem is it isn’t very good either but somehow has a bizarre charm about it, probably down to the cinematically naive director Nico Mastorakis biting at some big ideas he didn’t quite know how to chew.

Island of Death is a film that you can’t turn off, something about it is compelling and makes you watch it all the way to the end. It doesn’t repel you, it doesn’t make you laugh, it’s just a very strange film. I defy anyone who watches it to not feel confused, a little dazed and (although no one will admit to it) a little turned on. By the time you get to the final fifteen minutes of the film and find out that Christopher and Celia are brother and sister, it doesn’t surprise you. In fact, one you start watching the film you realise that it could throw anything at you and you wouldn’t be surprised. Hell, the only surprise for me is the fact that I don’t know how to write about it!

Island of Death is just… weird. If you like weird then maybe watch it once in your life. If you’re completely narrow-minded, easily offended and live in a sterile bubble of a life, I wouldn’t bother. The film stays with you, for days. If not forever…

MEYER MONTH – Meyer and me.

1 Mar

Over the years, one thing has never changed. The reaction I get from people when I tell them that my favourite director is Russ Meyer. It’s a strange mix of disbelief, hilarity, disgust, shock, surprise and complete bewilderment. The impression that I get from these people is that they don’t believe me, as if I’m saying something just to get a response out of them. What usually follows is a barrage of questions; ‘Are you serious?’, ‘Really? Russ Meyer, what’s so great about him?’, ‘How can a girl like you like his movies?’. The thing is, no-one has had more of an influence or effect on my life than the man himself.

I still remember vividly my first Meyer experience. I was ten and watching Channel 5 not long after it had launched in the UK. The station, which now plays nothing but CSI repeats, used to have awful soap operas on during the day and softcore pictures playing during the night. No doubt the plethora of tits and ass that I watched during this time contributed to the love and interest I have in human sexuality and sex in cinema now, but it was the first picture of this kind that I ever saw that stuck with me for years. That film was Meyer’s 1968 release Vixen!.

I can remember everything about that night. Sitting in my room now, as it is in 2012, I can picture exactly how it was back then in 1998 and can see my ten-year old self sitting in the dark, my wide eyes illuminated by the television screen. Firstly, I was mesmerised by the gorgeous Erica Gavin in the lead role, her long dark hair and cat-like make-up a look I’ve wanted to achieve ever since. Secondly, I was hooked by what she was doing. I’d not long before had sex education at school but it was nothing like this! What seemed monotonous, gross and distinctly biological (in terms of the emphasis on ‘having babies’) looked magical and enjoyable. Plus she was making it with a woman! That was something they didn’t tell us about at school! I’ll never forget that mix of surprise, excitement and awe that came with the knowing that I was watching something I shouldn’t have been.

Amongst all the films I watched, and trust me there were a lot, the images from Vixen! were the only ones that ever stayed with me. I never forgot about that beautiful woman in the yellow bikini who would come and haunt my dreams over the following seven years, my first ever girl crush. During my teens, I went through a phase where I was totally into feminism and women’s rights and I hated men (for no absolute real reason either, thank God that changed…). I’d read book after book after book on female politics and commentaries on society, with one thing always sticking out for me; the conflict between groups of women who would argue over female sexuality. I read articles that blasted women for enjoying sex, having lots of it and letting themselves be used by men as male tools of consumption. Then I’d go and read another on how women should be allowed to express and explore their sexuality to whatever degree it suited them. As a teenager, I found it all a bit confusing. I didn’t want to be used and I didn’t want a slutty reputation, but at the same time all the experiences I was having were pretty damn rubbish. I continuously kept thinking about how much fun Vixen looked like she was having. How could that be wrong? I couldn’t understand why something inherent in all species and a key part of human character was considered so negatively when it came to women. Needless to say, all this reading and thinking ended up leaving me with a huge interest in human sexuality, which rivals only my love for film…

Which is where Russ Meyer and my moment of enlightenment finally come in. When I hit seventeen, I spent one whole summer doing nothing but watch movies. I rented films every day, bought dozens of TV guides and went through a tonne of Biro pens circling films to record. It was then that I stumbled across what I thought was one of the best film titles I’d ever heard, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There was no way I was missing that. Except that I did, sort of, in that I missed the first half of the film, tuning in at the exact moment where lesbian lovers Casey (the fabulous Cynthia Myers) and Roxanne finally get it on. I watched the second half all the way to the end, my heart thumping and a big smile across my face. For me, this was a film. There was sex, violence, beautiful women, gender bending men, fantastic music, drugs, morality tales, horror and true love all wrapped up in this terrific satire on the 1960s as a decade. As soon as it finished I got straight on Amazon and bought the Criterion steelcase edition knowing that this was going to be one of my favourite films until the day I die, and that the woman who played Roxanne looked more than a little familiar…

Once the DVD turned up, my love affair with Meyer began. Where the hell did a film like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls come from and who would direct such a picture? I did my research, a lot of it, and started buying Amazon out of Arrow‘s brilliant DVD releases of Meyer’s films. I bought Good Morning and… Goodbye! and Common Law Cabin falling in love with lead actress Alaina Capri, marvelled at Meyer’s gothic soap operas of Mudhoney and Motorpsycho, came across the cult classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which I’d read about in countless film books and bought a little film called Vixen!. I can’t begin to describe the surprise and amazement I felt when I realised that this was the film I’d watched all those years ago.

So where am I now? Six years after first proclaiming that Meyer is my favourite director and thirteen years after he first entered my life, at twenty-three I’m still being met with surprise and bewilderment! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that he made some of the best films ever, that he is one of the greatest directors or should have been lauded with Academy awards, but no other director has connected with me in the way in which he has. My interest in gender and sexuality sparked from those first images of his I saw as a kid. My love for sexploitation films, sex flicks and how sex and society has interacted and influenced each other both on and off screen is all his fault. I went to University with the purpose of writing about his work in assignments, and I made sure I did. If I ever went back, it would be on the condition that I could study and continue to write about his work in modules. This blog? Inspired by the man.

I know that for some people, Meyer is just a director who shot and sold sleaze. For me, he’s one of the most successful independent filmmakers in cinema history, he was a smart and incredibly savvy businessman, he showed intelligence and humour where he denied he did, he was incredibly talented at photographing women in all their unique beauty, he’s incredibly influential and responsible in terms of bringing in the amount of sex and nudity we see on today’s screens and he understood women. Where women scorn at his depiction and treatment of the female sex on-screen, I rejoice. As a curvaceous girl myself, I’m glad to have found someone who was so committed to putting big, buxom women on-screen. As a person, I’m thankful and love the fact that he was one of the first directors to openly show and explore a positive female sexuality, showing that women weren’t always passive, that female sexuality wasn’t always ‘vanilla’ and that we can rival a man’s sexual appetite.

I could go on but we’d be here all day. All I know is I’m set for life. Big bosoms and square jaws? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (1984) review

20 Dec

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without annual screenings of festive slasher films, and what better way to kick off some yuletide spirit then with a viewing of Christmas cult classic Silent Night, Deadly Night. If you’ve never seen this infamous slasher, you’re in for a right utter treat. The film is a glorious guilty pleasure, full of tacky one-liners, great set-ups and some, at times, very bad acting.

Poor Billy Chapman. He was such a normal child, looking forward to Christmas and possibly catching a glimpse of Santa himself. All that changed on a holiday visit to see his Grandfather at a mental institution. Grandpa is catatonic; he hasn’t spoken a word for a very long time. But as soon as Billy is left alone with him for a few minutes, he springs back to life, warning Billy about what Santa really does at Christmas. He not only brings presents for the good boys and girls, but punishes the bad ones.

On the way home, his family come across a man dressed as Santa who needs help. Once they pull over, the man gets out a gun and starts to shoot Billy’s Father. Billy escapes from the car and hides, only to watch his Mother raped and have her throat slashed. A few years pass and we see a now traumatised Billy growing up in a Catholic orphanage where he has been punished for being naughty by the very strict Mother Superior.

It was only a matter of time before Billy would eventually go mad. After leaving the orphanage he gets a job at a toy store where he one day has to dress up as Santa. Cue the catalyst for a Christmas Eve night of mass murdering and ‘punishing’ all those people in the town who have been naughty. A psychotic Santa wondering around town with an axe, just what you asked for on your Christmas wish list.

When originally released in 1984, images of Father Christmas with an axe upset many people across America and the PTA fought to have the film removed from theatres. It didn’t help that Siskel and Ebert condemned the film and its makers on their film show. Soon after, large families and protest groups started appearing outside theatres showing the picture, angry at the subject matter and that children had seen their beloved Santa depicted as a serial killer through television trailers and advertisements. TriStar, the original distributers, ended up pulling all adverts for the film six days after it was released and withdrawing it from cinemas shortly after. Whilst it was never officially a ‘video nasty’, Silent Night, Deadly Night was never submitted to the BBFC for classification and was only released on DVD in the UK in 2009 after Arrow Films resubmitted it and got an 18 certificate for it uncut.

Not that that controversy will put any of you off watching the film. After all, we are highly educated and able to make well informed opinions! If you’ve never seen it, Silent Night, Deadly Night is an absolute must! Watching Billy’s mentality spiral manically out of control in a badly acted way is a right treat and Lilyan Chauvin is brilliant as the hard-as-nails menace that is Mother Superior. The lesson to be learnt here? That not watching this film every Christmas is an act of naughtiness that really will go punished.

And we all want to be good boys and girls sometimes, don’t we…?!

‘Last House on the Left’ (1972) review

21 Sep

‘To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie… only a movie’. If you’ve never seen Wes Craven’s 1972 horror film Last House on the Left, chances are you’ve heard of it or have at least heard the infamous tagline. Notorious upon release and hugely influential on the horror genre and exploitation film, Last House was the first feature written and directed by Craven (The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street) and produced by Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th).

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), the picture follows friends Mari and Phyllis who are on their way to a concert to celebrate Mari’s seventeenth birthday. On the way there they hear a radio report on a recent prison escape involving a group of sadistic rapists and murderers. After the concert and on the lookout to score, the girls befriend Junior, unbeknownst to them he is actually one of the prison escapees, who takes them to an apartment from which they will not return…

What ensue from here are repeated acts of sadistic and revengeful violence. Both Mari and Phyllis are sexually abused and raped and are eventually killed after being tortured by the gang. These scenes were problematic for the BBFC and upon its cinematic release in 1974 it was refused a certificate. When released uncut during the 1980s home video boom, the film found itself embroiled in the ‘video nasties’ debate and became banned. Over the next two decades the feature was refused a certificate unless certain cuts requested by the BBFC we made. It was eventually given an 18 certificate and released on DVD in the UK in 2003 after 31 seconds, including scenes of sexual violence, were cut. In March 2008, the BBFC finally classified the film uncut for video release.

Watching it now, with next year being its fortieth anniversary, Last House on the Left still packs a punch. In the wake of the ‘torture porn’ genre that has been quite dominant in horror over the past ten years, some of the gore and the violence may seem quite tame or inferior to an audience used to watching scenes that are a lot more graphic. However, the minimalist narrative and some great acting by the cast make for some really affecting scenes.

Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham are good as Mari and Phyllis respectively, with a few scenes that embellish their friendship acted out rather naturally. Fred J. Lincoln (Weasel), Jeramie Rain (Sadie) and Marc Sheffler (Junior) are all memorable as the escaped gang, each adding something different and unique to their characters sociopathic profiles. The weakest point, in my opinion, lies with Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr playing Mari’s parents. Compared to the rest of the cast, it feels like the two of them are holding something back, Carr in particular whose grief and desire for revenge only scarcely swims to the surface of her performance. The cast highlight is, without a doubt, David Hess as gang leader Krug. Entirely believable and revolting in his depiction of an abusing and manipulative father, the scenes in which his character’s sadistic behaviour really come into show feel genuinely played out, right down to his every smirk. Hess also wrote and performed the films soundtrack, often played as an ironic counterpart to the scenes being shown adding more malice to violence shown on screen.

In his book Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman eloquently sums up the general feeling that Craven creates within Last House on the Left, that ‘violence degrades everyone involved, victim and victimiser, just and unjust’. Mari’s parents become nothing more than Krug and his gang due to their lack of character development. Neither their grief nor their anger feels real enough, Carr and Towers bland portrayal of them as stock characters contrasting with the multi-faceted portrayals of the criminals means that their revenge lacks the momentum and impact that the girl’s deaths at the beginning have. In this sense, there is no pay off for Mari’s parents or the audience.

Last House has influenced films across the horror genre since its release, from revenge tales such as I Spit on Your Grave and Death Weekend to serial killer road movies like The Devil’s Rejects. Hess continued to reprise his Krug role in the decade Last House was released in similar imitations, most notably Hitch Hike (1976) and House at the Edge of the Park (1981), whilst the producer and director of the feature went on to become to heavyweights in the horror genre in the 1980s. Sean S. Cunningham would direct Friday the 13th in 1980, producing various entries in the franchise over the years, whilst Wes Craven would continue to write and direct other horror classics, kick start the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and go on to satirise the genre and his career in the 1990s with the start of the Scream trilogy. With many films owing much to Last House on the Left, if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure it’s not that last horror film left on your list to watch…

Russ Meyer’s ‘Vixen’ (1968)

29 Mar

Sex! Nudity! Lesbians! Incest! Fish?! Russ Meyer’s 1968 sex flick Vixen is one of his most memorable and successful. Starring Erica Gavin in the lead role, the film went on to challenge obscenity laws in America and helped to change the landscape of sex in western film.

My love for all things Meyer started when I was ten years old, when watching late night television I stumbled upon Vixen. Back when Channel 5 first launched and showed soft core sex films every evening (now replaced with permanent CSI re-runs…), I sat fixated on my old 80s television, amazed at what I was seeing. There on my screen was a beautiful woman with thick, gorgeous hair wearing lots of skimpy clothing and doing naughty things with both men and women! Somewhat confused, I fell in love with Vixen there and then, the film remaining one of my favourites to this day.

Meyer’s film concerns the exploits of Vixen, happily married to her husband Tom (Garth Pillsbury) and living in lush Canadian woodland. In her spare time Vixen likes to have sex, and lots of it. The film starts with her playful seduction and sexual encounter with a Canadian mountain rookie. She then sleeps with her husband and has sex with a couple that comes to stay at their cabin. The climax (excuse the pun) of it all? The infamous shower scene with her brother and their subsequent romp. Meyer is even quoted as saying that this is one of the sexiest scenes he’s ever filmed.

vixen_xl_01-film-a

Vixen (Erica Gavin) and Janet (Vincene Wallace)

The actual sexual scenes and their themes (lesbianism, incest), along with lots of nudity and suggestive language, were the main reasons Vixen was so controversial upon its release in 1968. At that point the Hays Production Code was replaced with the new MPAA rating system which had just been established. Vixen became the first American-made film to receive the X certificate, meaning no one under seventeen would be admitted to see it in cinemas. This new X-rated feature challenged obscenity laws in every state in was released in, whilst going on to earn $7 million in its first year alone. Not bad for a $72,000 budget. (Meyer would later claim Vixen eventually netted him a cool $26 million, one of his most profitable films.)

Over the course of the next year, Vixen  ran into problems. In January 1969, one manager and projectionist in Georgia were arrested and their print of the film confiscated. October of that year saw a theatre in Jacksonville, Florida busted by the vice squad and the cinema’s reels seized. The theatre owner was charged for projecting a ‘filthy and indecent picture’ by the courts. In May 1970 a Center Theater manager in North Carolina was fined $250 for showing the film. The biggest battle of them all though would be in the state of Ohio.

In September 1969 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Guilds Art Theater saw both its prints of Vixen seized on two consecutive days. In the November, a permanent injunction was placed against the picture in five Ohio counties on the grounds that it was obscene. July 1971 saw the ban upheld; Vixen could be shown in cinemas if Meyer cut out all the sex scenes. Meyer refused, after all a Meyer film without any sex is hardly a Meyer film. Not surprisingly he lost the case. Vixen has not been seen in the state of Ohio since 1969 and is still legally banned.

 

No sex please, we’re American… One of Vixen’s many banned clinches

 It seems strange, watching the film now, to think it is still an illegal act to screen the film in Ohio. Only three years later Last Tango In Paris and, more explicitly, Deep Throat were unleashed in American cinemas. For 1968 Vixen was certainly a challenging picture in its sexual depictions but watched now would possibly be considered a poor soft core sex film. At the time however, Meyer was making waves in the sexploitation industry. As a filmmaker, Meyer was influenced by the laid back attitude towards sex and sexuality in European films, such as 1967s I Am Curious Yellow, and tried to create western equivalents. There is no doubt that Meyer’s efforts and successes contributed to the eventual greater explicitness that we today are perhaps more used to.

Vixen was not only responsible for raising the bar in cinematic representations of sexuality and physical sex but it also helped to draw in female audiences. The film is regularly referred to as the first instance in ‘couples porn’. This is thanks largely to Erica Gavin’s portrayal as the lead character. Meyer decided to go against type and settled on Gavin’s more ‘smaller’ and ‘normal’ physique. In her physicality, she is less intimidating than some earlier, and later, Meyer women and in that respect, is more identifiable for women.

It wasn’t just Gavin’s looks that made Vixen so unique and irresistible but the potency of her beauty mixed with her behaviour. Vixen oozes sex appeal, and plenty of it. If her bedroom eyes and cheeky grin don’t win you over then her playful and dominating sexuality will. Here was a woman who loved sex, was confident and comfortable in her own (very) active sexuality and got what she wanted, when she wanted. To hammer this point home, the first sexual encounter we see Vixen have is weighed more in her sexuality, with her sexual desire far exceeding the Canadian Mountie’s ability to perform. Once he is done she gets up and leaves to get on with the rest of her day, her focus firmly and always on herself.

And this is where Meyer excelled. In order to play in drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas Meyer added one fabulous little touch to all his films to justify the nudity and sexual depiction; redeeming social value. In previous and subsequent films, many of Meyer’s women are ‘punished’ for their behaviour or desires. But not Vixen, she gets away with it, incest included. The reason? She saves America from communism.

 

Vixen and her brother Judd. One of Meyer’s sexiest scenes?

Part of the film’s plot involves Vixen’s racist attitude towards her brothers black friend Niles (played by Harrison Page). When Vixen gets going, boy does she get vicious. This gets overlooked by Meyer when a greater threat enters the characters woodland idyll, communism. (On a side note, Meyer hated Communists and the Nazis after serving in the Second World War. Certain aspects of his feelings would reappear throughout his work, including the frequent casting of ‘Martin Boorman?’) Towards the end of the film, an Irish man called O’Bannion comes to stay with Vixen and Tom. He later confesses to being a communist and tries to hijack a plane to fly to Cuba. He too also happens to be a racist which angers Niles. A fight breaks out in the plane which results in Niles knocking out O’Bannion and Vixen flying and landing the plane to safety, getting O’Bannion arrested on the ground. At this point Niles and Vixen come to some sort of ‘understanding’. And thus the All-American Vixen saves the day and her racist and sexually deviant escapades are all forgiven. Your typical Meyer heroine then.

Vixen is one of Meyer’s best films. The plot is admittedly somewhat ridiculous but overall the picture has a certain charm you can’t ignore. Gavin is excellent, one of the few true natural actresses in a Meyer film. Alongside Tura Satana (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Alaina Capri (Common Law Cabin), Gavin’s acting is miles away from the forced, wooden performances of other Meyer leading ladies. She is also incredibly beautiful, her natural good looks shot wonderfully by Meyer’s camera which clearly loves her (Meyer himself describes her as ‘Radiant! Alive!!’ in his autobiography A Clean Breast which seems incredibly accurate and poignant). Sadly, Gavin would later develop and battle anorexia and anxiety upon watching herself on the big screen and lives partly as a recluse in Hollywood.

I love Vixen now as much as I did when I first watched it all those years ago. It has had such a large and profound impact on my life ever since, with Meyer being my favourite director and my main interest being sex in cinema. However, all these years later I’m still trying to perfect Vixen’s make up and get that back-combed bouffant of a fabulous hairstyle. I’ve had no luck in finding a yellow push-up bikini either. Still I can dream…

 

The other infamous scene. Vixen sleeps with everyone in this video except, surprisingly, the fish.

A Quickie about Russ Meyer (very brief…)

27 Feb

Russ Meyer is a lot like marmite. You either accept him at face value appreciating his filmography for what it is or you loathe him and fail to see any cinematic worth in his work. Dubbed ‘King of the Nudies’ by the Press, Meyer had a prolific career in independent cinema. Using his previous experience as a Pin Up photographer, he stablished himself as one of the best and most successful sexploitation film makers. Creating films on a small budget and exploring sex in any way possible (nudity, suggestive language, scenes of sexual activity), Meyer was a key film maker in helping to bring sex and sexuality to the big screen.

His film career started in 1959 with The Immoral Mr. Teas, a nudist comedy made to rival the other nudie cutie films that were playing in the independent/exploitation circuit. Though not the first film to show female nudity, it was the first feature film to use women purely as sex objects. On a budget of $24,000 the film grossed over $1 million. Meyer knew he’d found a niche in cinema that he excelled in and would in turn be a profitable investment. He made two more films before the nudie cutie genre had run its course and after, went on to produce sexploitation films with a rougher edge.

The roughie period in Meyer’s work is a big contrast to his previous output. Filmed in black and white, the films handle darker material and play out as rape-revenge narratives. Effectively morality tales in which the bad guys eventually get their comeuppance, Meyer scored himself another first with Motorpsycho. Released in 1965, Motorpsycho’s narrative was the first to explore the idea of Vietnam veterans coming back to America suffering from mental illness and stress disorders. It was his last film in this period that would eventually have an influence on the public and feature film makers alike.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! opened to little response back in 1965 but has since gained a considerable cult following. Meyer’s premise was simple. His last film had featured three guys terrorising women; why not make a film about three women terrorising guys? Meyer cast three striking women in the films leads, notably Tura Satana in the Amazonian role of Varla. They were women out to get what they want, when they want, using everyone and anyone they can. Only ever looking out for number one, the film raised the bar in empowering roles for women on screen. With the subtle hints on lesbianism, the film unapologetically embraces strong, active feminine sexuality showing that women could certainly rival men in all aspects of life.

Meyer’s following films would continue to depict sexually charged women and focus on the failure of the men in their lives to satisfy their needs. Infidelity, bed swapping, outrageous flirtation, lesbianism and even the odd hint of a father lusting after his daughter. Meyer continued to exploit any angle he could in order to show more nudity and sexual behaviour. Exhibiting each new film city by city, state by state, Meyer would regularly have problems with the law. Aware of the amount of nudity and sexual freedom in European/art house cinema coming to western shores, the director put out his most shocking film at that point.

Vixen! was released in 1968 and was an immediate hit with both the public and the law. Whilst people queued around street blocks numerous times to catch the film, Meyer faced prosecution in many states under obscenity charges. Most of its charges were overturned but to this day Vixen! is still banned in Ohio. The film was also another cinematic first for the film maker, becoming the first American made X-rated movie. This film follows the oversexed Vixen as she seduces everyone she meet, infamously ever her brother. Whilst full of taboos, the end of the film shows Vixen bringing down an unruly communist. Only Russ Meyer could make a sex film with a commentary on American apprehension against communism!

Two years later, the director released his first studio film with the backing of 20th Century Fox. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls debuted in 1970 with another X certificate. Originally intended as a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, the film eventually became an intelligent satire on the 1960s as a decade. Parodying cultural references and cinematic techniques, clichés and genres, the film was billed as something ‘never seen before!’ Featuring a cast of buxom women, the film starts as a musical melodrama before turning into a violent exploitation flick. Beyond is well known for its ending which channels the end of the hippy decade with the Tate/LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer’s last cinematic high. His next studio picture, The Seven Minutes, was poorly received critically and commercially. He never made another film with studio backing again. Returning to independent film making, he released Blacksnake in 1972. His first foray into the blaxploitation genre, the film was not a success. Set on a plantation, the narrative follows a slave owner who manipulates both the black and white men on her estate. The film has some violent scenes and the lead actress, Anouska Hempel, is not suited in the role. Without the satire or humour present in Meyer’s previous work, Blacksnake is a jarring and uncomfortable watch.

Returning to what he knew best, Meyer made two sexploitation films in the mid 1970s, Supervixens and Up! By now the public were used to seeing more extreme sexual imagery in cinema. Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat were released in 1972, raising the bar of screened sex in film and challenging pornography and obscenity laws. Meyer, despite being a sex film maker, was repulsed at anything hardcore and refused to incorporate this aspect into his own work. Whereas once he was ‘King of the Nudies’, the sex film industry’s evolution left Meyer out in the cold. It would be the downfall of his career.

In the late seventies, Meyer was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a film about and starring the Sex Pistols. Work was started on the picture, called Who Killed Bambi?, but was abandoned when it was apparent there was no funding. He made and released one more sexploitation film in 1979, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. A parody of his previous work and still containing nudity and simulated sex, it was still a lot less than the images found in harder films.

Russ Meyer made one last film a few years before his death entitled Pandora Peaks, though it is sometimes considered out of canon with his other work. He enjoyed numerous screenings of his work in various festivals and universities across the globe, including a big retrospective at the British Film Institute in 1983. In his later life his major project became his autobiography, A Clean Breast, which was released in 2000 in three hardcover volumes totalling over 1200 pages. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the same year and died four years later, aged 82, from pneumonia.