Tags: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Black Snake, Cherry Harry & Raquel, Common Law Cabin, Europe In The Raw!, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers, Mondo Topless, Mudhoney, Russ Meyer, Supervixens, The Immoral Mr Teas, Up!, Vixen
As a fan of strange and depraved cinema, I’m not adverse to a bit of Russ Meyer from time to time. While having never been a huge fan, I was impressed by a collection of his previous features; more specifically films such as Motor Psycho and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. It’s these two films from 1965 that I feel were an influence to anti-hero women in exploitation features. In Motor Psycho the lead hero has a female sidekick bent on vengeance, while in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a group of go-go dancers (with a penchant for thrilling drag racing) decide to rob the ranch of a lecherous old man and his two sons.
As a fan of the Blaxploitation sub-genre it seemed that Meyer’s influence and foundations were now stretching into more experimental features. It’s with these handfuls of features that I believe his imprint is found. Meyer also made his presence felt during the short film movement, most notably with his release of Black Snake in 1973. It featured a cruelly strong slave owner on a Caribbean Island who tormented both black and white slaves, leading to an island revolt.
By providing the archetype of the strong and beautiful female dominator in his previous features, it seemed only fitting Meyer should make an appearance in a genre he partly helped to inspire. His strong ethnic females where, in a sense, the first female action stars of exploitation cinema – just look at Varla (Tura Satana) from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! for instance. With her judo throws and no-holds barred fisticuffs, she was a force to be reckoned with for both sexes. In the case of aggressive and hard-bitten female characters, Blaxploitation cinema has gun totting and powerful sista’s such as Coffy and Cleopatra Jones (both released in 1973). These were liberated female action heroes for a new generation and it’s clear that some of their cinematic DNA is shared with Meyers original deadly females.
I’ts clear his empowered female template was carried over into the leading ladies from the Blaxploitation movement, with women such as Pam Grier, Tamera Dobson and Gloria Hendry showing men just how it should be done. These were hard-hitting gender role reversals and at the time were unflinchingly violent in their actions. In Coffy a nurse decides to wreak vengeance on the drug dealers whose product killed her sister and in the process manages to hold her own with some of the best action icons. Of all the female-led Blaxploitation features, Coffy is the one that is still unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of violence and revenge.
Not only does Coffy use her seductive charms to retrieve valuable information, but she also won’t hesitate in shoving a double barrel into a dealers face and pulling the trigger. She embodies all of the attributes from the go-go dancers of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in just the one individual. Educated, deadly and not to be tampered with – Coffy is the ultimate Blaxploitation protagonist. To a lesser extent so is Foxy Brown (again played by Grier and directed by Jack Hill), but she has lost some of the raw aggression that made Coffy so fierce. With this handful of features, Grier (along with director Hill) provided Exploitation with a collection of believable and grounded female anti-heroes, helping to be the basis for others of this ilk.
This goes doubly for Tamera Dobson’s secret agent hero Cleopatra Jones, who convinces most as a trained superspy. In Cleopatra Jones, sensuality gave way to thought-provoking messages of communities being united in stopping local crime. Dobson’s Jones was a tough heroine with the emphasis more on family entertainment and empowerment, rather than titillation and extreme violence. With Jones, fans of Blaxploitation had a heroine that was as wholesome as the movement was likely to get. What also sets it apart is an element of high camp, most notably from Shelly Winters as the lesbian drug dealer Mommy. The over the top performances bring down the overall seriousness that was found in the revenge context of Coffy and Foxy Brown.
It’s clear that the basis of the anti-heroine structure were carried over from some of Meyers back catalogue. These were often strong ethnic characters to root for and ones that have since been ingrained in the memories of exploitation fans alike. With the previously mentioned Black Belt Jones, Gloria Hendry’s Sydney is as much an equal as Jones, using her skill and rarely becoming a damsel in distress. These were characters that would be equal in every department with the men of Blaxploitation. It’s still refreshing to see it now and it’s even clearer that Meyer’s influence was felt in the material.
Of course Meyers female archetype can be seen in a wider variety of grittier Blaxploitation cinema that has elements of Sexploitation peppered throughout it. Films such as Black Mama, White Mama, The Big Bird Cage and Sugar Hill continued to build on the foundations laid by Meyer. At the end of the day this could all be considered a filmic coincidence – as a side note connection Grier was also in Meyers Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But I like to think that Meyers empowered female characters were the progenitors of the strong, Blaxploitation female anti-hero. Have a watch of some of the features mentioned and see if you agree, it’s certainly interesting to see the wealth of comparisons.
Viva Foxy! a Russ Meyer film? No, you’re not wrong, he didn’t make it but it was one of the few film ideas that Meyer toyed with before eventually abandoning in the mid 70s. With a screenplay written by Roger Ebert, the picture was meant to star Meyer’s then-wife Edy Williams, whom he’d married after meeting on the set of 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Edy played hypersexual porn star Ashley St. Ives), and was set to start shooting in Hollywood on December 6th 1972. Except that it never did.
So what could we have expected from Meyer? Viva Foxy! aka Foxy (the film’s title was changed to incorporate the setting) was to be centred around the early 1920’s border war between two South American banana republics. Williams was to play the titular character of Foxy McHugh, an orphan of missionary parents who had grown up on the streets and was the power behind the two thrones. One dictator was to be modeled on Che Guevara, the other on Peter Ustinov’s Nero from Quo Vadis (one can only imagine how Meyer would have done this visually in his sometimes garish style). Williams saw McHugh as her version of Erica Gavin’s Vixen character; ‘She used men and abused them and had a ball. That’s what Foxy’s gonna be about. She’s gonna do all the things that men have done. I’ll be a female guerilla’. Meyer did photograph Edy for a Playboy pictorial which was featured in the March 1973 issue. He briefly describes his latest film Foxy which, according to Russ, will be about ‘a sexy record-company executive who gets mixed up with a number of men in outrageous situations’. Whatever the outcome would have been one can only imagine that the notoriously fame-hungry Williams would have taken the lead and run with it if her portrayal of Ashley St. Ives is anything to go by.
Russ Meyer and Edy Williams on their wedding day
Whilst the film never got made, Meyer and Williams did shoot some footage to advertise the film before any plans really took off. Russ shot the film’s trailer, which had Williams water skiing in the nude, and tagged it on to the end of his feature Black Snake which was released in 1973. One of the first directors to use this concept, there are conflicting reports as to whether the trailer was actually attached to the film or not during its original theatrical run (I’ve tried a lot of online research and not come up with a definite answer, if anyone can help…). Unfortunately this ending is not on the Arrow DVD release of Black Snake and the Arrow DVD’s are currently the most comprehensive packages of Meyer’s filmography.
What is known is that the project eventually fell through. One reason was due to difficulties in putting a deal together, despite Penthouse apparently being interested at one point and Russ stating to Hollywood Reporter in April 1973 that the trailer alone had resulted in three separate offers to completely finance the budget. This issue surprises me as Meyer was already a rich man by this time in his career. The film was conceived as a $400,000 vehicle for Williams and one of Meyer’s many talents was his ability to make a film on a budget (granted, there are a few blips in his career where he has had to be bailed out). How they couldn’t raise the money is beyond me, as is why Russ didn’t just self finance the project to begin with. It’s well-known that he liked to be in control of his entire empire and works. Another reported reason is that Meyer cancelled the film’s production amid fears that investors money would be lost on a film that could be challenged by local communities when a new ruling on obscenity was drawn up by the Supreme Court allowing local communities to self-determine what they considered to be ‘obscene’.
That said, the other reason it fell through was due to a temporary breakup between Meyer and Williams. The marriage between the two of them was a tempestuous one with many questioning at the time how the relationship had even gotten to that point. By 1973, tensions were already running high between the two with Williams angry that Meyer hadn’t given her the part of Lady Susan in Black Snake which she had assumed she was getting. Her Playboy pictorial was meant to be an attempt to pacify the situation. Their arguing continued until the day that Edy decided to leave Meyer’s house and file for divorce. It was a very messy battle and Williams is not generally looked upon by the Meyer community in a positive light.
There’s no denying that Viva Foxy! would have been an interesting film had Meyer continued with his plans and made it. Edy Williams is extremely memorable in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and it would have been nothing short of an experience to see her take on a female lead in one of Russ’s many sexploitation entries. Sometimes, the imagine dreams up ideas far more exciting than those ever given to us on a plate and this is one project where dreaming is just going to have to do.
Michael Ewins reviews Russ Meyer’s 1973 attempt at Blaxsploitation filmmaking Black Snake. Warning, it’s not one of Meyer’s best films…
In the summer of 1970 Russ Meyer unleashed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an X-rated satire depicting the drug-fuelled hedonism of early-70’s Hollywood, following a sexy three-piece rock outfit (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom) as they descend deeper and deeper into its swinging, sensual realm. It was the first of Meyer’s pictures to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, but following a major flop (1971’s The Seven Minutes) he was forced back onto the independent scene. One might assume that this two-picture quickie would have whetted Meyer’s appetite for destruction, and marked a return to the garishly camp pictures of yore (Vixen!, 1968, for example), but the director had other – somewhat stranger – aspirations. Rather than producing another corset-busting crime caper, Meyer instead turned out the bonkers blaxploitation drama Black Snake – or as it’s known in France, Serpent Noir…
The year is 1895. Blackmoor plantation is ruled by the heel of Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), an oppressive, toffee-nosed dominatrix who inherited this corrupt empire from her first (deceased) husband. Her iron grip is upheld by the nasty Joxer (Percy Herbert), a foul-tempered racist who indulges his prejudice with the crack of a whip (the titular black snake). Into this world comes Charles Walker (David Warbeck), a plain sort of chap aiming to unravel the mystery of his missing brother, who disappeared sometime after marrying Lady Susan. The island’s prehistoric barbarity disgusts Charles, but his efforts to defend the black slaves only serves to incite more violence. So yeah, it’s miles departed from the sort of softcore romp usually associated with Meyer, who here trades his bold colour schemes and taboo-busting humour for po-faced politics and unflinching sadism (there’s even a crucifixion sequence!)
Meyer had always intended Black Snake to be a “statement” on racial bigotry, but his navigation of complex moral lines is frequently dogged by a (surprise, surprise) penchant for excess. The film does actually boast a solid thesis, and some dedicated performances go a long way toward anchoring the drama in some sort of reality – Warbeck (who was once on the shortlist to play Bond, before losing out to Roger Moore) is really effective here, especially in his scenes with preacher Isiah (Thomas Baptiste), who delivers lines like “You think God is white?!” as if they’d been handed to him in stone. The hodgepodge of accents on display are hilarious, but hey, awkward line readings are as much a staple of Meyer’s cinema as voluptuous females…
His intentions may have been admirable, but Black Snake ultimately suffers in the chapters most recognizable as Meyer’s. At the halfway point he finally reveals Charles’ brother, Jonathan (David Prowse), who turns out to be a zombified, rape-happy hunk, supposedly struck by some kind of voodoo curse (although that’s never clarified). During the finale he runs rampant through the plantation HQ, whose railings are littered with hung corpses, each emitting the clang of a church bell when Jonathan bangs into them. Meyer’s zany sound design has always managed to land laughs, but here it feels so awkwardly misplaced as to become borderline offensive. I wish I didn’t have to treat the film so seriously, but from the opening frame it practically begs for a pedestal to stand proud from.
What’s really missing from Black Snake, however, is a commanding female figure. Even ignoring her proportions (it’s no secret that Meyer preferred the bustier model) Hempel just doesn’t pack the physical heft to convince as a nymphomaniac warden – there’s just no confidence in her stride, and her slinky contour feels lost every frame (Meyer was notoriously unhappy with her casting, even editing in a breast double for the close-ups). Tura Satana, Erica Gavin and Raven De La Croix typify the Meyer model – Hempel seems almost the antithesis, and her acting chops certainly don’t make up for the fact. The actress got her start in Hammer’s Scars Of Dracula (Baker, 1970) and starred in a few cult titles before retiring in 1980, following her marriage to Sir Mark Weinberg. Now residing in London as Lady Weinberg, Hempel is a celebrated hotelier and designer (recently ranked among Architectural Digest’s Top 100 interior designers). I was interested to learn that, although Black Snake is available on DVD in the UK, its star bought the TV rights in 1998. Needless to say, it’s no longer in circulation. You’re not missing much, but if this film isn’t Meyer’s finest hour then it’s certainly among his most interesting…
I’ve learnt a lot from Russ Meyer over the past eleven years, and no doubt there are a few of you out there who could do with learning a thing or two yourself. Filled with frequent mild adult content, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from me, I give you the Top Ten things I’ve learnt from the King of sexploitation himself. Agree? Disagree? Let me know!
1. Lesbianism always ends in tears.
It didn’t work out in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the lesbian couple in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls got murdered in the most phallic way of all; getting shot in the head via a gun blow job. Meyer himself even reduced actress Erica Gavin to tears filming the girl on girl scene for Vixen. It’s never worked out for me either.
Need visual proof? Check out the outdoor fun the couples are having in Up!, Vixen and Good Morning and… Goodbye! Enough said.
Thanks to Meyer, I’ve never had any complaints. Men love something they can peel off a woman and who doesn’t like the look of bedroom eyes…?
The biggest misconception in life is that men think about sex or are driven by it far more than women. Wrong. Thanks to characters like Varla (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), Sheila Ross (Common Law Cabin) and Ashley St. Ives (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) I’m planning on making a career out of analysing it in cinema. And that’s just the nicest way I could end this point…
Meyer had the biggest breast fetish known to man and it influenced his whole career. He made sure he had everything on film from, in his own words, ‘small’ (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) to ‘normal and relatable’ (Vixen) to ‘the biggest’ (Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and Pandora Peaks). He even made one film strictly on the basis of dancers getting to show their talent and boobs, Mondo Topless.
Being German myself, I already know this. If you need proof, just go and take a look at Hitler in Up! or Martin Bormann in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.
One I’m hoping I never get involved in… Meyer could see the link between sex and death long before the slasher film made franchises out of it. Most violently seen in Supervixens but also Lorna, Motorpsycho, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Up!
Meyer knew that people liked to get off on different things. So whether its feet, body paint, outdoor fun, being spanked, leather, big boobs, domination, sadomasochism, same-sex, submission or kinky underwear, chances are there’s a scene in at least one Meyer film for you.
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.