Let’s wrap up our appreciation of the wonderful Russ Meyer with the long-awaited Part III. And away we go!
Cherry, Harry and Raquel (1970), like much of Russ’ work, strikes you at first as a big live-action cartoon – in this case, let’s call it a more fractured, multi-character version of Road Runner and Wile Coyote. But the stuff that seems like fleshy, puffy, sexy window dressing actually ends up being what the film is ultimately about.
The actual story of the film involves the illicit marijuana smuggling market on the U.S./Mexico border. Harry (the always reliable Charles Napier) is a small-town border sheriff who’s in his own process of deciding whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Generally upstanding, patriotic and moral, Harry has nonetheless gotten caught up doing a few too many favors for bigwig smuggling magnate Franklin (Russ-regular Franklin Bolger), who he meets with at the film’s start. Franklin’s failing health, and the increasing riskiness and violence of the trade, are persuading Franklin to close up shop. But he wants to go out with a bang, and wants Harry (our taciturn Coyote) to arrange the death of a two-timing former colleague, The Apache (our violence-and-drug-crazed Road Runner) . Begrudgingly, Harry grabs his bratty (and equally corrupt) latino deputy, Enrique, and, armed to the teeth, they stake out the desert highway waiting to ambush.
Before too long, The Apache’s car appears, barreling down the road in a cloud of dust. The boys try to detour around a hill to cut him off on the other side, but Apache’s wise to them and sets a trap that they fall into. A gunfight ensues, with Apache having the advantage, but an aggressive, guns-blazing charge, and their 2-to-1 firepower advantage, eventually drives The Apache into the deep desert with serious wounds. Harry knows well enough that that’ll finish him.
Franklin calls Harry the next day, from his hospital room (he’s in for his yearly check-up), and Harry reports that The Apache is finished. But Franklin’s not satisfied yet – he has dark concerns of their being ratted out by the opportunistic young Enrique, and wants Harry to tie up this loose end as well. Again, begrudgingly but pragmatically, Harry arranges to have Enrique make a pick-up, and will meet up with him later. But you can’t keep The Apache down – he brazenly steals Harry’s jeep out from under his nose, and intercepts Enrique with the goods. Enrique is forced to abandon his stuck-in-a-gully car, and is eventually run down, repeatedly, by the take-no-prisoners druglord.
Apache brings the jeep back to Harry’s cabin, where he knows Harry awaits, loaded for bear. He toys with Harry, drawing him out, getting him outside, and then attacking when Harry’s just about to get away. A bloody point-blank John Woo-style gun battle results in both of their deaths.
So that’s, essentially, the story. But then, as Paul Harvey might say, there’s the rest of the movie. And those other two eponymous characters. First is Raquel, a sultry blonde who we first meet in the opening credits, frolicking in the desert (where else?) with an aspiring young stud. Raquel is next seen in the sexual service of Franklin, who is a humorless crank despite his high-falutin’ business dealings. It’s this tryst that Harry interrupts to get the initial news on Apache’s potential betrayal. Verbally berated by Franklin, despite her obviously good efforts, Harry offers her a ride home. Of course, there’s a slight detour on the way – Raquel’s got plenty of affection for Harry, and is teasingly anxious for him to introduce her to his girlfriend, Cherry.”I don’t like women messin’ with women,’ snarls Harry. “It’s un-American.” When Raquel finally returns home, we discover that she lives with…Enrique, who is immediately whisked off by Harry for their ambush of The Apache.
Cherry, meanwhile, is waiting in their cabin for Harry to come home. It seems she’s a nurse, but, when not on duty, her time belongs to Harry. She’s a sultry, soft-spoken British redhead, and, when Harry finally returns home from he and Enrique’s gunfight with Apache, she and Harry seem to be as healthy, happy and frisky as an adult couple could wish.
The next day, when Franklin is getting his check-up at the hospital? Guess who his nurse is. She gives him a bath and a rubdown, but has to attend to other patients. Franklin calls Harry and tells him to have Raquel come to the hospital to keep him company – apparently the doctor is still hours away from seeing him. Raquel keeps her hospital appointment, but Apache made one as well, and when Raquel slinkily sneaks up on Franklin, his severed head rolls off the bed. Aiieee!! Thank God Cherry’s there to console her after the Feds leave.
And while Enrique is being mauled by Apache with Harry’s jeep, and shortly thereafter, when Harry and the Apache are pumping each other full of bullets, Cherry and Raquel are baking a couple of doobs, aimlessly dancing, getting acquainted, and eventually, making love.
Larissa Ely (Raquel) is a knockout – a bedroom-eyed blond with sensational but well-proportioned Meyer assets. But the woman’s no actress. None whatsoever. In fact, I’d assess her to be one of Russ’ least talented finds, but for the fact that her biggest competition in that area comes from the weirdly bad Linda Ashton as Cherry. They barely get their lines out through the breathy languor of their semi-stoner laziness, but Ashton’s half-hearted British accent puts her Anglican ancestry somewhere around Topeka, Kansas. It’s not uncommon for real British performers to be criticized by Americans for their bad fake accents – there are thousands of quirky dialects. But as a performer, Ms. Ashton is an absence – she’s distractingly reductive to any scene she’s given lines in. One wouldn’t blame Russ for just pinning the both of them up as fleshy inconsequential wallpaper, and just concentrating on the men, but he didn’t do that.
And you know he chose not to do that by the presence of Soul (Uschi Digard, billed here as Astrid Lillemor). Soul is an extension of Haji’s (yaayy!!) forest nymph character from ‘Good Morning and Goodbye’ – the ubiquitous sexual earth spirit that no one sees but the browbeaten and deserving Burt Boland. Here, Soul is intercut into scene after scene as a Dionysian guardian-angel, in swimming pools, on a bed, in the desert, with an array of incongruous sports, exercise, Indian headdress and musical instrument props, and does some seemingly hilarious yet incomprehensible German voiceover work as the hospital switchboard operator. Soul’s little snippets start to work like a Godard soundtrack – you start associating far more abstractly with the story and character elements you’re watching in counterpoint to her antics. Godard will use traffic sounds in an outdoor scene, and then use those traffic sounds in a later, interior scene, to trigger an association with what’s common about both otherwise. Here, Russ uses Soul to constantly refresh and reinforce the natural sense of fun, freedom and sensual abandon that the male characters only afford themselves as short-lived indulgences or self-serving power games.
And everyone knows she’s always around. At one point, Harry tips his hat to her. Harry and Cherry exchange stories of past lovers, and Soul acts out a burlesque to Harry’s grocery delivery boy fling. One of Cherry’s patients relates some domestic complication involving her put-upon sister, and Soul becomes a lone boxer crawling exhaustedly through the desert brush. When Harry and Apache end up slaughtering each other, there are three bloody corpses.
Structurally, and philosophically, Russ is becoming more and more successful at asserting his estrogen-fueled ideals. This whole movie is about Women and Nature and Fun and Sex and Pleasure, and the testosterone-fueled ways that men find to fuck that up or deny it altogether. Harry gets plenty of his own action, but he constantly interrupts everyone else’s hook-ups for business. Franklin constantly berates Raquel, but she’s there whenever he calls. Enrique drops Raquel in a second when there’s a deal to be done. Harry and Enrique and Franklin could just do what they do without letting the greed and violence get in the way of the W and N and F and S and P, but they can’t, or won’t.
The cinematography and editing, as usual, are beyond reproach. Jah knows how many hundreds and hundreds of set-ups this guy cranked out day after day, or how fast and furious his film-cutting skills must have been to produce this seemingly effortless cascade of rapid-fire images. And the man loves the desert, in the same ways that John Ford, George Stevens and Sergio Leone did.
‘Cherry, Harry and Raquel’, regrettably, doesn’t really hold together very well as a film. The story doesn’t propel itself as efficiently as Russ’ gothics did, and the carnal aspects aren’t well served by the insufficiency of the lead actresses. Kicking the violence up lends its own kind of short-term urgency, but Russ can’t sustain the larger moral balance it’s seemingly used to delineate. But he’ll solve a number of those problems a few films down the road, with ‘Supervixens’.
And talk about not coming to a theater near you, check out some recent adventures involving the former Anouska Hempel, now Anouska Hempel the Lady Weinberg.
IN a soft-porn film role she hoped had been long forgotten Anouska Hempel, now Lady Weinberg, played a sadistic plantation owner who dominated her slaves with a whip.
Thirty-two years later she is a leading figure in London’s high society, the wife of millionaire insurance tycoon Sir Mark Weinberg and chatelaine of a London town house and a Wiltshire estate.
Now Black Snake, the sexually and racially exploitative film she made for Hollywood porn king Russ Meyer in 1973 has come back to haunt her. It will be released on DVD by Arrow Films this month (this was June 2005-jd) with another Meyer classic Wild Gals of the Naked West.
The former proprietor of the chic London hotels Blakes and the Hempel is rumoured to have offered to buy the video rights to ensure the film was forgotten for ever. In its celluloid version the film is thought to have been shown in Britain on only a handful of occasions. But it will now be sold in video stores and the Ann Summers chain of sex shops.
Blacksnake (1973) may be an embarrassment to The Lady Weinberg these days, but for when it was made, it wasn’t half bad. I think once you stipulate that Russ’ intention was to cash in on the burgeoning blaxploitation market (Cotton Comes To Harlem 1970, Shaft 1971, Sweet Sweetback 1971, Black Caesar 1972, Coffy 1973, Cleopatra Jones 1973) with a controversial, sexy and violent potboiler, you have to admit that the project, as that, was pretty well conceived.
The story takes place in the West Indies on the fictional island of St. Cristobal, and presents slavery as a European/colonial historical tradition rather than just the standard American plantation phenomenon. The Europeans, nonetheless, are progressively ending slavery in their colonies, despite the civil unrest and rebellion that inevitably follows. Blackmoor Plantation, on the island of St. Cristobal, is presented as a last holdout – its owner, Lady Susan Walker, has powerful friends in Parliament and the industry, and her efficient production of rum and sugar cane is too profitable to scrutinize too critically. The rebellious islands – Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. are a headache for the empire. Things are quiet in St. Cristobal, and there’s too much money being made, thanks to her, to shut the place down.
Things are also admirably complicated by the fact that fellow blacks are complicit in the slavery of their own kind. It’s hard to imagine on an American plantation, but here, the island’s military and police force support Lady Susan in her enterprise, and black men are among her enforcers.
Sir Charles Walker, a nobleman in England, wants to investigate the disappearance of his brother, Jonathan, one of Lady Susan’s husbands. He secures a job as a bookkeeper to Lady Susan under an assumed name, hoping to expose her as Jonathan’s killer.
The proprietors of Blackmoor Plantation are, of course, a businesslike but bloodthirsty lot. Lady Susan has a small private army to acquire slaves or chase down escapees, led by the reptilian Captain Raymond Deladier (Bernard Boston). An Australian thug named Joxer Tierney (Percy Herbert) is the enforcer in the fields, a slavedriver in every sense. The ‘blacksnake’ is the whip used by Joxer on slacking workers, and by Lady Susan when Raymond runs escapees to ground.
Sir Charles, under the name Ronald Sopwith, arrives at his new post on the island just in time to see an escaping slave killed by the island’s police force, which infuriates Joxer – that escapee was his, damn it. Joxer sees Sopwith to his quarters and leaves him with the sexy slave Cleonie, figuring that she’ll keep him distracted from nosing around too much. But Sopwith makes himself conspicuous in the fields alongside Joxer, and despite his revulsion at Joxer’s mistreatment of the slaves, starts to ingratiate himself. Captain Raymond, however, is more directly engaging of the new accountant. Raymond is a French-educated West Indian, and sees his own station as far above that of his fellow blacks. Along with his military bearing and intellectual prowess, Raymond is also gay, as well as Lady Susan’s enforcer-of-last-resort, and is regarded with a mix of derision, respect, and fear. Russ emphasizes everyone else’s anxiety about Raymond being gay – he’s just fine. And the mystery of Jonathan Walker? Well, he’s still around, still alive, but he dipped into the black female slave cookie jar, so Lady Susan had Raymond cut out his tongue and castrate him. Needless to say, Raymond is a splendid villain.
Lady Susan has her carnal way with Sopwith, and as the atrocities around him mount, he and the slaves get restless. A particularly nasty punishment results in a particularly nasty death – Lady Susan has one of the slaves crucified. To the many Christian slaves, this is the last disgusting straw. The slaves revolt with the same ferocity that they’ve been exploited. “You should have listened to me,” protests Joxer. “Now they’ve got a martyr.” And Raymond, Joxer and Lady Susan all meet grisly ends.
My first viewing of ‘Blacksnake’ was, admittedly, underwhelming. Bernard Boston’s Raymond is terrific, but the other acting is pretty pedestrian. Joxer is a one-note bully, and Lady Susan, portrayed by the aforementioned Anouska Hempel, isn’t nearly enough of an actress to be credible here. David Warbeck is serviceable here as Sir Charles / Ronald Sopwith, but the role isn’t much of a stretch as heroic noblemen go. He looks good, has a nice accent, but any thirty actors could have brought what he did. And the film’s soundtrack, written and/or compiled by William Loose, is a wildly inappropriate mix of calypso restaurant music and weird muzak-y reinterpretations of stuff like ‘La Marseillaise’ and Tchaikovsky.
It pushes some, but not enough, exploitation buttons. The scantily-clad sex-bomb slave Cleonie is woefully underused, and Anouska brings far more 1970’s snottiness to the role than nineteenth-century sexiness. (She’s not helped by the boots she must unzip to take off in one scene). The film bombed at the box office – Russ perversely claims there were too few boobs, of too small size, for the film to have had any chance.
But I always watch the films at least twice, and my second viewing is when I noticed how much smarter Russ’ choices were than the typical Jack-Hill-In-The-Philippines flick (Jack Hill cranked out your basic women-in-prison-in-tropical-hell flicks – Big Doll House, Big Bird Cage, as well as Pam Grier blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown). He stays away from a lot of the cliches – there’s no hint of muscular black bucks who’ll threaten the white women (most of the slaves here are devoutly religious – a preacher leads the rebellion), and the virulently racist language and attitudes of Lady Susan and Joxer are always an anomaly – none of it is portrayed as typical for the people or the times, and Lady Susan and Joxer suffer the direst fates. Those racism-was-a-normal-thing attitudes show up later in the bigger studio films like ‘Mandingo’ and ‘Drum.’ It is, of course, shot and edited beautifully, but your likelihood of seeing a genuinely good print of it anywhere, or finding the DVD still in print, is slim.
Ultimately, I don’t think Lady Weinberg has much to worry about. I give Russ and company some credit for their initial aspirations, and, ultimately, I liked it. But, honestly, ‘Blacksnake’ never rises above admirable failure. And pairing ‘Blacksnake’ on DVD with ‘Wild Gals Of The Naked West’, one of Russ’ worst films, isn’t much of a marketing lure. Take it from me, this is a tough film to find. There’s a reason.
It’s quite watchable, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it. 2009 rating: ‘R’, mostly for violence and language. After ‘Cherry Harry and Raquel’, I have to admit, I missed the boobs, too, Russ.
Russ, by this time, was due for a hiatus from trying to please the marketplace. I think he’d been a little spoiled in being able to create both ‘Cherry, Harry and Raquel’ and ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’ in such a relatively short space of time (1969-70). And ‘BVD’ enabled him to accept another big budget Twentieth Century Fox gig – the adaptation of Irving Wallace’s ‘The Seven Minutes’. Remember that film? No one else does, either. Try finding it. It was a bomb. Not a so-bad-its-good bomb, either. Hard to believe, but Russ made a really slow, really boring movie. Here’s a comment from the Internet Movie Database:
“In one movie Meyer singlehandedly alienated serious moviegoers, who stayed away merely based on his name. At the same time, he also alienated his core audience, who could not have possibly been prepared for the utterly non-Russ Meyer product he delivered in THE SEVEN MINUTES. The trademark titillation, violence and bawdiness of his entire prior filmography is absent, replaced by sensationalized but still strangely static courtroom dialogue.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067736/usercomments)
Next, of course, was ‘Blacksnake’, where he tried to work the market from, once again, the independent side. ‘Blacksnake’ is actually a fairly decent little B-movie, but it didn’t make any kind of a splash, critically or financially.
I think Russ decided that if he was going to succeed or fail, it would be on his own terms. I think he decided to indulge himself and make his own film, for himself, filled with what he likes in films – the Russ Meyer triumvirate – Speed, Violence and Sex.
Often, when a director makes his textbook film – ‘here are my predominant themes, presented as I would like to present them, and I get final cut’ – it’s rarely his or her best film, but it’s more often than not a very good one. I think here of Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ and Cronenberg’s ‘Existenz’ – two films that were generally received as greatest-hits collections. Both good, both holding up over time, but there are much better, more particularly-themed films from both.
Supervixens (1975) easily makes Russ’ top ten in my book; he gives full flower to the shamelessly cartoonish style he approached in ‘Cherry, Harry, and Raquel’, but without the mawkish slapstick that made ‘Wild Gals of the Naked West’ such purgatory. The film is also, of course, populated with a variety of voluptuous women that is only rivaled by ‘Mondo Topless’.
“Heretofore, always, I had one super female in the film” said Russ in 1974. “This time, I said I was going to have seven. And we’d bring one in every reel, like a new linebacker. And I think it works, it really works.” (http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/29/supervixens.html )And how.
The story: Clint Ramsey (Charles Pitts) is an honest, hardworking young stargazer who supports his demanding wife by working at Martin Bormann’s Super Service gas station, somewhere Out There in the eternal Russ desert town. (Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary, was apparently never found post-war, and Russ just loves using this character in his films. What’s Bormann gonna do, sue him?) In fact SuperAngel, Clint’s wife, is the most manipulative, needy, demanding, jealous, attention-starved, passive-aggressive, sexually voracious, foul-mouthed nymphomaniac that, I daresay, has ever been committed to Eastmancolor. After phoning him incessantly at work, Angel finally gets him away from work in the middle of the day to come home. He’s furious that she can’t leave him to his job, but her Big Brown Eyes and sullen poutiness lure him into the sack for a matinee. Now that that’s been taken care of, Angel launches on him maliciously. Who are you screwing behind my back every day? Maybe that’s why you’re not appreciating how incredibly sexy I am! A nasty insult about his mother sends Clint out to the truck to get away from her, but Angel follows… with an axe… and attempts to demolish the pick-up. “I wanted a Cadillac!! Or at least a Lincoln!!” As their fight escalates, a neighbor calls the cops. Minutes later, patrolman Harry Sledge arrives (Charles Napier, who rocks, again!), breaks up the battle, sends Angel off to the hospital and gives Clint the final word on any more trouble with his wife.
Of course, Harry’s obligated to check on Angel at the hospital, where he quickly assesses that Clint got the worst of the fight, but Angel’s body needs some attending to of another kind. Back home, Angel entertains Harry while Clint broods at the service station, then later at the local gin mill. (Tending bar? SuperHaji! Yaayyy!) Unfortunately, Harry’s handsome charm doesn’t translate to orgasm-inducing action in SuperAngel’s bed – he’s limp. She, of course, brooking no nonsense, kicks him out of the sack and calls him six different kinds of pathetic. Unbeknownst to her, however, is Harry’s penchant for misogynistic psychosis. She disturbingly but gamely takes a few punches, fights back, and retreats into the bathroom, where Harry’s having trouble getting past the locked door. This results in another impressive stream of derisive verbal abuse from her. Harry’s volcanic now, and upon finally breaking into the bathroom, he proceeds to viciously stomp her to death in the bathtub, finishing the job by throwing her radio into the water with her.
There are a lot of classic Russ scenes – this one may be his most controversial. There’s the camp that says any filmed sequence of this much violence against a woman, no matter how ‘comedic’ the surrounding context is, is inexcusable. There’s the other camp that defends the Tex Avery – Chuck Jones school of extremity – how can you possibly take this live-action ‘cartoon’ seriously? Clint is a comic-book sad sack, Angel is a comic-book shrew, and Harry is a comic-book bad guy. Is she a genuine real-world victim, or is she Olive Oyl? Especially now, in the Manga-fied, Takeshi Miike, Quentin Tarantino turn-of-the-century, we understand the dark noir pulpiness of where this is coming from, and we’re perfectly capable of understanding that this isn’t any kind of Real. And, yes, the overall audacity is, in a way, thrilling and amusing. Over the course of the movie, Angel is avenged, Harry meets a timely and just demise, and a happy couple lives happily ever after. I completely understand those who say ‘that doesn’t matter’. But I tend to side with the admirable audacity crowd. The analogy I make is Mr. Blonde in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ – if his treatment of that cop hadn’t been so brutal, we wouldn’t have jumped out of our seats with such glee and momentary moral certitude when He Got His. There’s a nice twist near the end of this movie that weirdly placates a lot of the mixed feelings about this particular episode. We’ll get to it. Let’s move on.
Clint, of course, having aroused neighborhood suspicions with his front-yard knock-down-drag-out with Angel earlier, is now Suspect #1 in Angel’s death. And SuperHaji, having had her own advances spurned by Clint, is maliciously happy to withhold confirmation of Clint’s alibi. With some walking-around money provided by the fatherly(!!!) Martin Bormann, Clint hits the road, on the lam, a fugitive, never looking back, etc., etc…
He’s first picked up by a young couple, Cal McKinney and SuperCherry. SuperCherry finds Clint to be adorable, and wraps herself around him voraciously, much to Cal’s voyeuristic delight. But it’s way too much for Clint, who demurs and gets out of the car. Supercherry feels spurned and insulted, and Cal defends her honor, such as it is. With a pile-on assist from Cherry, Cal knocks our hero out, takes the money Martin gave him, and is about to finish him off when a rattlesnake bites him. (A bow to ‘MotorPsycho’ – Russ pays homage to himself!) They rush off to a doctor, leaving Clint unconscious on the road. (Cal McKinney is also the male protagonist from ‘Mudhoney’, and is played by John LaZar, Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell from ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls.’ SuperCherry is Sharon Kelly, later known as 80’s pornstar Colleen Brennan. She got around – she did an episode of ‘Lou Grant’, for God’s sake, and a bit part in ‘Shampoo’).
Clint is found by the homespun codger Lute (Stuart Lancaster), who gives him a ride to his farm to the strains of ‘Rock of Ages’, firmly cementing his samaritanical stature. At Lute’s place, Clint meets Lute’s Austrian male-order bride, SuperSoul (Uschi Digard). She tends to his wounds and fixes up some grub, but it becomes clear that, with the kindly but elderly Lute not keeping her as bizzy as she requires in the sex department, Clint is her perfect excuse to make up for lost time. And Lute’s pretty good at keeping her bizzy (apologies to Snoop) – she just can’t get enough regardless. One thing leads to another, and Clint must eventually flee after being caught with the ‘goods’ in the hayloft.
On the one hand, Russ’ female film population is universally composed of insatiable nymphomaniacs. On the other hand, it’s the nice, hardworking, unassuming Clints they all seem to be really seeking in their lives. Through the gothics and the late-sixties melodramas, this theme ran through pretty consistently. In these seventies films, it’s the given archetype. He doesn’t even bother with any kind of inter-story explanation anymore. I dig that. If you’ve been taking notes, you may have also noticed that many of the actors portray alternate versions of characters from previous Russ movies. Harry’s Harry from ‘Cherry Harry and Raquel’, there’s Cal and Lute and Luther from ‘Mudhoney’, SuperVixen, SuperCherry, SuperLorna, SuperHaji, SuperEula, and, of course, Martin Bormann. Russ was no doubt oblivious to his own referential post-modernist acumen – he just thought it was fun. Write what you know, Russ.
Despite his awkward and hasty exit from Lute and Soul’s hospitality, Clint had earned some money on the farm. Another ride down the line brings him to the Crest Motel, run by Luther and his deaf-mute daughter, the luscious SuperEula. Clint’s warned to stay away from Eula, but Eula’s got other ideas – joyriding in her desert buggy and a steamy afternoon picnic. But they’re soon set upon by Dad and the sheriff, resulting in a merry desert chase and another slick escape thanks to a ride from Tom Palmer from ‘Vixen’, still smoking that pipe.
Hours later, Tom drops Clint off, and Clint walks a few more miles to a gas station in the middle of nowhere. But not just any gas station – SuperVixen’s Oasis. And who’s that peering down from a nearby mountain top as Clint approaches? The smiling spirit of SuperAngel, still streaked with a little blood! And who emerges from the gas station diner? Angel’s Double, a reverse doppelganger, the happy, friendly, gracious, equally gorgeous SuperVixen. They hit it off immediately – Clint stays on to help at the pumps while SuperVixen (“My friends call me Vix!”) runs the diner. And watched over by SuperAngel, things seem great… until The Return Of Harry! Clint only actually saw Harry once, quickly, and Vix wouldn’t recognize him, so Harry ingratiates himself with the couple in order to eventually have his way with Vixen. There’s a three way showdown in the desert (four-way if you count the spirit of SuperAngel), with Harry flinging sticks of dynamite donned in Warner-Brothers-cartoon director-drag (Beret? Mais oui!) Vix is the quintessential Damsel-In-Distress, spunky and indomitable, while Clint takes a licking and, at one point, stops ticking. “Harry!” shouts SuperVixen in defiance, “Whatever you try fails! However you hurt us, Harry, you won’t succeed! You are eeeevil! We are love, love, love, love, LOVE !!”
Years ago, when I first saw this film, that was the moment I fell in movie-star love with Shari Eubank. Her dual role as SuperAngel and SuperVixen is my favorite Russ performance ever. (And you know how loyal I am to Haji.) The woman literally masturbates with a mountaintop – I shit you not. Hey, Angelina, your turn. After her other Hollywood performance, ‘Chesty Anderson USN’ (don’t ask…) she apparently vanished from the film industry. Nonetheless, not only am I delighted with this performance, but we share the distinction of being alumni from the same school. No, not Yale, you snobs. Illinois Wesleyan University! It’s to my shame that I actually could have met her at a homecoming lunch one year, but I froze, instead trying to convince the graciously patient feminist head of the theater department how cool Shari Eubank is and what a great director Russ Meyer was. She went along with the first part, but Russ? Not so much. The happy ending? Shari Eubank is now a language arts and drama teacher at a small high school in central Illinois, hopefully leading the happy life that her alter-ego Vix seemingly had in front of her.
“Supervixen’ is like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. She wears a white dress, she’s good, pure. Shari Eubank. She plays both parts; it’s a reincarnation thing. But, you say, did SuperAngel really die in that bathtub? Was she really electrocuted? And she now is on top of the mountain, with the blood streaming down, but looking beautiful and elegant, guiding the destinies of three people: terrible, nasty, dirty, no good Harry Sledge, policeman, former green beret, redneck, opinionated, a bum lay, sexually sick, very physical, very muscular; and Clint, clean, slim, obviously a stud but not in a pushy, forward kind of way, totally good; and Supervixen, voluptuous, pure, good, totally giving, self-sacrificing. And at the end she says, “Leapin’ Lizards!” – Russ.(Check out more of this Russ interview at Bright Lights Film Journal – link above).
Highly recommended. Classic Russ. Many folks’ favorite, and certainly one of mine. 2009 rating: a hard ‘R’. Sex and violence laid on with a trowel. “Leapin’ Lizards!”
Russ Meyer’s Up! (1976) feels like a bunch of raunchy, sexy, and fun ideas that just don’t quite add up to a movie. But many of the individual parts of ‘Up!’ are as raunchy, sexy and funny as anything else he’s done.
Introduced with the cheesiest Hollywood canned theme music I’ve heard in years and years (all that’s missing is Bugs, Elmer and Daffy singing ‘On With The Show, This Is It…’!), the film features opening, and intermittent, narration by the impressive and reliable Kitten Natividad, one of Russ’ most popular featured performers. She’s The Greek Chorus, explaining, recapping and commenting on the many characters and events.
It seems reports of the demise of Adolf You-Know-Who were premature. Here he’s alive, well, living in a castle in the woods of Northern California, and, unsurprisingly, perverted – the Marquis de Sade of Humboldt County. He has a small staff on hand to cater to his whims: The Headperson, a masked and buxom dominatrix; The Ethiopian Chef, a cheery chief cook and spanker; Limehouse, a cool, sultry, businesslike Asian knockout, and Paul, who whips him during his dealings with the other three, and then tends to his more mano-a-mano needs as well. They’re all basically hired help, and Limehouse and Paul (Robert McLane) are pretty bored with the whole damned thing.
Meanwhile, Sweet Li’l Alice (Janet Wood – woof!) is elsewhere in the woods munching some serious carpet with her roadtripping trucker girlfriend, Gwendolyn. We’ll later discover that the appealing Alice is Paul’s longtime girlfriend, but right now we’re just demonstrating her, umm, appeal.
Meanwhile, Adolph Hit… I mean, Schwartz, is taking a post-orgy bath when a Mysterious Stranger appears – with a piranha. It seems one is more than enough to dispose of Adolph, who is hyper-nibbled to a grisly death in his tub.
MEANWHILE, there’s a New Girl in town with another one of THOSE bodies, Margo Winchester (Raven de la Croix) and she’s pretty hard to miss when she’s jogging in a lowcut white blouse on a country road. The friendly local sheriff, Homer Johnson (Monty Bane) chats her up a little, then leaves her to her exercise. Local boy Leonard Box, however, is more persistent. He succeeds in luring her into his pickup, then veers to a detour deep in the woods. Margo fights him off for a bit, but is knocked unconscious. As she comes to, she discovers Leonard is mid-rape, snaps out of her daze, and subsequently snaps Leonard’s rapist cracker backbone. But Sheriff Homer has been watching all along, and initially arrests Margo. But Homer knows Leonard is good-for-nothing and likes the way Margo handles herself, and Margo is practical enough to take advantage of the opportunity to not be turned in for murder. She settles in at Homer’s place for a while.
The next day, Alice and Paul are working together at the local diner they own. Sheriff Homer assures them that Leonard’s death was accidental, and, by the way, his new housemate, Margo, is terrific. Alice mentions that they could use some counter help, and Homer lines Margo up with a job at the diner. Among the other diner regulars is the affable Fred and hulking lumberjack Rafe.
Thus we have the gallery of characters from which to choose the real murderer of Adolph Schwartz. Our Greek Chorus weaves an endless patter of anticipation and Shakespearean sex puns (I suspect these monologues were the uncredited contributions of Roger Ebert), ostensibly to help us figure out the mystery, but we figured out a while ago that the killer’s identity is as inconsequential and frivolous as the rest of this flick. Best to just lay back and enjoy the Tex-Avery-meets-Misty-Beethoven circus.
Margo, of course, is a smash at the diner – hard-working as a waitress and an irresistible draw to the horndog male population. Business is booming. Alice also drops a few clues for Paul that if he wants to spend a little recreational time with Margo, she’s cool as long as he comes home to her. We’ve already witnessed the good health of Paul and Alice’s sexual dealings, and while Paul and Margo make whoopee in the woods, Homer is having it off with an enthusiastic member of the local Native American population. It could have been any woman, really, but Russ has a lame, ‘Chinatown’-inspired joke to tell, so he needs a scene to set it up. Sure, it’s shameless, but I laughed, I admit it.
Alice and Paul’s thriving business is expanding, and they’re starting up a roadhouse nightclub. Opening night is packed, and Margo is providing some special entertainment. But things get out of hand – Rafe is ornery, drunk, and wants Margo NOW. As the situation escalates, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether this is still entertaining or just too dark, but I kinda like having my reactions challenged that way. Is this a comedic ‘Accused’, twelve years previous? Or is it Betty Boop or Perils Of Pauline, too broad and stylized to take seriously? This is Margo’s second rape in the movie, and she was unconscious during the first one. Think back to the bathtub mauling of SuperAngel in “Supervixens’; Adolph’s death here is a sly parody – if she didn’t deserve that, maybe you’ll think he might. They named the piranha Harry, after all. I think Margo’s actually a more conflicted call – she clearly doesn’t deserve either attack, but we know she’s a tough Brooklyn broad (if you had trouble thinking that, Margo helpfully drops into a Mae West accent from time to time), and can handle whatever they throw at her.
The resolution of that episode is excessive in Russ’ trademark excessive manner – speed, sex and violence, remember? Finally, at last, Adolph’s murderer comes forward, and all I can tell you is, delightfully, it really is one of the last characters you’d expect. The denouement reveals a couple of other surprises as well – it’s nonsense, but, trust me, it’s our kind of nonsense.
Heartily recommended. This is exemplary Russ Strong Medicine – you’ll love it, and seek out more, or you’ll hate it and swear off this bozo forever. You will not be bored. 2009 rating: a solid ‘R’. Copious sex and nudity. Hatchet, axe, and chainsaw-fu. Raven de la Croix is the headliner here, but Janet Wood as Sweet Li’l Alice is great as well, and (gasp!) normally proportioned!
Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens (1979) opens with cultured ex-Nazi and bon-vivant Martin Bormann in a smoking jacket playing a German march on his player piano. A big-eyed blonde is cracking gum while playing Pong, eyes darting like she’s watching the tennis game in ‘Strangers On A Train’, manipulating the small joystick/controller in her lap, located directly beneath perhaps the largest breasts ever displayed in a Russ Meyer film. Martin cues up stripper music on the victrola, disrobes, and climbs into a coffin, covering himself with a sheet with eyeholes. The blonde (Eufaula Roop – Fraulein Roop to Martin) starts a bump-and- grind dance on a small stage, swaying and swooping until Martin is, uhm, ready. Then the next record drops down the spindle, Eufaula drops down on her spindle and rides Martin Bormann to the strains of ‘Gimme That Old Time Religion’, both singing and shouting along happily. Because Eufaula’s not just an incredibly beautiful blonde with gigantic breasts; she’s also a radio faith-healing evangelist. Hallelujah!
I was recently revisiting the very good ‘Not Coming To A Theater Near You’ website, and their review of ‘Up!’ pointed out the businesslike joylessness of Adolph Schwartz’s dungeon-sex opening scene, and how much of the rest of the movie is a kind of gleeful rejoinder to the no-fun, no intimacy, greedy self-indulgence of that opening. Part of why this opening scene is so goofy/great is because of Martin’s turnabout from master-of-the-castle to Eufaula’s acolyte/supplicant. But they’re both having fun, which is far more important than just having sex. But when the sex is fun, then oh my…
Stuart Lancaster’s here to narrate just how gosh-darned American all this smalltown fun is. He introduces us to our cast of characters, and sets the story rolling. Honest, hard-working Lamar Shedd is married to Lavonia (the effervescent Kitten Natividad), and they lead a happy, normal existence except for this one little idiosyncracy of Lamar’s. Our narrator charitably calls him a ‘rear-window man’, which is fine, except it’s the only way he enjoys it. Lavonia finds this painful in a number of ways. When Lamar is seduced by his gargantuan amazon boss, JunkYard Sal, she fires him from the job for being a “prevert. I can’t stand a man who won’t look a good fuck in the eye!” Lavonia explores a number of options – the marriage counselor/dentist Asa Lavender (Lavender chases him around the office lasciviously offering himself up – an unfortunately dated Homo Panic ‘comic’ episode – while Lavonia makes it with his gorgeous hygienist assistant Flovilla), disguising herself as stripper Lola Langusta (with a wardrobe assist from traveling sex paraphernalia salesman Semper Fidelis), and getting some on the side with beefy garbageman Mr. Peterbuilt (Patrick Wright, Stone from ‘Good Morning and Goodbye’) and aspiring teen triathlete Rhett (whom she, of course, exhausts). And through it all, constantly in the background, is Eufaula Roop, testifying on the radio. Could Eufaula be Lamar’s last chance at sexual salvation?
The not-so-great news is that except for our opportunities to point and laugh at Lamar for his dirt-road proclivities, there’s not much plot here. The good news is you won’t care. The surrounding characters and situations are so broadly, brightly and gleefully thrust out at you, with such visual rhythm and velocity, that you really don’t have a chance to think ‘Wait a minute, this is very silly, and kinda stupid.’ And even if that does occur to you, you’ll still stay with it to see what happens next. It’s really as close to a live-action cartoon as we’ll see for quite a while. Big contrasts from exterior desert to interior primary colors. Crazy camera angles. Crazy sex positions executed with crazy enthusiasm (although ‘Up!’ is best for that…) Each character bleeds his own color blood, for God sakes.
This was my first Russ movie, and, while it’s not his best (although it was his favorite), it is trademark. The Not Coming… website interviews Roger Ebert and asks what other films draw from Russ’ style. ‘None,’ he replies. ‘Maybe Austin Powers.’ And I think he’s right – lots of movies refer to Russ’ films, or pay some homage to them. But no one has really found that weird balance of heartfelt soap opera, lowbrow burlesque, high-octane hay-rolling and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography other than Russ. And this a the film that encapsulates everything that’s fun about Russ Meyer movies.
Highly recommended. In the Top Ten. Special appreciation for Anne Marie as Eufaula Roop (a true cinematic original), June Mack as JunkYard Sal, and Kitten Natividad, never sexier, or more fun, than here – her later forays into hardcore were disappointing. 2009 rating: a hard ‘R’.
This concludes the Russ Meyer Project. It was big fun to go back and see all these, but 18 films is a lot. My next project will be fewer films, or books, or albums, or whatever. I’ve been fully saturated.
Final ratings for reference!! Clip and save!!
The Must Sees
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – ageless tawdry genius. I dare you not to love this movie.
Mudhoney – almost damn near Flannery O’Connor territory.
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers – criminally underrated and unavailable. This should be on cable three times a month, every month.
Supervixens – Barrel-select Russ. One of his speed, sex and violence textbooks. Not for the P.C. squeamish.
If You Liked Those, Don’t Be Shy…
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls – big budgets, gorgeous women, the swingin’ sixties – what’s not to like?
Russ Meyer’s Up! – maybe the goofiest, maybe the sexiest…
Vixen! – black comedy, dark politics, the Canadian frontier and Erica Gavin in a jawdropper performance.
Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens – not-his-best is still pretty goddamn good.
Motor Psycho – classic drive-in dust-up, years before anyone else thought about it.
If You Happen Across Them…
Cherry, Harry and Raquel – Enjoy Charles Napier’s performance, enjoy looking at Larissa Ely.
Lorna – first of the black & white gothics – rural noir, great sixties-style melodrama.
Common Law Cabin – good bad guy, good large-breasted french woman, and Alaina Capri.
Blacksnake – don’t let Lady Weinberg dissuade you – perfectly watchable adult entertainment, smarter than it ever needed to be.
Good Morning And Goodbye! – lesser but likable – Alaina Capri rocks, in a John Updike kinda way.
Mondo Topless – boobs, the whole boobs, and nothing but the boobs. And a swingin’ musical soundtrack.
The Immoral Mr. Teas – groundbreaking then, of historical importance now. But really dated. You’ll be glad you saw it, but you wouldn’t put it any higher on the list, either.
Eve And The Handyman – God bless Eve Meyer, who produced the vast majority of these films. Sadly, she starred in one of the least successful.
Wild Gals Of The Naked West – nobody made movies like this back then. Well, they did, but they were pretty unwatchable, too.
Shari Eubank – SuperAngel and SuperVixen – Supervixens – Russ gave her the yin and the yang of drop-dead voluptuous Valkyrie babehood, and she chewed up and spit out both of them. She should have three or four Oscars by now.
Anne Chapman – Kelly – Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers – shy, demure, shameless, terrified, smoldering, insatiable and domineering, sometimes three or four of those things at once.
Erica Gavin – Vixen Palmer – Vixen – as groundbreaking, in her way, as Simone de Beauvoir. ‘Sex In The City’ wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t shown up first. And finally – The Fish Dance – I’ll say no more…
Tura Satana – Varla – Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – legendary, for a reason.
Janet Wood – Sweet Li’l Alice – Russ Meyer’s Up! – easy to lose in a movie full of babes, but she holds her own – by the time this one’s over you’ll be impressed, too.
Anne Marie – Eufaula Roop – Beneath… – she’s not a particularly good actress; I just like her for all the reasons Russ wants me to like her – goofy character, infectious enthusiasm and Those.
Haji – many supporting roles – always reliably sexy and ‘B’-movie rough-and-ready, Haji is the Kevin Bacon of Meyerwood.