It was with a great sadness—yes, in my BOSOM—that I went to Crystal Video last week and cleaned them out of their entire Russ Meyer collection for a one-man revival. Meyer, who served as a WWII combat cameraman in Europe and claimed to have lost his virginity on a brothel foray financed by Ernest Hemingway, was a true independent and film pioneer. And a damn good filmmaker, at least when he wanted to be: If you can look past the heaving breasts and lurid plots, you’ll see beautiful cinematography, snappy editing and no small measure of imagination. “King Leer” is dead. Long live the King!
The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)
Bill Teas, an old Army buddy of Meyer’s, stars as a bicycle deliveryman who develops the mysterious ability to see through women’s clothes in this, the first of the so-called “nudie-cuties.” So innocuous by today’s standards—nary a nipple for most of the film—it’s hard to believe it was seized and impounded by California authorities. The Immoral Mr. Teas made more than a million dollars on its $24,000 budget, injected much-needed humor into grind-house theaters frequented by the raincoat crowd, and introduced a number of Meyer trademarks, including the corny moralizing voice-over and the depiction of female characters as lusty sirens coveted by bumbling oafs.
Having unleashed countless imitators with the nudie-cutie, Meyer now combined mild nudity with violence to make the first “roughie.” The first naked-lady movie with a dramatic plot, Lorna also introduced one of Meyer’s less wholesome trademarks: good-natured rape as a turn-on. Lorna (Meyer regular Lorna Maitland) meets up with an escaped convict, falls in love with him after he sexually assaults her, and is beaten with garden implements by her husband upon his return from a long day in the salt mines. At this point in the Meyer saga, you’re either in or you’re out.
A period effort of sorts: It’s 1933, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and a Yankee named Calif comes wandering into Spooner, Mo., en route to California. He gets entangled with Sidney, a nasty drunk who runs the local brothel and can’t wait to get his hands on his father-in-law’s savings. Sidney and a deranged preacher mount a smear campaign against Calif, who finds it increasingly difficult to hide his past—and his romantic feelings for Sidney’s wife. Generally considered Meyer’s best movie.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
The Citizen Kane of trashy movies, and the Rosetta Stone of bad-girl movie culture. Varla (Tura Satana), Billie (Lori Willliams) and Rosie (Haji) are strippers by night, thrill-seeking hellions by day. After killing an amateur race-car driver and kidnapping his perpetually crying girlfriend, they scheme to part a bitter, lecherous paraplegic from the money he’s rumored to have stashed around his Spahn Ranch-style desert hideaway. They plan to do this by seducing his weirdo sons. It’s impossible to overstate the influence of this movie on subsequent generations of B-movie makers: “Beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made,” says John Waters. “It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.”
Mondo Topless (1966)
For $12,000, Meyer assembled this pseudo-documentary about strippers—Bouncy, Buxotic, Yummy, Delicious, Luscious and Xciting, among others—cavorting semi-nude while discussing their careers, cup sizes and preferences in men, all to the incessant blaring of tinny go-go music. The anthropological interest wears off after about 10 minutes, making Mondo Topless strictly for T&A addicts.
Russ Meyer liked to brag that his films, with their cartoonish depictions of strong-willed women and dim-witted men, always played well to Ivy League audiences. While it would be fatuous to argue that he intended his films as vehicles for female empowerment, it’s certainly true that Meyer’s critics often overlook the fact that women, not men, usually run the show in his movies—for better or worse. The, ahem, titular Vixen Palmer (Erica Gavin), restive wife of a Canadian bush pilot, brutalizes the entire male cast of this enormously profitable (budget: $76,000, gross: at least $6 million) outing, including her brother (whom she attempts to seduce), his black friend (whom she subjects to a torrent of racist invective), and the Irish Marxist who tries to hijack her husband’s plane and take it to Cuba.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
An all-girl rock group and their manager move to Los Angeles to make it big and are immediately sucked into the sexual, chemical and moral tar pit of the Hollywood scene. Equal parts camp, melodrama and spectacularly dated cheese, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has got everything: lusty porn stars, mercenary gigolos, druggy interludes, decapitations, orgies, great tunes, a dozen kinds of sexual humiliation, quotable quotes out the wazoo (this is where Mike Meyers plundered his best material for Austin Powers) and a higher level of all-around sleaze than anything before or since. Co-written by Roger Ebert. My #2 favorite movie, by anyone, of all time!
Perhaps the most reprehensible of all Meyer’s movies, Up! opens with a short-order cook dressed like a pilgrim, whipping the bare buttocks of an Adolph Hitler impersonator while he fondles a nude woman in a leather bondage mask. It quickly goes downhill from there. Like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! was also co-written by Roger Ebert, though the critic seems to have put more distance between himself and this film, which includes several rapes and killings far more gruesome than elsewhere in the Meyer oeuvre. Meyer himself has a quick cameo as a bar patron who cheers one of the rapists on. Maybe you can keep the excesses in perspective if you’ve seen enough of Meyer’s other movies, but Up! is no place to start. Though Meyer eschewed hard-core pornography, this strip of celluloid sewage suggests that he was at least thinking about throwing his hat in that ring.