Far from the swampy sin bucket of Lorna and the dusty Peyton Place of Mudhoney roars Motorpsycho!, Russ Meyer’s boldest sketch yet of what would become the Meyer template. Yet despite being one of the earliest entries in the biker film craze that would roll through drive-ins for the remainder of the decade and becoming a financial hit, Motorpsycho! is one of Meyer’s most under-appreciated works of his entire career. This is no doubt due to the fact that it lurks in the giant shadow of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the film which was made as a distaff inverse of Motorpsycho! and released almost immediately afterwards. But by tinkering with the mix of sex and violence, Meyer finds a way to expand the boundaries of the roughie while introducing his prototype of ass-kicking females, embodied here by the fantastic Haji.
Metaphorically, Motorpsycho! is about wild animals scavenging about in the California desert. Cory Maddox (Alex Rocco) is a veterinarian who operates a mobile clinic with his wife, Gail, (Lane Carroll, the ill-fated heroine from George Romero’s The Crazies) servicing those who care to live in the outer reaches of nowhere. During a routine visit to a client, they innocently run afoul of Brahmin (Steve Oliver) and his micro-gang of ne’er-do-wells consisting of Slick (Timothy Scott) and Dante (Jospeh Cellini) who, in turn, beat and rape Gail while Corey is away on a call. Soon after, the gang stumbles across Harry Bonner (Coleman Francis) and his wife Ruby (Haji), a pair of bickering, Louisiana-bred souls broken down on the side of the rode en route to California. The Bonners are shot and left for dead but Ruby survives and is found by an enraged and vengeful Cory. The two then have to fight their way through the terrain to get their blood-soaked revenge on the gang what done them wrong!
Perhaps for the first time in his career, Russ, taking on cinematographer duties along with a co-writing story credit (along with Hal Hopper!), intermingles violence and sex in a more immediate way in Motorpsycho!. While his other films more or less stuck to the conventions of the roughie, violence in sex are more interchangeable here. Aside from the expertly lit, late-night bedroom moment in which Gail is waiting for Cory to get done with the books (a favorite scenario for Meyer), there is no respite from the violence that permeates the film and, quite interestingly, Motorpsycho! has its share of décolletage and thread-bursting cleavage, but no actual nudity. Sex, too, is mostly toned down as Cory does not stray from his traumatized wife and, instead, treats Ruby as a partner in vengeance and not as an object of his desire. Match cuts are dynamically utilized to produce the full impact of any onscreen action and hysterically physical double entendres are employed to get the scandalous point across. I mean, when you see it, you’re likely to agree that Meyer stumbled upon one hell of a way to hilariously fake a blowjob scene while losing very little sexual value in the bargain.
And, curiously, Meyer also takes a more sympathetic tone with sexual assault as he doesn’t sexualize the violence itself as he had in his previous films, opting not to have the victim’s blouses conveniently ripped open during unprovoked attacks. Furthermore, Meyer gives voice to assault survivors by appearing as an arch-pig of a police officer who takes a purposefully nasty tone that is both not intended to endear his character to the audience and to illustrate that Russ Meyer liked cops about as much as Alfred Hitchcock did.
And, as is the case with most of Meyer’s narrative films, his unique and surreal sense of space is also a delight. Intersections in the middle of the desert feel as familiar to the characters as if they were cruising around in a neighborhood. And as the film reaches its conclusion, the roads begin to give way to wild rocks and jagged paths, making Brahmin’s descent into violent madness play out against a backdrop that resembles something out of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer while also laying claim to being one of the very first films to actually address the mental health of the young men returning from Vietnam.
And with no hyperbole intended, I would posit that Russ Meyer could shoot the desert as well as Sergio Leone or John Ford. From his majestic master shots to his artful utilization of horizon lines, Meyer got so much visual gold out of such a barren landscape that it’s no wonder that a pop urban piece like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like a hyperactive child who can’t sit still. His eye for composition and visual propulsion may have even surpassed his love of tits, but only by a metric so minuscule that only Baby Jesus could discern it.
If I were to ascribe one word to this film, it would be “satisfying.” The violence is raw, the humor is abundant, the dialogue is delicious and delivered at a rapid pace, and the photography and tempo are both masterful. What it lacks in joyous sex, it more than makes up for with its action sequences and its elevation of Meyer’s shapely female protagonists into the tough, ass-kicking figures that would complete his prototype for 90% of his remaining work. Also, kudos to Meyer for conceiving and brilliantly pulling a war-inspired climax in which the lead motorcycle thug is blown to pieces by a bundle of dynamite. While Russ Meyer’s next effort would begin with an explicit voice-over welcoming the audience to violence, Motorpsycho! had already let most people into the party a little early and encouraged them to swing from the chandeliers and have a ball.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain