THE RUSS MEYER FILES: FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965)

In the opening seconds of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ Meyer marries sex and violence by employing a stern narration that explicitly welds the two together over the visual of the ever multiplying, squiggly optical soundtrack that quickly fills the frame like a hostile takeover. The narration warns the audience that you’ll never know where that mix of pleasure and pain will turn up but that, among other locations, it COULD happen in a go-go club.

And that’s absolutely goddamn right because the go-go club in question is the place of vocation for Varla (Tura Santana), Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams), a group of pneumatic, ass-kicking thrill seekers who roam the edges of the California desert and look for kicks in a manner so cavalier that they might as well be going antiquing. If this sounds a little familiar it’s because it is as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is basically Motorpsycho! but with females in hot rods instead of dudes on bikes. But the question isn’t whether this is a copy job or not. Hell, even Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock explicitly remade their own pictures. The question is whether or not the formula is bettered by the update. And, like the celluloid equivalent of Ms. Pac Man, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a marked improvement on an already enjoyable foundation.

There’s a bit more to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! than there was to Motorpsycho! as Varla and company not only find lethal kicks in the California wasteland in the guise of Tommy (Ray Barlow) and Linda (Sue Bernard), two all-American kids who run afoul of the group. They also find a crippled degenerate (Stuart Lancaster) who lives on a piece of dusty property, lording over a hunk of money he received after a railroad accident. His heart twisted with misanthropy and misogyny, he is assisted by his hulking, simpleminded son known as The Vegetable (Dennis Busch) and Kirk (Paul Trinka), his more sophisticated, well-read, and saner progeny. All of these combustible elements explode in the final reel as the film tacks close to Meyer’s precedence of directing ultra violent climaxes, delivering on the promise in the opening narration and then some.

Though Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was a financial failure and ended Meyer’s gothic period (and, sadly, was also the last film he shot in black and white), saying time has been kind to it would be a grand understatement. While the financial success of Motorpsycho! was the impetus for making Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, who the hell even talks about Motorpsycho! these days except for Meyer fanatics? Conversely, the image of the trio of Varla, Rosie, and Billie emblazons the front of many a t-shirt and poster and their cinematic legacy seeps into the DNA characters running all the way up to and beyond Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof from 2007.

Wasp-waisted, Porsche-driving Tura Santana reigns supreme as the black souled Varla, an amoral animal who doesn’t much deliver her dialogue as she does whip it. She’s equal parts turn on and terror as a high-octane, hedonistic creature that swings every which way as long as it’s pushing the envelope of getting her rocks off. “Whatever you want,” she purrs to the man she’s seducing out of his fortune, “I’m your cup to fill.” Wielding dictatorial control of the group, Varla turns on everyone who displeases her whether they are friend or foe. When Billie breaks free of the caravan and decides to go for a swim all by her lonesome, she gets beaten for the infraction by Rosie at Varla’s command, the latter leering at the two of them as they wrestle in a wet and sandy tangle. She assets dominance in a dangerous and impromptu game of chicken with her two friends across the salt flats and when she is later in danger of losing a timed race against a mid-level square, she simply runs him off the track, beats him to death, and kidnaps his bubble-headed girlfriend. Varla is simply not to be fucked with. As she snarls “I never try anything. I just do it. I don’t beat clocks, just people,” she sounds more like the Jedi school teacher I’d rather have than that dull-ass Yoda.

By contrast, Rosie is tough as leather but still has something of a tender heart when it comes to her feelings for Varla evidenced by the sad jealousy that masks her face as Varla rolls in the hay with a mark showing a knowingly bitter and heart-sinking ring of truth to it. And Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was, in fact, the first of Meyer’s films to introduce lesbian relationships into his ever-expanding encyclopedia of sexual progress that was as sociological as it was personal. And even though he didn’t craft the most positive role model on the planet, the bisexual Varla has since become a symbol of tough, feminine independence and her plain-spoken, unvarnished honesty is admirable even if it would be a total HR nightmare in any other world.

But even though she’s soft for Varla, Rosie is anything but everywhere else. As played by the amazing Haji, Rosie’s ersatz, overblown “shutta up your mouth” accent is 15/10 hilarious and she gets one of the greatest lines of the film when she speaks incredulously at the mention of a soft drink by ensuring Linda understands that Rosie and the gals “don’t like nothin’ a-soft.” The rest of the cast, most especially Lori Williams and Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster, deliver their performances with gusto, spitting each bit of astonishing dialogue with glee and slowly elevating everything until its fever pitch climax which earns its feminist praise by giving even its weakest character the most satisfying deliverance.

Russ directs, edits, co-produces, and gets story credit for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but the absolutely incredible screenplay was written by Jack Moran, one-time child actor who popped up as the prospector/narrator in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West and would go on to appear in Common Law Cabin along with penning the deliciously quotable Good Morning and Goodbye and Finders Keepers…Lovers Weepers, ranking Moran only second to Roger Ebert as Meyer’s greatest third-party scribbler. And in keeping uniform with Meyer’s usual compositions, Walter Schenk’s amazing camerawork is kept at tits and ass level but always on the uptilt to exude the strength of the characters while putting a big bright spotlight on their physical attributes (especially in the case of Varla and Rosie). In a lot of ways, this is still a roughie but, quite unusually, the women are the ones to inflict almost all of the violence. And, like Motorpsycho!, this is the rare Meyer film that contains no nudity.

Capped off with the awesome title tune by the Bostweeds, Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! was a breakthrough for Meyer even if if didn’t seem like it at the time. This was mostly evident as he entered his soap opera phase with lead women who were still randy, ribald, and ready for action but a little more demur than the nihilistic Varla and who are trapped in worlds and circumstances she’d simply karate her way out of. Varla was the first of the Meyer heroines of whom it was asked if she were woman or animal and perhaps the public just wasn’t ready for it at the time. But Meyer would work his courage up to grace the screen with another in just three years time and, at that time, they’d be ready. Boy, would they EVER…

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MOTORPSYCHO! (1965)

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