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 JACK HILL FILES: MONDO KEYHOLE (1966)

The “roughie” was a subgenre of sexploitation that mixed the kind of soft-focus, waist-up nudity with a hard and dangerous edge of violence of some sort. Invented (accidentally, probably) in 1963 with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Scum of the Earth, the roughie gave audiences of a certain stripe the ability to indulge in a motion picture focused solely on their specific fetish, already a staple for pornographers who shilled their wares in the back of adult magazines and distributed stills and the like through the postal service. Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole is a mad slice of sexploitation that, like Scum of the Earth three years before it, wallows in the world of mail-order pornography. But despite ostensibly being a cheap-thrills quickie, Mondo Keyhole artfully subverts the audience’s expectations while also giving them what they came for (and then some).

Mondo Keyhole concerns the exploits of Howard Thorne (Nick Moriarty), head of a shabby, mail-order pornography clearing house that sends out still photographs, 8mm S&M films, and 33 LP’s containing ersatz sounds of Sadean pleasure. Thorne is also an inveterate rapist to whom it makes zero difference whether he’s committing his vile crimes while carrying out a nighttime home invasion or during a stalk-and-assault in the bright, mid-day outdoors. This generally leaves him retreating to his (impossibly cool) Hollywood Hills home totally spent and without anything left for his amorous wife, Vicky (Adele Rein), who has become addicted to heroin out of pure boredom and likes to meet him at the door while wearing a revealing neglige and a fright mask.

So far, this thing sounds typical to the genre and possibly boring. However, when the worm turns as the film enters its final set-piece, you can almost hear Keith Morrison’s voice in the back of your head saying “But this is exactly the point where things began to (pregnant pause) take a turn for old Howard Thorne. And not a pleasant one, either.” For in act one, Vicky reminds Howard of the costume party they have to go to the following evening. Act three is the party itself and… hooboy… it would be criminal to spoil it.

To be up front, this is very much an exploitation film. But while it’s not necessarily something I would recommend to my mother, I would be more than comfortable screaming about its virtues at the top of my lungs after a couple of glasses of wine among friends with likeminded taste. Primarily, this is very much a Jack Hill film and it reveals itself as such due to its female characters. If they don’t show up strong, they learn to become so. While the film sets the audience up to think the narrative is going to be all about Howard’s criminal misogyny, it smartly pulls the rug out from under by ultimately making the film about Vicky s journey out of her drug-fueled doldrums and into a sexual fantasia of personal agency and a more independent life. As Vicky makes love to herself in the mirror in a truly remarkable moment halfway through the picture, Mondo Keyhole shifts from a film you want to sneak home in a brown paper bag to a celebration of sex as a mutual adventure of understanding and unbridled joy. That’s Jack Hill all over; the guy who could make a trashy cheerleader movie do double duty as a sociopolitical treatise.

Not to oversell it but the orgiastic party at the end is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen captured in a non-pornographic motion picture and it needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, it’s not exactly something that would see a lot of traffic on Pornhub and likely will be seen as pretty tame by most these days but there is a meditative quality to it as you realize that what’s unfolding in front of your eyes isn’t at all scripted. What kind of party is this? What are we not seeing that’s just out of frame? Except for those that we know are actors, this feels like a very real party thrown in the very large abode of the film’s producer where the lights of Los Angeles tinkle down below and god-knows-what kind of hedonism is happening behind closed doors and tall hedges, the warmth of the summer night fueling the notion that the endless possibilities of the time were all for the taking.

Mondo Keyhole is definitely what it purports to be but, due to the uncanny filmmaking skill of Jack Hill, it’s even more than that. It’s a slow-walk of genre material through a door and into a place where it could have deeper dimensions, loftier intentions, and artier craft, yet still remain wickedly entertaining.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain