Tag Archives: Camp

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.

243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

“Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent labouring under the delusion he is a vampire, is a weird film that is kind of great in its weirdness and in which Cage exposes himself fearlessly to ridicule, not least for appearing in a horror movie in the first place.”–from a 2013 Guardian profile on Nicolas Cage

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: Peter Loew is a well-to-do young literary agent with a hedonistic lifestyle, who is also in therapy. One night, he is interrupted while romping with his latest sexual conquest when a bat flies into the bedroom; later, he takes home a one night stand who (maybe) bites him on the neck in the throes of passion. He begins to believe he is becoming a vampire, while at the office he grows increasingly annoyed with and abusive to a junior secretary, Alva, to whom he assigns the task of combing through the agency’s archives looking for a missing contract.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was screenwriter Joseph Minion’s second produced script—the first was After Hours (1985).
  • Cage had originally committed to the part before the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) ignited his career. He tried to back out of Vampire’s Kiss, and Judd Nelson was tapped to play Peter Loew; thankfully, Cage changed his mind and decided to honor his commitment.
  • According to the commentary, a late scene where Peter is walks down a Manhattan street talking to himself with blood on his shirt, and none of the passersby appear to take any notice of him, was filmed with real New Yorkers who had no idea they were on a movie shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the vision of Cage’s manic face as he mocks poor Alva (an image Dread Central’s Anthony Arrigo brilliantly summarized as “the infamous shot of Cage’s eyebrows attempting to flee the insanity that is his face“), a sight so powerful that it birthed an Internet meme. The notoriety of that shot aside, there are probably a dozen Cage expressions or poses that could vie for the honor of most unforgettable image in Vampire’s Kiss. We ultimately went with the view of Cage’s defeated face as he lies under his couch-cum-coffin, with Jennifer Beals’s hallucinated legs perched above him—an image also used for the film’s original theatrical poster.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Alphabet-mastering Cage, cockroach-eating Cage, plastic-fang Cage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cage, entirely Cage. This is Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and it’s this performance as a literary agent who thinks he’s turning into a bloodsucker that’s his strangest. Without Cage jumping onto desks, eating cockroaches, and posing like Mick Jagger after demonstrating his mastery of the alphabet, this would merely be an oddball tale; with him in the role, it’s a totally bizarre one.


Original trailer for Vampire’s Kiss

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just Continue reading 243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

CAPSULE: CUTIE HONEY (2004)

AKA Cutie Honey: Live Action

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eriko Satô, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Murakami, Eisuke Sakai; voices of Carrie Keranen, Eva Kaminsky, Vinnie Penna, Madeleine Blaustein (English dub)

PLOT: A naive, upbeat female superhero battles the alien organization “Panther Claw” after they abduct her professor uncle, while simultaneously trying to keep her temp job and find a true friend.

Still from Cutie Honey (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It is weird, in that Japanese pop way, but it’s also extremely lightweight, and we have to draw the line somewhere.

COMMENTS: “She’s that trendy girl/The one with the teeny butt… She’s that popular girl, the one with the bouncy boobs.” So goes Cutie Honey‘s theme song, which omits any reference to her crimefighting abilities. Our first view of Honey is of her soapy legs and feet in the bubble bath. She gets a phone call in the tub, learns her uncle is abducted, and has to rush to the scene of the crime—only she has no clothes available, so she runs through the street in her underwear, partially covered by a trash bag that doesn’t conceal much. Her regular crimefighting costume features skintight black pants and a heart-shaped cutout for her cleavage; during her off hours she favors midriff-baring mini-skirts and stiletto heels. Somehow, the camera always finds that the upskirt angle best captures the energy of the fight sequences. But, even though Cutie’s body is relentlessly sexualized—virtually fetishized—the story never compromises the innocence of her character. Cutie herself has no sexuality; she seeks only harmless friendship, and any impure thoughts others might have about her stem strictly from their own corruption. (The bosses clearly get an erotic charge out of battling her, especially Cobalt Claw, the vampire dominatrix Honey defeats with a searing embrace). Japanese movies have a way of pulling off this innocent fanservice without making it seem too skeevy, and director Hideaki Anno’s background in anime clearly served him well in the endeavor.

Former swimsuit model Eriko Satô’s considerable physical appeal aside—and to be fair, she does do a nice job rounding out her character between all the cheesecake shots, locating Honey’s legitimate grrl power—Cutie Honey is a wild, electric affair, one of the best live-action translations of anime style. Anno even splices in some brief, stylized animation at times, such as when Honey dodges Gold Claw’s missiles in the sky or hurls Scarlet Calw’s energy beam back at the villainous supergeisha. Of course, reality is a distant cousin to the characters of this world, and they’re not really on speaking terms. Panther Claw’s human henchmen dress in snazzy black Zorro-inspired uniforms, carry golden guns, and generally act like disposable buffoons from Adam West’s “Batman.”  The big baddie—Sister Jill—is some sort of tree goddess who eats virgins, and her tuxedo-clad butler wears eyeliner and a very fake mustache. There’s also a giant holographic uncle. And what would a weird Asian movie be without out-of-place musical numbers, including some drunken karaoke from the three principals, plus a quartet of henchmen playing violins as Black Claw croons a jazzy mid-tempo challenge (your toe will tap as he sings “for the sake of my own happiness, please wither away beautifully, baby.”) Cutie Honey is like an extended sugar-rush episode of “Power Rangers,” if the solo Ranger was played by a teenage pop star who dresses like a hooker.

The “Cutie Honey” franchise began life as an ecchi manga, then became a more innocent animated children’s TV series in the 1970s, followed by various video and television revivals of varying degrees of naughtiness. This feature version was followed by a live-action TV series, with a new live-action feature film scheduled for release in October 2016. Hideaki Anno, of course, is best known around here for directing two separate “Evangelion” anime series; we’re still awaiting the final installment of the second series, which seems to have stalled since Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo rolled out in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…those who like their films with a distinctly Western sensibility should be warned – Cutie Honey is loaded with trademark Japanese kookiness, and is at times just plain weird.”–Craig Villinger, “Digital Retribution” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose comment was lost in a server crash years ago. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BARRY MAHON DOUBLE FEATURE: THE WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ (1969) & THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN (1965)

is another 366 saint awaiting canonization.  His directing breakthrough was with the fiasco Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), which is essential bad film viewing. For another eleven years, Mahon made one godawful film after another until someone wised up and quit funding this hack (he died in 1999, never making another film after 1970). He was something of a for his time, although no one was stupid enough to give Mahon millions of dollars.

Most of Mahon’s films were  Z-grade nudies (International Smorgas-Broad, The Adventures of Busty BrownFanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico), but there are a few execrable standouts, with The Wonderful Land Of Oz (1969) and Thumbellina (bundled into  1972’s Certified Weird Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny) being among the most memorable.

Literally looking like garage filmmaking, The Wonderful Land of Oz opens with a warbled song and introduces us to hanging sheets, Glinda (still annoying, regardless of who plays her), a papier-mâché purple cow with blinking eyes, and badly costumed characters, including the Wogglebug: a man with antenna, bug eyes, and a walrus mustache.

Still from The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969)The Tin Man and Scarecrow are obligatory characters, but Pumpkinhead has replaced the Cowardly Lion. Someone forgot to give him a microphone under that oversized head because we can barely hear him. It hardy matters, because he seems to be struggling with his lines. His fellow cast members, who frequently talk to themselves, are no help, mumbling their cues as they move lethargically, seemingly having overdosed on tranquilizers.

Tip (Channy Mahon, Barry’s rugrat) replaces Dorothy. Tip is loaded with dull angst over his evil stepmother, the Wicked Witch Mombi ( played by someone named Ziska). She makes the boy go to bed on time, and when he attempts to rebel against such parental sadism, she vows to turn him into a statue. Comatose slapstick and phlegmatic sing-a-longs are visually accompanied by a cardboard fence (which we keep expecting to fall over) and half a gallon of straw on the soundstage floor to represent a stable. Tip flees with the aid of Pumpkinhead, who is brought to sort-of life via magic powder. The two run afoul of an obnoxious high school band (is there any other kind?) headed by teenaged brat General Jinjur. Tip and Pumpkinhead manage to make it to Emerald City (it’s a short walk around the garage), but rather than encountering a wizard behind the curtain, Tip gets magically transformed into a girl (he doesn’t put up much of protest) by Glinda, who confirms what we have always known: she is more Dolores Umbridge (the real villain of Harry Potter) than good witch (although she is called a fairy here). That sickening, bloated pink dress and K-Mart tiara fools no one. After that suburban porn reject Glinda forces a sex change on poor Tip, she does an exit stage left, cruelly depriving us yet again of the chance to see her die a horrible death.

Tip transitions from dull tyke to pouting queen. The eye blinks of our purple cow generate more life than poor Tip. Whatever hell Channy put Barry though off-screen, daddy has his humiliating revenge here.

The Wonderful Land of Oz is mind-numbing in its wretchedness. To think that kiddie cinema patrons actually had to shell out a dime to sit through this smacks of a prime example of yesteryear’s cruelties.

The Beast That Killed Women (1965) features a guy in a blue rubber gorilla suit terrorizing women in a nudist colony, which means lots of nudity, some bad 60s music, even worse dancing, and one actual kill. I just saved you an hour.

CAPSULE: THE ICE PIRATES (1984)

DIRECTED BY: Stewart Raffill

FEATURING: Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Michael D. Roberts, , Bruce Vilanch

PLOT: In a galaxy far far away, where water is in short supply, a band of pirates team up with a princess to investigate her father’s disappearance.

Still from The Ice Pirates (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I think the operative term to describe The Ice Pirates is not “weird,” but rather “goofy.”

COMMENTS: I’m not completely sure Ice Pirates was always meant to be a comedy. The scattershot humor, the jokes inserted in random spots during action sequences, makes me imagine that it started life as a swashbuckling space opera a la Star Wars, then was retooled as a spoof when it was deemed too cookie-cutter even by Hollywood standards. Or maybe it was adapted for space from a sword-and-sorcery Conan the Barbarian ripoff script, since the villains (“Templars”) all wield longswords and wear chainmail. Whatever the case, Ice Pirates takes itself too seriously to be a laugh riot like Spaceballs, but not seriously enough that you actually get involved in the saga or swept up in the cosmic spectacle. The tone is close to a Barbarella: straight faced, but ridiculous. Unfortunately, it’s neither as sexy nor as weird as Jane Fonda’s psychedelic space classic.

Here’s what you do get: defecating aliens, “Space Invaders” battle monitors, a politically-incorrect jive-talking cyborg pimp, an alien infestation of “space herpes” (singular: “space herpey”), robots mingling with farm animals, Amazons riding on attack unicorns, a water-wasting sex scene in a virtual thunderstorm, a time warp battle shot partially in fast-forward, and lots of pirates, but almost no ice. The cast is large but forgettable. Robert Urich is no Harrison Ford, Mary Crosby is no Carrie Fisher (though she is easy on the eyes), Michael D. Roberts is a sidekick without a character hook, Anjelica Huston is supposed to be sexy but looks embarrassed, the robots’ comic relief routines need reprogramming, and the villains are toothless. Also look for a pre-fame and a post-fame John Carradine (who is literally wheeled-in to deliver his lines) in smaller parts. The cast’s lone standout is Bruce Vilanch as a King Herod type who loses his own head, but continues making wisecracks.

The Ice Pirates was made cheaply, and looks it. It wasn’t funny or spectacular enough to be a mainstream hit, and doesn’t go far enough in its absurdity to garner more than a small cult following, but it is busy enough to make it watchable. Fans of 80s camp will want to add it to their bucket list—just not to the top of the list.

Warner Archive put out an extras-free Bu-ray of Ice Pirates in early 2016.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a busy, bewildering, exceedingly jokey science-fiction film that looks like a ‘Star Wars’ spinoff made in an underdeveloped galaxy.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

A WEIRD 1964 CHRISTMAS DOUBLE FEATURE: SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS AND RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER

I have often bragged that two of the strangest holiday productions were released in 1964, the year I was born. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass’ “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” was made for television. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a feature film understandably  given scant theatrical release. I used to imagine that these were a sort of personally apt, unintentional welcoming me into the world. As I saw “Rudolph” first, we will start there.

The television show sprang from the 1939 book, written by Robert May, and the 1949 song written by Johnny Marks (sung by Gene Autry). After seeing the animated TV show, one is forced to conclude that Rankin and Bass had to be two of the most unintentionally bizarre producers who ever breathed. Of course, we didn’t notice that fully during childhood (although, I do distinctly remember raising my eyebrows more than once). Upon a later viewing, one realizes just how eccentric the narrative and characters are. I can’t speak for others, but my own personal favorite character was prospector Yukon Cornelius (my brother favored Herbie). No one actually liked or rooted for the whiny red-nosed reindeer.  Yukon “even among misfits, you’re a misfit” Cornelius was something akin to a prophet, inviting identification with his outsider status. That aside, what the hell is he doing in this tale? Why is Santa Claus first represented as a bitchy, anorexic bigot? Following St. Nick is a certified WTF lineup: an Abominable Snow Monster who prefers pork to deer meet, King Moon Raiser (a winged lion, straight out of the Book of Revelations, who lords over an island of misfit toys), and a redneck reindeer coach in a baseball cap.

Still from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)We all know the story, as narrated by talking snowman Burl Ives (apparently related to Frosty). Rudolph gets picked on because he has a  glowing red nose. He runs away from home, finds two fellow misfit wanderers in Herbie (the dentist Elf) and Yukon (the silver and gold prospector), who are prone to argue over pea soup vs. peanut butter. The three misfits hide from the Abominable Snow monster (too many syllables for Yukon, who just refers to the beast as Bumble).  Rudolph, Yukon, and Herbie find the Island of Misfit Toys, occupied by a Charlie-in-the-Box,  a polka dot elephant, a bird that swims, a noseless doll, an ostrich riding cowboy, etc.

Santa bitches constantly and never eats,  despite his wife’s reminder that “no one wants a skinny Santa.” Our childhood saint waxes all-consuming hatred for elves and misfits until … “Rudolph with Continue reading A WEIRD 1964 CHRISTMAS DOUBLE FEATURE: SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS AND RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

RUSS MEYER’S BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)

Purportedly, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) was the film felt was his most successful work. It was certainly his most profitable movie, and has the most extensive cult following.

Its origin is well known. Upon learning that Meyer’s Vixen (1968) brought in six million dollars on a budget of seventy-five thousand, Fox Studios signed the director to a three-picture deal, with each budgeted at one million. The studio desperately needed a profitable venture, after the expensive flops Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly (1969). Meyer was assigned scriptwriter to make a spoof of the studio’s Valley Of The Dolls (1967). After Mark Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trash novel had proven to be a surprise hit, Fox was taking no chances, counting on the Dolls name to bring in audiences.

 Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is only loosely related to its original source, and it was hated by both studio and Susann (who unsuccessfully sued to stop its release, fearing it would harm even her reputation). Fox insisted that Meyer insert a disclaimer, informing viewers that BTVOTD was not related to the Susann original. In hindsight, the studio’s misgivings are puzzling, since the movie is exactly what they ordered: a big budget Russ Meyer flick that became an instant cult phenomenon. While best viewed as a time capsule, BTVOTD is better than the pedestrian film it parodies. Valley Of The Dolls was directed on cruise control. Comparatively,  BTVOTD has the vigor of a tawdry cartoon, supplied by its twenty-seven-year-old scriptwriter and a middle-aged perverted artisan.

Still from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are “The Kelly Affair,” a trio of buxom rockers who, in their “Josie and the Pussycats” van, travel from sleepy Texas to the wild and wooly Los Angeles in hopes of success.  At a party, thrown by a bell-bottomed Caligula, the hexagon of singing mammary glands are discovered by the androgynous Z -Man (John Lazar, channeling Phil Spector), who redubs them “The Carrie Nations.”  With their rapid success comes drug addiction, avarice, harlotry, lesbianism, abortion, alcoholism, transsexualism, porn stars, and Nazi orgies.

Visually, the film is a 1970 smorgasbord of primary colors, beautifully captured by cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. Accompanying the eye-popping visuals is catchy musical kitsch. The editing, like the plot, is episodic. As in the best of Meyer, the appeal of BTVOTD lies not in its narrative, but in its self-conscious camp. Comparisons to Chuck Jones cartoons are apt (as he would do again in 1975’s Supervixens, Meyer throws in Wile E. Coyote sound effects). BTVOTD hurls the viewer into an unexpected psychedelic, psychotic comic strip of a finale, which still divides the film’s fan base. It is unlike everything that precedes it. The ill-fated Sharon Tate was among Valley of the Dolls’ leads, which makes the nihilistic Charles Manson-styled massacre of BTVOTD a shrewdly tasteless finale worthy of John Waters.

BTVOTD is a celebration of counter culture trash. Despite its excesses, garishness, and plethora of broken taboos, its appeal will be dependent on the audience’s receptiveness to drug-induced soap opera pacing. For some, this is the director at his most accessible. Undoubtedly, BTVOTD is an essential entry in the Russ Meyer oeuvre, but it is debatable as a good starting point.

CAPSULE: SEXINA (2007)

AKA Sexina: Popstar P.I.

DIRECTED BY: Erik Sharkey

FEATURING: Lauren D’Avella, Adam West, Luis Jose Lopez

PLOT: When the shadowy CEO of Glitz Records devises a diabolical plot to take over the world’s music industry, it is up to Sexina, a top star at a competing label, to thwart him. A mix of huge egos, cyborgs, and assassins all collide as things build to a big showdown at a free high school concert.

Still from Sexina (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eliciting more “okay then…”s than “what the…?”s, Sexina is certainly quirky and scattershot. But while there are moments when it hits the better side of absurd, Erik Sharkey’s pet project is more of a low key late night romp than an oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: “In the fine tradition of …” are generally not words a director likes to hear at the start of a review, but my suspicion is that Erik Sharkey, the man behind this pop-boy-band send-up, would not only be okay with it, but perhaps be flattered. Seeing as he did work with that venerable movie studio back in the ’90s, it is unsurprising that this has the budget studio’s unmistakable trashy aura—just without the gratuitous violence or nudity.

There’s no doubt that Sexina had more bite to it when it was released some eight years ago. Back then, to quote the Professor, “boy bands roamed the earth.” While never a difficult subject for lampooning, Sharkey ably takes the various flavors of pop sensation to their extremes. Luis Jose Lopez’s performance as the latest flash in the pan is something close to excellent. His Latino singer persona, Lance Canyon, is perhaps the most accurate distillation of commercialized machismo put to screen. His main obsession, reiterated in increasingly sexist ways, is women. (Or, more precisely, things which a male might, if one were so inclined, do with women). This slime-ball’s boss, known, appropriately, as “the Boss”, is the always-delightful Adam West. Ever since he finished his rounds at Batman lo those many decades ago, Mr. West seems to have maintained a successful career through the unlikely route of just showing up on screen and being Adam West. In Sexina, he does not disappoint.

Working less well, unfortunately, is much else in the movie. Plenty of jokes and scenes fall flat. This is somewhat made up for by the rapid pace, but there was a point about half way through that I realized I was just watching one- to two-minute vignettes loosely interspliced with each other. While I often found I was laughing despite myself, I kind of wished that there were more care given to the dialogue and timing. All the actors involved were, at the very least, competent, and it would have been good to see them given a clearer sense of the mania I felt the director was striving for. Alas, while his cast brought B-movie acting to the grade of Nigh High Art, there is only so much anyone can do with dialogue that’s “sorta funny” presented as “really funny.”

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend the movie; but I have no regrets that I’ve seen it. Despite clunkiness throughout, there was an undeniable charm to the whole thing, with the bits showcasing Adam West or Luis Lopez bringing the movie up from tolerable to amusing. Sharkey’s only follow-up to date was the fairly critically acclaimed documentary, Drew: the Man Behind the Poster, for which he was able to rally the likes of Steven Spielberg, Leonard Maltin, Michael J. Fox, as well as bunches of other A-List Hollywood types. It would be neat to see Erik Sharkey use his talent-gathering powers for the forces of good instead of the mediocre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a gentle, nostalgic trip through some of our favorite tropes from detective/spy TV combined with a disdain for contemporary boy-band culture (a target that even by 2007 was a bit dated). Even the film’s nods to drug culture and the over-sexualization of pop stars (including a weird dialogue about the size of a guy’s penis) feel more goofy than sleazy.”–Gordon Sullivan, DVD Verdict (DVD)