Recently Al Ewing and Sarah Peploe came into possession of a box set containing “18 uplifting classics” (end quote) from the cinematic oeuvre of Russ Meyer. Heedless of the consequences, they have taken it upon themselves to watch and review each of these in turn on a roughly one-per-week basis. This is part four.
DISCLAIMER DEPT: This is very definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Also, the plot of the film contains rape, so consider this a trigger warning.
A hissing cymbal taps out a sinister beat. The camera drifts slowly up an empty highway.
“Do you know where this road leads? Then hear this, all ye people! Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, both high and low, rich and poor together… Do you indeed speak righteousness? Do you judge uprightly, all ye sons and daughters of men… or do you do unto others as they do unto you! And do you judge as others judge? And WOOOE to the hypocrite, thy form is fair to look upon but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead men’s boooones… for as you judge, YOU shall be judged! And if you condemn, YOU are condemned! Then who will RISE up with me against the evildoers? Who will STAND up with me against the workers of iniquiteee?… None?… Then pass on. But there is NO RETURN!”
You can’t say you weren’t warned.
Caffeinated jazz bass jitters on the soundtrack as the camera moves on, coiling its way down like a snake into the bleached skeleton of a cow town rotting under an eerie, monotone sun. Imagine a film starting like that today – why, it’d be an art-house type of affair, by the Coens or such, not some churned-out roughie. And make no mistake, this one is rough.
Lorna is where we turn away from the jolly funnin’ of the previous three features, with their straw boaters and postcard-level yuks, and take a turn into Meyer’s Gothic Period – a clutch of black-and-whites that are half naked-lady flicks and half noir, where things start out bleak and dirty and get bleaker and dirtier the longer the camera rolls. The preacher-narrator’s wild-man screed also doubles as a warning to sensitive viewers not to judge what follows, lest somebody point out the beam in their own eye. It’s a tactic Meyer will use again, but it’ll never have quite this much fire and brimstone attached.
Eventually, the spasmodic bass eases up and we come face to face with Hal Hopper:
Behold the man. This is the first actor we’ll come across who tears into his role with the savage fury of a rabid dog rending a giant rat – the first of the quintessential Meyer faces, unless we count Frank Bolger, of whom more later. Hopper owns the role of the sneering, snarling Luther, who stalks about the ghost town with Doc Scortt in tow as the idiot man-child Jonah. This pair of swells meander through the town like wandering coyotes until they bump into Althea Currier as Ruthie, a daytime drunk who’s just left the bar. After she blows them off, they follow her home and Luther forces his way in while Jonah stations himself outside, pressing his slavering mug against the window.
Luther manhandles Ruthie onto the bed, tears her clothes off and then beats her while Jonah watches, vicariously getting off on the sexualised violence meted out by his hero in a way that can’t help but incriminate the audience along with him. Meyer cuts between voyeur’s and victim’s-eye views as Luther slaps Ruthie around with a sadistic leer until she‘s bloody. Finally, he’s sated. Jonah dutifully waits for him outside, pawing his shoulder devotedly once he emerges. “She wasn’t very nice to ya, was she, Luther?”
Luther growls, any good humour he took from the violence vanishing instantly. “So what! You know the broad I really want!”
We’re suddenly pitched into a lazy river trip as a gentle crooner sings us a song about Lorna – written by one H. Hopper, who‘ll display his songwriting prowess on-camera later in the film. The screenplay, meanwhile, is written by one James Griffiths, who we saw earlier shrieking about righteousness on a deserted highway. (From a story by ‘R. Albion Meyer.’ That old dodge.)
Out of the credits and enter the Designated Sap. James Rucker – as dumb but devoted husband Jim – has the face and body of a superman and the voice of a 3rd Level Cleric trying to balance his encumbrance rating. We first meet him as he studies to become an accountant – book learnin’ – while his wife Lorna simmers in the next room, staring sullenly at the fourth wall. Jim eventually unleashes his beefcakeular torso in the half-light and snuggles up beside her for this savage gem:
“Lorna? Lorna. Honeeey…? Do you want to… I… I… do you…” Vast pause. “I love you!”
“I LOVE you,” repeats the Sap, and the camera pans tactically away to the windows for exactly 34 seconds of bedsprings and a groan, before cutting back to the happy couple. Jim is buried in Lorna’s shoulder, exhausted – he’s practically got his thumb in his mouth – while Lorna stares at the ceiling with a gaze that could freeze lava.
This is our first brush with the iron law of the Meyerverse: male sexual inadequacy leads inevitably to tragedy, ruin and very probably death. The sorry state of Lorna and Jim’s marriage is driven home for slow viewers as Lorna trudges bitterly outside for a soliloquy. “If he can only start slowly… I’m a woman, not just a tool!” She fades into a wobbly flashback of their proposal, when he was almost not rubbish before freaking out, putting her on a pedestal and failing to knock her off. It. Then we get a ten-hour-long audio playback of their wedding ceremony over some shots of church roofs – it’s their anniversary tomorrow, we’re helpfully informed – and finally a wild fantasy of getting out of ‘this godforsaken hole’ and getting a ‘new start’, which looks like this:
Jazz! Neon signs! More jazz! Mink coats! No, wait, nudity! Champagne! Even more jazz!
Smash cut from the blaring trumpet to the blare of a prison siren, followed by some first-person shenanigans as the camera pantingly rampages through the reeds like a dog after a downed grouse. It’s our first sight of Mark Bradley as The Convict:
But no time for him, because we need to get back to Wheedlin’ Jim as he mewls for Lorna to get up and make him breakfast and lunch. She can’t be bothered to move from the bed – her performance is shot through with angry contempt – which leaves him to desperately carve some feculent spam. He barely has time to vocally not remember their anniversary because he’s late for the boat to the salt mines:
YES THE SALT MINES. Suddenly his dream of being an accountant is a lot more sympathetic. Especially as his workmates are Luther and Jonah, who’ve lost none of their charm – although Jim doesn’t seem aware of what they got up to during the pre-credits sequence. For the viewer, Luther’s a dangerous, ticking bomb, capable of anything – for Jim, he’s just a co-worker with a big mouth.
For instance, he can’t seem to go ten seconds without mentioning how hot Lorna is, or how if he was married to her he’d avoid work to bang her until they both died in penury. Jim’s ability to go to work – not to mention study, in books – must therefore mean someone is putting it to his wife while he’s away. Jonah’s contribution is to giggle and repeat the last two words of every sentence. Jim puts up with this in the manner of a puzzled cow – he’s either too dim to understand exactly what Luther’s getting at or too polite to acknowledge it.
(These three are apparently the only workers in the massive, deserted salt mine, apart from a mysterious apparition who signs the checks, but doesn’t stop vicious knife-fights or bawdy singalongs from happening in the salt. Of which more later.)
Eventually, the unlikely trio boat off to work, leaving Lorna to spend her day wandering around the wilderness in long shot, including an eight-hour period of naked bathing in a stream.
Meanwhile, The Convict sneaks up behind a Secondary Sap:
This poor schmoe is replaced at the critical split-second by a watermelon with a hat, which the Convict proceeds to smash viscerally. It’s impressively nasty, especially when we see the stripped corpse face-down in the mud, his head carefully concealed by a riverbank so the viewer can imagine the worst. The Convict, now disguised as Not A Convict, continues sneaking through the undergrowth as the camera cuts between his forward progress and Lorna’s naked bathing. The music cuts too – a martial drumbeat for him, soft jazz for her – until finally the two meet. He immediately forces himself on her.
There are a lot of points during Russ Meyer films where things get uncomfortable for the viewer, some intentionally, some possibly not, and this is one of them. As per a fallacy that was common currency at the time – and in certain quarters remains so today – Lorna soon starts to enjoy the experience. (In fact, she falls head over heels in love with her attacker, to the point where all common sense flies out of the window, but we‘ll see more of that plot thread later on.)
We cut from this to Jim, Luther and Jonah arriving at the salt mine, to be greeted by The Man Of God, invisible to their eyes but not to ours. Once again, we’ll transcribe him in his entirety.
“Thomas asked what IS adultery? Hmmmmm, the man who harbours lustful thoughts! Who covets any woman not his wife! Is an ADULTERER! But how can you see the splinters in your brother’s eye when you have CHUNKS within your own? (Teleports, points at Jim.) The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and though he fall, he shall not utterly be cast down, for the Lord beholdeth him with his eye. (Points at Luther.) Thy tongue deviseth MISCHIEF! Like a sharp razor working deceitfully, for thou lovest evil more than good, thou lovest AAALL devouring words, O thy deCEITful tongue! (Teleports again.) …And Abraham drew near and said wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? And it came to pass — RUN FOR THY LIFE! Look not behind thee lest thou be consumed! And then the lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah BRIMSTONE AND FIRE, from the Lord out of heaven! But his wife… looked back… from behind him… and became… a pillar of salt!”
Cut to some salt.
It looks goofy written down – it sounds goofy coming out of his mouth – but there’s still a weird power in Griffiths’ character as he delivers these fevered rantings. It’s doubtful that Meyer meant any of this quasi-biblical verbiage, especially considering the amount of adultery he cheerfully committed – “The moralising has nothing to do with my feelings,” he said to Gene Ross in 1987, “it’s the whore that I am” – but it amps up the heady atmosphere of impending doom that’s already hanging over the story.
Speaking of impending doom, this is our first look at the salt mine, and it’s a hellish, Sisyphean spectacle – huge reefs of salt that Jim pokes with a pole, while Luther and Jonah shovel aimlessly at it, seemingly without end. Where are they shovelling it to? We’re not shown that – they just poke at the mountains of salt all day.
Luther takes the opportunity to needle Jim some more, since if Jim was doing all his ‘homework’ – being filthy book learnin’ and keeping Lorna satisfied – he wouldn’t have the energy to poke salt. Luther’s seen Jim doing the filthy book learnin’, so it’s pretty obvious some of Jim’s heh-heh homework ain’t a-gittin’ done! (Jonah snickers, repeats ‘homework’.) Ergo, Lorna is presumably getting her needs met somewhere else, a theme Luther will return to again and again. Jim, meanwhile, is still letting all of this gutter talk wash in through one ear and out the other without affecting him in the slightest.
Back to Lorna, who’s now wearing the anorak previously belonging to the luckless fisherman, in a twisted version of the classic rom-com shot of the girl wearing her man’s shirt on the morning after. (Was that trope already in currency? Maybe it originated here.) Lorna is now fawning over her rapist in the manner of an addict yearning for another fix, and invites the Convict back to the marital shack. Cagily, he accepts, but sends her to the store when it becomes apparent that there’s nothing in the house but mouldy spam and a bottle of bathtub rotgut that’s been on the shelf since the wedding night. Lorna literally skips off to shop for goods on his behalf. Here she is, mid-skip:
In town, she overhears Frank Bolger and F. Rufus Owens discussing the prison break, and how the Convict has killed before and will probably kill again. Lorna’s suspicions are roused, but she ends up dismissing them and bonding with the murderer – she feels caged by her marriage and until recently he felt caged by an actual cage, in a prison, so they have a lot in common. She begs him to take her away from her horrible swamp shack – he’s more interested in chow, possibly as a segue into lunchtime at the salt mine.
Luther, Jonah and Jim down tools to eat – or in Luther’s case drink. Jonah tries to offer Luther his sandwich in concern, and Luther crushes it in his fist cruelly before hurling it into the salt. Meanwhile, Jim picks up his book on fancy-pants knowledge words – Luther takes the opportunity to suggest he instead study a book about his wife banging other men. Oh snap!
Jim reveals that he hasn’t forgotten his anniversary at all, he was only pretending because… ridiculous anniversary tropes exist? Well, anyway, he’s been saving to give her a nice weekend in that montage she’s been thinking about. Luther likes this idea because it gives him another opportunity to talk about Jim’s wife.
Jim is, unbelievably, actually starting to get annoyed by this point – here’s his annoyed face:
We return to Lorna and the Convict. He’s still shirtless, she’s still fawning. Having eaten, he wants to sleep – Lorna refuses to let him alone and they end up at it like knives in the marital bed.
Back to the salt mine. End of lunch break, and Luther has gone beyond just making filthy insinuations about Lorna – he’s now written a song, with three verses, about Lorna’s infidelity, which he proceeds to sing off-key and at high volume in its entirety.
To the surprise of nobody, Jim hears and then sees the sheet music, which drives him to actually roll up his sleeves – whereupon Luther punches him in the face, starting a brutal, knock-down brawl in the salt. The fisticuffs finally end when Jonah pulls a switchblade and tries to stab Jim, but only succeeds in sticking himself in the arm. That seems to bring Jim and the by now soundly pummelled Luther to their senses, and Jim reveals that the invisible boss has given them all the afternoon off, because of his anniversary. I’m not sure that is irony, strictly speaking, but it certainly feels like it – the three men pile sorrowfully into their boat with their tails between their legs.
The boat noise interrupts Lorna and the Convict’s steamy makeouts – Lorna’s sent out to stall her husband while the Convict, unbeknownst to her, decides he needs the boat for his getaway and grabs an axe to kill Jim dead.
When the boat pulls up, Jim makes up a story to explain the bruises, involving some act of heroism from Luther – this bizarre fib seems to touch Luther’s black heart and, out of Jim’s earshot, he shamefacedly confesses the truth. We were expecting more of an ending for Luther – he’s not punished for his crimes at the start of the flick, nor does he get to go out cursing at the camera in a blaze of venom. (We’ll have to wait for the definitive Hal Hopper death scene.) Instead, he’s judged to have learned all of his lessons via the medium of Jim’s punching fists – after the beating, he’s a withered, abject version of his former self. It robs the viewer of some closure – we remember what he did to Ruthie, even if the screenplay doesn’t – and it does a disservice to Hopper’s performance in the role if all his badness can be turned around so easily. Although he does play the contrast well. Before:
Anyway! After Luther explains to Lorna how Jim stood up for her, with his hammering fists of justice, like a real man, Lorna realises she loves him after all and screams a warning. This naturally leads to a massive fight with axes, clubs, oil drums, a coat, strange farming implements of the 1930s and finally Jonah’s switchblade, hurled into the Convict’s back by Luther just as the Convict and Lorna are wrestling over the aforementioned strange (and pointy) farming implement. Leading to:
GRIM REAPER OUT OF NOWHERE! Also:
Jim begs for forgiveness at Lorna’s dying body – for ‘the sin of sexual inadequacy’, according to McDonough – before the Man Of God arrives to wrap everything up neatly.
“Do you do unto others as you’d have others do unto you? Woe to the libertine who preys upon the virtues of the weak! For the hour will come when he will be the weak (cut to dead Convict) – the victim of a libertine of greater power. (Cut to Luther, still looking deflated.) Consider and hear me, O Lord my God! Lighten my eyes (cut to weeping Jim) lest I sleep the sleep of death! (Cut to Lorna, dying at that exact moment.) But his wife looked back from behind him… and became a pillar of salt!” (Cut to THIS: )
There’s a lot here you can’t make excuses for, but the point of this exercise isn’t to make excuses for Russ Meyer. There’s plenty that’s just plain wrong – or just plain goofy – about Lorna: it’s arguably the least successful of his black-and-white flicks for that reason. But there’s a strange, electric tension running through it all the same, a murky potency that‘ll come bubbling ever closer to the surface as Meyer refines his technique over the next three films.
DESIGNATED SAP: Poor Jim, Poor Jim, he’ll never know, as Hal Hopper mercilessly sings. James Rucker turns in a bravura performance here – wheedling and whining at home, sullenly soaking up abuse at work – that we’ll see honed by later Saps.
BECAUSE YOU CAN DIE THERE: The whole film is wilderness, even the town. Godforsaken hills of sodium, long desert stretches of highway – most of all, Lorna and Jim’s home on the banks of a fetid river. It’s not the last film we’ll see that’s all wilderness, all the time.
OF ITS TIME: Spam.
“They love it really.”
(See also: of our time.)
FAMILIAR FACES: Frank Bolger! Back again to pull his exposition face:
ONE-HIT WONDERS: Astonishingly, James Rucker, who was presumably ruined by this for all other film or TV work. Very nearly Mark Bradley, though he did previously star in a queer-fear flick called Strange Lovers, in which, to give you an idea of his range, he played ‘Assailant’. (Strange Lovers also starred Walter Koenig, apropos of nothing.)
BREAST COUNT: Two – both belonging to Lorna Maitland, who was a month or two pregnant at the time.
NEXT WEEK: Maitland and Hopper return in Mudhoney, as the Gothic Period gets into its stride.