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 five.
DISCLAIMER DEPT: This is very definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Also, the plot of the film contains rape, so consider this a trigger warning.
Much like Wild Gals Of The Naked West, it’s three and a quarter minutes before we see anyone’s face. Up until then, all the acting is done with feet – a pair of shoes stamping drunkenly through the dust as their owner is hurled out of a local cathouse, mashing the accelerator to drive a beat-up truck home and then, when another (female) pair of feet refuse to let them in, using the same pedal to send the truck careening into the side of the house. That does it – the second pair of feet opens up the door and lets the drunk in, whereupon we finally see a human face.
And here it is:
Hal Hopper, back for the rematch in the role of foul-mouthed drunk, bully, sadist and slow-burning homicidal maniac Sydney Brenshaw. The first thing he does on forcing his way through the door is to force himself on his wife, played by Antoinette Christiani. Throughout, this film presents marital rape as something unambiguously wrong, motivated by cruelty – not a private matter of a husband taking his rights, which was the prevailing attitude in 1960s America, and would remain so until South Dakota criminalised spousal rape in 1975. (The last state to do so was North Carolina in 1993, although many states continued to regard it as a lesser crime. The marital rape exemption was abolished in England and Wales as late as 1991. All this is from Wikipedia.) It’s not the only progressive stance from Meyer in this film, as we’ll see.
On that note, enter another pair of feet – John Furlong’s – kicking a can along the road and into yet another pair of feet, or rather gams, belonging to Rena Horten. Furlong plays Calif McKinney, a well-dressed hobo with a ridiculous name that belies his dark secret – he’s not from California but actually from Manslaughterville, Michigan where he just spent five years in the clink on a charge of killing a strike-breaker with his super fists of death. (Meyer’s fairly hot on socialism in this one. In later films we’ll see him take an opposite view. And how.) Rena Horten plays Eula, deaf-mute quasi-psychic child-woman and part of the clan in charge of the aforementioned brothel. Also entering the scene to lay some much-needed exposition on Furlong are Lorna Maitland and the astonishing Sam Hanna:
Half-rooster, half-bear and all man or manlike substance, Hanna cavorts through the picture – there’s no other word for what he does apart from cavort, and he does nothing apart from it, so there we go. He cavorts. Occasionally he also ruts on the floor or does a spit-take, but both of these fall within the bracket of ‘cavorting’. The matriarch of the clan is:
Princess Livingston, in her biggest Meyer role. A good ten minutes of the ninety-three minute film consists of:
They have a good time, those hillbilly sex workers.
Princess Livingston is probably the most vibrant female presence in the film, and certainly the strongest – Horten gets the opportunity to be otherworldly and adorable, and Maitland is left with little to do apart from act sleazy and flash sneers and skin in equal measure. The brothel feels like a character in itself, with each of these three playing different parts of its psyche; it’s where characters go to get drunk and display their inner selves. Even the camera takes strange, skewed angles and positions inside it.
Anyway, Princess Livingston treats Furlong to a long, cool drink of exposition before he heads on his way. It’s the depression (pronounced de-pression), prohibition is in full swing although nobody seems to care and jobs are incredibly scarce, although there’s one up the road working for Kindly Stuart Lancaster and his niece Antoinette Christiani. But he should watch out for evil Hal Hopper, who put the last farm hand in the hospital. (Until further notice, we’re adopting the time-honoured technique of referring to characters by their actor names.)
After getting the job despite several dark warnings from Lancaster, we get another indication of how crazy Hal Hopper is:
Throughout this film, he gets crazier by the reel. Hopper sinks his teeth into the role with gusto – perhaps relishing playing a character who’ll get the sticky end he deserves this time – and practically transforms into the Joker by the end of it, constantly laughing and pulling faces until he finally dies. SPOILER.
In the meantime, Kindly Stuart Lancaster has an attack of exposition and it’s made clear he’s not got long to live. (It’s also made clear that Furlong‘s come straight from the pen. SPOILER.) Meanwhile, Hopper heads down to the Exposition Cathouse to enjoy some exposition, and nothing else because he has no money. He attempts to pay via exposition, telling Lorna Maitland all about his big plans for inheriting the farm and selling it once Lancaster kicks the bucket, but Maitland isn’t buying. There’s so much exposition in this film that its value has dropped through the floor. This is how the depression started in the first place – too much exposition.
Rena Horten loves him for some reason – she’s the only one who does – but because Hopper can’t respond when someone actually wants him, he pushes her in the river and cackles insanely. Horten looks confused for a minute and then pulls this face:
Clearly that river is filled with deadly Joker Venom! Hal Hopper is the Joker I tell you! Where’s Batman when you need him?
Things barrel on. Furlong has the hots for Christiani but can’t do anything about that, or about Hopper’s constant needling, because if he punches a man with his deadly fists it’s murder. He visits the cathouse to get his needs met, but Hopper comes in and wilts his erection with a single drunken cackle or possibly some smilex gas. It’s notable that the film never punishes Princess Livingston’s family business – it’s never made out to even seem wrong, particularly. It’s just a fact of life in the town – while it could be read that Furlong visits in a moment of weakness and leaves once Hopper bursts in to cockblock him, it could also be read that he’s a regular customer for as long as it seems that he and Christiani will never end up together.
Moving on. Hopper is arrested for throwing a man through a plate-glass window (we don’t get to see it – glass is expensive, apparently) and picks a fight with Furlong and Lancaster when they come to bail him out. Furlong is still terrified of his own super-strength so the fight has to be broken up by:
In the role of James Griffiths! Sorry, I mean ‘Brother Hansen’, but the resemblance is mighty strong, considering they both constantly rant about adultery. You could, if you were inclined, see this role as a comment by Meyer on his last film – an apology, almost. Adultery in Mudhoney is treated as something entirely justifiable – by the time Furlong and Christiani finally consummate their forbidden passion, it’s almost been too long in coming, considering everything Hal Hopper puts her through – and the kind of rabid declamations that Griffiths was spouting off in the last film are presented here as being hypocritical at best and downright dangerous at worst.
Kindly Stuart Lancaster, meanwhile, is an atheist, or as close as you could expect to get to one in 1965 – a man who believes faith in oneself is more important than faith in a higher power. (John Furlong is, too, and a socialist, which only endears him to the old man.) Both he and his niece are quick to see off Bolger when he shambles along to save their souls, but the preacher laps up Hopper’s falsehoods without a qualm – Hopper’s scheme is to paint Furlong and Christiani as fornicating sinners in order to get the farm. Bolger believes every word without question, despite Hopper eyeing up Sister Hansen and knocking back swigs from his ever-present hip-flask whenever Bolger’s back is turned.
Furlong gets given the bad news by Maitland thusly:
IT’S VITAL EXPOSITION. All backs are turned on Kindly Stuart Lancaster and his “devil’s abode”, because ADULTERY SINNERS ETC. Lancaster, declining fast after a near-fatal attack of exposition, muses that depression-era people are fat packed with hate and need someone to take it out on. They were fixing up to take it out on Hal Hopper, but now they’re all set to take it out on Furlong and if Furlong leaves town they’ll BURN ANTOINETTE CHRISTIANI IN A GIANT WICKER MAN. What if John Steinbeck wrote The Crazies? Now we know!
Meanwhile, Bolger convinces Hopper to accompany him on a mission to Princess Livingston’s cathouse to spread the Word, which goes south quickly as Hopper and the hillbillies of pleasure conspire to drag Bolger into a room with Horten and subject him to nobody knows what. “Go on, Brother Hansen,” smirk-snarls Hopper, “take ‘er in the other room and give ‘er some… sal-vaayyyy-shun!” Half a minute later, Bolger bursts out, scandalised and yelling about the sins of Gomorrah – he’s still wearing all his clothes, but it’s made clear something was done in there, because Princess Livingston pulls this face:
All this doesn’t seem to stop Bolger taking Hopper at his word, or the townsfolk taking Bolger at his. Furlong and Christiani do the aforementioned consummation in a field, Kindly Stuart Lancaster fits in some final words of exposition as he lets the audience know all about the whole strikebreaker-execution manslaughter trip Furlong went on (SPOILER), and Hopper continues letching over Bolger’s wife (or possibly sister, it‘s never quite clear).
Suddenly, a tree goblin appears:
Thurman Pate, played by Mickey Foxx. The same person Hal Hopper allegedly defenestrated in a previous bout of exposition, which might explain why he’s hiding in a tree as he reveals the shocking truth – Kindly Stuart Lancaster has willed his entire fortune to John Furlong. Hopper rushes off to beat the living daylights out of Kindly Stuart Lancaster, but he’s too late because Kindly Stuart Lancaster is now Dead Stuart Lancaster.
Stuart Lancaster does the best dead acting in any film I’ve ever seen:
Nothing will move him. Nothing will make him even blink an eye. Not being shaken by Hal Hopper, not having a fist-fight break out at his funeral, not even having his coffin tipped over so his corpse falls onto a screaming Hopper:
But we’re jumping ahead. The funeral is attended by Nick Wolcuff as the Sherriff and voice of reason, plus a small crew of extras – none of the other townsfolk will come after all the sin talk Bolger’s been spreading, although Bolger is there himself to say a few words over the astonishingly well-acted corpse. The big hypocrite. In the middle of a tuneless rendition of Shall We Gather At The River, Hal Hopper appears, drunk as a lord and practically pissing into the grave, and things step into high gear:
THE JOKER! THE JOKER HAS STRUCK AGAIN! He knocked over a gravestone and made a duck hunter pull a face.
It’s all part of a final scheme to blame it all on John Furlong, and he goes as far as convincing Lee Ballard aka Sister Hansen, but then as they’re going through the swamps his mind snaps from too much booze, and, after attempting to rape her, he drowns her in the swamp while calling her his wife’s name. It’s a warped visual echo of a baptism – it’s also a harbinger of where horror movies would go in another decade or so, as the deranged Hopper stalks Ballard through the swamp like Jason Vorhees, calling out his wife’s name: “Hannah? Oh, Haa-nnaaahh…” For a few minutes, we’re in a slasher film – then Meyer abandons the conceit, although the trailer for Mudhoney begins with this moment, advertising Hopper as a monster rampaging through the female cast. To the best of our knowledge, he never comes back to the idea – it just crashes out of the film the way it came.
Sudden smash cut from the murder to the consequences – Hopper, beaten and bloody, clinging to a post as a lynch mob led by Bolger try to drag him through the streets. By this time, sanity seems to have left him completely – he can barely form words – and there’s a tense showdown between Bolger and the mob, who want to lynch Hopper, and Furlong, Christiani and the Sherriff, who want him dealt with according to the law – all three want to see him put away in an insane asylum, which is a remarkably non-vengeful stance. It’s notable that Meyer’s again taking the progressive view by putting the hero on the side of rehabilitation and setting the ‘eye for an eye’ concept of justice up as another wrong decision from Bolger, who continues ranting about satanic adulterers despite having nurtured the metaphorical viper at his own bosom. It’s Bolger who eventually kicks the stool, or barrel, out from under Hopper’s feet – after Hopper sees Christiani and joyfully gibbers that he didn’t kill her after all – and Furlong shoots him dead in an attempt to stop him. All through the film, he’s been worried about accidentally losing his shit and killing Hopper – when he does finally kill, it’s in an attempt to save the man’s life. Irony!
Meanwhile, Rena Horten gets a psychic vibe that Hopper is in trouble and runs barefoot through the streets to save him, but is too late to do anything other than watch him make the big drop. She mugs mutely for a few seconds before the scream finally comes out, marking LE FIN:
The films of the Gothic Period all feel like Meyer throwing genres into the mix until he hits on something perfect, and this time around he’s ditched the biblical morality-play feel of Lorna – going so far as to openly mock it – and brought in wannabe-Steinbeck depression-era melodrama instead. Mudhoney emulsifies the cod-Steinbeck with Meyer’s fat doses of sleaze, sadism and howling madness – during its brightest, boldest moments, it’s a Bad Seeds murder-ballad come to celluloid life.
DESIGNATED SAP: John Furlong, and not for the last time – although he’s a Sap here only because his superhuman fists could kill another man dead if he ever lays down his burden of Sapness. When he finally drops the zero and gets with the hero, in the parlance of V. Ice, it starts a chain reaction that ends with him killing again.
BECAUSE YOU CAN DIE THERE: Not much wilderness here, apart from the wilderness in the human heart. And the murder swamp. ‘Because you can die there’ indeed.
OF ITS TIME: Sputtering radiators.
ONE-HIT WONDERS: Antoinette Christiani, which is a shame, as she could have gone on to more reputable dramas without any trouble. Ditto Lee Ballard. Perhaps the greatest shame of all is Sam Hanna, who never made this face in any other films:
FAMILIAR FACES: Frank Bolger, obviously. Princess Livingston. Lorna Maitland, back for a second and final appearance. Most traumatically, this is the last we’ll see of:
Hal Hopper, we hardly knew ye.
WHERE’S RUSS?: A new feature – where’s Russ? He’s in the lynch mob!
BREAST COUNT: Eight.
CHARACTERS INTRODUCED BY THEIR FEET COUNT: Eight feet. Coincidence? I THINK NOT
NEXT WEEK: Having prophesised the slasher flick, Meyer predicts Death Wish with Motorpsycho.