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 an irregular basis. This is part six.
DISCLAIMER DEPT: This is very definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Also, the plot of the film contains rape, so consider this a trigger warning.
The closest cinematic relative to this film that springs to mind is the Death Wish series – as in those films, we’ve got an ordinary middle-class man pushed to a rampage of revenge in the face of police indifference to an assault on his loved ones, except unlike Charles Bronson he doesn’t keep doing it for roughly eight films, possibly because he’s not very good at it during this one.
Motorpsycho opens with a fishing sap (Steve Masters) neglecting his bikini-clad wife (the difficult-to-spell Arshalouis Aivazian) in favour of fish – eventually, she dives into the water in front of him, and when he weakly protests tells him “You’ve got the best there is on your line right now!” while laughing like an am-dram impression of someone laughing. We know from previous experience that this is setting up some kind of tragedy – in the Meyerverse, bad things happen to men who ignore their wives, and usually to the wives as well. According to the credits, this is all from an original story by Russ Meyer, James Griffiths and Hal Hopper, so we can expect the worst.
Cut to a transistor radio hanging off the handlebars of a motorbike, blaring out a theme we‘ll come to know intimately:
It’s a kind of vague surf-pop riff that blasts out whenever these three bikers are onscreen. We first meet them on their way to Vegas – when suddenly leader Brahmin, answering his own strange impulses, swerves off to race into the desert, leading to this immortal dialogue between second in command Dante and third wheel Slick:
“Yeah, like Rasputin.”
“Cool it, Slick! The Brahmin is a very righteous one.”
“The Brahmin is a flip and you know it.”
“Hey, you’re real funny, you know? Look, Slick, if you don’t dig what’s happening, Disneyland is like 200 miles back that way.”
“Oh don’t wig out man, I’m hip, I’m hip.”
This pretty much sets up everything we need to know.
Brahmin, the aforementioned flip – played by Steve Oliver – is the standard softly-spoken and well-read psychopath who it also turns out is a disturbed Vietnam veteran (SPOILERS). According to the back of the box, it’s a medical discharge, presumably for his psychotic tendencies – whether that’s actually mentioned during the film is another matter. Dante (Joseph Cellini), meanwhile, is established here with his almost lovestruck sigh of ’crazy!’ as another standard gang trope – the weaselly, oleaginous right-hand bastard, eagerly jumping into whatever twisted business his leader sets up and then denying responsibility when it eventually catches up with him. Slick, played by Timothy Scott – the far-out druggie/hippie trope and owner of the ever-present transistor, which he keeps clamped to his ear like a security blanket – is set up as having reservations with the chain of command. With a different character, this might lead to some sort of fight for position of alpha male, but Slick is essentially gormless, if not harmless – he’s the one who fatally shoots Ruby’s husband later on and it’s him who leads the attack on the hapless fisherman.
This is after Brahmin, guided by who knows what, ends up at the fishing spot. The gang swiftly set to terrorising Arshalouis Aivazian (copied and pasted, spelling fans) and when the fisherman arrives to help, he’s beaten senseless. “Stick around, lady, you’re going to hate yourself in the morning!” snarls Brahmin, setting up the gang’s modus operandi.
Cut to Alex Rocco as stalwart veterinarian Cory Maddox, about to do some veterinarianining to a dog. Not a special dog, but Maddox will do his best anyway! That’s just the kind of veterinarian he is. His wife Gail, aka Holle K Winters, steps out of the car to visit a friend and runs smack bang into the bikers, who harass her menacingly until Maddox arrives and pushes Brahmin off his bike and into the dirt – Brahmin sits there, stewing and making a mental note of Maddox’s name, which is on the back of his vet van in big letters, as the camera suddenly reveals.
There’s a lot of slick editing in this film, particularly later, when the action is taking place inside moving vehicles and the scenes change with one truck passing another.
Shades of Lorna as Gail stews in the bed while Maddox crunches numbers with his shirt off. This isn’t the first time we’ll see Meyer making explicit callbacks to his earlier work – at least if you count the Reverend’s appearance in Mudhoney – and it won’t be the last. Like Frank Bolger’s turn as a fire-spitting preacher, this functions as an inversion of the earlier scene – while Lorna was dismissive and frustrated, Gail all but devours Maddox with her eyes:
It’s a nice moment – one that complicates the idea of the male gaze by having the female subject gazing back in active erotic appreciation of what she’s seeing. (We get to see a hairy chest and hear flies unzipping. In later films we’ll see entire prosthetic cocks the size of barber’s poles, and this kind of subtle effect will be lost.) The couple enjoy some pre-coital exposition about the biker gang, which is interrupted by a phone call about an urgent horse. It feels like an inverted Meyer trope – the seasoned Meyer viewer is presumably expecting Maddox to leap up and rush off to aid the beast, but instead he decides it can wait, although it does lead to some more exposition about how the horse’s owner is a rich older woman who wants into Maddox’s stalwart pants.
Here she is:
That top does not look comfortable. It seems to be made out of velour.
This is happening the next morning, as Maddox goes to look at the horse – which is clearly fine, as it’s all a ruse to bring him and his hairy chest out there – and ends up being tempted by Sharon Lee’s wiles. Just as he’s looking interested, we cut back -
-and the bike gang are without warning in his house, terrorising his wife, all to the endless wail of Slick‘s transistor radio. Another director might have included scenes of Maddox leaving the house, or the bike gang breaking in, or something to build tension – to Meyer, that’s just flab. There’s a feeling of the bikers being summoned out of the ether like some hideous old testament punishment being visited upon Gail for her husband’s sins – it’s especially notable when the camera cuts from Brahmin forcing kisses on a screaming Gail to Maddox and Sharon Lee enjoying a long, illicit makeout session. It’s reminiscent of Lorna’s firebrand preaching against the evils of adultery, though Maddox barely puts a toe (or a tongue) into the forbidden water before having second thoughts and backing out.
“How sweet, how precious,” sneers Sharon’s character.
Maddox responds with a heartfelt “Yes, she is.”
A brief note – during the home invasion sequence that’s alternating with Maddox’s temptation, we get a bizarre scene where Slick rings up his mother on the Maddox phone to reassure her that he’s all right and his biker friends aren’t leading him into trouble. It’s a shot of uneasy black humour as well as an oddly chilling moment – plus it serves to set up an important strand of the plot, as Slick tells his ma that Brahmin was in the army and is teaching them ‘army, uh, things… judo and camping out’. For those who haven’t had the benefit of the back-of-the-box blurb, it’s the first time Brahmin’s time in Vietnam is mentioned. The effect it’s had on him is made queasily explicit when he alludes to the upcoming assault on Gail as ‘the old Viet Cong procedure’.
And then we cut from this:
That’s probably the first time Meyer does one of those, but he’ll pull similar tricks later in his career. It’s a weird moment, like a frat-boy version of one of Alan Moore’s ironic scene transitions. It’s jarring in both the sheer tastelessness and in the way it jerks you right out of the immersion, throwing in the viewer’s face that they’re watching a film, that there’s a man behind the camera making strict editing choices. (Although Meyer was never one to hide that fact.)
Ten or fifteen years later, or even one film earlier, there wouldn’t be a cut at all – but it’s unlikely that this is a sign of Meyer trying to make himself more mainstream so much as more tinkering with the formula, trying to perfect the drive-in alchemy and turn more empty seats into gold.
Anyway, Maddox has a brief conversation about horses and their upkeep with the duck hunter – the what now? Yes, it’s F. Rufus Owens, back for more of this sort of thing:
This time he’s a petrol pump attendant who talks about horses at every opportunity. But suddenly his fascinating horse gab is drowned out by the roar of the bikers coming from the direction of Maddox’s place, which sends the vet barrelling off to confirm his worst fears – an ambulance taking his wife away from the scene, with a kindly doctor and loudmouthed, misogynist Sherriff in tow.
The Sherriff looks familiar:
It’s Russ, playing a real charmer. Having copped an eyeful of the near-comatose Gail as she lies on the stretcher, he assures the distraught Maddox that “nothing happened to her a woman ain’t built for”, referring to her assailants as “loverboys” and implying that it was all just a party that got out of hand. It’s a rape-myth hat trick. Is it another possible mea culpa for Lorna? Rocco’s rage is directed as much at the attitudes that the Sherriff is spouting as the man himself, and in 1965 there would have been a lot of drive-in patrons who thought along similar lines. That said – did Meyer ever mea? Or did he just sink his teeth into one of the film’s prime bastard roles?
Needless to say, this isn’t a sympathetic portrayal of law enforcement – Maddox’s realisation that the Sherriff isn’t planning to do anything but sit on his rear is what prompts him to go outside the law and turn vigilante. Here’s where we enter Death Wish Valley as he swears to his wife that he’ll track down the bikers himself, and from here on Alex Rocco is a snarling, black-eyed, knot-browed ball of constant fury.
Meanwhile, we never see Gail again. Her work here is done, and her absence is a sore spot by the film’s end, when Maddox is bantering with Haji in a way that wouldn’t look out of place on Moonlighting.
Speaking of Haji:
It’s Haji as Ruby and her cantankerous midden of a husband, a sweat-soaked ball of flesh played by Coleman Francis, tearing strips off each other in a beaten-down old truck coughing its way through the desert to nowhere.
She “ain’t worth a lead dollar as company and [is] four times worse in the sack!”
He “talk[s] about the sack – don’t you know you can’t push a car with it’s hood up?”
Or possibly “can’t push a cow with a hard-on?” Or some combination of the two – it’s hard to hear with Haji’s accent and the droning roar of the truck drowning everything out. Anyway, just as he’s about to remonstrate physically they blow a tire. She walks off for a contemptuous slash, leaving Francis to manage alone, which is when the bikers show up in another blast of surf-rock, black shades over their eyes like robot insects.
Francis makes the mistake of mentioning his war service – in WWI – and while Dante and Slick just make some cheesy jokes about Valley Forge (“He was with George in that crazy rowboat!”), Brahmin’s crazy button is pushed (although that suggests that it’s ever not pushed) and he sucker-punches the old man. During the punch-up, Slick discovers a rifle among the couple‘s meagre belongings, which is an accident waiting to happen and it doesn’t have long to wait. No sooner has Haji returned to the scene – and Francis attempted to pimp her out in order to protect his own skin – when Slick accidentally shoots it off into Francis’ belly and kills him dead.
“It was an accident, Brahmin!” mewls Slick, but Brahmin isn’t having it.
“That’s gonna sound real good when they stash us in the Iron Hotel!”
Haji makes a run for it, and Brahmin demonstrates what will become his trademark:
That cold, crazed air of menace that fits incongruously with the poncho but perfectly with the gun on the arm – this is where Steve Oliver comes into his own, so much so that he ended up making various films with titles like Werewolves On Wheels or Cycle Psycho. (He’s best known for a role as Lee Webber in old-time soap Peyton Place, though I have no idea if he rode a motorcycle or had a thousand yard stare during that.) We’ll be seeing more of this as the rifle becomes his tool for every conceivable situation – he seems to have infinite ammo clips for it to boot.
He shoots the fleeing Haji in the head, seemingly fatally, and then shoots up the three bikes – we get a nice shot of the petrol pooling on the sand like blood, although the budget presumably wasn’t high enough for him to toss in a match. With their tracks covered – kind of – the three drive off in Haji’s clapped-out truck, immediately passing Maddox, who’s driving out in the desert to start his quest for revenge, although where he’s actually headed is anyone’s guess at this point. He seems to be driving around aimlessly.
It’s handled with another car-to-car cut, which gives the impression of one, long, uninterrupted stream of action from the duck hunter’s gas station on – Maddox to the ambulance, to Haji, to the bikers, back to Maddox again, without a moment’s let-up. Even the exposition scenes are happening in moving vehicles – everyone’s going somewhere fast, even if the destination is another brawl or shootout.
Maddox finds the bodies, and tends to Haji’s wound – the bullet just creased her skull, which is something that used to happen a lot before Hollywood discovered the magic healing properties of the shoulder. It’s a totally harmless movie concussion, although the way Haji elects to just walk it off – she has the self-proclaimed “constitution of a horse” – makes a great shorthand for her character. She just wants to head on to LA and leave it all behind, but she’s the only one who knows what the bikers’ new ride looks like so Maddox enlists-stroke-kidnaps her as an unwilling sidekick, setting up the dynamic – he needs her for vengeance, she needs him to get out of the desert, together they fight crime.
Cut to the bikers, in need of gas, who stop at – coincidence! – the same gas station owned by the duck hunter. “What’s with Joe Gas Station?” opines Dante, spooked. “He keeps pinnin’ us like we owe him some bread or something!”
“The cat knows NOTHING!” growls Brahmin, and sure enough, Joe Gas Station accepts their bread without comment – until the sound of sirens intrudes. Joe Gas Station helpfully explains that it’s the roadblock up ahead, but the bikers are already driving off in the other direction, right into Maddox and Haji, leading to a truck-on-truck chase down a side road into the depths of the desert – until Brahmin decides to cut things short with the rifle, shooting out one of Maddox’s tires and forcing him and Haji to take cover behind a gnarled, dead tree.
Brahmin shoots at them for a while, then runs out of ammo (although presumably there‘s more in the truck, as he‘s blasting it off at anything that moves soon enough). He figures the desert will do the job and drives off, leaving Maddox cackling because Brahmin and company are heading right into the Cauldron - “it’s a dead end… an old abandoned pit mine – some sort of a natural crater nearby. The Indians used to call it the Cauldron. They believed it was a place where their spirit gods made magic – to cloud or clear the heads of men.”
The second Maddox finished this speech, a rubber snake leaps on his ankle, leading him to go absolutely mental. This is what to do when bitten by a snake – first grab the head of the nearest person while thrusting a knife in their general direction and then BELLOW THE FOLLOWING:
“CUT THE FANG MARKS OPEN HERE TAKE THE KNIFE CUT IT TAKE THE KNIFE CUT IT CUT THE FANG MARKS OPEN CUT IT MAKE LITTLE X’S CUT EM LOOK AT IT AND DO IT all right all right take it easy go ahead CUT THE FANG MARKS LOOK AT IT TWO X’S SOME MORE SOME MORE all right put the knife down all right SUCK IT SUCK OUT THE POISON SUCK IT SOME MORE SOME MORE SUCK IT OOOUT SUCK IT SOME MORE SOME MORE SPIT IT OUT SPIT IT OUT SOME MORE”
Haji gobs out the venom in a spectacularly bloody money shot that immediately cuts to Brahmin spitting out a mouthful of water as the bikers realise they’re lost in the desert. Cue this memorable exchange between Slick and Brahmin:
“Man, this is really nowhere.”
“What did you expect, dildo, Palm Springs?”
“Lets cut out. Lets go back.”
“And parlay this whole thing right into a cyanide suite? However, friend Slick, if you want to cut out, man, make it.”
“You mean it?”
OF COURSE HE DOESN’T MEAN IT, although he lets Slick walk far enough down the road to draw a bead on him. Having shot Slick in the head, Brahmin pumps a bullet into the fallen transistor radio, as if Slick won’t be fully dead while it lives. Dante, faced with this new evidence, decides he’s sticking with Brahmin all the way. “Well then, my loyal Patroclus,” says sudden Greek scholar Brahmin, “let’s get this chariot rolling.” The Patroclus reference is easy enough to decode, but then Brahmin follows up with “You first, Wompus”, and frankly we have no idea what that might mean. Anyway, it draws some interesting parallels with Faster, Pussycat – of which more next time.
Eventually, when the truck runs out of gas and the pair realise they’re trapped in the Cauldron, Brahmin decides to set up an ambush for “the horse-croaker” – little realising that he’s still slumped at the rattlesnake tree, being fed water by Haji. It’s an opportunity for Maddox and Haji to strike a few sparks off one another:
“I should’ve taken you back to town.”
“And the dog should’ve chased the rabbit instead of stopping for a tree.”
Maddox’s quest for vengeance compared there to a urinating dog. He seems to have forgotten it himself, considering all the goo-goo eyes he’s throwing Haji’s way and the “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this” conversation they have to the tune of a romantic saxaphone. Haji gives the answer in a long speech about her botched marriage and the good-time-girl wilderness years – it’s the kind of speech you’d expect to be delivered to Sam Spade in some smoky joint in the heart of noirtown, and it seems strangely incongruous under a boiling desert sun. It does serve to make Ruby Bonner the most well-realised female character we’ve seen so far. Possibly the most well-realised character full stop, depending on what you thought of Calif McKinney.
Another cut – (and this is as good a time as any to point out that most of the cuts in this movie come with twanging guitar, like in the Batman TV show) – to Brahmin and Dante on a rock, gazing out at the desert and waiting for Maddox to arrive. Dante, realising he’s not coming, wants to split – Brahmin tells him to wait for the choppers.
“I said we wait for the choppers! They’ll be here soon – at 1700 hours. We’ll show those commie bastards! We’ll show you, you red robbers! You think you’re safe out here, huh? You think you’re safe out in this stinking rice paddy, huh?” By this stage, Brahmin is descending into a passable imitation of John Cleese. “Why don’t you stick around, you… scum? Stick around, you lousy (unintelligible)! B company’s gonna shaft you royal!”
Don’t mention the war! Dante concludes that Daddy’s hat’s fallen off and scarpers, walking back in the direction of Haji and Maddox. Maddox isn’t doing so well himself – obviously having seen the rushes, he’s eager to outdo Steve Oliver’s performance with some high-quality delirious shouting of his own. Maddox thrashes around, gibbering about the freezing cold and re-enacting earlier dialogue, until Haji cuddles up with him under the blankets, which means they’re both asleep when Dante returns and tries to steal their truck. He has to change the tire first, which makes an incredible amount of noise, waking Haji up, and leading to Joseph Cellini going for the psycho-acting trifecta in his wheedling attempts to convince her that it was all the other two, that he had nothing to do with it. “You could explain to the fuzz, you could tell them everything! You could save me!” he pleads – then his face changes. “Or you could put me in the joint…”
“I’m going to have to kill you! I don’t want to! But I’m gonna have to!” he whines, still trying to convince her of his blamelessness even as he advances on her with some kind of pointy stick, or possibly a tyre jack. When the topic changes to what a groovy chick she is, Haji seizes her moment, and her dress:
“You don’t want to kill me – you want to make love to me!”
It’s a moment of almost-camp that turns nightmarish when Dante throws aside the stick and leaps on her, and we get a very disturbing minute of Haji struggling underneath him while Maddox, lit like Satan, coos and cackles to his wife in the depths of some wet fever dream. When Haji scrabbles for the fallen knife and plunges it into Dante’s back, Maddox reacts as if he’s been stabbed himself. We’re left with Haji, half-naked and sobbing in long shot – and then the scene changes to morning, the romantic saxaphone drifts back in and the fever’s passed.
Haji’s cut up about the killing, but Maddox only cares about revenge for his wife. “And you’re doing this for her?” asks Haji, which is a good question but one that Maddox immediately brushes aside.
The two pass Slick’s corpse – “two down, one to go” growls Maddox in his best anticipation of Ahnoldt – and then enter the Cauldron, where Brahmin has presumably been going madder and madder, neither eating nor drinking, presumably just voiding his bowels where he sits as the hours pass. Maddox and Haji get as far as the abandoned truck before stopping to get out and take a look around, which leads to Haji immediately catching a bullet in the shoulder. Is this the transition point where bullets harmlessly creasing the skull switch to bullets harmlessly impacting the shoulder? Possibly, but Maddox still has to drag her under fire to the nearest bit of cover – which fortuitously has an open crate full of dynamite in it.
Maddox pleads for a truce to get Haji to a hospital, but Brahmin has him confused with the Red Army and keeps him pinned down. “Hey comrade! Why ain’t you shooting? You’re out of ammo! That’s it! You shot your wad!” He stands up, screaming at the heavens: “Here, ya red schmuck! Here‘s a target for ya!” It’s only when, during his leisurely stroll down the rock face to shoot Maddox close range, he yells about grenades for some reason that the penny drops and Maddox realises he has several sticks of dynamite with him. After that, it’s a race against time – will Maddox finish his homemade bomb before Brahmin finishes his crazed rambling? It’s a close run thing, but Maddox launches the dynamite just in time to blow Brahmin into unidentifiable chunks in the middle of the word “motherfucker”.
After that, it’s all over bar the shouting. Maddox has laid his demons to rest and drives off into the sunset with HajI and some raunchy sax. Gail’s view of these events remains unrecorded. LE FIN AVEC TOYOTA.
Maddox is an oddly unheroic lead, when all’s said and done – he doesn’t do much beyond kidnap Haji, get bitten by a snake and throw the climactic dynamite, and even that only after begging to be allowed to leave with Haji and let Brahmin get on with whatever he wants to do. Maybe this was responding to a yen at the time for less certain protagonists, or maybe it was just odd plotting – the tough, meaty and active role for Haji does feel like a prelude to the female leads of Faster, Pussycat. Meyer’s almost there – next time we’ll see him pull out all the stops.
DESIGNATED SAP: Frank the fisherman is the closest, although F. Rufus Owens surely has a sap in him waiting to get out as soon as the proper plot comes along.
BECAUSE YOU CAN DIE THERE: The first few minutes of the film are spent on an actual road – from then on, it’s all desert, and it’s full of snakes, dynamite and crazed Vietnam vets to boot.
OF ITS TIME: Transistor radios.
ONE-HIT WONDERS: Steve Masters and Arshalouis Aivazian (copied and pasted again) as Frank the fisherman and his wife. Also, Holle K Winters as Gail. So when she vanishes from the picture 23 minutes in, she vanishes from recorded cinema, which makes it even worse somehow.
FAMILIAR FACES: Move over, Frank Bolger – it’s F! RUFUS! OWENS!
WHERE’S RUSS?: He’s the Sherriff!
BREAST COUNT: One, glimpsed briefly during the urgent horse conversation. (Not the one with F. Rufus Owens.)
NEXT TIME: Haji returns, and she’s brought company. It’s the one we’ve been waiting for – Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!