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 highly irregular basis. This is part seven.
DISCLAIMER DEPT: This is probably NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Also, SPOILERS.
Open on a black screen. A humming guitar chord opens into a sinister jazz beat. White lines flicker down the screen, pulsing in timewith the narrator:
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains: sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy – it creates and moulds as well… Let’s examine closely, then, this dangerously eeevil creation, this new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman… the softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female. The surface shiny and silken. The body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution – handle with care and don’t drop your guard! This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level! Any time! Anywhere! And with any body! Who are they? One might be your secretary! Your doctor’s receptionist! Or a dancer in a go-go club!”
And we’re in.
As the Bostweeds launch into their yowling brand of sixties-era rock and/or roll, we get our first introduction to the protagonists, and it’s male gaze a-go-go as Varla, Rosie and Billie frug in a black void to the accompaniment of an old time jukebox – all for the benefit of a series of howling heads, yelling such catchphrases as “Go, baby, go!” “Harder, faster, let’s go!” and “Wail!” And what heads – a brilliant collection of sweaty, bug-eyed and blue-balled goons.
They’re all seen from above – like a collection of strange animals kept in a pit – while our trio are shot from below, Amazonian and fully in control of these yelping ape-men.
The cuts come faster, the sweat gets thicker and we close in on the jukebox only to find it’s turned into a car radio and we’re barrelling through the desert in the company of Tura Satana, laughing like a madwoman.
I say barrelling – while the cars raise huge clouds of desert dust when seen from afar, up close all the vehicles seem motionless, any rocking or jolting seemingly provided by helpful teamsters just out of shot. The vehicles definitely move in later shots – maybe it’s just the static skies that give everything that weirdly artificial air.
Speaking of eerily artificial – acting-wise – that’s Billie, as played by Lori Williams. That’s not a put-down – we’ll see the bad kind of eerily artificial later on. As the three cars race off towards an unknown destination, she splits off from the pack on a whim to drive down to an ol’ swimming hole and jump in with all her clothes on. Varla and Rosie – Tura and Haji, respectively – chase after her, whereupon Varla orders Rosie to go in and fish Billie out. “So I gotta get wet because Lady Godiva wants to swim?” Rosie asks, but there’s no arguing – one hard stare and she’s jumping into the water to catfight. Five minutes in and we have the dynamics of the whole crew, including the director. Eventually, Varla gets tired of watching them thrash around in the sand and declares she’s “seen better fights on the late show! You wanna prove something, chickies? Let’s see who the real chicken is!”
(We’ll be quoting a lot of this film.)
When you see the two cars idling in the middle of some trackless waste, the first assumption is that this is going to be chicken in the James Dean sense – two cars aiming for a cliff edge. But there’s no cliff edge here – just Varla, gunning her engine with an unsettling smirk, that broadens into a predatory grin. Rosie and Billie look as terrified by the prospect of aiming their two cars at her one as if they were facing off against the edge of a cliff made of fire, with spikes, atom bombs, dogs with bees in their mouths et cetera.
Then Varla honks her horn and the chicken run begins! Cue lots of cuts between three souped up sixties-era runabouts charging towards each other on a gigantic plain of sand and remarkably static shots of the drivers in incredibly unmoving vehicles. (There’s the chance we’re doing the actors and cameramen a terrible disservice here, and in all those close-up shots the cars were roaring around full tilt. But we doubt it.) Just as – in a fantastic shot – a cloud of dust obscures the imminent crack-up, Billie and Rosie yank their wheels to the side and allow Varla to cruise through, laughing like a dervish and proving herself the uncontested alpha female.
Time for more character work! Billie responds to this display of power by straining against the leash, while Rosie shakily offers her leader a light. “Easy baby, you’re almost a fire hazard!” purrs Varla around a slim cigar. “You’re all shook up, aren’t you, baby?”
Billie’s lagging dangerously behind in the arms race of character that’s building up, so re-establishes her main trait by putting on some rock and/or roll – more of the generic stuff we’re used to from Motorpsycho and other flicks of the period – and gets into some kind of groove or groovelike substance while tossing Rosie a beer. “Here, Rosie, baby, pop the top before you blow your own!” She goes on to explain that her “motor never runs down.” We’re getting dangerously close to reaching peak character with the trio – time to bring in some other players.
As if by magic, Ray Barlow drives into shot from a completely different film, presumably one with a title like Go-Go Swingers Of Party Beach. Even the music changes to the sort of surf-ish musical stylings that clean-cut kids with surfboards might rag on the Dean to, before the stuffy square gets with their ‘hip’ ‘scene’ after all!
But there’s no beach here, only unforgiving sand, and Ray Barlow’s Asda-Elvis stylings – and the plaid shorts/black socks combo he’s rocking on his lower half – will win him no favours. He immediately goes into a routine designed for his own continuity, only to run into the top-heavy lust of the Meyer woman.
“Would you like to look under my hood?” asks Billie, doing 75% of the asking with her hips.
Barlow gives her a sweetly uncomprehending look for a second, smiling with his perfect teeth, but such questions are outside his genre. “Been running some timing trials?” He likes timing trials. Timing trials are the kind of thing they get up to on Party Beach.
“We know how fast we can go,” growls Varla in laid-back putdown mode, “you could time that heap with an hourglass.”
Sue Bernard (as Linda) has been waiting in Ray Barlow’s car for an entrance line – they’re free with the entrance lines on Party Beach – and figures this in as close as she’ll get. Taking the obvious cue – going as far as a ‘that’s my line’ kind of nod – she steps out, poses, and simpers “Did someone mention my figure?” And the genre war is on. “Shall I set up shop here, Tommy?” she coos, wanting to waste no time getting the Go-Go Swinging action in play, but Meyer’s claimed this tract of film and he’s about to show what happens to those who try and wrest control from him.
(I don’t know if this scene is meant to be a brutal, satirical murderisation of the ‘party beach’ trope, but it definitely reads that way, and after the ‘nature film’ takedown in Mr Teas I don’t think there’s any doubt that Meyer intended these repulsive twerps to be hated, and for the audience to cheer their demise. I know we did. But we’re getting ahead of things.)
Linda proves herself to be even more saccharine than her boyfriend – watching Sue Bernard act here is like watching an explosion in a meringue factory. While Tommy races his car around for no reason except the gosh-darn fun of getting from Marker A to Marker B, his wife-to-be cheerfully potters around in his service, gooing up the celluloid with sickly-sweet talk of his impeccable safety record and offers of soft drinks. “We don’t like nothing soft,” snarls Rosie in response, “everything we like is hard!” But it’s like throwing a brick at a big pink marshmallow – everything bounces off.
Linda even takes Billie’s explanation of what they do for a living with a kind of naïve enthusiasm – “you got it made! I do that for fun!” she chirrups, before launching into a particularly ungainly version of the mermaid, while the viewer flashes back to this face:
It’s like watching a gerbil telling a snake that they like opening their mouths real big too. Eventually, this clash of genres comes to a boiling head as Varla asks Tommy straight out what the point of the Party Beach Timing Trials Funstravaganza actually is – he tries to mansplain it with a weak athlete analogy, but she cuts him short. “I don’t beat clocks – just people. Wanna try me?” He claims he doesn’t have to prove anything, which is the kind of line Elvis usually delivers at this point in the flick before reluctantly giving the bullies the hiding of their lives. He’s still in his own movie at this point – even when Varla cheats during the big race and rams him off the road, he’s still the hero of his own story, right up until she kills him. Spoilers!
So Varla cheats during the big race – instigated by Linda, natch, who still doesn’t understand what she’s dealing with:
As mentioned above, Tommy gets rammed off the road, or sand, or what have you, causing him to either have a migraine or act out a scene from Death Of A Salesman:
While he’s stuck like that, the girls surround Linda in their heaps and relentlessly bully her in the way the audience has been hoping they would from the start, going at far as to steal her stopwatch – it’s Tommy’s! He values it! Does their cruelty know no bounds? Eventually Tommy comes out of his trance and takes note. “Let’s just time Lancelot as he comes charging to the rescue! …Three and a half seconds, champ, you were great!”
Tommy does his best to deal with all this, but he’s completely unequipped. In his film, there’d be a beach, the bullies would all be men, and the most he’d get would be a punch to the jaw which he could shrug off manfully before teaching them a lesson and getting on to the important business of the timing trial challenge against the conniving Dean of Hot Rod U. Instead, Varla hits him with a karate chop to the wrist. “Look, I don’t know what your point is,” he sputters, as all his tropes collapse around him.
“The point is of no return – and you’ve reached it!” says Varla. There’s really no coming back from a line like that, except there is because Varla gives him a last chance. Too late! The fight starts and immediately they’re both rolling around on the sand on top of each other – Tommy is a gentleman of the old school and goes straight for the strangling, presumably having finally realised that he is a man without a genre and can give in to any base desire Party Beach has forbidden him.
But Varla gets the upper hand and karate chops him right in the ribs, neck and face. “You can still drive away, Buster!” she snarls, proving how flexible the point of no return can be – Tommy isn’t having it and goes for the gut punch. Fuck you, Elvis, Meyer thinks from behind the camera.
More fool Tommy – in possibly the film’s most iconic shot, and the one that made Tura Satana a household name and favourite of drive-in buffs everywhere, Varla gets him on his front, grabs his arms and snaps his spine like a breadstick. If you’ve got a walnut and a pair of nutcrackers, you can hear the noise it makes for yourself.
Linda faints dead away off-camera, and on Varla’s orders the gang plant the stiff in his heap and then kidnap her, the better to flee from one wrecked genre straight into another. But first, the return of Mickey Foxx! Playing the part of F Rufus Owens.
In other words, the gang head straight from a murder to a gas station, which all seems vaguely familiar. If we’re going to be discussing genres at war, we should be mentioning Meyer’s home genre – let’s just call it Meyer – and the similarities between this film and Motorpsycho. The group dynamics of Varla’s gang are an almost exact match for Brahmin’s: the psychotic killer in the lead role, backed up by the lovesick second-in-command and the kooky third wheel with the transistor fixation. (Billie doesn’t get hers out as often as Slick, but her constant demand for kicks makes a good counterpoint to his beatnik stupor.) According to McDonough, Meyer informed wife Eve that he was going to do the same flick with three bad girls, and to an extent that’s what came to pass. To a greater extent, it’s its own thing, unequalled before or since – but genre-wise, it’s Meyer through and through.
Gas stations come up a lot in the Meyer genre, and this is one for the ages. As the girls park up, Mickey Foxx comes bumbling out to the accompaniment of some comedic music and attempts to get gas in Varla’s new-fangled Porsche contraption, with its push-button gas tank malarkey. This lasts roughly two billion years. Afterwards, gazing into the valley of Varla as he smears her windshield with a dirty rag, he burbles something about the thrill of the open road and seeing America. “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!”
While Mickey Foxx does his thing, the girls discuss the murder at length without using their indoor voices. Varla’s given Linda a magic pill that’ll keep her out for a couple of hours, but she remains the only witness. “Not the only witness!” declaims Varla, “But then you two couldn’t really be called witnesses! Willing, helpful witnesses – people who coulda stopped something from happening but didn’t – in California they’re called accessories to the crime!” It’s almost like she’s blaming Rosie and Billie for not stopping her earlier. She kept warning Tommy off as well – once she starts on a course, it’s up to other people to deflect her or get out of the way before something fatal happens. Then again, this is the only time we’ll hear anything close to a regret out of her.
It’s a good speech, but Billie trumps it immediately. “Oh, you’re cute! Like a velvet glove cast in iron – and like the gas chamber, Varla, a real fun gal!” Wait, what? Was that a pun? Rosie calms them both down, and Billie turns her back on the argument – and, like a quantum physicist creating the result of an experiment by observing it, conjures Dennis Busch as The Vegetable (no other name is ever given), a truck, and a large barrel for him to demonstrate his muscles on, where previously there was only the empty air. “Muscles up to his ears,” according to Mickey Foxx, and the sight of him turns Billie into the wolf from an old Looney Tunes short. “Whatta hunka stuff! Wooo!” she yells, and if her eyes could spring out and her tongue unfurl like a carpet, they would.
“He’s kind of a nut,” says Mickey helpfully, “and his old man’s a bigger one – hey, there’s the old man now, that’s him!” And suddenly The Vegetable is carrying Stuart Lancaster (yes, even he) into his truck. Mention the name and he is created out of whole cloth.
Thank God Mickey Foxx understands the principles of magic and thinks to imbue his creation with additional personality traits! “The old man’s a cripple! Railroad accident! Smashed him up real bad! Tried to save a girl! Kinda queered his mind, too, especially about women! ‘Course, they gave him a big hunk o’ money for a settlement! Don’t nobody know how much it was! Never has deposited it! Like I say, he’s a nut! Don’t believe in banks! My guess is he hid it out there in the desert someplace! Hates everybody, though! Hates everybody! ‘Course, with all that money he can afford to! Don’t nobody like him neither! Why, he could leave town tomorrow and nobody’d even stir! Hm! Kinda sad though! All that money an’ nobody to enjoy it!”
Anyone reminded of the bit in Futurama where the Professor witters on about the vast fortune he’s bequeathed Leela, while leaning over a large pit of carnivorous animals (“Mmm, yes! After I die, you’ll be a very wealthy woman! After I die! Because you’re so unimpulsive! Mmm yes, after I die…”) is not alone. Varla immediately takes the bait and the gang follow Old Man Stuart Lancaster and The Vegetable into yet another drive-in genre. We’re entering Herschell Gordon Lewis territory.
After swiftly establishing a cover story that casts the trio as some sort of Charlie’s Angels-style troupe of private eyes, the girls snip their way in through the single strand of barbed wire at the back of Stewart Lancaster’s 60 acres of desert and broken machinery – “smashed cars, busted-out buses – but all good stashes!” The money could be pretty much anywhere, so Varla decides to investigate further by eavesdropping on Stewart Lancaster’s ramshackle shack, leaving instructions with Billie to slip the bound and gagged Linda another magical pill if she makes a fuss.
“White ones for the nod-off,” Billie responds sarcastically, or something-ally, “and yellow ones for the big wake-up. And whatcha got for sin, Varla?”
“That depends, Boom-boom, on whatcha got in mind! When you decide, let me know!” Varla snarls, which is one way of admitting that she, like the audience, doesn’t have a clue what Billie’s talking about. It’s apparently some kind of power play, as Rosie gives Billie a warning about going too far and getting her hide “tacked to a tree.”
“Ha ha ha!” Billie laughs, laughingly. “Sometimes I see her try and figure me. I can’t even figure myself!” If she’s not willing to, we’ll have a go: Billie’s ‘kooky’ on the surface, in a kind of 60s-screenwriter’s idea of teenage cuteness, but underneath there’s a current of malevolence that veers occasionally into outright self-destruction in her need to make something happen. “It’s kicks,” as she says later on – as we’ll see, she’s the spanner waiting to enter the soup in this situation. Varla and Stewart Lancaster have their plots and plans, but it’s Billie who’s the random factor in both.
What kind of plans does Stewart Lancaster have? Follow Varla to a window overlooking the Lancaster kitchen table, where he’s expounding to the Vegetable about how his other son, Kirk, is getting all fired up with fancy book learnin’. We haven’t properly met Kirk yet, but suffice it to say he’s more of a Jim than a Cory Maddox.
The Vegetable symbolically rubs his face with a cat:
As Varla listens in, Stewart Lancaster warms to his theme. “Fifty bucks for three lousy books – and there ain’t a picture in one of ‘em! Yeah, he forgets easy what that money cost me… just waiting for me to die… or maybe just kill me and take it. But we won’t let ‘im, will we boy… boy?”
Slowly, the Vegetable stumbles over the words. “What… d’you want me to do, paw? Git… another girl?” WAIT WHAT HOLD ON
Yes, Varla’s stumbled onto the classic psychotic hillbilly family trope, of which more later. Lancaster admonishes his hulking spawn – “You were too rough the last time! … When you hurt somebody, the authorities get aroused!” And not just the authorities! Stewart Lancaster’s clearly having the time of his life as he slobbers, drools and heavy-breathes his way through the part – it’s the kind of role previously earmarked for Hal Hopper, but presumably the quumphing one was unavailable. “We’ll pay ‘em back, boy…” snarls the unshaven Lancaster, hair wild, eyes gazing off into who knows what. “Every woman a payment!”
And that’s when Kirk arrives, grabs hold of the snooping Varla’s arm and tugs her away from the window. “See anything interesting?” he drones. Not anymore! (It’s hard to describe just how wooden Paul Trinka’s acting is in this film, but we’ll make many attempts.)
“What’s with the strong-arm bit, or couldn’t ya tell I was a girl?” Varla growls, wrenching her arm away. The question sets up a riff that lasts through the rest of the film – Varla as something gender-fluid, as those who observe her can’t decide if she’s Woman, Man or Animal. When the people she leaves in her wake aren’t comparing her to a man, they’re calling her a savage beast, as we’ll see in a moment as Stewart Lancaster bursts instantly onto the scene like the magical tulpa he is.
Somehow he’s gotten from the kitchen table to the front porch in roughly three seconds, which includes the time he took to grab a shotgun. Varla gives him a cover story about needing water for their roadsters, and Lancaster responds with this puzzling outburst:
“They let ‘em smoke, vote and drive, even put ‘em in pants, so whaddya get? A Democrat for President, a lotta smoke up your chimney, Russian roulette on the highway – you can’t even tell brother from sister, less you meet ‘em head on!”
Varla, unperturbed by this blast of reactionary gobbledegook, negotiates for a little water, an exchange that reveals that a) there are no phones, and b) the desert is VERY DANGEROUS (cut to The Vegetable, staring ominously). As mentioned before, we’re now lodged firmly in the Psycho Hillbilly Family Torments Passing Travellers genre; what’s interesting is that this particular genre hasn’t really sprung into full flower yet.
Faster, Pussycat came out a year after 2000 Maniacs, which is the earliest clear-cut example of the ‘Killbilly’ trope we’ve been able to find – presumably it evolved out of cultural stereotypes, ‘educational’ roughies and possibly even news stories of real-life killers such as Ed Gein – but it’s almost a decade before things really get codified with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (People who’ve studied horror films more than we have can probably create a whole ‘ascent of man’ style chart of slasher movies, with Faster, Pussycat as an early hominid.) But the important thing is that any genre Stewart Lancaster can bring kicking and screaming from the future, Tura Santana can tear down around his ears – as we’ll see.
As Varla walks away to the accompaniment of a breathy saxophone, Lancaster gives us what might be our first beast analogy:
“She’s a cold one, all right… more stallion than mare. Too much for one man to handle.” Another cut to The Vegetable. “Then again, you never can tell… she might just gentle down real nice with the right halter.” And here we cut to Paul Trinka, doing his best impression of a wax dummy. It’s setting things up for down the line, although Varla’s the one to be doing any haltering.
Smash cut to an areolae-grazing shot of Billie, as topless as the unusually restrained camera dares to show under the water Varla’s just blagged. There’s some chit-chat about whether to off the clearly traumatised Linda, who spends most of her time ungagged tearfully begging for her life – even Varla, who’s arguing for keeping her alive, looks at her like she’s watching a fly climb a window. She claims to have her reasons for showing mercy – maybe that buried guilt reflex flickering into life again – but a minute later she’s coldly discussing the kid’s upcoming fate along with everyone else.
Then the conversation turns to Stewart Lancaster – he’s a “sick character” with a “thing for women”, Varla helpfully tells anyone who went to get a hotdog during the earlier scene – and once again, speaking the old man’s name summons him into existence:
Another of the director’s classic “arse framing” shots here. Meyer does a lot of bum-based work for such a renowned tit man – we found ourselves wondering if this influence spread into other movies or, perhaps, comic books. Many comic artists are known for cramming the giant, quivering rear ends of the female cast into the shot whether the plot demands it or not – maybe they’re emulating this great master (or ‘arse-ster’ if you will) of the art. See also Frank Miller for more Amazonian sex workers butt-cropped in a colour palate like a Calvinist’s moral worldview.
Anyway, never mind the trashy peccadilloes of a gutter medium, we’ve got Russ Meyer to talk about. “You girls a buncha nudists, or are you just short of clothes?” leers Lancaster, suggesting some costume decisions that never made it to the finished film – then his face drops. “Why’d ya have that girl tied and gagged?” he mutters, despite the fact that Linda’s neither tied nor gagged at this point and Lancaster’s never seen her before in his life. He really is some kind of magical creature who’s everywhere at once at all times, although it doesn’t do him much good in the long run.
Meanwhile, The Vegetable eats some fruit. More often than not, when he’s onscreen, he’s chomping at something – an apple, a chicken leg, whatever this is:
A lemon? An egg? We’re not sure. It’s presumably some visual metaphor for the unspeakable appetites he’s been trained by Stuart Lancaster to express.
After another round of cover stories, the old man invites them up to the shack for lunch. “Like, what’s the old man planning for the main course, us?” asks Billie once he’s out of earshot, veering back towards the killbilly genre, but Varla is still in full control of this narrative and steps on the question hard. Varla proves her power by stalking off into the desert and completely out of the movie for a good ten minutes, taking Rosie with her and leaving Billie behind, fuming. Like Slick, she’s had about enough of the leadership, but she’s not nearly so docile.
Cut back to Lancaster on the porch, slavering at The Vegetable as yet more fruit goes in the boy’s mouth. “What do you think of our guests, boy? BOY LISTEN TO ME! Fate threw us this package – now all we gotta do is untie them pretty ribbons! And we know how to do that, don’t we boy? Yeah, and all that land to hide them ribbons in when we’re done with ‘em… that young’un! Tender as a cottontail! And we gotta save her from those girls, boy, you hear me now? We gotta save her!” He’s got an odd definition of saving someone, but never mind that because the girls are here – Billie, anyway. The others are still on break.
She’s showing an interest in The Vegetable, and Lancaster’s happy to oblige if it means he gets some time alone with Linda – neither of them particularly bother to hide their intentions. Unfortunately Billie gets the short end of the deal – she gets to ogle the Vegetable while he lifts weights and sweats, like some two-person gender-reversal of the opening scene, but then all her dreadful chat-up lines wilt in his bewildered and vaguely offended face. Presumably he’s unaccustomed to dealing with women without his father nearby to gurn and bellow darkly about PAYMENTS.
That list of chat-up lines in full:
“You got yourself quite a playroom here, buster – what you need now is a playmate.”
“I may not be much in the muscle department – but I got a few things going for me too, y’know.”
“What you need is a manager – yeah, ten per cent of your action’d be enough for anyone.”
“I never took no courses in anatomy, but from what I can see – you got two of everything, and some left over.”
“I don’t know what you’re training for, but as far as I’m concerned – you’re ready.”
“Look! Me Jane! You Tarzan! Now why don’t you drop that tree you’re holding and let’s grab a vine and swing a little, huh?” (That’s enough – Ed.)
That’s enough, because SCREAM! CRASH! And the next thing we see is Lancaster on the ground, complaining about the dangerous hellcat who knocked him out of his chair and took off.
Billie and The Vegetable hightail it after her on Stewart Lancaster’s command – while he fondles a fistful of Linda’s shirt like a crushed gardenia. “We got unfinished business, her and me…”
Cut to a dishevelled Linda in the desert, frantically flagging down Paul Trinka’s truck. He responds to this development with all the incisiveness and charm we’ve come to expect. “So who’s after you, huh? The cottontails, maybe? Or did your boyfriend make you walk home?” Ah, nothing like a joke about date rape to break the ice with a traumatised teenager in a state of undress. When Linda sobs semi-incoherently that her boyfriend is DEAD, DEAD, DEAD, our man Kirk responds with “Just relax for a minute and tell me all about it,” in the manner of someone who can’t understand precisely what the fuss is about. This goes on for a couple of minutes – Linda pleads desperately for help, Kirk asks her to please define the meaning of ‘help’ so he can provide this ‘help’ she seems so bizarrely set on receiving, the foolish female. Eventually, he decides that the best form of ‘help’ is bringing her right back to the shack she just escaped from, and, as usual, when she tearfully tries to make him understand even the slightest word of English coming out of her face, he blows her off with a confused expression. Or maybe his regular expression. It’s difficult to tell.
“I live here!” he says exasperatedly, unable to understand why this strange girl-creature should be ejecting saline from her seeing-glands. “This is my home!” cue musical STAB and Linda screaming for all she’s worth as Varla – who’s returned to the narrative after proving that Billie can’t run it without her – drags her off.
(We’re very definitely in ‘slasher’ territory now – in fact we’re pretty sure Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a bit where the final girl ran into a helpful stranger on the road who turned out to be one of the murderous clan. Our hominid theory is now so sound we’re thinking of making a t-shirt.)
Kirk storms off – well, more drizzles off – for a back-and-forth with the old man about exactly who those mysterious she-devils are, and we cut from that to a different kind of back-and-forth as Varla slaps the living bejesus out of a freshly-gagged Linda. While Varla and Rosie argue – Rosie wanting to simply kill the kid, Varla preferring to offer her up as a sacrifice to Stuart Lancaster – Lancaster himself spins the same feeble story that Varla span him, putting a little extra sugar on it for his boy’s sake, before the topic of conversation turns to The Vegetable’s whereabouts. “What, you reckon he needs chaperonin’?” chuckles Lancaster, and if that’s not a cue I don’t know what is.
Smash cut to go-go boots writhing on the sand as Billie and The Vegster enjoy an epic makeout session – one that’s interrupted by the parp of a passing train. Train bring pain! The Vegetable curls into a near-foetal position over a dead log, unable to block his ears to the sinister sound of locomotion. “You got a thing for trains? I’ll buy you one,” yells Billie, but where once trains symbolised doing it, now they’re the harbingers of impotence. An unusually verbose Vegetable makes his excuses and leaves Billie high and dry.
Cut to another shower scene, possibly to give the audience some insight into Billie’s frustration as once again Russ cuts off the nips a notable subsection of the punters paid to see. Meyer blamed the film’s initial box-office failure on having disappointed boob-hounds like himself, and right now we’re having trouble thinking of any of his future films that make the same choice. In some ways, this was as tasteful as Meyer ever got. We’ll see what lessons he takes from this in the future (hint: ‘more tasteful’ is not one of them).
Re-enter Billie – “You were a long time coming!” “You’re tellin’ me!” – and a bit of catch-up exposition for anyone who went for a beer. Lunch is going ahead and Varla’s going to keep Stuart Lancaster busy by dangling Linda in front of him like a worm on a hook. Meanwhile, Kirk’s bringing in the supplies – Lancaster snags a bottle of hooch, and when his son objects, he summons a train whistle from the ether to make his point before angrily punching his own leg.
“Sound your warning,” he intones at the clattering behemoth in the distance, “send your message! Huff and puff and belch your smoke… and kill! And maim! And run off unpunished!” Kirk comes out to see if he can blandify the proceedings a bit and we get a brief stilted conversation about The Vegetable, in which it’s once again made clear that he’s been killing girls for his paw in case anyone in the audience went out for a steak dinner. The script is nothing if not accommodating. And then it’s time for lunch!
It’s a classier (and less anthropophagous) spread than Killbilly films are used to – celery, bread, grapes, milk, chicken, it’s all healthful stuff, although the only thing Billie’s after is the beefcake. “Breast or thigh?” she coos, while Lancaster backs her up with “they both look tender” and “he’s got a big motor to feed!” and then makes this face:
Lunch is one of those great scenes where everybody wants something, even if it’s just picking at each other’s scabs, and all the wants collide with each other until something breaks. Kirk wants his questions about Linda answered; Varla wants Kirk buttered up so he’ll spill the beans on the loot and stop asking questions, and she’s got a fair idea how to achieve that:
Stuart Lancaster wants to letch after Linda, Linda wants to climb into a shell like a hermit crab, Rosie wants the scriptwriter to remember she exists and the Vegetable just wants chicken. But the biggest wanter at the table is Billie, who – if she can’t have the Vegetable – wants booze, the shit stirred, and self-destruction, in that order. Her constant prodding – all but coming right out and confessing in between mouthfuls – earns her a vicious backhand from Varla, at which point Linda starts screaming “she kills! She kills with her bare hands!” and breaking down in tears. It’s left to Lancaster to sum up.
“This house knows what killing can do… and how easy it can happen accidentally.” Cut to The Vegetable. “He killed when he was born – without knowin’. He was big then, even then – and he killed his mother, and he doesn’t even know it! And I can’t tell him or explain it… I just hate him! And he’s my blood. My son!”
Dennis Busch, as you can see, looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly or even eat one politely, which puts the onus of all this suppressed violence right back on Lancaster, where it clearly belongs. During the earlier porch confrontation, Kirk murders the line “What he is now, you made him!” and we’ll see where that thread goes as the movie goes on.
Kirk, once again glossing over a mental breakdown happening inches away from him, decides the best thing to do is to get the old man out of there before any other interesting things happen and declares the end of the lunch scene. Varla tempts him out for some “clean desert air” and he makes this face:
…leaving Billie, Rosie and Linda alone with Billie’s ongoing urge to blow the whole plot sky-high. Rosie accuses Billie of being “already stoned” – “yeah, that’s right, I’m drunk”, Billie lilts venomously, opening the door to Lori Williams’ most magnetic performance in the film, as all Billie’s usual self-annihilating, malevolent ‘kookiness’ ramps up to another level. (In method-acting news, Lori Williams has it that she was actually drunk during this scene.) She says she does things “to feel good”, but it sounds more like it’s about everyone around her feeling bad. Immediately she opens up one of Rosie’s wounds and twists the labrys in it: “I can turn myself on a dozen different ways, but you? You’ve only got one channel, and your channel’s busy tuning in outside. You really should be AM and FM – you one-band broads are a draaag!”
Shades of friend Slick in those transistor metaphors! But Rosie’s not having any of it, in many ways: “You’re a fool! You’re bagged out with sauce!” Billie swiftly goads her into leaving to (cough) get their things ready, and then immediately warns Linda that it’s “passin’-out time”. For all of Billie’s talk about always giving herself a choice, it feels at the moment like she’s got no choice in any situation but to tear everything down and frug on the ruins. Close on this…
…smash-cutting to that. A sleazy trumpet blares as Varla works on Kirk, getting him to open up about his deranged dad. “You hate him,” Trinka drones, “but you’re like him in many ways.” But not that many, his eyes say as they remain glued a foot south of hers. “You’re a beautiful animal – and I’m weak! And I want you! Badly I want you!” And back in he goes for another dose. It’s the only time in the film he seems fully animated. Varla doesn’t see what’s so weak about wanting stuff – “it’s what makes the world run.” So what does she want? “Everything – or as much as I can get. Right now you’re first on my list – and I always start at the top.”
Kirk gets dragged into the nearest pile of hay as Rosie watches from behind a wooden post, clawing at it in jealous rage while Varla makes some breathily Meyeresque references to wanting it big and cups overflowing while the background horn music goes crazy. It’s the verbal equivalent of those wilderness cutaways Meyer’s used to represent sex in the past. “There’s so much of you,” croaks Kirk, like a drowning man, “so damn awful much!” “Don’t talk it – do it,” growls Varla, “just do it!” and that’s what sends Rosie running weeping into the arms of the main plot.
While we’ve been watching Varla consume Kirk, Linda’s done a runner again! Stuart Lancaster and The Vegetable are racing to find her, which means somebody else better get there first, and that somebody turns out to be Varla and Kirk, who get packing in the Porsche, leaving Rosie to seethe even more as Kirk takes her place in the car as well as the haybale.
The race through the desert coincides with a race through any exposition the audience might not have guessed as Lancaster and Trinka lay out all the details. “I tell you boy, she’s so like the one I saved that day I got hurt, I thought she was a ghost when I first seen her! She’s just as pretty, boy, only I ain’t a-savin’ this one.” mutters Lancaster as he and the Vegetable scan the wastes. Meanwhile, Trinka delivers the rest of the information in his usual dead monotone – Lancaster was helping a girl get on a moving train, but fell under the wheels. “The girl caught the next train,” he finishes, giving the anecdote a savage full stop.
The genres almost seem to have switched tracks again, aligning with Motorpsycho’s uneasy alliance – it’s easy, in the moment, to see Varla and Kirk as a heroic duo, especially when the old man finally spots Linda and sics The Vegetable on her. “You know what to do, boy! Just like before!” Face twisted into an unholy grimace, the Vegetable runs Linda down and starts grappling with her in the sand, as Lancaster flops out of the truck and starts dragging himself closer to the action, yelling incoherent encouragement.
As Varla and Kirk arrive on the scene, the Vegetable lumbers towards a screaming Linda like some hulking Frankenstein:
Before breaking down in tears as the old man’s sinister influence is broken. “I no mean to! I’m sorry!” While Lancaster crawls away like a snake, happy-ending music swells on the soundtrack, and for a second this looks like it might be the end of the film – some kind of salvation and redemption for everyone involved.
But, as usual, Varla breaks the genre:
“Everybody’s sorry! I’ve made some funny scenes before, but this cops it! You got to win it, the big award! What’s it called, Gulliver? ‘I Love Everybody’? Or ‘Something From My Childhood’? Are you nuts? Protecting two kooks – they tried to rape this girl, do you hear me?” The sweet-sad music is obliterated by the signature snarl of a saxophone. Maybe it’s this speech that finally turns Kirk against her.
“I can’t help but hear you!” he responds, feebly. “It’s over now, nobody’s hurt!” Linda seems willing to accept this logic, as well as Kirk’s helping hand – she’s evidently forgotten how that went before. He’s probably the closest thing to her alignment she’ll find in this desert, though.
She and Kirk end up walking back to the ranch, while the old man and the Vegetable trick their way into getting the truck. “I don’t aim to have that threesome prowling my property no longer,” he growls, but Varla’s already rejoined Rosie and Billie (who appears to be curing her drunk with more beer.)
Varla’s plan is simple but effective – she’s going to kill everyone and cover their tracks that way. Billie’s not convinced, and not even the threat of the gas chamber is enough to bring her around. Like Slick before her, she’s splitting from the group, and like Slick, she ends face down in the dirt. Varla makes Rosie an instant accomplice by using her knife to do the deed.
No sooner is Billie gasping her last than Stuart Lancaster rounds the corner. Varla has a plan for that, too: “Drive, and don’t miss.”
Stuart Lancaster’s plan is to have the Vegetable pass him a shotgun, but his son is too busy being distracted by Billie’s corpse. Lancaster, his stony heart melted, speaks: “She weren’t a bad little blossom, kinda full of life. Treat her gently, son. Put her in the house.” It’s a eww-logy for the ages. Angrily, he makes a promise to notify the sheriff “real soon”, but under the harsh stare of the Porshe’s headlights – and with a high kerb between himself and his armament – he’s left with no choice but to gun himself, kamikaze-style, at the oncoming car, in a sick twist on the chicken-run from the beginning. The moment of collision seems to be represented by Lancaster gently pushing himself out of his wheelchair in sped-up motion, but that’s more than made up for by this face:
Naturally, the stash of cash was in his wheelchair the whole time!
Mickey Foxx summoned them both from the aether together, so it only makes sense. Varla starts scooping up the cash while sending Rosie for the knife that’s still embedded in Billie’s spine. The only problem is that it’s now being guarded by The Vegetable, who now seems to have forgotten how death works, never mind that he’s presumably caused plenty of it. “She doesn’t… move! Or… laugh… anymore!” he grunts. He must have been hard-up for laughter if Billie’s sociopathic cackle was the best he could get, but then again being stuck in a shack with Paul Trinka will do that to you. Anyway, he cottons on quick – “Is… the knife… yours?”
Rosie denies it, but The Vegetable is mesmerised by the chocolate sauce coating the blade and gives it back to her business end first. “I’ll… give… you the knife! Knife… is yours… to keep now!”
This grisly bit of poetic justice does not play well with Varla, who emits a terrifying scream of rage and guns the Porsche right into the Vegetable’s ribs, this time actually seeming to hit Dennis Busch square on at a good eighty miles an hour. We suspect a crash dummy and some very slick editing. Not sure why they didn’t do that with Stuart Lancaster – maybe they only had the one dummy.
Or maybe it’s to highlight how unlikely it is that the Vegetable still lives! But live he does, enough to crawl to the nearest wall to prop himself up – whereupon Varla roars forward to squash him like a bug against it. But the Vegetable will not be a squash! Instead, it’s man versus machine in a disturbingly coital shoving match:
“A musclebound cat wrestling with a roaring sports car that’s intent upon crushing him like a grape!” is how Russ described this scene in the trailer, and it’s a doozy – a sweating, gurning, teeth-gritting, engine-revving, wheel-spinning minute of pure physicality that is, in its own weird way, the most sexual scene so far. (Kirk and Varla’s make-out session came close, but it had Kirk in it.)
Eventually, the Vegetable kills the Porsche – grinding its wheels into the sand – but he’s left a crawling shell of his former self in the process. “That’s two outta three falls!” snarls Varla, leaving him clutching his broken innards in the dust.
Cut to Kirk and Linda – the saps – who’ve been poncing around in the desert this whole time. They’re running desperately away from nothing in particular, so Varla turns up in the truck to give them something real to cry about. “My brother can’t drive like that!” Kirk gasps, as the truck veers to and fro in what is obviously a particularly sinister fashion. Then it’s off to the races! Varla chases the insipid pair down on-road, off-road, across train tracks and finally into a rocky cul-de-sac, where Linda swoons helpfully against a rock.
“Your old man’s been blasted out of his wheels,” Varla tells Kirk, “and your king-size brother’s been twisted like a pretzel! You’re all that’s left, lover – and you ain’t gonna be around for long!”
To his credit, Kirk puts up a good fight – better than Tommy – but he’s no match for Varla’s deadly karate chops, and pretty soon she’s got him in backbreaker position and is whittling him down like an old chair leg. But what’s this? Linda makes a dash for the truck and ploughs it into Varla before she can get out of the way. Varla tries to get in one last karate chop to put Kirk out of our misery once and for all, but unfortunately she finally succumbs to the force of narrative and dies.
Linda has become the thing she feared most – a woman with initiative – but not really because she promptly bursts out crying in Kirk’s manly arms. “I killed her like she was an animal! Like she was nothing!” she blubs.
“She was nothing – nothing human,” intones Kirk, in the voice of a man studying the racing form. “A real Jekyll and Hyde. Hey, you saved my life so stop crying, huh?” OH GOD IT’S WORSE THAN I THOUGHT, screams Linda – oh no, that was us.
“I guess I saved my own,” says Linda, crying some more at the very thought. “Are you gonna just leave her there?”
“She’s not going anywhere…” mutters Kirk, which is true – out of all Meyer’s heroines, Varla’s the one that sticks. When you think Russ Meyer, likely as not, it’s Tura Satana you see, breaking a man’s back without a thought. She’s not going anywhere.
And LE FIN.
DESIGNATED SAP: Kirk – apologies to the late Paul Trinka, who we have been extraordinarily harsh on and probably unfairly maligned during this, but boy oh boy do we hate Kirk. Although Tommy might give him some trouble in the sap department if he hadn’t blatantly wandered in from another film where saps are held in deep regard. Plus honourable sap mentions for the pre-credit gallery of sweatsocks.
BECAUSE YOU CAN DIE THERE: It’s all desert, all the time, except for that black void – although it all seems curiously non-fatal. Half the characters pop out for a stroll across it without turning a hair.
OF ITS TIME: This car.
This car. And this car.
Thwarted gay/callous bisexual pairing (see also: the craptacular 1970 film adaptation of Loot, most women in prison movies.). See also also: squirming, submissive bi/big angry homo (Villain, The Killing of Sister George)
ONE-HIT WONDERS: Dennis Busch, as The Vegetable. The only Meyer man John Waters would have had a go on, apparently.
POPPED UP WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT: A new category inaugurated, simply to point out that Ray Barlow – aka Tommy – was on The Goodies.
FAMILIAR FACES: John Furlong making that astonishing speech at the start. Stuart Lancaster. Mickey Foxx. And, of course, Haji.
WHERE’S RUSS?: Nowhere! And yet everywhere!
BREAST COUNT: Zero, to Russ’s later regret.
NEXT TIME: We get hammered to properly appreciate the informative documentary Mondo Topless.