I’ve been doing this column for several years now and in the course of me watching a billion movies, I’ve sort of grown out of my desire to watch super weird, super crappy flicks from the land of schlock. I need a little bit more substance, and a little more awe these days. But when a movie so profoundly wallops me on the head with its complete bonkers insanity and distinct–yet twisted–vision, I just have to write about it. Friends, it took me many years, but I’ve finally seen Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
I find this trailer ridiculous for a few reasons. 1) it’s very clearly done just because there’s almost no scene from the actual movie you could put into a trailer. 2) it makes it sound like a very important, very subversive movie experience, which is only partially true. And 3) it makes Meyer sound like a genius auteur on a par with Antonioni or something. Now, I think Meyer is certainly an auteur, and maybe even a genius on some level, but the man behind movies like Vixen!, Mudhoney, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! might not be the filmmaker of our time.
Some friends and I had a double feature of Valley of the Dolls–an unintentionally campy and melodramatic portrait of women in the ’60s getting hooked on pills as they deal with the entertainment industry–and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls–an unofficial non-sequel which is very intentionally campy and can’t decide if it’s a rock musical, a counterculture drug and sex celebration, a silly comedy, a gripping drama, or a straight-up horror movie. Valley is a snooze, but Beyond can’t be annoyed. To use a phrase I’ve coined before, “This movie can’t decide what the hell kinda thing it is.” And that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating.
Okay, so the plot; a girl rock group from somewhere in the Midwest made up of lead singer/guitarist Kelly (Dolly Read), bassist Casey (Cynthia Myers), and drummer Petronella “Pet” (Marcia McBroom) decides to make their way to LA to hit the big time along with their manager and Kelly’s sometimes boyfriend Harris (David Gurian). Kelly’s young aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) is a fashion photographer who apparently inherited millions from Kelly’s mom and wants to share it with her, much to her lawyer’s chagrin. Right away, they go to a party at the home of eccentric record producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), and Kelly very quickly decides LA people are more interesting than her stick-in-the-mud boyfriend and takes off, while the uber-aggressive porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams) decides she wants to make Harris her new boy toy.
This is legitimately like the first 10 minutes of the movie. It just takes off on this crazy explosion of the 1960s, from music to visual aesthetic. The rock music is AWESOME, and I’d listen to the soundtrack all the time. The screenplay for this movie was famously co-written by movie critic Roger Ebert, who, it seems, was there to facilitate Meyer’s vision. There are so many disparate elements of story and plot that it makes one dizzy. For instance, the lawyer trying to get Kelly to relinquish her claim on the inheritance pretty quickly goes away once Kelly becomes a “bad girl,” I guess caught up in the glamour of the lifestyle, and gets involved with Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), a high-priced gigolo. Aunt Susan also has a rekindled romance with an old beau (played by Charles Napier of all people) which gets maybe five minutes of total screentime.
What the movie has PLENTY of screentime for, though, is Meyer’s much-documented obsession for large-breasted women. Each of the film’s main actresses shows lots of themselves throughout the film and most of them were former Playmates or Pets. Meyer was hailed as “the king of the nudie pick” and this was his highest profile film to date, with Fox going out on a limb to legitimize the sex picture. I have no idea how Meyer got away with half of the stuff that happens in the movie, which features not only heterosexual sex scenes but homosexual ones of both varieties, and a character who–it’s revealed toward the end of the movie–is transsexual.
And it’s this bit that becomes the most problematic. The end of the movie–after all the silliness and sex and pregnancy scares and drug-addled whatever–features Casey, her girlfriend, Lance, and Z-Man at his mansion, taking peyote or whatever. But when Z-Man reveals he is a woman who is in love with Lance, the gigolo laughs at him, which sparks a nightmarish murder spree, starting with cutting off Lance’s head, putting a gun in the girlfriend’s mouth while she slept, and eventually chasing Casey down and blowing her away before Kelly and the others can arrive and stop him.
While the movie doesn’t directly say that homosexuality or LGBTQ people are psychotic, and gay relationships are presented as totally normal, it’s only the sexually “deviant” characters in the movie who get killed by the most “other” of the bunch. It was probably edgy at the time, but in 2016, it looks very painfully backward, in a way that’s totally separate from the general out-of-nowhereness of the graphically violent ending.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is an oddity, a glorious mixture of camp and psychedelia made by a filmmaker given a ton of creative freedom by a major studio. That the movie exists at all is a strange snapshot of the era, and I would never, ever, in a million years call it a “good” movie. But it is a movie that’s worth seeing once, just so you can always say to your friend, “Yo, I seent this graphically violent sex comedy movie Roger Ebert wrote.”
Images: 20th Century Fox