Friday, July 21, 2017

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

“Ladies and Gentlemen – Welcome to violence,” are the words heard via voiceover narration as the narrator links the act of violence with sex. He then goes on to espouse the virtues of women before offering a warning:

“Handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, anytime, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!”

Smash cut to the movie’s three protagonists strutting their stuff to a bunch of desperate-looking slobs urging them on while the catchy theme song by the Bostweeds plays over the soundtrack. Welcome to the wild world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Welcome to the world of Russ Meyer.

Meyer was a filmmaker that made a name for himself in the 1960s by directing a series of modestly budgeted, financially successful sexploitation movies rife with campy humor, satire of traditional American values, and featuring his number one obsession: big-breasted women. The last motif was featured prominently in every movie with at least one if not several voluptuous women. His most well-known movie remains Faster, Pussycat!, a pulpy tale of three go-go dancers that partake in a deadly crime spree in the California desert. It was not a financial success at the time but went on to develop a sizable cult following and proved to be a significant influence on popular culture, from music (White Zombie) to comic books (Daniel Clowes) to cinema (Quentin Tarantino).

We’re only two minutes into the movie and already Meyer has given us a lot to think about with the voiceover narration that is sexist and yet intentionally melodramatic in tone as the filmmaker slyly pokes fun at the attitudes of the times where men were expected to work while their wives stayed at home and raised the children. Meyer skewers the notion of male panic where they might feel threatened if women actually had some power thereby setting up the battle of the sexes struggle that dominates the movie. The three go-go dancers are shot from a low angle so that they appear larger than life while the men that slobber over them are shot from a high angle so that we are looking down on them, which only reinforces how pathetic they are – pretty heady stuff for an exploitation movie.

Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) are the aforementioned go-go dancers that head out on the open road in their speedy sports cars. Billie races off on her own much to Varla’s chagrin. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Varla is the leader, ordering Rosie to get Billie out of the lake she found and jumped in. This gives Meyer the opportunity to stage a fight between two soaking wet women, first in the water and then in the sand until Varla breaks it up. She settles the beef by playing a game of chicken with Rosie and Billie, which she, of course, wins. Varla has nerves of steel and the confidence to back it up.

The three women cross paths with a man named Tommy (Ray Barlow) and his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard). He also has a sports car and enjoys racing it in time trials. Billie challenges Tommy to race her, Varla and Rosie. He manages to beat them all until Varla cheats and nearly causes him to crash. She then proceeds to bully Linda and challenges Tommy to a fight. It’s a drag down, nasty brawl with Varla killing him with her bare hands. Varla kidnaps Linda, who has passed out from shock, and they all hightail it out of there.

While getting gas for their cars, the women hear about a local wheelchair-bound recluse known as the Old Man (Stuart Lancaster) that’s sitting on a bunch of money. Varla decides to check it out and see if she can get her hands on the money but she’ll have to get past his two sons – a simple-minded muscle-bound hulk referred to as the Vegetable (Dennis Busch), whom Billie works her charms on, and Kirk (Paul Trinka), a much smarter, savvier person whom Varla targets, using her considerable assets to captivate. The rest of the movie plays out a battle of wills between Varla and the Old Man.

There is an interesting dynamic between the three women. They aren’t friends per se and whatever their relationship is becomes strained after Varla kills Tommy and only gets worse when they arrive at the ranch, their uneasy alliance put to the test with Varla’s latest criminal scheme.

Varla is a cocky bully as evident in the way she relentlessly taunts Tommy and Linda, provoking him into a fight, and, a little later, making fun of a not-too bright gas station attendant. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially men. In her all-black outfit and leather gloves, Varla is quite a sight to behold and Tura Satana goes for it, diving into the role with gusto.

Billie is the sex kitten always looking for a good time. She is the rebellious one that sometimes doesn’t do what she’s told. Rosie is Varla’s enforcer and lover. She doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, basically doing whatever she’s told to do while also worrying about Varla’s schemes.

The Old Man is an odd duck gone crazy with a skewed view of women; bringing them up to his remote ranch only for the Vegetable to get too rough with them. “What they know about hurtin’ and pain?” he says at one point. “We’re paying them back, boy. Each woman a payment.” He’s a sexist pig that hates Hippies and Democrats, clashing with the liberated Varla.

The movie is riddled with fantastic, memorable pulpy dialogue, like when Varla tells Tommy, “I never try anything. I just do it. Like I don’t beat clocks just people.” There are also some hilarious exchanges between characters, like when Linda offers Rosie a soft drink and the replies, “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we touch is hard!”

For an exploitation movie, Faster, Pussycat! is beautifully shot by Walter Schenk in richly textured black and white. For example, there is a scene where Billie seduces the Vegetable and Meyer’s camera lingers over his naked, muscular upper torso, objectifying him in a way that is normally done to women. The movie also features crackerjack editing by Meyer himself, especially during the action sequences. The editing adds to the kinetic nature of the chase sequences and fight scenes, each with their own specific rhythm.

The impetus for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was pretty simple for Russ Meyer: “I had men kicking the shit out of the women, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we do one where the women kick the shit out of the men?’” To bring this vision to life, he enlisted ex-child actor John E. “Jack” Moran, who had appeared in Gone With the Wind (1939) and others but had wasted away his money on alcohol. The two men met through a mutual army buddy and Moran told Meyer that in return for the screenplay he wanted Writers Guild minimum pay (paid in cash), a cheap motel room, and a bottle of booze. Four days later, he had completed a script entitled, The Leather Girls, but it wasn’t easy because of Moran’s alcoholism. Meyer would lock him in the room and not let him out until the end of the day where he’d be rewarded with a jug of alcohol.

When it came to casting, Meyer picked Lori Williams to play Billie, the sexpot go-go dancer. She was from Pittsburgh and at 18 had already been in beach-party and Elvis movies. Meyer initially didn’t want to hire her as he didn’t think her breasts were big enough, but told her, “we’ll pad you up and that’s how I got it.” She was also responsible for her character’s outfit. Haji was cast as Rosie, Varla’s lover, but Meyer didn’t tell her or Tura Satana that their characters were lesbians until deep into filming as it was a taboo topic back then.

Satana had already been in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963) and wasn’t crazy about auditioning for Meyer as she knew his reputation. She also didn’t want to do any nudity. Satana read the script and told Meyer that Varla needed to “have a little more balls,” and it was then he knew he had found his Varla. The two clashed during filming, most notably when he told her about his no sex rule for cast and crew during filming. She balked at this, telling him, “I need it every day, and if I don’t get it I get very cranky. If you want me to give you a good performance, I need to be relaxed. And that relaxes me.” The director relented but demanded that the actress not tell anyone else. She picked the assistant cameraman to hook up with during the shoot.

The bulk of Faster, Pussycat! was shot around Lake Isabella, Randsburg, and Johannesburg with the latter two being mining ghost towns near the Mojave Desert. The Old Man’s ranch was located just out of the town of Mojave. Filming out in the desert wasn’t easy as Satana recalled that on the first day it was 110 degrees in the shade. After three hours of filming she had a sunburn. This didn’t stop her from being involved in various aspects of the production. She helped choreograph Varla’s fight scene with Tommy and was less than thrilled with Ray Barlow, the actor that played him: “Oh God, was he a chickenshit. I had to literally carry him through all those fight scenes.”

Susan Bernard’s overprotective stage mother got on the cast and crew’s nerves, demanding that her daughter get more dialogue and screen-time. Satana finally lost it when the mother referred to the Pussycats as a “bunch of whores,” and demanded she leave the location or she’d quit. Meyer wasn’t impressed with Bernard’s acting skills and enlisted Satana to provoke a reaction out of her for a given scene, which she was only willing to oblige.

After these initial speed bumps, the rest of the shoot went fairly smoothly except for the scene where Varla tries to crush the Vegetable with her car, which Satana felt should have a close-up of the tires spinning. Meyer disagreed and Satana punched a wall in frustration, breaking her hand. She went to the hospital, got it looked at, and returned to filming without telling anyone. Meyer wasn’t happy with the shot he got and tried Satana’s suggestion, grudgingly agreeing that she was right.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a fascinating B-movie where its villain is also its protagonist, played charismatically by Satana who clearly relishes her role as a larger than life character. No one or nothing seems to satisfy Varla. She wants more, leaving a destructive wake in her path. She and the Old Man are monsters that can’t be allowed to roam the countryside as they are too twisted to exist in our world and must be destroyed. It is not surprising, then, that the two most “normal” and moral characters survive. Ultimately, Faster, Pussycat! is a morality tale featuring a battle of good vs. evil told in an entertaining way by skilled showman Meyer.


SOURCES


McDonough, Jimmy. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film. Crown Publishers. 2005.

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