Sunday, 14 August 2016

Reflections on ... Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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/ The leading ladies of Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965): Haji (as Rosie, seated atop Porsche), Lori Williams (as Billie, in white hotpants) and the mighty Tura Satana (as Varla) /

From the 27 July 2016 Facebook events page:

“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 evil 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 – handles 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 anybody! Who are they? One might be your secretary! Your doctor’s receptionist! Or a dancer in a go-go club!”

Yes! The Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film selection this month is ultimate sexploitation B-movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966). Perhaps cleavage-fixated director Russ Meyer’s defining masterpiece, it follows a trio of vicious thrill-hungry go-go dancers going on a homicidal rampage in the desert.  As cinema’s sleaze maestro John Waters argues, “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is beyond a doubt the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future!”

Waters also describes butch, black-clad gang leader Varla “one of the best villains in screen history.” Varla was, of course, portrayed by the late, great tassel-twirling burlesque queen turned snarling Russ Meyer leading lady Tura Satana (1938-2011). The truly Amazonian Satana’s fierce, exotic beauty and powerful screen presence in Faster ensured her perennial cult status. Satana’s birthday would have been this month (10 July). So let’s celebrate all things Tura in an evening of dames, booze, chains and boots! It will leave a taste of evil in your mouth!

As usual: arrive circa 8 pm to order your drinks and grab the best seats. The film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. The film is FREE and seating is limited. If you’re feeling proactive, contact Fontaine’s to reserve a seat in advance: email ruby@fontaines.bar or call 07718 000546.

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"If you want wild living FAST! And if you want to end up giving your all / That’s because pussycat is living reckless / pussycat is riding high / If you think that you can tame her / Well just you try!”

Spontaneous outbreaks of frantic go-go dancing are encouraged at the FREE 27 July 2016 Lobotomy Room presentation of Russ Meyer’s vicious 1965 sexploitation cult classick Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! downstairs in The Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s!

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This was the most successful and rammed Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies club yet. About 31 attendees were crammed into the Fontaine’s basement Bamboo Lounge – our biggest crowd to date. That may not sound like much, but as far as I knew the place only seated twenty-odd people! I actually had to post an update on Facebook the night before announcing if you hadn’t reserved a seat in advance, not to come to avoid disappointment as we’d reached maximum capacity. Pal and I had to watch the film standing in the DJ booth because there was no seating left!  It’s a real testament to how beloved Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  remains well into the twenty-first century. Russ Meyer’s fifty-one year old twisted vision about homicidal go-go dancers running amok in the desert is still enflaming (warping? Corrupting?) peoples’ imaginations.

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As usual, I stood up to give a garbled, blurted introduction to the film, incorporating the following fun facts:

The film premiered in Los Angeles on 6 August 1965. Early working titles included The Leather Girls and The Mankillers.  This was veteran sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer’s fourteenth film. At the time Pussycat came and went without making much of an impression:  just another trashy low-budget B-movie for the drive-in and fleapit grindhouse circuit. (Pussycat was one of the rare Meyer films to lose money at the box office). Seen today, Tura Satana’s ferocious performance as Varla is so sensational and screen-scalding it should have heralded film stardom (even if restricted to the realm of B-movies). Instead, she simply resumed her burlesque career and only made a few more scattered minor film appearances. Lori Williams (who plays blonde sex kitten Billie) admitted that when she was getting lots of TV work in the seventies she deleted Pussycat from her résumé because it was embarrassing to be associated with it.

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Pussycat wasn’t properly re-discovered and reappraised until circa the late seventies and early eighties as scabrous young punk Baltimore filmmaker John Waters rose to prominence and began championing it in his interviews. (Waters first saw Pussycat as a teenager at a Baltimore drive-in. Intoxicated, he then dragged Divine with him to see Pussycat again). In Big Bosoms and Square Jaws (Jimmy McDonough’s essential 2005 biography of Russ Meyer), Waters would succinctly nail Pussycat’s weird allure as “a redneck lesbian killer drama, and because it was black-and -white, somehow arty”. In particular, Waters devoted a whole chapter to his to Meyer (and another of his key influences, Herschell Gordon Lewis) in his 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. Waters’ acclaim – plus The Cramps covering The Bostweeds’ theme tune and the advent of home video in the eighties – is when Pussycat’s status as a much-loved cult film revered by punks, gays, trash-hounds and feminists alike truly began.

Satana and Haji were already friends in real life before Pussycat, having worked together as exotic dancers since the early sixties. The explosive opening scene of the three women frantically go-go dancing was filmed at an actual Los Angeles burlesque club called The Pink Pussycat where Haji and Tura worked (the leering, sweaty-faced men shouting, “Go, baby! Go!” were members of the crew).

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Satana was a burlesque dancer for about 18 years, beginning when she was just 15. By all accounts Satana (real name: Suvaki Yamaguchi) endured a tough childhood and spent time in a reform school. Her ancestry was a spicy mixture of Japanese, Filipino and Cheyenne (American Indian) hence her exotic jasmine-scented looks and why she routinely billed herself as “Miss Japan Beautiful” when she was headlining strip clubs. (Tassel-twirling was her speciality).  Reading some of Satana’s more outrageous interviews, you get the impression she never let the truth get in the way of a good story. For example she claimed to have had a lengthy romance with Elvis Presley and that he proposed marriage. Who would know? Is this romance documented in any of the many Presley biographies? (Not that I begrudge her: great stars like Satana are allowed to embellish and self-mythologize as much as they like).

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/ Above: "Miss Japan Beautiful": Young Tura Satana in her striptease days /

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Of the triumvirate, only Lori Williams is still alive: Satana died in 2011 aged 72. Haji died in 2013 aged 67. Williams is now 70.

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“Billie (Lori Williams) is the femme of the group, the main things on her mind being sex and alcohol. In her white short-shorts, halter top and knee-high patent leather go-go boots, Billie is forever breaking into torrid go-go steps whenever trouble arises.” From John Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste /

For anyone interested: Satana’s bra size at the time of Pussycat was 38DD. Later in life she was 38FF. Unsurprisingly, the bra Satana wears in Pussycat is from Frederick’s of Hollywood – purveyors of glamour wear for the discerning starlet.

Satana made no secret of genuinely loathing Susan Bernard, the 16-year old actress who played perky cry-baby kidnap victim Linda.  For her part, Bernhard admitted she was actively terrified of the imposing Satana. Bernhard’s panic-stricken, tearful reactions are not acting!

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It’s unfair that Satana’s performance sometimes overshadows those of Lori Williams and Haji, who are both excellent. In particular I love Haji’s depiction of tempestuous Rosie and her thick Mexican “Spanglish” comedy accent. (In real life Haji was French-Canadian and hailed from Quebec – the same part of the world as me).  This is also Haji’s original nose in Pussycat and she was never more beautiful. In subsequent films it was dramatically whittled-down to the standard issue “electric plug socket” starlet nose job ubiquitous in the sixties.

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“(Varla’s) girlfriend Rosie (Haji) is a mean Mexican with a weakness for switchblades who emphasises her many moments of disgust by spitting or picking her teeth with whatever is handy.” From John Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste /

One thing I intended to mention in my introduction but completely forgot: the implied lesbian relationship between Varla and Rosie, which definitely contributes to Pussycat’s reputation as a LGBT favourite.  (Meyer himself would later – accurately - exclaim about Pussycat’s cult followers: “Lesbians and fags are crazy about it.”). Haji would later relate being surprised when Meyer instructed her to look stricken with jealousy and start to cry when she catches Varla making out on in the hay with a man (Paul Trinka as Kirk). Why? Meyer had never once explained to either actress they were meant to be portraying lovers. And that was mid-way through filming! Haji had no objections to playing a lesbian character, she explained - she just would have approached certain scenes differently had she known. In fact maybe Meyer not telling them was a stroke of genius. As a result, the way Varla and Rosie’s relationship is hinted-at as no big deal rather than spelled-out seems coolly nonchalant and modern. I particularly love it when Rosie snaps to attention and lights Varla’s cigarillo for her like a good submissive. No doubt who is the “top” in that couple.

Also intriguingly queer is Meyer’s appreciative filming of muscle-bound Dennis Busch as the simple-minded, childlike brain-damaged brother known as The Vegetable.  Seemingly an equal opportunity perv, Meyer’s camera lingers over Busch’s sculpted beefcake brawn almost as lovingly (lecherously?) as it does over the women’s décolletage in a surprisingly homoerotic manner. (The scene of The Vegetable pumping weights shirtless wouldn’t look out of place in an Athletic Model Guild film. I was curious if the actor Busch had done any homoerotic physique modelling in the fifties or sixties. Surely Bob Mizer would have swooped on him? A Google search didn’t reveal anything (he may have used a different nom de porn for beefcake modelling). In fact, Google revealed virtually nothing about Busch at all. His IMDb bio, for example, consists of precisely one sentence: “Dennis Busch is an actor, known for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)”. Who was he?). This is interesting because the ultra-conservative Meyer’s treatment of gay, bisexual and transsexual characters is frequently problematic (they usually end up luridly and brutally killed at the end!). But to be fair, he was pioneering for routinely including such characters in the sixties at all when it was far from the norm. And it’s also nice how Meyer allows Billie in that sequence to frankly and unapologetically ogle The Vegetable’s physique and take the lead initiating sex. Take that, “male gaze” theorists!

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I hadn’t actually watched my Pussycat DVD in many few years so it was a great opportunity to re-visit it. This is surely Meyer’s magnum opus. It holds up beautifully: like John Waters has argued, Pussycat “ages like fine wine.” This is exciting virtuoso filmmaking by any standards. Not a single wasted shot, everything stark, primal and minimal. It’s still as intense, perverse, gritty and kinky as the first time I saw it, probably at London’s Scala cinema in the early nineties. (The Scala regularly held Russ Meyer double bills – bliss!).  The terse, hardboiled but campy dialogue is endlessly quotable. I love the opening strip club sequence of the scantily-clad trio frantically doing the Watusi and later how Meyer films them from looming low angles so that they look truly towering, Amazonian and menacing in the stark desert setting.  Pussycat’s influence on Waters’ sensibility is obvious, especially the perfectly-judged broad acting and the way everyone shouts / snarl their lines. (Satana’s sneering, abrasive delivery definitely anticipates Divine as bad girl dawn Davenport in Female Trouble (1974). Not to mention the black liquid eyeliner).

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“She's a cold one, alright… more stallion than mare. Too much for one man to handle.” /

Varla would be Tura Satana’s only major film role. What a powerful presence! And what a performance: Satana goes from initially sexy to monstrous by the conclusion when she’s become an utterly implacable killing machine. Meyer would later admit that he regretted not engaging Satana for more film roles. Maybe other parts would have been anti-climactic anyway? (I have to admit I’ve never seen Satana’s subsequent films The Asto-Zombies (1968) or The Doll Squad (1973)). Ultimately it probably doesn’t really matter: Satana’s one starring role in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! ensured her immortality as cinema’s greatest bad girl.

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Further reading:

I highly recommend you track down Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer by Jimmy McDonough on Amazon.

The Miss Meyer blog is devoted to Russ Meyer, sexploitation, horror, cakes, wrestling and other musings. Check it out here.

On a related note, read my interviews with John Waters and Poison Ivy of The Cramps

My next Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film club in  the basement Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine's in Dalston is Federico Fellini's swirling decadent masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960)! Bank Holiday Sunday (28 August). Full details here.

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