When it comes to Gothic cinema, Russ Meyer, King of the Nudie Cuties, pioneer of the American skin flick, is probably the last name that springs to mind. Meyer, who made a name for himself tearing up the American Independent scene, rose to prominence for his pulp styled films during the sixties and seventies; progressively trading on sensationalism and comic book levels of sex and violence as his career moved on. Yet, four films he made during his transition period, from nudie cutie films to sexual dramas, have been called just that, and do, on closer examination (as this article will show) own many of the elements that belong to Gothic: even if director Meyer can be considered to belong his own unique genre, refusing to be classified throughout his career on anyone else’s terms other than his own.
Roger Ebert, in his article in Film Comment, laid out Meyer’s filmography into four distinct sections, which can be detailed as follows:
- The “Nudie Cuties” comedies— The Immoral Mr Teas (1959) through to Heavenly Bodies (1963).
- The “Drive-in Steinbeck Period” of black-and-white, synch-sound Gothic-sadomasochist melodramas— Lorna (1964) through to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
- The color, synch-sound sexual dramas— Common Law Cabin (1967) through to Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1969)
- The parody-satires— Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) through to Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens (1979)
Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1964), Motorpsycho (1965) and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) are the four titles to cover the Gothic theme— although sex farce Fanny Hill (1964) comes slapbang in the middle of this era, it doesn’t really fit in style or context. The aforementioned films bridge the gap between Meyer’s light-hearted debut period, to the full-on raunch which would go on to become his signature. It was here that the director started to experiment by introducing elements of violence: his calling card just as much as the big-breasted women who adorned his pictures. Although not genre film, these films align strongly with the literary off-shoot to Gothic fiction: Southern Gothic; Meyer gorging on grotesque characters, domestic drama, violence, and themes of lust, adultery, poverty, and religious and moral decay, which are widely associated with the field. And it was here that Meyer created his own particular brand of the Gothic heroine: possessing characteristics of both the traditional maiden and a subversion of the Byronic hero theme previously reserved for male characters.
In the essay “She Moves in Mysterious Ways” Stein argues for the existence of the Byronic Heroine in modern cinema (a concept that appears to be widely ignored in genre discussion, but becomes pertinent for discussing the Gothic films of Russ Meyer and the way in which he characterized women). Citing the roots of this to spring from literature— Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native— the author suggests “in reacting against a male-dominated society, these Byronic heroines take on the characteristics of the rebellious, ambitious, narcissistic, individualistic, and ultimately self-destructive Byronic male” (171). Without going into the nitty gritty of whether or not this stance can be considered feminist or not, there is no doubt there is something liberating about seeing self-sufficient, sexually and physically powerful females in cinema— and not just for male spectators. With Hollywood offering a series of drab, marriage obsessed lightweights, Meyer’s Amazon warrior female offers the perfect refreshment when it comes to finding female role models on film who really inspire you to kick some ass of your own, while having your cake and eating the whole damned lot.
When it comes to American Independent cinema Russ Meyer can be considered a trailblazer in this area. His women were no push-overs: sexually demanding, in charge of their own bodies and— in the case of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’s Varla— able to snap a man’s spine with their bare hands. This was something cinema-goers had never seen before, and while they might not have been ready for it at the time, there is no denying the influence Meyer had on future filmmakers. And this wasn’t just in the seventies exploitation field, but later, in the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino, who frequently recreates the acid-tongued Meyer femme fatale in his own films.
Following up on a round of burlesque nudie cutie comedies— including The Immoral Mr Teas (1959) (the film that kickstarted the nudie cutie genre), Eve and the Handyman (1961) (starring Meyer’s wife Eve) and a succession of live action cheesecake films littered with buxom (and often gyrating) babes— Meyer took things simultaneously up and down a notch by moving into narrative drama. Lorna sets its grim Southern Gothic roots down from the outset; the opening shots tracking a lone preacher stood on a road delivering a ranting sermon in Wiseblood style (James Griffiths, credited as The Man of God). The picture is set up as mean spirited right from these opening frames when a woman is followed home and raped by two men, before the camera takes a complete sidestep, bursting in on the domestic unrest of Lorna (Lorna Maitland) and her husband Jim (James Rucker). Lorna is no ordinary girl. She might have opted for marital bliss when she married sweetheart Jim— her husband: childlike, non-sexualised, and dreary in his dumb optimism— but this girl would rather be out living it up on a champagne lifestyle; go-go dancing topless and soaking in a bit of neon. Sadly, life in a swamp shack doesn’t cater for her needs and a year on, and due to Jimmy’s lack of passion in the bedroom, Lorna is feeling cheated. That is until an escaped criminal (Mark Bradley) — credited as “the Convict” — takes her hostage; ripping off her proverbial bodice, offering her a bit of the excitement she so obviously craves.
Lorna capitalises on some of the themes inherent in Southern Gothic, and traditional Gothic, when it comes to exploring the domestic sphere, and themes of sexual transgression, poverty and female characters trapped by place and marriage. The central character is a far cry from Meyer’s later ballsier heroines, but does set down some of the “rules” Meyer would later follow: especially when it came to portraying female sexuality as untamed. Far from being happy with her lot, Lorna craves a man who can give her what she needs in bed, and she makes no excuses for that; her satisfaction is seen as taking just as much priority (if not more) than her man’s. Of course, being Southern Gothic, the story comes with a moral sting. But that doesn’t stop Meyer fetishizing every contour of actress Lorna Maitland’s body (the actress was three months pregnant during the shoot, a fact which enhanced her already considerable bodily assets); using his trademark upshots and dutch angles to hammer home the point that there is beauty and power in the female form. Sevastakis takes it one step further, suggesting Meyer’s aesthetic during this period was strongly influenced by the artistry found in Italian Neo-realism. The film is, if nothing more, beautifully made despite its low-budget roots. The moody black and white cinematography, seen in all four of these Gothic dramas, conjures just the right atmosphere. This said, Meyer disputed this claim on record, saying “Did I shoot in black and white for the purpose of grittiness and to emulate Italian masters? Horseshit! I didn’t have the money to do it in color”(28). Despite this, you get the idea that there is much more going on than immediately apparent.
And there is, a hell of a lot more, or at least when it comes to subtext surrounding the gender roles portrayed here. Meyer setting up another of his reoccurring themes: sexually inadequate men— seen at its most gloriously outlandish eleven years later in Supervixens (1975); when Charles Napier playing a corrupt cop can be witnessed stamping a woman to death for laughing at his impotence. Women, by contrast, are brimming with a sexual energy that men can rarely satisfy, and Lorna is no different. The male impotence theme is further explored in the form of rape by Luther (Hal Hopper, who would return alongside Lorna Maitland for Mudhoney) and Jonah (Doc Scortt). Unable to attract a woman, presumably because they are wildly unattractive, the cowardly duo attempt to take what they think they are owed by force.
Further Gothic and American Gothic themes of the (savage) outsider threat play out through the medium of Bradley’s Convict. Although, given the behavior of some of the townsfolk, Luther and Jonah, threat seems to be everywhere in this province of small town decay.
When matters hit that final tragic note, it is Lorna who then becomes the hero— not the men— despite her transgressions, for which she pays for heavily. The males remain flawed, weak and morally ambiguous throughout. And although it is true that Lorna is no angel, the parting shot leaves her as the savior of the piece; albeit with a stark warning that some rules are made to never be broken.
After making Fanny Hill (1964)— arguably one of Meyer’s weakest films from this period— he returned to form with Mudhoney. More Southern Gothic, moral decline, adultery, sex and violence, and another Gothic heroine, but this time in a more traditional form: with Antoinette Cristiani playing downtrodden farmer’s wife Hannah Brenshaw in her one and only feature role.
Mudhoney plays with some of the themes seen in Lorna— especially when it comes to unsatisfied wives— but gives them a far more grim and dramatic slant than previously seen. .
Hannah is a very different character to Lorna, and indeed most of Meyer’s “heroines”, in that she is a traditional woman bound by duty and one who tolerates her husband’s philandering ways— drinking, spending money from the family pot in the local brothel— as well his domestic violence toward her. Hannah isn’t a woman craving excitement; she doesn’t rebel against type, she isn’t even a typical Meyer nymphomaniac: she is simply a woman who wants to lead a comfortable and homely life. Therefore she takes on the guise of a traditional Gothic heroine: helpless, lost and trapped on the exterior, but possessing a great inner strength at her core. She is also the only morally righteous character— despite her later adultery with lone drifter Calif (John Furlong)— on a canvass saturated in corruption.
It is through this corruption that Meyer introduces some Byronic heroine spirit. Lorna Maitland returns in a secondary role to Cristiani’s lead— a rare occurrence in the Meyer cannon as far as lead female stars were concerned; although this step was also mirrored by Erica Gavin, who after starring in Vixen! (1968) went on to be cast in a lesser role for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Regardless of this, blonde bombshell Maitland attempts to steal the show appearing in full-on riot mode, bursting with carnality as local prostitute Clara Belle. Unlike Hannah Brenshaw, Clara Belle takes no messing from Sidney. Frequently seen cuckolding the drunken philanderer, making him an object of comedy in front of the rest of the brothel residents, and commenting on his lack of money or sexual prowess, Maitland’s character— debauched, sexually free, morally ambiguous— takes on some decidedly Byronic traits. It is through her that Meyer’s archetypal strong willed libidinous woman lives. Likewise, the liberated deaf and dumb mute prostitute Eula— Rena Horton; Meyer’s German girlfriend at the time who couldn’t speak English— provides an extra element of sexual mystery.
As far as most of the rest of the characters are concerned Mudhoney projects exactly the kind of grotesque Gothic found in the work of Flannery O’Connor; her work described by Di Renzo, as being, “as startling and fantastic as the carvings on the walls of Bernard’s cloisteran All Fool’s day of freaks, fanatics, rednecks, and crooks, arranged in a withering freeze […] her procession of unsavory characters “conjures up”, in her own words, “an image of Gothic monstrosities” and ”the idea of a preoccupation with everything deformed and grotesque”(15). Although, this said, Mudhoney isn’t nearly as nuanced or complex as the O’Connor’s work, in line with Raymond Friday Locke’s Streets Paved with Gold, on which the script is based. Lack of sophistication aside, the film comes brimming with O’Connor-esque misfits. Hal Hopper— returning after playing drunken rapist Luther from Lorna— this time as the odious booze soaked cheat Sidney, plays a big part in summoning the right about of darkness to align with Southern Gothic monstrosity. Enter lunatic preacher, Brother Hansen ( Frank Bolger), with some vigilante hysteria from the townsfolk, and you have a winning formula. Meyer’s brothel residents add to the sideshow atmosphere of freakery; with Princess Livingston, as the cackling toothless crone brothel madam Maggie Marie, and Sam Hanna as denim clad redneck, Injoys, completing the distinctly American Gothic “hillbilly” grotesque element later popularized in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the earlier works of Rob Zombie.
Another year, another project, with Meyer capitalizing on the Gothic motif: outsider threat; using the formula of thrill-seeking bikers, who come to wreak havoc on a small rural community. While the “biker film” was not an entirely new concept by the mid-sixties, Motorpsycho! was one of a batch of titles to come out around that period to exploit the threat of counter-culture and juvenile delinquency for the drive-in market— alongside Hammer Studio’s These Are the Damned (1963). By the late sixties, early seventies, and mainly due to the success of Easy Rider (1969), the formula would develop into a distinct subgenre; with the seventies seeing the concept embracing horror tropes, or aligning with the Satanic Panic movement— for example as seen in Psychomania (1971) or Werewolves on Wheels (1971) — to fully Gothicize the idea. Motorpsycho’s plot, although not particularly explicit by later standards, delivers an early example of the rape/revenge theme: a device that would become hugely popular for genre cinema as the next decade rolled on.
But what of the Gothic heroines for Motorpsycho? The film, if being termed as Gothic cinema, is a little harder to justify. Gone are the booze soaked husbands, themes of poverty and decay, and without a sniff of a ranting preacher, just raucous young men on bikes accompanied by surf music and rock n roll, it’s difficult to see where Ebert was coming from, at least at first glance. However, the film does utilize American Gothic themes in its setting— desert locations, fear of the frontier and what is “out there” — seen in early Gothic literature like Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly. Although the threat isn’t the Indian Savage this time, but from those coming from an urban environment. When Corey Maddox’s (Alex Rocco) wife Gail (Holle K Winters) is attacked by the gang, and hospitalized, he goes on a rampage to get revenge, chasing the murderous biking clan around the desert. With an all male biker gang, a male hero, a female victim lying in the hospital, you would think there was little scope to usher in anything of the Byronic heroine seen in the previous two pictures: that is until the marvelously sultry and exotic Haji rocks up (in her first of a number of roles for the director), playing a stripper and disgruntled wife, fleeing the gang out in the desert when they kill her husband right in front of her.
Haji’s character Ruby is the film’s main stab at Gothic heroism. Ruby survives being shot at, only to be “rescued” by Maddox as he tears up the dirt roads looking for his wife’s assailants. We learn through her early conversations with her husband, that she is trapped in a marriage of (in)convenience, supposedly “saved” from a life of prostitution by marriage, but paying a much higher price that she initially expected. Through these scenes Ruby is established as Meyer’s A-typical fierce pussycat; constantly chiding her husband for his ineptness in every department, while refusing to bow down to his attempts to dominate her. When the two are captured we get to see the depths of his grotty nature when he attempts to trade Ruby’s body for his own life. Once picked up by Maddox, she becomes one half of a double act and not another victim; saving Maddox’s life by sucking out the poison of a rattle snake that bites him, and tending over his delirious body throughout the night. The two form an offbeat coupling; relying on each other for survival, with neither male or female coming out on top. Ruby, in grand Gothic tradition, is ultimately freed from domestic slavery by her husband’s demise, and liberated by the experience she lives through to start a new life on her own two feet. While Motorpsycho! is a million miles away from Gothic literature, it does come with a surprisingly traditional end note on that score; albeit with a rebellious Meyer twist: Ruby doesn’t have to find a new (nicer) husband to put things right (as determined in the Gothic literary canon) she is given the opportunity to do that on completely her own terms.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
One of Meyer’s most enduring classics, and influential films of all time, was his 1965 opus Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (released in 1966). It is here we see Meyer’s Byronic Heroine in full flow; not just through the film’s heroine/villainess Varla (played by the inimitable Tura Satana in arguably her best role), but her sidekicks Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams).
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains… sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy, it creates and molds 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: 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 anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist… or a dancer in a go-go club!’
Right from the opening narrative— delivered by John Furlong, long time collaborator with Meyer in various bit parts and voice-over roles, as well as the male heroic lead in Mudhoney; appearing as drifter Calif— Meyer set down the gauntlet for a new kind of cinematic female. With Satana playing part femme fatale, part action hero, and swelling with Byronic rebellion, Faster, Pussycat! was something that had never been seen before, but has been much imitated since. Meyer speaking of the film’s reception said, “for the first time we will see a woman kill a man with her bare hands- it just died, laid an egg’[…] ‘people complained when I didn’t show Tura Satana’s big tits naked” (224). Although the film didn’t do well at the time of its release, it has gone on to become an important feature for both American Independent and exploitation cinema.
Much of the success is down to the sublime casting of Tura Satana as Varla. While it is well documented that Satana and Meyer clashed on set, much of the Byronic energy to emanate from her character comes from the spirit of the actress herself. Go-go dancer, martial arts expert, rape survivor, Tura Satana packed attitude, spirit and a strong sense of female sexuality, rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Even though Stein argues characters like Alien’s Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor, take up the Byronic position by becoming overly masculinized, this certainly isn’t the case here. Yes Varla is aggressive— both sexually and physically— but she is also in charge of her femininity, and uses this as a source of power. This is most evident when we meet the trio in the opening scenes, as they go-go dance in front of an audience of leering men: the women framed in upshots that portray them as goddesses and in full ownership of the moment. We also see this in the subtext of a lesbian relationship between Rosie and Varla, which while not explicit, fully encompasses the Gothic notion of sexuality defying conventional domestic, moral and hetero-normative boundaries. This harks back, most notably, to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla when it comes to the idea of lesbianism and vampirism specifically. However one could argue Carmilla becomes a much more sympathetic character in her motives, compared to Varla who would have more than likely proved to be a match for even her. The girls here might not be vampires in a supernatural sense, but they do share a common bond with the base idea: using seduction to suck their victims dry, treating their prey as an object of perverse pleasure, drawing the lifeforce from others, so that they may revitalize something of their own spirit.
The plot allows for Byronic traits to burst forth from its female protagonists. Ripping fast cars around in the desert, Varla emasculates an all American boy Tommy (Ray Barlow) they encounter when she beats him in a race, before ultimately taking his life as payment for demonstrating weakness; as well as hauling off with his sniveling girl-next-door bikini clad girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard) who becomes a hostage and is made to sob throughout much of what unfolds later. Not satisfied with this, the gang head off to encounter a wheelchair bound old man living on an isolated ranch (played by Meyer regular Stuart Lancaster) with his two sons Kirk (Paul Trinka) and “The Vegetable” (Dennis Busch) — more freakish rural characters to add in an O’Connor vibe. As Varla and her crew attempt to find the family fortune and escape with the loot, it becomes apparent that the potential victims here are just as rotten as their predators, once again tapping the vein of Gothic monstrosity.
Under these terms Varla becomes the archetype of a true Gothic Byronic hero/villain and a prototype for a new era of American Gothic heroines: an era where the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws, and Gothic maidens become their own saviors in a world that belongs to female sexual power.
 Frasier, David K. (1998). Russ Meyer: The Life and Films :A Biography and A Comprehensive, Illustrated, and Annotated Filmography and Bibliography
 Stein, Atara (2009) The Byronic Hero in Film, Fiction and Television
 Sevastakis, Michael (2006) Narrative Voice in Russ Meyer’s Films : A Cacophony of Carnality
 Woods, Paul (2004) The Very Breast of Russ Meyer
 Di Renzo, Anthony (1993) American Gargolyes:Flannery O’Connor and the Medieval Grotesque
 The introduction voice-over narrative for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
 McDonough, Jimmy (2006) Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film