The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence!” bellows the cheeseball voiceover as the movie begins. “While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains sex!” Russ Meyer’s paean to the lusty, psychopathic amazon simmering inside every woman is unabashed, unrestrained trash of the highest calling. It’s the ultimate exploitation classic, making it both the perfect opener for Flixist’s Cult Club feature and a fitting tribute to its breakout cult heroine Tura Satana, who tragically passed away last week.
The plot sees a gang of drag-racing go-go dancers – naturally of the balloon-bosomed supervixen variety who populate, and copulate in, nearly all of Meyer’s pictures – discovering that a lecherous old man and his retarded son (the delightfully named ‘Vegetable’) have a large sum of money hidden somewhere on their farm and plan its acquisition. When their seduction schemes fail to ignite and hidden agendas are exposed, it turns into a murderous free-for-all fight to the finish.
Although dismissed as just another throwaway sexploitation movie upon release, Pussycat has risen to become a vital part of subversive pop-cultural iconography. The three woman gang, led by Tura Satana’s eye-popping Varla – imagine Emma Peel turned to the dark side – shamelessly flaunt their sizeable assets (although this is one of the few Meyer films without nudity) yet their fearsome, feral appearance and attitude have turned them into icons for the riot grrrl punk feminist movement. These vixens titillate only with the intention of wreaking hell on stupid, leering menfolk- and when jealousy sets in, themselves.
It’s Satana who dominates the film. That’s not just from her impressive bathykolpian endowments either, sharing the screen as she does with two no less eye-popping co-stars: Meyer famously loved large-breasted women not only to indulge his own fetish, but for the shadows they cast in his shots. Where the other girls are objects of lust with a talent for using their sex appeal to get what they want from men, Satana gives Varla a psychotic detachment that feeds on her ability to destroy men both sexually and physically. The prospect of making some cash is for her an excuse at best to quench a primal desire to exercise her power.
Satana no doubt threw much of her terrible real-life experiences into giving the character her drive: by her own account, she was victim to a gang-rape at age nine, then spent the next fifteen years learning martial arts and tracking down the rapists one by one to exact revenge. According to the many reports of people who met her at various screenings and festivals over the years, Satana was a charming and generous woman, yet the real-life steeliness that must have driven her to find some sort of justice for what she suffered as a child seems at the core of Varla’s violent existence. What Satana gives the film is not so much a performance as a presence. Only someone with her astonishing real-life history could allow a character this exaggerated and extreme any semblance of authenticity. Varla is terrifying because while it’s almost impossible to believe she could be real, Satana beats her every doubter into submission with total conviction. She was a hell of a find for the role by Meyer, someone impossible to take your eyes off and one of a kind who has rightly secured her place in film and pop culture history, never to be forgotten.
As for Meyer himself, who passed away in 2004, his reputation as the ‘King of the Nudies’ does him a great disservice. Far from a sexploitation hack, the trashy veneer hides one of the most sophisticated filmmakers America has produced (who wrote, edited, directed and distributed all his own work). Meyer’s quick-fire editing is decades ahead of its time, keeping the pace at rocket-speed without sacrificing coherence. Film students will recognise the inspiration of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage technique in the way shots are assembled, as much in presenting a gothic view of the American South, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that turns the Mojave Desert into a playground of sex and violence, as capturing the gaze of the film’s many lusty males. Meyer’s social commentary comes through not only in his observations on a certain frontier of American existence, but dialogue that sizzles with self-aware one-liners. “That’s what I believe in, seeing America first!” drools a petrol pump attendant staring into Varla’s chasmal cleavage. “You won’t find it down there, Columbus!” is her sensational reply.
That John Waters (creator of the uproarious Serial Mom, bad taste-tastic Pink Flamingos and subversive musical Hairspray) called Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! “Beyond a doubt, the greatest movie ever made” should tell you what you’re dealing with: this is the exploitation movie that the makers of exploitation movies watch. Pussycat is violent, trashy and bonkers enough to be a perfect Saturday night popcorn muncher, but at the same time so much more. Its satirical humour and experimental style make it not just the pinnacle of the exploitation genre, but a brave and brilliantly made film in its own right with the ‘Rural Fellini’ behind the camera and a female force of nature in the central role.
Ladies and gentlemen… welcome to The Cult Club.