Wednesday 6 March 2013

A taste of evil

Yes, it's lazy to just plunder a film's tagline for my title. You expect better: you expect execrable puns. But exploitation films often boast terrific marketing. Much like I could never hope to better a giallo title, I'll never match the tagline of a Russ Meyer film. Best, I think, to admit that and bow to the anonymous genius who came up with that gem.

Not that 1965's Mudhoney actually lives up to that wonderfully Puritan slogan. Instead, it's pretty positive towards romance and sex, which it treats with an almost reverent tenderness. Well, excepting the vivacious denizens of the whorehouse next door who occasionally wander through the frame. But that's neither here nor there, and how did I get wrapped up in meandering sentences in just two paragraphs?

Anyway, it's a fact that while I'd never run out of online resources on Russ Meyer's most famous work, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mudhoney is less well known, and discussions of the film are mostly found in academic literature and the director's fervent but not exactly large fandom. Which is my excuse as to why I've seen the film but am not exactly flush with production details or historical observations.

Such as, for example, whether the film was actually shot where it's set, that being Missouri: it sure looks like an egregious case of California Doubling, but what do I know? Anyway, it's the Depression era (God's word declared it would be so!) and Calif McKinney (John Furlong) is walking through rural Missouri in search of work. He meets Maggie Marie (Princess Livingston) and her buxom daughters, deaf-mute Eula (Rena Horten) and lascivious Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland), who inform him that the folks at the nearby Wade farm are looking for a farmhand. Calif is almost immediately hired by old Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster) and his niece Hannah (Antoinette Cristiani), but is continually menaced by Hannah's husband, Sidney Brenshaw (Hal Hopper), who is prone to alcoholic rages.

The perpetually broke Sidney is looking forward his father-in-law's death, since Hannah will inherit the old man's farm and money. But his plans are complicated as romance blossoms between Hannah and Calif, who is now seeking to protect her against Sidney's frequent violence. When Lute changes his will to make Calif his sole heir, Sidney feigns religious conversion and teams up with local fire-and-brimstone preacher Brother Hansen (Frank Bolger). Together, the violent alcoholic and the good reverend 'investigate' Hannah's alleged adultery with a view to organising a lynch mob.

Plotwise, Mudhoney is uncommonly down to earth for the Myers oeuvre, yet oddly disjointed. Maggie Marie's Brothel of Exposition is hermetically sealed from the rest of the film, except for two important functions: it's where Mudhoney's men go to canoodle with nubile young plot details, while Eula and Clara Belle provide the film's titillation. Apart from that, it's a freakish mash-up of Frankenstein and Of Mice and Men, if either of those works featured more large-breasted women with an aversion to clothing.

I realise I've made the film sound bad, so let me clarify: Mudhoney is an absolute blast, the most purely entertaining picture I've seen in months. Lancaster, Bolger and Hopper all give brilliant over-the-top performances, but Hopper shines most brightly. Despite being the villain, he is far and away the most complex character and focus of the film, especially compared to the bland Calif. As a character drama about greed, hypocrisy and authoritarianism, Mudhoney is almost as successful as it is as high camp.

And heck, there's a whole lot of message here. Meyer critiques rape within marriage at a time when that was legal and still sometimes seen as normal, and treats a romance that is adultery on paper with a dignity and respect one wouldn't expect of the 'king of the nudies'. Then there's the film's status as a left-wing attack on the intolerance bred by destitution in the Depression-era Midwest, and a criminal justice system that breaks a man's spirit in prison for accidentally killing a scab.

Stylistically, Mudhoney has a whole lot going for it. The most iconic sequence is the opening, where Meyer's camera does not show us anyone's face, but conveys the action by focusing on people's boots - snazzy boots at that, but let's not get into my mad lust for Mudhoney's footwear. It's a film of exaggerated angles, plenty of face close-ups, and some cartoonish anatomy; in the first two respects at least, Meyer is far more Italian than American. In the Italian genre cinema of 1965, he could likely have enjoyed a healthy career, but he continued labouring in grindhouse obscurity until he struck gold a few years later. And we'll get to that.

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