Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / Pussycat / The Leather Girls / The Mankillers (1966) ***
Considering that Russ Meyer was first and foremost a creator of sexploitation movies, it is interesting to note that his best-remembered, best-respected, and most widely seen film is one that sits a little off to the side of the genre. Meyer spent most of the five years after The Immoral Mr. Teas, for which he is conventionally credited with inventing the nudie-cutie, cranking out a string of similarly breezy and fun-loving films that would much better be characterized as “naughty” rather than “dirty.” His career took a marked turn for the sober in 1964, however, when he directed Lorna, a fairly grim melodrama about jealousy, marital dissatisfaction, violent rape, and manslaughter. Lorna ended up being the progenitor of a four-movie cycle in which the sexual content for which Meyer was justly notorious was steadily scaled back in favor of violence (admittedly often sexually motivated) and ostensibly serious dramatic material. In contrast to the earlier nudie-cuties, these films were shot in economical, but serendipitously mood-appropriate, black and white, and each one featured less exposed female flesh than the one before it. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was the last of the lot, and can justly be considered the culmination of the cycle. The movie contained nothing at all that would have been censorable on the grounds of obscenity, even by the standards of the mid-1960’s, concentrating instead on the criminal activities of what might well have been the grittiest bunch of female ass-kickers to be seen in any film of the era. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She-Devils on Wheels don’t even come close.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! begins with an “Outer Limits”-like voiceover introduction, purporting to warn the world of the rise of a new breed of young, liberated woman, a violent and deadly breed poised to explode into antisocial fury on the slightest pretext. Then we jump to the go-go club were three such hellcats earn their keep. The leader of the pack is named Varla (Tura Satana, of The Doll Squad and The Astro-Zombies), and if ever a woman deserved the epithet, “nasty piece of work,” she’s the one. Varla’s two sidekicks are Rosie (Haji, from Bigfoot and Supervixens, one of the very few women to play a major role in more than one Russ Meyer movie) and Billie (Lori Williams), the former of whom may or may not be Varla’s girlfriend. At the very least, Rosie is infatuated with Varla, and Varla hasn’t one single scruple about exploiting the other woman’s feelings in order to dominate and control her. Billie, on the other hand, offers the boss-chick no such easily leveraged handle, and Varla’s ascendancy over her is of a decidedly provisional nature.
Anyway, when the girls aren’t busy shaking their ginormous tits at a roomful of drunks (and since this is a Russ Meyer movie we’re talking about, you may rest assured that when I say “ginormous,” I mean GINORMOUS), they like to hop in their zippy little European sports cars, and go tearing ass around the desert. One afternoon, Varla and her two sidekicks find themselves out at a stretch of salt flats which, due to its well-marked measured mile, is a favorite hangout for gearheads and speed-demons from all over southern California. During a pause in their routine of drag-races and chicken matches, our anti-heroines are intruded upon by a hot-rodder named Tommy (Ray Barlow) and his perky, bikini-clad, conspicuously underage girlfriend, Linda (Susan Bernard, of The Killing Kind and The Witchmaker). These two were planning on using the measured mile to test the efficacy of Tommy’s latest round of modifications, but Varla has other ideas. Scoffing at the entire notion of racing against a stopwatch, she challenges Tommy to go a couple of laps against her, Rosie, and Billie instead. Tommy agrees somewhat reluctantly, which is the beginning of the end for him. He proves to be quite an accomplished racer, actually, swiftly overtaking both Billie and Rosie (although he’s the last one to cross the starting line), and giving Varla such a hard time that the only way she can beat him is by running him off the track. The situation escalates steadily from there, until Varla and Tommy are locked in a knock-down, drag-out fight while Billie and Rosie restrain Linda on the sidelines. Tommy may have a sizeable height and weight advantage, but Varla is both shockingly strong and meaner than a hornet with hemorrhoids; she quickly wrestles the boy to the ground, and then snaps his neck without the slightest fanfare. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how fucked Linda is looking right about now, but you know what? Her day is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.
Varla orders Linda trussed up and drugged, so the hot-rod girls might have some time to think over the question of how to deal with her. Neither Rosie nor Billie is exactly thrilled with the prospect of being charged as an accessory to murder, but that doesn’t mean they like the idea of just killing the girl and dumping her any better. For the time being, Varla concocts a cover story according to which Linda is a runaway whose rich, politically connected parents have hired the gang to collect her on the sly, in the hope of keeping the press from catching wind of her embarrassing behavior. That still leaves open the question of Linda’s final disposition, but something much more interesting comes up before the matter can be settled. While getting the cars gassed up, Varla learns from the service station attendant (Mickey Foxx, from Mudhoney and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens) that the crippled old man (Stuart Lancaster, of The Loch Ness Horror and Thar She Blows!) being hoisted into the pickup truck across the street is a filthy rich recluse, living on a remote ranch with his two sons. He’s kind of a nut— has been ever since he lost the use of his legs in some sort of train accident— and he doesn’t believe in banks or telephones or pretty much any other aspect of mid-20th-century modernity. No sooner has Varla heard this than the wheels start turning in her avaricious mind. No banks? Then that means the old man keeps all of his money somewhere on that ranch. No phones? Then there’ll be no easy way for him or his boys to summon the authorities to protect the ranch from Varla and her minions. They hit the road on the old man’s trail as soon as the attendant is finished doing his job.
The planned heist will not be nearly as simple as the gang girls believe, however. First off, there’s the small matter of Linda. Those tranquilizers are going to wear off sooner or later, and when Linda wakes up, escape is almost certainly going to be the foremost thing on her mind. Furthermore, Varla’s cover story explaining what Linda is doing in her company is not exactly a work of genius. But more importantly, the old man on whose money Varla has set her sights is no harmless little loony. In fact, he’s a demented misogynist who has trained his immensely strong halfwit son (Dennis Busch) to rape and murder attractive young women on his behalf. His elder son, Kirk (Paul Trinka), looks to be nearing the end of his willingness to protect his relatives, but will he get there in time for it to do any of Dad’s unexpected guests any good? And even if he does, what are the odds that he and Linda won’t get caught in the crossfire when Varla and the old man launch their respective schemes against each other?
I have to wonder what Russ Meyer’s old nudie-cutie audience made of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! when it was new. While it keeps the tease coming non-stop, teasing is as far as it goes, even during a succession of shower scenes scattered throughout the second act. On the other hand, it offers what might be the purest expression yet of Meyer’s distinctive gentlemen’s-magazine vision of womanhood. It isn’t just the physiques on these girls that are outrageously exaggerated— in every respect, Varla and her followers are bizarre caricatures of a toxically overripe, seduce-and-destroy femininity. It’s in the pendulum swing of their hips as they walk, it’s in the artlessly blatant double entendres that litter their dialogue, and most of all, it’s in the undercurrent of violence and domination that flows through everything Varla, Rosie, and Billie do. So while Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! seems slightly too demure to qualify as true sexploitation even by the lower standards of 1966 (hell, it just barely qualifies by the standards of 1946!), it’s hard to imagine what else to call it.
Well, I suppose we could call it probably the best movie Russ Meyer ever made. Admittedly, from my perspective, that isn’t necessarily saying a whole lot; most of the director’s work hasn’t got much to offer beyond several pairs of the most freakishly overdeveloped tits ever seen on this planet, and I personally am more of an ass-man. The important point, though, is that Faster Pussycat! really does represent a huge departure from the rest of Meyer’s career, both before and after. Like a hard-boiled pulp novel come to life, it’s vicious, mean, and incredibly focused, whereas most of Meyer’s work was just harmlessly (and often aimlessly) libidinous. Plot is in the driver’s seat at nearly all times, and Meyer uses his considerable skill as a film editor (in the sex-film business, only Radley Metzger offered him any credible competition) to the fullest to sustain a brisk and exciting pace. The movie resembles a 40’s pulp novel, too, in being ridiculously overblown and weighted down with thudding, ungainly dialogue, but depending on your mood, you might find that that just adds to the fun. And of course, Faster, Pussycat! benefits from having what must surely be Meyer’s most effective and iconic villain. Especially during her climactic rampage (which put me in mind of another uncharacteristically hard-edged effort from people who typically dealt in disposable, light-hearted junk— the 1963 Arch Hall Jr. vehicle, The Sadist), Varla is the sort of antagonist that the average exploitation filmmaker wishes he could create. She’s let down somewhat by the rudimentary notions of fight choreography current in Hollywood during the mid-1960’s (even Meyer isn’t a good enough editor to sell Tura Satana as a karate mistress), but most of the time, she’s as believably deadly as she is believably sexy. I doubt I’m the only one for whom the first image that springs to mind at the mention of Russ Meyer’s name is that of Satana wrestling Ray Barlow to the ground and wrenching his arm behind his back.