VHS Revival Revisits Russ Meyer’s acid-laced, cinematic kaleidoscope.
Before Roger Ebert started using his opposable thumbs to give films the old pollice verso, he was putting them to typewriter as a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times—oh, and scripting this banger of a surprise satire for 20th Century Fox alongside the breast man in the business, Russ Meyer.
Directed and co-written by Meyer, 1970‘s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls lets us know from the jump that this isn’t going to be another sugary celluloid confection, the likes of which were still being served sunny-side up by the last of the Sixties holdouts, even after the kids had moved on.
In fact, it starts just as it ends (with the closing credits at the front—love!), and we are immediately put on notice; that it was released nearly a year after the Tate / LaBianca murders, lensed in and around the same locations, and opens with a stunning semblance to the events that effectively shut down the Summer of Love for good, is not lost on this viewer. Nightmares in Technicolor? Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that film.
Our heroine, Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Reed), still believes there’s a bit more Summer left out West, so she packs up her boyfriend Harris and her band, the Kelly Affair, and they hit the road to give their music a kick start and visit Kelly’s “rich aunt Susan, bitch aunt Susan,” an heiress who lives in LA.
We quickly learn that Susan is not a bitch, but a lovely, well-connected fashion professional with deep pockets. One of those connections, Shakespearean music producer Ronnie Barzell (John LaZar), is having a happening, man—and it freaks him out—but then he learns that Kelly has a band, and by the time they finish their impromptu performance, he’s in convulsions. From that moment, Ronnie, aka “Z-Man,” becomes the girls’ manager and crowns them the Carrie Nations.
Amid all of this is Z-Man’s revolving coterie of colorful eccentrics, who, upon closer inspection, appear to comprise all of his moving parts: beautiful, ferocious porn star Ashley St. Ives; action man Lance—who, like Susan’s financial adviser, Porter, has his sights on Kelly’s inheritance; thoughtful law student Emerson—who falls in love with Kelly Nation drummer, Pet; the bullheaded boxer, Randy, who also vies for Pet’s affections; and fashion designer Roxanne, who has designs on guitarist Casey.
All sorts of tangled webs are woven, and at the end of it, one man is paralyzed, one woman gets an abortion and switches teams, one man switches genders and loses his mind, another loses his head, and five people lose their lives. It really is all happening, man, but by this time, we the viewers are freaked out—and, if you’re a horror fan, you’re left scratching your head and wondering how Roger Ebert could go from crafting one of the grooviest cult films of all time, to basically pooping himself out competing with Gene Siskel in the “I Hate the Friday the 13th Franchise More: No I Do, No I Do” pissing contest that comprised a good quarter of their careers in the Eighties. Especially when you consider that Ebert was still collaborating with Russ Meyer (of particular note, he co-wrote, with Malcolm McLaren, the screenplay that Meyer was initially set to direct for the Sex Pistols’ Who Killed Bambi?) when he started reviewing with Siskel in 1975.
Where the original Valley of the Dolls took itself very seriously, Beyond appropriates little more than its title and serial-style framing of events to achieve the exact opposite. Which is why it is so beloved—dare I say, even more so than its namesake.
This film was meant to celebrate the times in which it was created, right down to the music by legendary TV composer Stu Philips and psychedelic mainstays Strawberry Alarm Clock. I could argue against myself and claim that perhaps Ebert was crafting a morality play in response to the perceived debauchery of the times, and that his abhorrence of the Friday films was merely an exercise in staying on message. But boobs!
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls packs so much sex, violence and bad dialogue into its nearly 110 minutes that the spectacular ending is really the cherry on top of a delicious sundae, rather than the highlight of a just dessert.