Bless Russ Meyer, one of the most beloved and talented perverts in film history. The man loved boobs and essentially founded the sexsploitation movie industry to capture all of his favourite cup sizes on the big screen. He always made money translating his private fantasies into campy drive in fodder, but over time he even began to be taken seriously. While Meyer loved to ogle women’s naughty bits, he also genuinely loved women and created nudie pictures in which the women were empowered. He also had a sly sense of humour as well as an eye for striking cinematography and a unique quick cut editing style that was genuinely groundbreaking. Meyer was both a pornographer and a genuine artist, a magic combination that in 1970 led to him helming a Hollywood production. Along with a young film critic whom he hired to write the script named Roger Ebert, Meyer created Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s a movie so insane, hilarious, stylish, and subversive that somehow it ended up in the Criterion Collection. Don’t you question why. Just enjoy.
Meyer was wooed to work for 20th Century Fox with only a title that captured his imagination. The Valley of the Dolls was a hit about a group of young women being chewed up by the evils of Los Angeles that frankly was never very good. However, it was so silly and soapy in it’s salacious aims that the flick made money off of viewers who lined up to giggle relentlessly at the absurdity on screen. The goal of Ebert and Meyers was to deliver a deliberately camp parody. The story was essentially the same: a rock band group of vixens arrive in Los Angeles with dreams of stardom that soon turn into nightmares after they meet a perverse producer named Z-Man who introduces them to the evils of drugs, casual sex, lies, manipulation and eventually murder. Of course descriptions of plot hardly do Beyond the Valley of the Dolls any justice. The whole thing is wilfully absurd and ridiculous, a parody of 60s LA excess made by a pair of outsiders who weren’t part of that community, but knew exactly why they hated it.
What follows is some of the most insane dialogue hippy ever written (some directly quoted in Austin Powers) and an orgy of sex, violence, and rock n’ roll. Ebert and Meyer play it all tongue-in-cheek, yet the actors play it all entirely seriously. It would be easy to see how viewers at the time would think the movie was pure crap like Valley of the Dolls. However, the wit is hilariously clear all these years later and the relentless melodrama and pulp never ceases to deliver big belly laughs, right up until the deliberately convoluted collection of morals at the ending. Meyer shoots it all with his usual giddy style. Colors are luridly bright and the editing unfurls at a pace that would make Michael Bay jealous. It’s an exorcise in deliberate bad taste that could well piss off folks who don’t appreciate such things these days. Yet even that adds to the charm. This movie was made by some naughty boys too smart for the smutty room in 1970 and it remains an in-joke for those who adore gloriously stupid excess all these years later. If you have a sweet tooth for utter trash, buckle up for this one. You may even need a few viewings for all the trashy delights to really sink in.
The movie looks absolutely glorious on Blu-ray. The aesthetic was deliberately tacky back then, with all of the excessively bright colors, big hair, and bare skin so popular in the early 70s. Criterion have treated the transfer with care and the thing bursts off the screen. Every over-packed frame is filled with pinpoint clear details and every color is cranked high beyond naturalism. This trash epic is a beautifully shot film and it’s amazing to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls given the royal Criterion treatment. I sure even Russ Meyer never thought it would look this good. The lossless audio track is crisp and clear, but presented in mono as intended. So don’t expect it to fill your home theater speakers in any way, shape, or form.
The special feature section is unbelievably packed as well. Everything from the old two disc special edition DVD is included. So you’ll get over an hour of amusing documentaries featuring a handful of actors and fans sharing hysterical Russ Meyer stories as well as some screen tests and a pair of commentaries (the best of which comes from Roger Ebert who has no problem filling his two hours with wall-to-wall anecdotes and just the right amount of self-depreciating humour). That disc was always surprisingly stacked for a trash epic, so merely repackaging the material would be enough to make this an impressive release. But that’s not the Criterion way, now is it?
The new extras kick off with a fantastic episode of Jonathan Ross’ old British Incredibly Strange Film Show about Russ Meyer, serving up 40 minutes of hilarious tales about Meyer’s long career treated with just the right mixture of respect and giggles. Next up is a 50 minute Q&A following a screening of the film in 1990 featuring Meyer, Ebert, John LaZar, Dolly Read, David Gurian, Charles Napier, Michael Blodgett, and Edy William, that is quite a bit of fun but obviously is a little overstuffed given the sheer volume of participants. However, by far the best new feature is a 30-minute interview with John Waters aka the world’s biggest Russ Meyer fan. Waters gleefully runs through the history of nudie pictures and Meyer’s output in particular. He tells some hilarious stories about his friendship with the director (my favourite being when Meyer giddily pulled a book from Waters’ shelf titled “Melons” and was bitterly disappointed when it wasn’t about what you’d think) as well as a surprisingly in depth analysis of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s a real joy and a reminder of what a treasure of filth culture that man truly is.
Toss in some of the hysterically lurid trailers for the movie as well as trailers for Vixen and Faster Pussy Cat Kill Kill (as well as a great appreciation essay by Glenn Kenny and a vintage on set interview with Russ Meyer included in the booklet) and you’ve got a hell of a disc for a trashy flick that deserves it. Make no mistake, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not a movie for everyone, especially today. However, the new generation of the specific gang of misfits who conceived and made the movie a hit in 1970, this Blu-ray is a guilty pleasure that should be cherished. It’s nice to know that there’s a place for this sort of movie in the Criterion Collection. Art comes in all shapes and sizes, even something as delightfully dirty as a Russ Meyer masterpiece. Hopefully this won’t be the last time that Criterion takes a trip to the dark side.