video review by
Gary Johnson

 

(© 1998 RM Films International Inc. All rights reserved.)

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IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT

Russ Meyer
Few film directors working in the sexploitation genre have ever attracted the attention of mainstream critics. Russ Meyer is one of the exceptions. From the late '50s through the early '70s, Meyer parlayed his love of large breasts into an impressive filmmaking career. While most sexploitation movies in the '60s were poorly lit and indifferently photographed, Meyer's films brimmed with cartoonish color schemes, rapid fire editing, and surprising camera angles. Critics quickly noticed that Meyer's films were different than the rest. Noted film critic Roger Ebert even collaborated with Meyer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer's first effort for a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox).

However, one of the great paradoxes of Meyer's career has been the quality of his movies is inversely related to the amount of nudity on display. Arguably his best movie, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! contains no nudity. As film censorship constraints loosened in the late '60s, Meyer's salacious stories about sex-hungry backwoods wives and marauding female motorcycle gangs began to look comparatively quaint. To meet the demands of an audience increasingly exposed to more and more on-screen sex, Meyer began to crank up the sexual content in his movies; however, Meyer was never particularly interested in creating hardcore sex movies. When he left out the backwoods moralizing and the crime drama action, his movies quickly became ugly and mean spirited.

This disparity in Meyer's career is well represented by a new double-feature laserdisc release--Up! and Cherry, Harry & Raquel!--from Meyer's own RM Films International (distributed by Image Entertainment). Alternating suspenseful action sequences with a variety of sexual couplings, Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1969) was filmed at the height of Meyer's powers. It was his last independent movie before 20th Century Fox lured him to Hollywood. While Up! (1976) contains some of the same ingredients as Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, it also finds Meyer eschewing most vestiges of plot (that's part of the movie's joke) as it inches ever closer to hardcore pornography. Most disappointingly, in Up!, Meyer caterers to the lowest common denominator by supplying two brutal rapes scenes. (We're supposed to think they're funny.)

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! gives us Charles Napier as a brick-jawed sheriff named Harry who conducts a marijuana smuggling ring with a crooked politician, Franklin (Meyer regular Franklin Bolger). Franklin orders Harry to track down and kill the "Apache" before their smuggling ring is exposed. Harry lives with a buxom nurse, Cherry (Linda Ashton), but he has frequent interludes with an impressively-endowed prostitute, Raquel (Larissa Ely). Like any good Russ Meyer hero, Harry likes his sex in the great outdoors, so Meyer supplies plenty of scenes of Harry and Cherry, as well as Harry and Raquel, romping across the desert, making love in the sand. Both Cherry and Raquel know about each other and they don't seem to mind that Harry spreads his love around. As a matter of fact, both Cherry and Raquel look forward to meeting one day. Harry's life would be bliss if it weren't for the "Apache"--a notoriously slippery and dangerous outlaw. In one of the movie's best action sequences, Harry and his partner Enrique (Bert Santos) become trapped at the bottom of a hill beside an overturned car that's ready to explode. Rifle bullets fly over their heads, effectively pinning them down. In scenes like this one, Meyer makes a convincing case for being considered the equal of action film directors such as Don Siegel (of Dirty Harry fame).

Least you consider Meyer a serious filmmaker, he throws in some absurd footage of Astrid Lillimor (calling her the "Soul" of the land) romping nearly buck naked around the countryside. She drags a tuba through a swimming pool, she embraces red rock monoliths, and she bounces up and down on a trampoline while wearing an Indian headdress. (Some rumors suggest the movie was originally way too short for release as a feature attraction, so Meyer padded out the running time with footage of Lillimor.)

Charles Napier would soon graduate from Meyer movies to supporting roles in Silence of the Lambs, Austin Powers, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and many others. He's one of the busiest actors in Hollywood (making two, three, and four movies every year). He's also one of the main reasons that Cherry, Harry & Raquel! is still fun to watch today.

Russ Meyer's Up! contains some of the ingredients of Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, but by this time Meyer had cranked up the sexual content in his movies in order to compete with hardcore pornography. As a result, the plot gets thrown out relatively early in favor of a series of random sexual encounters. The only reminder of the murder-mystery plot comes courtesy of the "Greek Chorus" (Kitten Natividad). Every few minutes she struts and shimmies (completely naked except for her knee-high boots) through the verdant countryside, reciting the plot and giving us capsule descriptions of the major characters. Meyer still provides an occasional moment of inspiration: during the movie's final episode, the lead female characters (Raven de la Croix and Janet Wood)--both naked as jay birds--battle to the death in the forest while maintaining a conversation that ties up all the plot points and involves references to Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun! It's Russ Meyer at his most outrageous.

Unfortunately, however, Up! also contains some of Meyer's most repulsive filmmaking. Rape scenes have frequently played a part in Meyer's films. In the Russ Meyer universe, rape is frequently viewed as little more than a minor inconvenience for the women involved. (Significantly, no one gets raped in Cherry, Harry & Raquel!) However, in Up! Meyer treats rape with cartoonish gusto. We've always known that Meyer was fixated on large breasts, but now he also affixes huge prosthetic penises to the actors for the rape scenes. And in the absolute nadir of Meyer's filmmaking career, he can be seen as part of the crowd in one rape scene, eagerly cheering on the rapist.

Disappointingly, the packaging for this laserdisc release emphasizes Up! and bestows second feature status to Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (which even gets retitled Cherry & Harry & Raquel to further emphasize the menage a trois angle). But don't let the packaging confuse you: Cherry, Harry & Raquel! represents some of Russ Meyer's best work and Up! arguably represents some of his weakest.

 


Russ Meyer's Up! and Cherry, Harry & Raquel! are now available on a double-feature laserdisc from RM Films International (distribution by Image Entertainment). Suggested retail price: $49.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.