BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Color, 1970, 110m.
Directed by Russ Meyer
Starring Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John LaZar, Michael Blodgett, Edy Williams, Erica Gavin, David Gurian, Harrison Page, Phyllis Davis, James Inglehart
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Fox (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
THE SEVEN MINUTES
Color, 1971, 115m.
Directed by Russ Meyer
Starring Wayne Maunder, Edy Williams, Marianne McAndrew, Philip Carey, Lyle Bettger, John Carradine, Yvonne De Carlo, Tom Selleck
Arrow (DVD) (UK R2 NTSC)
A film that magically came about at the right time under truly strange circumstances, Russ Meyer's satirical phantasmagoria known as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls somehow manages to look better every year. The 1969 Manson murders and Altamont concert killing were just drawing the peace and love movement to an unsettling close when Meyer and screenwriter (and future award-winning film critic) Roger Ebert joined forces to churn out an in-name-only sequel to Valley of the Dolls, 20th Century Fox's soapy, oft-quoted adaptation of the trashy Jacqueline Susann bestseller. The novelist wouldn't lend support to a sequel (and later sued the studio hilariously claiming this one damaged her career), which meant the studio had to add a disclaimer at the beginning reiterating this was a whole new story in a distinctly different setting, this time the sex and drug-soaked world of rock music.
The centerpiece of our story is The Carrie Nations, a cheerful trio of young friends consisting of Kelly (Read), Casey (Myers), and Pet (McBroom) who start off doing high school prom gigs under the name The Kelly Affair but pack up for Los Angeles to make the big time. Kelly makes contact with her rich connected aunt, Susan (Davis), who introduces them to flamboyant music mogul Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (a scene-stealing LaZar) and his colorful coterie of followers including gold-digging stud Lance (The Velvet Vampire's Blodgett) and aggressive sex star Ashley St. Ives (Williams), who sets her sights on Kelly's sandal-wearing boyfriend, Harris (Gurian). As the band rises under the guidance of Z-Man, the ladies go through various romantic partners with Kelly finding unexpected sapphic solace with lesbian fashion designer Roxanne (Gavin) after the traumatic fallout from a one-night stand and Pet ending up torn between nice guy law student Emerson (Page) and hot-tempered boxer Randy (Inglehart). Eventually the escalating debauchery explodes during a drug-fueled party at Z-Man's house, which turns into an unexpected night of violence and madness.
Still reeling from the financial fallout from a string of high-profile bombs, Fox had a much-needed hit with this film despite the fact that it was slapped with an X rating. Meyer had been aiming for an R rating (accounts vary about material he may have shot that would have pushed the sex and violence further), but the notorious gun fellatio scene was enough to keep it in adults only territory and even ensure an NC-17 rating when the film was resubmitted for a laserdisc release decades later. That rating still sticks to this day despite the fact that many films have pushed the envelope much further, indicating the MPAA still has an odd grudge against the film for some reason. Though doused in late '60s lingo and filled with gaudy clothing, the film weirdly refuses to age and still plays like one of the wildest party movies ever conceived. Meyer's trademark machine-gun editing is a major asset here, as is the fact that Ebert and company clearly didn't take the material seriously at all (including the "moralistic" narration at the end, which confused more than a few critics). In a particular rarity for a showbiz film, the Carrie Nations songs are actually terrific and still stand up as first rate, catchy compositions, with Read and company enthusiastically mimicking some fiery vocals by Lynn Carey (daughter of actor Macdonald Carey) for tunes written by Stu Phillips (The Name of the Game Is Kill!, Battlestar Galactica).
Given Meyer's reputation as a very profitable sexploitation director (he'd most recently scored a major hit with the envelope-pushing Gavin vehicle Vixen), it's surprising how much is implied rather than shown here with the nudity limited to brief topless flashes here and there and a few mildly racy sex scenes. His propulsive editing (including a great early montage flagrantly patterned after George Sidney's The Swinger) and an atmosphere of feverish sexuality manages to do most of the work, with the giddy Williams (Meyer's wife for a while and a notorious fixture at Hollywood events) threatening to burst off the screen at times; it's a shame her character disappears entirely from the story way before the end. Fortunately the rest of the cast keeps things boiling with LaZar turning in a fearless, eminently quotable performance and going way over the top with a twist ending that still catches audiences off guard today. And since this is a Meyer film, keep an eye out for some of his other familiar players including Charles Napier and Haji, too.
The first special edition of this film popped up on DVD in 2006 alongside the original Valley of the Dolls on DVD from Fox is a heavily loaded special edition, following a scrapped plan for the film's release via the Criterion Collection. The transfer was the second letterboxed one in home video history (following the aforementioned laserdisc, which had only a trailer), with extras including two audio commentaries: a very thorough and articulate one by Ebert (who seems to remember every single thing from the shoot) and a looser, funny one with the cast (LaZar, Read, Myers, Gavin and Page), all of whom remember Meyer fondly and swap stories about everything from learning to play their instruments to trying to figure out the tricky tone of their dialogue. Video extras (on a second DVD) include a LaZar intro and five great featurettes kicking off with "Above, Beneath, and Beyond the Valley: The Making of a Musical-Horror-Sex-Comedy" (30 mins.), a general overview of the film's impact and creation with all of the actors from the commentary along with McBroom and Blodgett and additional participants including Ebert, production assistants Stan Berkowitz and Manny Diez, Russ Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough, editor Dann Cahn, and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, plus other commentators including film critic Nathan Rabin. "Look On Up at the Bottom: The Music of Dolls" (11 mins.) puts Phillips in the limelight with Carey and Strawberry Alarm Clock singer Paul Marshall chatting about the creation of the insidiously memorable soundtrack along with other interview contributions by Ebert, the three leading ladies, and several modern musical admirers. "The Best of Beyond" (12 mins.) features the cast members and admirers recalling their favorite lines and scenes, while "Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder: Signs of the Time, Baby!" (7 mins.) offers some context about the film's release just as the love generation was going through a particularly icy wake-up call. Finally, the surprisingly warm and moving "Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene" (4 mins.) features Gavin and Myers reminiscing about their big romantic scene together. Also included are a fleeting teaser (looking a lot like a TV spot) and two fantastic, very different trailers, one featuring Meyer-esque editing and narration and the other highlighting the cast and crew grooving out during a photo shoot. There's also a pair of screen tests pairing Blodgett / Myers and Page / McBroom (really fascinating) and six still galleries covering everything from behind-the-scenes shots to glamour photos and merchandising material. Scattered in here are glimpses of some bit players essentially cut from the film (including the elusive Pam Grier, clearly seen here in a see-through gold dress) and odd lost moments like Casey seeing herself in old age dead in a coffin.
It look an awfully long time for Meyer's masterpiece to make the leap to Blu-ray, though it seemed inevitable once a cropped but beautiful HD transfer started popping up on various pay movie channels. Released in 2016, Arrow bowed the film in its original aspect ratio in HD as a two-disc set containing a Blu-ray of the feature with all of the extras from the DVD essentially ported over (both commentaries, all the featurettes, LaZar, intro, etc.). The one major deviation is the still gallery, which compiles many of the significant shots from the previous release in much better hi-res quality, making it far easier to study what's going on in some of those more mysterious images. (Weirdly, a photo of Patty Duke from the other Valley of the Dolls turns up as well!) As you'd expect, the intervening decade of advances in technology have resulted in a superior transfer; the DVD already looked extremely good and still holds up well, but the jump to HD results in stronger, purer colors (especially those intense blues and reds) and the loss of that moire shimmering that plagued some of the outdoor shots. All in all it's a fine presentation that looks as good as the fresh 35mm prints that occasionally still make the rounds, and the LPCM mono audio (with optional English subtitles) sounds excellent. A fourth audio option here is an isolated music and effects track, which makes it easier to sample and appreciate some of the non-Phillips tracks (including brief bits penned by regular Meyer composer William Loose) not available on the soundtrack. The featurettes are still a blast to watch, though they're often bittersweet now; though Meyer was already deceased when the DVD was released, we've since lost Ebert, Myers, and Blodgett (as well as non-participating actors Napier and Davis).
The success of Meyer's first studio film was enough to encourage Fox to keep him around, and his next and final Hollywood outing turned out to be one of his least-seen titles: The Seven Minutes, an adaptation of Irving Wallace's sensationalist look at a book obscenity court trial. Meyer's precise editing is still in evidence here (he even turns up on screen, too) and Williams returns for another steamy performance, while Phillips turns out another fine score with a theme song crooned by B.B. King. However, the more "serious" nature of the material seems to be at odds with Meyer's rambunctious personality; he does his best to fire things up with most shots lasting no longer than a second, but it's still obviously TV-level material. That said, it's a fascinating film that deserves more than the obscurity that greeted it; besides, how can you resist anything featuring Yvonne DeCarlo (in a late but pivotal extended cameo), John Carradine, '70s DJ supreme Wolfman Jack, and even a young Tom Selleck (who'd already appeared in a prior Fox scandal, Myra Breckinridge)?
Apparently unable to decide how to release and market the film, Fox prepared no less than three slightly different versions of The Seven Minutes during its brief theatrical life: an R-rated initial release, a PG-rated version for second run theaters to try to recoup costs, and a spicier alternate cut for European audiences with a rowdier version of a sequence involving a stag film shoot involving Uschi Digard and a guy in a gorilla suit. (Yes, really.) Despite the continuing popularity of Meyer's films on home video, Fox withheld the film from home video without even giving it a VHS release; for years the only way to see it was via bootleg copies of a butchered TV print missing over half an hour of footage. At least in the early '00s Fox still had print material and provided the uncensored European version for a screening as part of a Meyer retrospective in Los Angeles, though its fate since then seems to be murky. Fortunately they kept a transfer of it handy to now provide the source for the film's first official appearance in any home video format as a bonus DVD in this set. The 1.78:1 framing has a bit more room at the top and bottom compared to the theatrical presentation, though it was shot open matte for TV safety. Efforts were made to secure an HD transfer, but this appears to be the only option now -- and it's a very welcome one. Frame grabs for this one can be seen below:
The DVD is region 2 but NTSC, which means it plays at the correct speed; the Dolby Digital mono audio sounds fine, and the optional English subtitles do an admirable job of keeping up with an often overwhelming amount of visual information. The extras here include the theatrical trailer and a 28-minute episode of Sinister Image, the '80s public access show hosted by David Del Valle. His guests include Meyer and one of his early Playboy models, Yvette Vickers, who famously appeared in Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and died under shockingly macabre, sad circumstances. She doesn't really say much here as Meyer takes center stage to reel out his usual barrage of anecdotes about World War II and gravity-defying women. Also included in the package (which features reversible cover art options) is a substanital booklet including a new item by Del Valle about the circumstances behind his Meyer/Vickers interview, which was supposed to be a two-parter but got halted for unexpected, bizarre reasons. (On top of that, the interview subjects didn't have quite the close relationship expected before the shoot happened.) He also details the deaths of both participants, going into the shocking details of Vickers' much-publicized fate while only alluding to Meyer's infuriating treatment during his final years suffering from dementia. Also included in the booklet are a lengthy, energetic essay about Beyond by Kat Ellinger ("Vixens at Fox"), an amusing sampler of outraged negative reviews, and a 1991 interview with Meyer by Anne Billson. Very groovy.
Reviewed on January 19, 2016.