Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Reviewed by Jeff DeLuzio
Rating: 3 Beans
eyond the Valley of the Dolls
Question: if a film intends to be bad, and it succeeds, do we call it a bad movie or a good parody?
Released in 1970 by Fox, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was the first major-studio release by independent sleazemeister Russ Meyer, and was conceived as a loose parody of the studio's own successful (and unintentionally bad), "Valley of the Dolls." Meyer and a then-unknown Roger Ebert made up the film's story as they went along, creating a satire which occasionally becomes a straightforward moralistic melodrama and frequently a bad rock musical. Despite its confusing nature, the film often entertains. You have to enjoy lines like, "It's my happening, and I dig it!"
The happening, then: Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Pet (Marcia McBroom), wannabee rock stars, travel to LA with their stupid manager and hook up with Kelly's hip, wealthy aunt. Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) welcomes the gals with open arms and takes them to a swingin' party where they attract the attention of rock impresario "Z-Man" (John Lazar). The most interesting character in the movie, Z-Man initially acts as a tour guide for both the band and the audience, providing colour commentary on the sexual habits and personal peccadilloes of various characters, thus saving the bother of serious character revelation. Fortunately, Z-Man himself becomes more than a host, and the film (slow moving at first) gains some momentum.
Merely eccentric at first, Z-Man becomes dangerously unhinged as his drug consumption and self-indulgences increase. Despite the indications that he is on the edge, little prepares us for the final plot twists concerning his character. That is because Ebert and Meyer only thought of these twists after most of the script had been written and, apparently, the earlier scenes were never revised.
This presents one problem with reviewing the film, especially at a site called "Bad Movie Night." On the one hand, the film's chaotic organization really does echo the films it intends to parody. On the other, it's still chaotically organized, and that isn't a terribly appealing characteristic. And while Meyer should be commended for editing so many plot strands into something like coherence, he never manages better than "something like." Endless sub-plots develop, each receiving episodic and forced conclusions. Again-- is this parodic imitation or just bad writing? Perhaps it doesn't matter. In the end, Meyer follows his pornographer's instincts, and treats plot as filler between scenes of sex and violence.
Some touches do work satirically. Meyer uses incidental music to cue the audience as to the various genres under attack: old-style soap-opera organ accompanies serious melodramatic scenes; Biblical epic stuff swells up during redemptive moments. And then there is the main score, the cheesy rock songs performed by the band (re-named the "Carrie Nations" by Z-Man). These musical scenes spoof the rock music genre, but the film reuses the same few numbers to the point of irritation. Again, is this genre parody or bad-movie filler? Either way, it's irritating, though it does allow you to get a snack or beverage without the bother of pausing your VCR.
(Another musical note: the Strawberry Alarm Clock make a brief appearance. They were past their one-hit prime and doubtless could be had cheap, but their appearance adds substantially to the film's "hip cheese" status).
Another great musical touch: the Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare sounds during the film's bloody conclusion. That conclusion, however, presents the film's final problem.
"Beyond...." needed a finale, and it settled on a homicidal rampage. It's actually pretty harrowing stuff, well-directed and paced. We have to question the intelligence and believability of the film's heroes, though, who do not call the police before they head out to stop the rampage-in-progress. More importantly, we have to recognize that this rampage either imitates, or participates in, the worst aspect of b-films.
The traditional b-movie, like the contemporary Talk Show, typically titillates with sleaze, and then drums out a moral to make us feel good about the fact that we enjoyed watching it. This film's voyeur morality is clear enough in the murders: the people who don't act nicely get whacked. Oh, except for Casey and Roxanne, who are among the film's most sympathetic characters, but they are lesbians, and one had an abortion, so we're told that "evil came out of" their relationship. Again-- that's how b-movies (and the drugstore fiction of an earlier era) work, but is this parodic imitation, or a genuine catering to the original audience's base prejudice?
In case we miss the point, a narrative voice appears out of nowhere, recaps the lives of all the characters and explains why the conclusion was just. Afterwards we get a tacked-on happy ending for the survivors, who have all learned their lessons. Wedding music swells, the credits roll, the movie ends.
And we return to our question: if a film intends to be bad, and it succeeds, do we call it a bad movie or a good parody?
The answer may lie with Meyer's directorial approach. According to Ebert (writing ten years after the fact in "Film Comment" magazine), he and Meyer knew the film was a farce, but Meyer directed the actors "at right angles to the material." Many of the performers suspected this was an elaborate joke, but they were not let in on it. Meyer apparently discussed and handled everything with the utmost seriousness. As a result, the film is frequently quite funny-- but funny in the way that unintended camp is funny. Whatever the film-maker's intentions, much of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is best enjoyed as a bad movie and therefore qualifies for a review here.
Yet at the same time, I can give it a (qualified!) Ebertian thumb's-up. Depending on your tastes, you may find this thing worth seeing once.
Other reviews for this movie: