After the refreshing journey of self-discovery that was 1975’s Supervixens, Up!, Russ Meyer’s follow up from the following year, is hostile and mean-spirited at times and curiously sexy and experimental in others. While the previous picture felt vigorous and refreshing, Up! began a slight downward trajectory for Meyer as the humor began to feel old-hat and grow stale and the violence found in Meyer’s past sex pictures took a turn for the gory and the transgressive. Not that any of this would have mattered in the long run if Meyer’s narrative chops and satirical eye hadn’t been worn down by constant work and worry about the hardcore porn market that was starting to get bigger budgets and more exposure. But worry he did and Up! has all the hallmarks of a filmmaker with one eye on the box office returns and one hand on the panic button.
A wooly whodunit that aims to uncover the perpetrator of the first act’s homicide-by-piranha of reclusive millionaire and clandestine pervert Adolph Schwartz (Edward Schaaf), Up! is full of side characters, red herrings, action, sex, violence, and a Greek chorus embodied in the delightful, beaming, and undulating corpus of Francesca ‘Kitten’ Natividad, Meyer’s last real leading lady. Up! begins with the title card “No fairy tale… this!” to key you in that you’re most definitely in a Desperate Living-style soap awash in murder, mayhem, and intrigue. And there is plenty of all three as mysterious stranger Margot Winchester (Raven De LaCroix) jogs into town only to have carnage and carnality follow in her wake. For along with amping the graphic violence to the extreme, Up! would also expand Russ Meyer’s box of on-screen sexual antics to include the beaver shot, male-on-male sex, S&M, cunnilingus, and, finally, after two threats of strapping somebody on in previous pictures, a female character actually produces a strap-on and uses the hell out it. The opening scene of the film, a sexual potpourri full of humiliation, torture, bondage, queening, cock sucking, and anal penetration via an alarmingly large (natch) penis is Meyer at his least coy. It may all be for show in the service of making a mockery out of a fascist, but there is little doubt at this point that Meyer wasn’t at least a little curious about any and all of the items on full display given his continued tendency to nibble around the middle of them.
While it’s not as imaginative as Supervixens was or as harmless as Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens would later be, Up! has a number of redeeming qualities, and, on the whole, the film is not without it multiple, scattershot charms. For one thing, after settling his existential crisis of the filmmaking soul in Supervixens, Up! feels like Meyer at his most sexually uninhibited and revealing in his attempt to try and create a kind of sex picture that could MIGHT be able to compete with the hardcore market. In doing so, he explores the outer limits of his own libido with sexual situations that were as graphically displayed as he was comfortable with. Well, up to that point, at least.
The real story of Up! concerns Alice (Janet Wood) and Paul (Robert McClane) who work together at Alice’s Cafe. They are both a pan and polysexual couple as Paul offers. Stud service to Adolph Schwartz for extra dough as Alice frolics with the truck driving Gwendolyn (Linda Sue Ragsdale) when the latter rolls through town and has a new trick or two she wants to test out. Two steps beyond the valley of Tom and Vixen, their border-free union is a real first for Meyer. When Margot comes to work at the cafe, there is an equal sexual interest in her from both parties and, in teasing one another about her, they actually turn each other on. This leads to a scene which Meyer probably thought would pass for a sex scene that could exist comfortably in a contemporary world awash in non-simulated sex.
The problem with that strategy was that as artful as he was being with the setups, the locations, the framing, etc., Radley Metzger was getting that and more with movies like The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann and The Opening of Misty Beethoven. And as randy and dirty as he was getting in his more raucous, Dutch-angled bedroom scenarios, Meyer had nothing on filmmakers like Alex DeRenzy and Bob Chinn, who were finding clever ways to make entertaining and humorous sex pictures that didn’t need to cut away or be so careful in what they might reveal. According to Kitten Natividad, the face-riding she engaged in at the end of the film, however obscured by foliage, was the real deal and the earth-shattering time she seems to be having was likewise genuine. For an artist to have put such importance on the female orgasm, it’s nice to see that Meyer was able to capture one that occurred naturally and without prompting, stage direction, or going too far over his own line. But despite not going anywhere close to all the way in the rest of the sexual encounters in the film (that I know of), Up! certainly earned its X rating and stands as a great example of the kind of film that was once deserving of that designation; most definitely beyond an R but not even close to being in the same neighborhood as actual pornography.
But just because Meyer was able to push the sexual envelope just a little further after admirably coming to terms with his dichotomous nature between violently crass he-man and curiously sensitive sexual explorer in the final reel of Supervixens doesn’t mean that amplifying the self-loathing violence along with the aberrant sexual behavior left any less of a bad taste in the audience’s mouth when it reared its ugly head in Up!. For the price for all the outré and unbridled sexual situations in the beginning turns out to be an ill-conceived and crass sexual assault that ends with an axe to the chest and a chainsaw through the torso. And blood. Lots and lots of blood.
Up! was the second collaboration between Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert who wrote the Greek chorus under the pseudonym of Reinhold Timme with the rest of the verbose and comical script was penned by Russ Meyer (as B Callum) and Meyer stalwart James-Anthony Ryan. In getting as down and dirty with his characters as he could, Meyer found a perfect match in Monty Bane whose shit-kicking hick deputy Homer Johnson is one of Meyer’s many corrupted lawmen though played this time in the key of Chuck Jones. And, in Up!, Meyer again shows his deftness with other genres and his ability to perfectly fold them into his own work when he needed to. As Margot leaves for work late in the film’s second act and the murderer kills the electricity to her cabin, the film recalls Super Angel’s demise in Supervixens and manages to look and feel like a legitimate horror film, something it achieves again in the film’s gruesome third act.
This is not to say that the film’s King Kong meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s energy in the film’s climax isn’t fully appreciated. Not at all. It just seems that the film reaches a fever pitch very early into the mayhem which gives rise to a question that lingers, much like it would have at some point during one of Emperor Caligula’s many get-togethers. That question specifically being, “Gosh.. this is a little much, isn’t it?”
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain