Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was directed and co-written by Russ Meyer, known for his breast-heavy (or heavy breasted) sexploitation films (this film though isn’t the most breast-y and is pretty camp). The film was co-written with Roger Ebert, and the script carries with it the feeling of self-awareness you might expect from something penned by a critic.
The film starts with a very uncertain tone; it opens with a section of the violent denouement; the barrel of a gun caresses open the mouth of a beautiful sleeping woman, who accepts it sensuously. As she wakes and realises what is happening she screams. The scream then jump cuts into the scream of a woman singing high-octane music and we are thrust backward to the start of the story. The next scene carries with it the forced upbeat jollity of a broad comedy except there’s a look of uncertainty in everyone’s eyes, as if they too are unsure what genre of film they are in. Which really wasn’t that far from the truth as far as the actors were concerned.
The story begins with a lively all-female rock and roll band. The band members and their entourage decide to head out to LA so that perky, wide-eyed lead singer Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read) can meet up with her estranged aunt. The other girls Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella (Marcia McBroom) are happy to go along on the journey, for the change of scene and with dreams of fame and fortune in tow.
It isn’t long before these hip young things find themselves at their first LA ‘happening’, run by music producer Z-Man (John Lazaar), who utters the famous line, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Just think of Austin Powers and the Electric Psychedelic Swingers Club, only stranger. During the party scenes (and indeed the rest of the movie) the audience is given precious little time to catch their breath and puzzle out what they’re watching. The dialogue hardly ever stops and this gives the whole film a breathless rhythmic relentlessness. Often the talk sounds like the recitation of a beat poem.
This was refreshing; all the heavily pregnant dramatic pauses in which ‘acting’ takes place in most films are just exorcised and the plot is allowed to move on. At the same time it manages to convey a world that moves too quickly for the characters or audience to fully process. Sometimes this can make you feel unsure of who or what everyone is, but I suppose that makes you feel part of the ride (or should I say trip). Sometimes these scenes feel like watching a trailer for the film, rather than watching the film itself, there are so many cuts over a constantly running soundtrack.
After an impromptu performance by Kelly and her bandmates at the party, the worryingly eccentric Z-Man decides that the girls are ready for the big time. Such is the pacing that you feel hijacked by the busy delirium of events and, like these girls, hardly have time to think what you are doing as the “dolls” (drugs) are pushed towards you.
The film presents an eclectic world of beautiful young women and handpicked eccentrics, orange-haired older ladies and alarmingly hairy oddballs. These figures utter stereotypical swinging soundbites – “dig?”, “groovy”, “cool”, “right on” – as well as, particularly in the party scenes, cut in non-sequiturs which sound like sudden chemically inspired revelations on life.
Each scene in this film feels like it contradicts the genre of the one before. There are also scenes that darkly highlight the cold corruption of which we are capable. There are squabbles and sexual trysts connected with an inheritance, money hungry gigolos, infidelity, peer-pressured abortions and physical violence. During a scene where one character is severely injured during a live TV performance by the band the presenter demands that the cameras are kept rolling, despite everyone’s obvious horror and shock. The presenter’s focus is on capturing this intensely unpleasant moment, presumably for ratings; this is satire that still feels incredibly fresh now.
Without giving too much away, the film’s denouement revolves around a final wild little gathering that goes catastrophically awry. Things get out of hand. It’s not what you expect. However, much like Return of the King (2003), it’s a film that has multiple endings, and each subsequent little addition changes the tone of the film once again. You don’t know what you’re getting, even when it’s over. And I never got a real hold on who the guy in the Nazi uniform was.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is often described as a parody of the original Valley of the Dolls (1967) film and even of filmmaking as a whole. However, while Valley of the Dolls has a distinct whiff of over-egged melodrama, Beyond the Valley… is pitched less dramatically and actually comes across as a slightly more (dare I say it!) level-headed film! Though cartoonish, superficial and completely out of its tree – these things do make it an easier and ultimately a more enjoyable watch; and it’s the combination of these things which have given the film its cult status. Having come out the other side, I certainly feel groovier right now. Though it’ll be a cold day in hell before I host any far-out happenings.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is out now on limited edition Blu-Ray through Arrow Video.