”…Leaves a taste of evil!” says the tagline for Russ Meyer’s 1965 film, Mudhoney. Watching the film has almost rekindled my faith in advertising. Mudhoney is an evil film, on many levels; debased, depraved but, like its title, paradoxically sweet in its grit and grime. The film comes from Meyer’s most prolific and highly celebrated period, where in the span of six years he produced the majority of his best-known and most notorious films, including Lorna, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Motorpsycho, Mondo Topless, Vixen! and Beneath the Valley of the Dolls. The more films I see from this period, the more inclined I am to think that Meyer’s reputation as the king of sleaze has blinded too many audiences and critics to the real cinematic power and, yes, even artistry of these films.
Mudhoney reunites much of the cast of Meyer’s Lorna, especially Hal Hopper and Lorna Maitland, and sets them in depression and prohibition era Missouri. Here, Hopper has the lead role of Sidney Brenshaw, a drunken, abusive man who lives on the farm of Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster) and is married to Wade’s niece, Hanna (Antoinette Cristiani). One day, a stranger named Calif (John Furlong) arrives into town looking for work. He stumbles onto the small farmhouse/family brothel of matriarch Maggie Marie (Princess Livingston) and her two daughters, the vibrant Clara Belle (Maitland) and the sensitive, deaf/mute Eula (Rena Horton). They direct him to the Wade farm, where Wade hires him on to help (since Wade’s in poor health and getting older). But when Calif and Hannah fall in love, Sidney erupts in a jealous rage and eventually feigns being religiously saved to beguile the local preacher, Brother Hansen (Frank Bolger), into turning the town against Calif.
For those who have seen Lorna, it may seem like Hopper has merely reprised his role as the abrasive drunkard. The only real differences in the roles are that, here, he (deservedly) gets the lead, and also there’s no hope of redemption for his character as there ultimately was in Lorna. Hopper isn’t the most talented of actors—he’s certainly not Brando in his level of natural believability—but what he lacks in technical ability he makes up for in sheer force and presence. If nothing else, he’s convincingly dangerous and volatile and we never fail to believe that he’s capable of cold-blooded murder. At times, he can be downright fierce, especially during the scenes where he flies off in a drunken rage beating the women around him.
If Mudhoney suffers a bit compared to Lorna it’s in the respect that the other two-thirds of its leading trio aren’t as strong or interesting. John Furlong’s Calif is a rather bland protagonist, as is Cristiani’s Hannah as an almost one-dimensional damsel-in-distress. It doesn’t help that the two lack any real chemistry, so their growing love falls rather flat. The rest of the supporting cast is much stronger, especially Stuart Lancaster as the quietly strong and wise Lute Wade. If anything, he provides a means for us to care about Calif since he takes a liking to him. But it’s really Princess Livingston’s Maggie Marie and her two daughters/whores that add a tremendous vitality to the film. With her expressive, toothless face and cackling laugh, Maggie Marie is like a pure, apathetic spirit of sex and chaos in the film.
In the typical Meyerian mode, Maggie Marie and her promiscuous daughters are portrayed with an almost celebratory glee. Whether it’s the openly lascivious Sidney, the more reserved and noble Calif, or even the preacher, Maggie and her daughters are not judgmental or selective. Maggie Marie’s house is a realm of egalitarianism, more concerned with the peace and pleasure found in love and liberality, rather than the evils found in possessive, obsessive moralizing and materialism. In that sense, her house becomes like a purgatorial limbo, poised between the worlds of heaven and hell outside. Within the house, another pair of contrasting opposites are presented between the talkative, exhibitionist Clara Belle and the sensitive, deaf/mute Eula. Both show an interest in all of their male visitors, but approach them in different ways, with Clara Belle looking to put on a show while Eula is more tactile.
Mudhoney reveals the increasing trend in Meyer’s films of added layers of complexity. Lorna itself was a major leap forward in cinematic sophistication with its mystical, Dante-like duality, but in that film it functioned almost as a metafictional commentary, a sense of self-awareness of the film’s own sleaziness. Mudhoney retains that level, but it is much more intrinsic—expertly integrated into the whole. The nicest thing that could be said is that Meyer doesn’t paint a positive picture of religious moralizing, but the truth is even darker. Brother Hansen is literally the character that argues for the evil of Sidney and facilitates the actions that will lead all the characters on toward the film’s tragic conclusion. But Meyer doesn’t create the tragedy out of the triumph of evil, or even the death of anything good, but in the defeat of something bad (that could’ve been saved) by the film’s true, but more hidden, evil.
To explain and interpret this near-brilliant twist, I’ll have to give away the ending, so consider this a spoiler warning. Near the end, with the preacher and the town going to hunt down and exile Calif, Sidney sets his perverted sights on the preacher’s wife, Sister Hansen (Lee Ballard). After chasing her through the woods, he eventually catches, rapes and brutally drowns her in the mud of a swamp. Immediately after, he’s caught (in one of the film’s many narrative elisions) by Brother Hansen and his lynch mob and dragged into the town square where he’s set up to hang. Calif, Hannah and Sheriff Abel show up to try to dissuade the rabid mob and save Sidney so he can stand trial. Even with Calif training a shotgun on him, Hansen kicks over the barrel, killing Sidney, while Calif shoots and kills Hansen, much to the horror of the almost prescient (and almost Christ-like) figure of Eula.
The remarkable thing about the finale isn’t just the tremendous level of drama that Meyer rings out of it (though that is certainly laudable), but in the way it’s come about. It’s the realization that the true enemy of the film wasn’t Sidney, but the blind, selfish, animalistic mentality that had infected him; but it has much more deeply infected people like Brother Hansen who’s terrifyingly able to dredge up people willing to commit such inhuman acts. The greatness of Mudhoney (and maybe Meyer in general) is that, even with its ostensible fixation on big breasts and female nudity, the real transgression lies in its “blasphemous” (but, actually, intelligent and provocative) depiction of liberal sexuality as something innately good and healthy, while the ascetic abstention from it fosters an infinitely more evil and animalistic version of humanity.
But for all its transgressions, in truth, the film is rarely all that gratuitous. In its entire runtime there are, to my recollection, only six instances of nudity, with two of them occur during rapes (disallowing for any titillation). Of the remaining four, two are extremely brief (with Eula stripping for Calif in the bedroom and Clara Belle flashing Sidney), one finds Eula bathing in the open, in profile, and the other finds Clara Belle skinny-dipping in a creek. Perhaps it’s telling that Meyer pairs his extended instances of nudity with bathing, as if such a return to nature is precisely what’s needed to wash the mud of oppressive society off. It’s equally telling that Meyer situates the film in the era of the depression and prohibition, as such a time found the U.S. trying to cope with a crumbling economy while taking away individual freedom (a position which Maggie Marie destroys in the first scene by revealing they make their own liquor).
The more I see from Meyer, the more I’m inclined to think that his title as “The Fellini of the sex-industry” is almost too limiting. He may be the Fellini of all B-films period, as all of these films seem to find Meyer taking his limited resources and making something viable and substantial out of them. Mudhoney isn’t without flaws, and it does seem to lack the focus of Lorna or the fun of Faster, Pussycat!, but it’s likely the most intense film to come out of this period, with a steadily accumulating energy that erupts in one of the most insanely enthralling finales I’ve ever seen. Hopper’s electric performance of a character slowly disintegrating from hateful drunk to homicidal psychotic is equally riveting, as are the striking, expressive, silent-film quality faces that abound in the film. But ultimately its Meyer’s idiosyncratic direction that holds it all together, maintaining the corrosive, cinematic quagmire from beginning to end.