As Nabokov said, ”nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” Smooth, cheap exploitation flicks slake our thirst for smut as fully as great films sate our taste for the sublime. The new master of the craft may be John McNaughton, whose recent Wild Things, with its bad one-liners, great double crosses, and ludicrous menage a trois, is a grade-A B movie.
Alternately reminiscent of a James M. Cain novel and a wet T-shirt contest, McNaughton’s fabliau of Florida concerns a high school guidance counselor, Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon, fabulously miscast), accused of trysting with two students: Suzie Toller, a stoned punk, and Kelly Van Ryan, a rich brat. Suzie is Neve Campbell, who is seemingly able to summon a trembly soap opera woundedness at will; Kelly is Denise Richards, who is bodacious.
Did Sam rape the girls? Did they consensually partake in extracurricular activities? Is the whole scenario a baroque swindle? Maybe Kevin Bacon, no mere police detective but a philosopher of evil — ”Hey, Jimmy,” he lectures one of Sam’s charges, ”people aren’t always what they appear to be. Don’t forget that” — can suss out this moral cesspool. If not, maybe Bill Murray, as the Everglades’ shadiest shyster, will.
McNaughton’s eye for the gaudy gesture is as evident here as in his harrowing first film, 1990’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and in his 1994 TV movie that debuts on video later this month. One from Showtime’s ”Rebel Highway” series — remakes of the teen-pleasing cheapies churned out by American International Pictures — Girls in Prison strays from the 1956 original in almost all respects, save for its penitentiary milieu. McNaughton, finessing a script by shock auteur Samuel Fuller and his wife, Christa Lang, tarts up the dreck with overt references to Ike-era conformism, rabid McCarthyism, and jailhouse lesbianism.
Here, two gals, both doing time for bludgeoning Commie baiters, meet a third, Aggie, an orphaned 17-year-old songstress framed for the murder of a record executive. Since the woman behind the setup (Anne Heche, sultry and brunet) still wants Aggie dead — by, say, a screwdriver attack during a riot at an inmates’ burlesque show — the pair dutifully protect the new bod on the cellblock. It’s a deliriously arch premise, but the joke of deliberate awfulness grows old fast, and only Heche hams it up just right. Girls in Prison would benefit from Wild Things’ unself-conscious shamelessness.
Although shame-free vulgarity predates the nickelodeon, the two men who reshaped the genre in the wake of the drive-in 1950s were Prison cowriter Sam Fuller and sexploitation impresario Russ Meyer. Fuller, who died last year at age 86, created low-budget, taste-flouting flicks like Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss, which jazzily opens as a bald hooker clobbers her john with a handbag. Two years later, the hooker (Constance Towers) has moved to a small town where, in elaborate double entendre, she solicits a dirty cop under the pretense of selling champagne, then, inexplicably, leaves the life behind to become a nurse’s aide. The film is all tabloid sensibility and celluloid rot.
Over time, Fuller earned acclaim as, to quote Andrew Sarris, ”an authentic American primitive.” Meyer has been largely disregarded by the critical establishment. (The notable exception is Roger Ebert, who wrote Meyer’s snappy, happening Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a 1970 film whose DNA is traceable in Austin Powers and Boogie Nights.) Instead, he’s been embraced by the counterculture. Any number of rock bands take cues from his stuff, and director John Waters has called Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! ”beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made.”
Faster, Pussycat! opens with a stentorian voice-over steeling us for the spectacle that follows. The ”rapacious new breed” of ultraviolent ultra-vixens we’re warned of is exemplified by a trio of ”buxotic” speed-racing go-go dancers cruising the California desert. Billie, Rosie, and Varla, the leader of the pack (Tura Satana, a kind of Jane Russell by way of Vampira), happen upon an ”all-American boy” and his teenybopper girlfriend, kill him for sport, kidnap her, then stumble onto a desiccated lecher with a hidden fortune.
The camera work is as sharp as Gregg Toland’s, the scenario is a Warholian daydream, and the slangy, innuendo-laden dialogue — ”I never try anything,” sneers Varla, ”I just do it” — nearly aphoristic. Watching Meyer’s ”ode to the violence in women,” seeing his sadistic, top-heavy antiheroines — caricatures of the femme fatale, really — shimmy and stomp their way to destruction, you start to wonder who’s really being exploited in any exploitation film: the women paid to play wild things on screen or the men who pay to find out how wild they are. Wild Things: B+ Girls in Prison: B- The Naked Kiss: B+ Faster, Pussycat!: A