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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

After the blockbuster box office success of 1967's Valley of the Dolls, Fox was anxious to produce a follow-up. However, unable to reach agreement on a true sequel with Valley author Jacqueline Susann, the studio opted instead to put together a thematic sequel, exercising their rights to the Valley of the Dolls name but not Susann's original characters. Already lagging behind the rival studios in appealing to the new counter-cultural explosion of the late '60s, Fox took the ballsy move of handing the reins of its marquee franchise to "King of the Nudies" Russ Meyer, who had established himself as one of the most original and successful auteurs of the exploitation genre with thrifty underground classics like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) and Vixen (1968). Meyer, along with film critic Roger Ebert as screenwriter, reached deep into Valley of the Dolls' soapy cautionary tale about the lurid perils of fame and ripped out its bloody heart with a satirical cry of abandon, creating an uneven but frequently invigorating pastiche of swinging '60s hippy spoofs and gleefully massacred movie clichés. Dolly Read stars as Kelly, the gutsy but naive singer of a small-town, all-girl rock band that hits the road for L.A. and gets tangled up in the twisted party scene of insane record mogul Ronnie "Z-man" Barzell (John LaZar). Although mild by Meyer's racy indie standards, this "musical horror-sex-comedy" piles on top of its namesake's comparatively sterile sensationalism healthy dollops of vigorous sex, comic violence, sincere camp, and all-American sleaze — making it a real shock coming from the studio system.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls sees Susann's pill-popping, bed-hopping, suicidal backstabbers and raises the stakes with peyote, paraplegia, gigoloism, lesbianism, Nazism, and decapitation. But Meyer isn't interested (primarily) in shock value. His movies are usually also visually exciting and exceptionally literate, and BVD brims with classic dialogue, the best of which spouts forth from Z-Man, who swerves from stoned ("This is my happening and it freaks me out!") to pseudo-Shakespearean ("I swear to you, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance"). The manic narrative hits some slow pockets during the first half — mostly as Kelly faces off against the slimy lawyer (Duncan McLeod) of her rich aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis) — and some of Meyer's hyperactive editing is more jarring than groovy. That said, most of BVD's hysterical melodrama plays like pitch-perfect parody, and the cast is both distinctive and effective. Read, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, sparkles with charisma and simmers with misguided self-righteous conviction as Kelly. As her bandmates, fellow Playmate Cynthia Myers is broodingly vulnerable and Marcia McBroom is saucy, fun, and spontaneous. Although LaZar deservedly steals many scenes as the flamboyant Z-Man, his male co-stars are also uniformly excellent, most notably Michael Blodgett as the squalid, gold-digging hunk Lance Rock (picture a seedier, blonde Rob Lowe), but McLeod, David Gurian as Kelly's hapless boyfriend Harris, Harrison Page as the cuckolded law student Emerson Thorne, and James Inglehart as an Ali-like philosophical prizefighter are all given rich opportunities to shine. Also with Charles Napier, Erica Gavin, and the inimitably slutty Edy Williams purring come-ons like "You're a groovy boy; I'd like to strap you on sometime!" Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not for every taste, but film fans who love witty camp and outrageous depravity should find that it hits all the right notes, and it boasts the most wildly entertaining final half-hour in the history of the exploitation genre.

*          *          *

Fox's two-disc Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is presented in an excellent "Cinema Classics Collection" special edition with a terrific anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), while the audio is available in both Dolby 2.0 Surround and Dolby 1.0 mixes. Screenwriter Roger Ebert provides an in-depth and entertaining commentary track in which he speaks very affectionately about Meyer's work process (and also details an abandoned film project the two had started with The Sex Pistols). A second commentary track features cast members Read, Myers, Page, LaZar, and Gavin, but aside from their pointing out Meyer's aversion to his actors blinking (which will likely preoccupy viewers on repeat screenings) this group is far from edifying and frequently spoiled by LaZar's bad attitude. Those who like to listen to women over 50 talk about their breasts might find it has more to offer.

The second disc assembles some interesting featurettes that add just a little more context to Ebert's revelatory commentary, but it's a letdown compared to the wealth of materials on the Valley of the Dolls set. First, Lazar's quick "introduction" sets a grating, self-conscious tone that thankfully is not carried through the other features. "Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley: The Making of a Musical-Horror-Sex-Comedy" provides general background on Meyer, the production, and reactions to the unusual movie (30 min.), while "Look on up at the Bottom: The Music of Dolls" profiles composer Stu Philips and lyricist/vocalist Lynn Carey, who put together the movie's remarkable original song score featuring Carrey's amazing stylings as the stunning singing voice of Kelly McNamara (11 min.). "The Best of Beyond" features cast members recalling favorite scenes and memories (12 min.), "Sex, Drugs, Music and Murder: Signs of the Times, Baby!" sets up the movie's cultural context in the midst of the "free love" hippie movement and its dark flipside embodied by the Manson Family slayings — of which original Valley co-star Sharon Tate was a victim, as was Beyond singer Carrey's beau Jay Sebring (8 min.). There is also the very negligible "Casey and Roxanne: The Love Scene," which takes a closer look at the famous lesbian sex scene (4 min.). The section of this disc entitled "Z-Man's Far Out Party Favors" is a disappointment, with only four original trailers and teasers and two screen-tests. Sadly, there are no audio-only recordings of Carrey's vocal performances, which were dubbed over by another singer for the soundtrack album due to record label restrictions. Also on this disc are six photo galleries. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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