Mudhoney

”…Leaves a taste of evil!” says the tagline for Russ Meyer’s 1965 film, Mudhoney. After watching the film, I’m tempted to rekindle my faith in advertizing. 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 Livinsgston) and her two daughters, the vibrant Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland) and the sensitive, deaf/mute, Eula (Rena Horton). They direct him to the Wade farm, where Wade hires him on to help (since he’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), to turn 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, here, there’s no hope of redemption for his character like 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 convincing as a dangerous and volatile presence, 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 isn’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 the Princess Livinstong’s Maggie Marie and her two daughters/whores that adds a tremendous vitality to the film. With her expressive, toothless face and cackling laugh, Princess’ Maggie Marie is like a pure, apathetic spirit of sex and chaos in the film.

In the typical Mayerian 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 pure 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 outside worlds of heaven and hell. Within that world, another pair of contrasting opposites are presented between the talkative, exhibitionist Clara Belle and the deaf/mute, sensitive Eula. Both show an interest to all of their male visitors, but approach them in different ways, with Clara Bale looking to put on a show, but Eula being more tactile.

Mudhoney reveals Meyer’s increasing trend for adding layers of complexity to his films. Lorna itself was a major leap forward in cinematic sophistication with its mystical, Dante-like levels of good and evil, but in Lorna 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 essentially, intricately, and interestingly 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. Frank Bolger’s Brother Hanson is literally the character that argues FOR the evil of Hopper’s Sidney, and facilitates the actions that will lead all the characters towards 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 sites on the preacher’s wife, Sister Hansen (Lee Ballard). After chasing her through the woods, he eventually catches her, rapes her, 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 drug into the town square where he’s set up to hang. Calif, Hannah, and Sheriff Abel (Nick Wolcuff) show up to try to save Sidney and allow him to stand trial by law, but Brother Hansen and his rabid mob won’t allow it. Even with Calif training a shotgun on Brother Hansen, 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), it’s 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, unreasonable, animalistic mentality that had infected him, but has much more deeply infected people like Brother Hansen and the mobs of humanity they’re terrifyingly able to dredge up and lead to such inhuman acts. The greatness of Mudhoney (and maybe Meyer in general) is that, even with his ostensible fixation on big breasts and female nudity, his real transgression lies in his “blasphemous” (but, actually, intelligent and provocative) depiction of liberal sexuality as something innately good and healthy, while the ascetic abstention from such humanistic nature creates an infinitely more evil and animalistic version of humanity.

But for all his transgressions, in truth, Mudhoney is rarely all that gratuitous. In its entire runtime there is, to my recollection, only six instances of nudity, and 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 US 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 cumulating 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.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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