Russ Meyer: God of Cult

The Walt Disney of Porn. King Leer. The Fellini of the Sex Industry. Sexploitation flick extraordinaire Russ Meyer has quite the reputation. Little wonder why, sixty years after the release of his first film, he is finding new audiences and earning himself ‘cult’ status. There’s no formula for becoming a cult director, but every so often someone comes along who puts the pieces together in a way that speaks to a group of filmgoers and, Bam!; a cult director is born. 

It could be argued that this takes a certain talent, but then how would we explain Ed Wood? Perhaps it’s the ability to capture the heart, mind, or, in Russ Meyer’s case, sexual drive of a person. More than anything it appears that having a niche is the key to a successful cult director. Whatever it is, Meyer had it and it shows in the nearly 30 directing credits to his name, most of which took place over a 20-year period spanning the 1960s and 70s. 

Meyer not only found his audience with his first film, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), he created it. The sexploitation and nudie-cutie genres were birthed with the release of this legendary film. In fact, according to David K. Frasier (author of Russ Meyer – The Life and Films), Meyer’s films are a virtual history of the development and maturation of the sexploitation film.

Deemed highly provocative and controversial at the time of release, these soft-core pornos seem moderately tame by today’s standards—think A Serbian Film (2010). Meyer’s debut does little to excite contemporary audiences as it features no dialogue and simply follows around the titular Mr. Teas as he imagines seeing the women around him nude. However, in its day, Mr. Teas saw a long and profitable theatrical run (it was the first nudie to make a profit of more than a million dollars) whilst simultaneously changing cinema forever. If you’ve ever appreciated a nude scene on screen, you can tip your hat to Russ Meyer. 

Even in his early efforts it’s evident that Meyer’s experience as a military photographer paid off (of course his post-war history of shooting some of the earliest Playboy centerfolds was probably his most influential career move). His grasp of cinematography and editing shone through in each subsequent release—even the barely watchable ones. Meyer loved repetition and although his fast-paced editing style helped make this more palatable, some scenes (especially in his later films) repeat ad nauseam. Still, despite the occasional clumsy edit, the man knew how to put together a scene and how to give the audience what they wanted and expected. 

Like any great cult director, Meyer’s films grew in scope and explored new areas as well as subject matter, but always within the boundaries of the sexploitation niche he’d carved for himself. Meyer refused to film hardcore, he took a few chances outside of his generic comfort zone but soon returned to the films that made his name when his more ‘alternative’ releases failed to set the box office on fire. 

What cemented Meyer’s reputation as a cult director was the viewer’s reliance on him to provide them with what they craved time and again. Along with the powerful cinematography and editing, he provided a variety of (mostly) naturally large-breasted women who often won out against all the odds. Meyer’s main selling point may have been his women, but his outlandish storylines and characters were just as big a draw as the soft curves and bouncing bosoms. With writers ranging from longtime Meyer cohort Jack Moran to film critic Roger Ebert, Meyer’s storylines and characters were often more over-the-top than the nude ladies frolicking throughout the scenes. Alongside the unfaithful wives and wimpy husbands were murderers, crooked cops, gangs, drunks, prostitutes, slaves, and even Adolf Hitler! You never knew who or what was going to show up in a Russ Meyer film. 

The unlikely auteur may have passed away in 2004, but his films and cult director status remain as relevant today as they ever did, thanks to new generations of film fans discovering his work on video. In his 1981 book, Shock Value, John Waters famously stated that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is, “Beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” But it wasn’t until 1995, when Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! returned to theaters and played to sold-out crowds, that a renewed interest in Meyer’s work developed and his films were actively sought out by his many new fans. 

This begs the question: since Meyer felt that hardcore was one of the nails in the coffin of his career, what draws audiences back to Meyer’s films all these years later? Especially now that hardcore is more prevalent than ever. Several factors figure in here. Audiences love to see a woman in charge, and if that woman is baring all while doing so it, for many, becomes even more enjoyable to watch. Also, in this age of twig-women who look like 12-year-old boys but are supposed to be sexy, it’s refreshing to see curvy women on screen. 

On the technical side, Meyer’s films still look good today. His solid cinematography and trademark machine-gun editing style make his films feel less dated than most from the era. The strangeness of the stories and characters mixed with the just-short-of-hardcore style makes Meyer’s sexploitation outings great for parties. But most importantly, Meyer’s contributions to cinema are just plain fun. Even the great man himself noted that you can start watching any of his films in the middle, stay for only ten minutes and still have a good time. How many directors in cinematic history can honestly make that claim?

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of New Empress Magazine.