The name is enough to trigger visions of dizzying curves, furious cascades of hair, faces of women of hypnotic beauty. Sensuality overflows, as soon as one of his anatomical muses enters the field of his camera. That is the mark of an author: a single shot suffices to identify an entire body of work, even if one knows little or nothing about it.
The most vivid image from Motorpsycho! is probably that of the sculptural Haji, the “Cajun Witch“, moulded in a pencil dress with plunging neckline, her eyes like arrows and eyebrows stretching to infinity.
A Canadian stripper and burlesque dancer, discovered by Russ Meyer at a club in Malibu, she is 19 when she accepts the role of Ruby Bonner (drop one “n” in her last name and she’s a “scarlet erection”). Magnified by the black and white photography and many low-angle shots, Haji is the agent provocateur that defies the laws of gravity – a true “cantilevered lady” as Meyer likes to call his actresses.
For a long time, considered as a minor filmmaker, an apostle of cheap erotic cinema, Meyer believes directing is the most powerful aphrodisiac of all. Reciprocally, desire fuels his inspiration: “I invent the plots myself, usually while I’m alone in the car. I have a clipboard and a felt tip pen and I jot down things that turn me on (…) Then I bring in a writer to put it into script form.”
He is a man of uncommon energy, with an appetite for life and cinema that leads him to direct over twenty movies from 1959. Films he produces, photographs and edits usually himself, most of the time with very small budgets. Russ Meyer’s cinema tantalizes, titillates the senses, and incidentally reminds the audience that they are alive. No doubt, an antidote to the horrors he witnessed as a war cameraman in the 40’s. Charles Napier, who acted in several of his films, summarizes: “working with Russ Meyer was like being in the first wave landing in Normandy during World War II, crossed with a weekend in a whorehouse”.
A virtuoso to transform his modest productions into commercial hits, Meyer applies the recipes of exploitation films, which deal with taboo or controversial subjects to fill drive-ins and grindhouses. Quickly produced to be quickly profitable. This financial independence gives him freedom of tone, and the possibility to explore more complex and dark subjects, as with Motorpsycho! in 1965.
Motorpsycho! is released ten years after The Wild One, considered to be the first biker film, and one year before Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, that gets biker flicks in vogue. Often programmed alongside his masterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and of which he said: “I made another film prior to that in which I had men kicking the shit out of the women, so I thought, “Why don’t we do one where the women kick the shit out of the men?”.
Motorpsycho! opens with a bucolic scene, in which a fisherman is more interested by his line than his foxy young wife.
Posing as a sexy comedy, the plot quickly turns into a nightmare: a series of sketches in which three thugs on wheels (Brahim on a 1964 Honda CT 200, Dante on a 1965 Honda Trail 90 and Slick on a 1963 Honda C105H) beat up, kill and rape en masse.
The second part of the film is a blend of Western and revenge movie, and culminates with a somewhat conventional showdown in the California desert.
More political than it seems, Motorpsycho! also conveys a surprisingly unapologetic social critique of America in the 60s. Brahim (Steve Oliver), the leader of the gang, returns from Vietnam. His madness and violence question, ten years before the end of the conflict, the way the country treats its veterans. Also in the spotlight, the ordinary misogyny of the times: in the ambulance that drives Gail Maddox (Holle K Winters) after she’s been beaten and raped by the three hooligans, the local sheriff (played by Russ Meyer) declares: “She’ll be all right in a week or so. After all, nothing happened to her that a women ain’t built for”.
There is certainly something grotesque about three punks spreading terror on mopeds. With Russ Meyer, dark humour and second degree are never far. It is perhaps within our own inability to recognize that absolute evil can be improvised and whimsical, that a more profound uneasiness is created. The trajectory of Brahim, Slick and Dante foreshadows the ultra-violence of Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, The Last House On The Left, and more recently Funny Games. The spectator, more voyeur than ever, constantly oscillates between excitement and disgust. After all, Motorpsycho! is quite chaste, and only when the protagonists take by force what they /the viewer covet, do we see a little more flesh.