“Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!”: Superwomen! Belted, Buckled and Booted!

By on January 5, 2017

Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) plays like something dredged from the swamp of Meyer’s imagination.

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The movie takes place in the Mojave Desert, with most of the interiors set in an isolated shack.

It contains fast little sports cars, often filmed from low angles so they look glamorous and predatory, and features three larcenous go-go dancers, all scantily clad and endowed the way Meyer liked ‘em, plus a teenage girl who spends the entire movie in a bikini.

There’s also a simple-minded muscleman, his straight-laced brother, and his wheelchair-bound father.

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There’s a story, too, involving money and murder, but you probably won’t remember the details; there’s too much crazy stuff going on, most of it presented in quick cuts, one Pop Art image slamming into another.

The women’s empowerment imagery of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has been commented on endlessly, especially since the film’s 1995 theatrical re-release.

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True, the women are portrayed as abrasive, Amazonian queens, especially Tura Satana as Varla, the leader of the “Pussycats,” but it’s doubtful that Meyer intended Varla to represent a kind of feminist avenger; he’d simply wanted to try something different with this project, which at one point was called The Mankillers:

“I had men kicking the shit out of women, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we do one where the women kick the shit out of the men?’ “

Did Orson Welles ever conceive a film this way?

We know how Meyer felt about women. We’ve seen his other movies, and the females are usually objects of desire, while the men in his films were either morons or square-jawed brutes.

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Russ Meyer throws himself into the arduous, backbreaking work of directing Vixen! (1968); thanks to T. Sutpen

Meyer, an ex-GI and wartime photographer, concocted simple plots that could’ve been lifted straight from the cheapo pulp novels of a decade earlier.

For this tale about killer females, he enlisted his occasional screenwriting partner Jackie Moran, a former child-actor who by his mid-40s was collaborating with Meyer on such features as Wild Gals of the Naked West (1961) and Common Law Cabin (1967), the tagline of which read, “Big women! Big appetites! Big trouble!” That same tagline could’ve worked for Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

The story centers on three dancers – Varla, Billie, and Rosie – who take off from their club gig (filmed at the Pussycat Club on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys) to enjoy an afternoon speeding through the desert.

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During the movie’s first few scenes, we see a brawl between Billie and Rosie, and then a scorching road race between the women and a local hot-rodder.

When the male driver tries to get tough, Varla breaks his neck and motors off with his perky little girlfriend. Varla keeps the girl drugged and propped up in the front seat of her Porsche like a rag doll.

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Varla and Rosie are supposedly lovers — it’s suggested in the script, but the actresses didn’t know until halfway through shooting when Meyer had to explain it to them — but labeling Varla a lesbian is too simple.

She’s power hungry; she wants to dominate everyone, male or female. If she can’t get her way through intimidation or seduction, she’ll ram you with her car.

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Part of the fun of this oddball movie is watching how the male characters deal with the presence of domineering females.

When the Pussycats invade the home of an old codger (Stuart Lancaster), he puts his thoughts (and probably Meyer’s) this way:

“Women! They let ‘em vote, smoke and drive – even put ‘em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!”

He says it with a menacing chuckle, as if these oversexed superwomen are still his playthings. Meyer’s message, if he had one, is that women can have all the power they want, but they’ll always be sex objects.

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It’s rather symbolic that Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! appears almost exactly in the middle of Meyer’s career — he made twelve films before it, and fifteen after it — because most consider it his creative peak.

In fact, if it’s the first Meyer film you see, you may be disappointed by the others, which aren’t so action-packed.

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By the 1970s, the skin-flick genre moved away from violence, and so did Meyer. That’s why Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, made during Meyer’s so-called “Drive-in period,” stands out as such a gleeful riot.

From the opening scene, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes from it. As a sound pattern wavers on a black background, a male voice (veteran character actor John Furlong) warns viewers “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of violence!”

The narrator goes on to describe a dangerous new type of woman:

“Handle with care and don’t drop your guard…this rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs…who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist…or a dancer in a go-go bar!”

Then BANG!, Varla, Rosie, and Billie are shown in close-up, dancing with such abandon that they might bump and jerk their way right through the screen. Customers (played by members of Meyer’s crew) sit transfixed, drunk, leering.

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As Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough writes, “The montage makes your head spin.” Then we blast off into trash-art heaven.

What makes this movie, which flopped when it was first released, such a cult favorite? Some cite Moran’s comical dialogue. Other’s praise it for Meyer’s photography and editing; assisted by cinematographer Walter Schenk, Meyer gave this sleazoid desert drama the look of an Italian art film.

The movie’s music has a following, too. The title song was performed by a California bar band called the Bostweeds, and gained some long-needed recognition when it was re-recorded by The Cramps in 1983. (Lyricist Rick Jarrard went on to be a successful music producer, recording such diverse acts as Jefferson Airplane, Jose Feliciano, and Harry Nilsson.)

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Others admire the way Meyer did so much with so little. On a reported budget of $45,000 (Meyer once claimed it was closer to $65,000) this was a bare bones production, filmed in cost-effective black and white, making use of whatever was handy. Meyer even allowed his own Porsche to be used in certain scenes.

When discussing the merits of this movie, however, most point to the human hurricane at its center: Tura Satana.

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Satana, whose real name was Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi, is the movie’s engine as Varla. Shouting her lines, beating men down with karate chops, she embodies the German translation of the film’s title: The Satans of Tittsfield.

With her imposing physique and vampirish makeup, Satana may be the ultimate Meyer female.

When she died in 2011, much was written about her stormy background, which included everything from spending time in a Japanese-American internment camp, to working as a stripper, to a brief romance with Elvis Presley, to her later years spent managing a dental office.

First and foremost, however, she’ll be remembered as the diabolical, homicidal Varla.

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Meyer never cast Satana again, and he’d admit it was a mistake to not include her in his later films. Though biographers have described Satana as being combative with the director, and undermining him by having an affair with cameraman Gil Haimson, the actress and Meyer remained friendly.

Of her portrayal of Varla, Satana once said, “I took a lot of my anger that had been stored inside of me for many years and let it loose.”

Satana appeared in only a handful of movies, which suggests a difficult reputation preceded her, or maybe she just didn’t care for the show biz rat race. Still, it’s tempting to imagine her in a James Bond movie, or swapping judo moves with Pam Grier.

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Lori Williams, who played blonde bombshell Billie, made her film debut in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but she rarely worked again.

This is unfortunate since she’d held her own onscreen with Satana, doubly astonishing since she was only nineteen at the time.

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Rosie, the third Pussycat, was played by Haji, a former topless dancer who would become a regular member of the Meyer stock company (and introduced Meyer to Satana).

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Sue Bernard, who plays the frightened teen hostage, would later claim to be the first Jewish Playboy Playmate of the Month.

She was only sixteen at the time of the movie, and later confessed to being afraid of her female co-stars.

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John Waters has called Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! “the best movie ever made.” Quentin Tarantino has threatened to do a remake, and we can see traces of it in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies and Deathproof.

It’s been referenced in numerous places, from “The Simpsons” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Many punk and metal bands have paid tribute to it, including one that took its name directly from the movie.

It even served as the model for a Janet Jackson video, and why not? It’s a naughty comic book come to life.

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Meyer was forty-three and at the height of his powers when he told the story of the Pussycats. Sure, there’s some bad acting in the movie — Meyer tended to cast strippers and amateurs — but as a pure slice of subversive 1960s eye candy, it’s unbeatable.

“My films are like a reptile you beat with a club,” Meyer once said. “You think you’ve killed it, but then it turns around and gets you on the ankle.”

Here’s hoping Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! continues to bite for years to come…

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About Don Stradley

Don Stradley has been a busy freelance writer for several years, covering everything from the pop culture to sports to crime. His work has appeared in various places, including Cinema Retro, ESPN.com, and the Film Noir Foundation's official magazine, Noir City. He's currently serving as editorial consultant for The Film Detective, a massive archive that specializes in restoring vintage films. He lives in the Boston area.