April 29 2010 12:00 AM

Down in the Valley


A recent letter on film critic Roger Ebert’s website asked Ebert if he knew when he was scripting it that “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was an exploitation film. Ebert’s answer is succinct: “It was many things. It was above all a satirical comedy.”

The mind-blowing 1970 melodrama was also a stab at mainstream filmmaking by exploitation-film director Russ Meyer ("Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”). But although the movie was a popular success, it turned into a major headache for distributor Twentieth Century Fox, which was eventually forced to pay $2 million to the estate of author Jacqueline Susann, who wasn’t flattered by this unauthorized cash-in on her international blockbuster “Valley of the Dolls” (which Fox had filmed three years earlier). The studio scurried to add a disclaimer to ads for the film: "This is not a sequel — theres never been anything like it!" For once, there was truth in advertising. As for Ebert’s insistence it was intended as satire, that was also open to debate. The film critic for Variety dubbed it "as funny as a burning orphanage and a treat for the emotionally retarded."

You can judge for yourself when the IFC Channel shows “Beyond” at 11:45 p.m. Saturday, May 1. Perhaps Meyer and Ebert saw the project as a comedy, but there’s no indication they shared that opinion with the cast members, each of whom performs with absolute sincerity and gasp-inducing gracelessness. This may be the last word in “so bad, it’s good” movies; almost immediately, it reaches dizzying heights of awfulness.

"Beyond" spins the tear-stained tale of the Carrie Nations, an all-girl rock band (almost 10 years before The Runaways!) made up of feisty Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read, who strains to play an all-American type, only to find herself constantly undermined by her obtrusive British accent), drug-dazed drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) and guitarist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), whose scarred psyche is like a close-out sale of assorted neuroses and repressed urges.

The one thing they all have in common is a total lack of talent (the actresses can’t even convincingly mime playing their instruments), so why not head for Hollywood and leech off of Kelly’s rich aunt? The ladies have only been in Tinsel Town for a couple of hours when they make their first foray into the dens of decadence. Here’s a warning to remember, kids: If you go to a party and the Strawberry Alarm Clock is performing, you’re in for a bad scene.

Everybody’s really “with-it” and “turned-on.” "Why dont you come over to my place?” a guy asks a potential mate. “Ive got a wading pool full of mayonnaise!" Although Kelly, Casey and Petronella never make it into the mayonnaise, they encounter plenty of other slippery situations and slimy characters on their laughably quick trip to the top of the charts.

In between assorted affairs, one-night stands, addictions, accidents and even a nationally televised suicide attempt, the Nations are conquered by mad music magnate Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John LaZar), who takes sexual confusion to scary new extremes. He gets the movie’s best and most telling line of dialogue: “It’s my happening — and it freaks me out!” The clothes are atrocious, the “hard rock” soundtrack wouldn’t shock the drunks in a Holiday Inn lounge, and the frequent changes of tone might give you whiplash. “Beyond” does, however, deliver all the sleaze and cheese it promises. The film was originally rated X and has since been re-rated NC-17 for its bizarre, sometimes funny, sometimes appalling mash-up of eroticism and violence.

There had never been anything like it in 1970, and there’s never been anything quite like it in the 40 years since.