Few exploitation films lay out their devices upfront. On principle, even fewer are interested in anything more than cheap titillation and quenching the audience’s bloodlust. In the OUTER LIMITS-esque opening of FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! a faceless narrator conveys the core themes of the film: “Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy, it creates and molds as well.”
Russ Meyer’s ode to violence tells the story of hot rod-driving go-go dancers Billie (Lori Williams), Rosie (Haji), and the ruthless Varla (Tura Satana). While taking their cars for a ride through the desert they encounter a young girl (Susan Bernard) and her boyfriend. Following a drag race and an argument, Varla kills the man and kidnaps the girl, setting into motion a deranged series of events landing them in an inhospitable farmhouse run by a redneck family who may be just one-step removed from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
Meyer once said that he liked the title of the movie, which was coined by sound editor Richard S. Brummer, because it let the audience know that it contained everything – Speed, Sex, and (doubly so) Violence. These are the three themes of Meyer’s filmography encapsulated in a single phrase. His films range from the leering (THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS) to the outrageous (UP!), but as funny as they may be, they’re always embroiled in the male gaze. His films are inevitably targeted at teenage boys and middle-aged patrons of XXX theaters. And Meyer always cast large-breasted women as a means of fulfilling his own sexual fantasies: these are movies intended to please men, to tease them with naked women and excite them with fists.
FASTER, PUSSYCAT, however, seems to resist Russ’ fetishistic objectification of women while simultaneously encapsulating everything his filmography represents. In his goal to depict vicious yet voluptuous women, Meyer created a work that walks a thin, thin line between feminism and chauvinism. PUSSYCAT generates a dream space wherein violence is sex, sex is power, and women are cobras ready to kill any man who uses them like a toy.
Perhaps it’s because PUSSYCAT is not a sex film, but instead was intended to appeal to mainstream audiences, that helped it from completely succumbing to male lust. It played drive-ins and grindhouses, often on double or triple bills with Meyer’s other two films from the same year, MOTOR PSYCHO and MUDHONEY. As such, there is no frontal nudity or explicit sex scenes, and so the film needed to rely much more on the strength of its story, action, and cast. Of course, this didn’t stop critics from panning it as a skin flick regardless. A 1995 re-release and continual appearances on repertory screens helped bolster it’s commercial and critical from being just another title in a pornographer’s filmography.
It may seem at first, given the amount of cleavage and catfights on screen that PUSSYCAT truly is a skin flick like it’s detractors claimed. But it’s through the bravado and ferocity of its characters, their will and refusal to be subjugated, that these women rise. Much of this comes from the casting of Tura Satana, a woman who was truly an uncontainable force of nature.
Born in Japan in 1938, her family moved to America as World War II approached. Shortly thereafter, they were placed in a Japanese internment camp, where Satana spent her early years. After getting out of the camp, the family moved to Chicago. It was during that time, at the age of nine, Satana was gang-raped by five men while walking home from school one day. The perpetrators were never prosecuted. She spent the next fifteen years mastering aikido and karate and then reportedly tracked them down one by one to have her revenge.
By the age of 15, she had already founded a street gang, been sent to reform school, married and divorced, and fled to Los Angeles, where using a fake ID, she began burlesque dancing. It’s almost anticlimactic to say that she got the role of Varla in PUSSYCAT by auditioning.
In life and on the screen, Satana was not a woman to be reckoned with. Her performance in FASTER, PUSSYCAT remains iconic even today. From the first moment we see her arriving in her Porsche 356, she arouses a mixture of emotions – her natural curves and skin-tight t-shirt are exciting immediately, but her sharp eyebrows and daggered high heels are geometric warning signs of her vicious tendency. Meyer idolized speed, sex, and violence – Satana is the living embodiment of them all.
In many ways she is the perfect Russ Meyer protagonist, but she will not be tamed, abused, or owned like so many of his other women. She will get into fistfights with men, and she will always win. She will maneuver her way through any problem through domination and manipulation, crafting brilliant lies on the spot. If she has to, she will run a man down in cold blood with her car. She will die before ever allowing herself to be subjugated.
Meyer’s creative energy as a director was at its peak with FASTER, PUSSYCAT. Few films from the era move as quickly and as ferociously. Meyer’s typically rapid editing, that can be unruly in later films like UP!, is tight and controlled. The plot is perfectly paced, without diversions. But without Satana the film would be nothing. She is an avatar of ferocious, feminine power: sexy and deadly, leaving wreckage everywhere she goes, delightfully cultivating chaos.
Engines will roar. Innocents will die. This film lives up to its eye-catching title, delivering on the speed, sex, and violence and it is not to be taken lightly.
And so with that, I say “Welcome to violence.”