In 1965, Writer/Director Russ Meyer had begun having trouble with the censor board due to his nudie films and erotica, so he decided to shift gears by releasing the film Motorpsycho, a violent, low budget revenge film focused on a male motorcycle gang. The film was shocking in its use of violent rape as a plot point and was one of the first films to include a disturbed Vietnam veteran as central character. Released directly to the drive-in circuit, the film was so successful (relatively speaking) that Meyer immediately decided to try the genre again, this time with a trio of violent women, swapping out fast cars for motorcycles.

It flopped and Meyer returned to the soft-core erotica that was more consistent in its financial returns.

But Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was a film that would not die. Though it would take a decade or more, the film became perhaps the most popular entry in Russ Meyer’s entire oeuvre. In his 2005 book, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, the godfather of trash, John Waters, called Faster Pussycat! “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made,” going on to say, “It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” But as popular as it is in the world of cult cinema, its lead actress, Tura Satana, became even more of an iconoclastic legend.

For those who don’t already know, Faster Pussycat! is the story of three go-go dancers who, after an impulsive murder/kidnapping, end up on a remote desert ranch trying to steal a hidden fortune of insurance money from a crippled misogynistic old man and his two sons. It’s a tight 83 minutes that despite its sex and violence exploitation bones, avoids nudity, explicit language, and graphic violence. Honestly, you could show this film on a Sunday afternoon on TV.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Violence!

As with most of Meyer’s films, Faster Pussycat! was short on money from the start, which, in theory, lent the films that worked the drive-in circuit a greater possibility of making a profit. At this time, Meyer worked primarily through the Texas/Arkansas circuit, with his films doing good business in the sometimes-sleazy world of the Drive-In. This was a time when the distributors were sending their first run and higher profile films to standard theaters where they could gross more by having multiple showings through the days. This left Drive-Ins to focus on B-Movies; the movies that pushed the boundaries of good taste regarding both sex and violence.

After the success of Motorpsycho, Meyer dove straight into filming Faster Pussycat! before the script was even completed. The film’s $45,000 budget meant shooting in black and white to save money, as well as limiting the settings as much as possible. After a brief opening montage sequence shot at 4:00 AM the Pussycat Club, a strip club in Van Nuys, California, the driving and racing portions of the film were shot in the California desert, particularly the dry salt flats of Cuddeback Lake. The brief scene at a gas station was shot in the town of Randsburg early in the morning, guerrilla-style, before the citizenry were up and about so Meyer could avoid getting permits, then the rest of the film was shot at Ollie Peche’s Musical Wells Ranch just outside of Mojave, a run-down and seemingly abandoned piece of land that accidentally adds to the timeless – and near-apocalyptic feel of the film.

According to Meyer, Peche offered use of the ranch for little more than the opportunity to be around lovely ladies during the shoot.

The small cast is made up of four women and five men, although two of the male characters aren’t in the film for very long. The first Pussycat cast was exotic dancer Haji, a Canadian-born actress of British and Filipino descent who had made her film debut working with Meyer on Motorpsycho Her character, Rosie, is second-in-command in the group, nursing an unrequited love for her leader, Varla. Haji had been dancing with Tura Satana at the Pink Pussycat strip club in Los Angeles and recommended her for the lead role of Varla, a sociopath with a short temper and hot passions. Satana had already had a few small roles in film, most notably as a Parisian prostitute in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce. In fact, she auditioned on her lunch break while wearing her wedding dress from the film. Rounding out the trio of Pussycats was Lori Williams a dancer (non-exotic) who, up until Faster Pussycat! had worked background dance scenes in the Elvis films Viva Las Vegas, Girl Happy, and Tickle Me. According to the ladies on the audio commentary to the region-free Russ Meyer Collection DVD, she almost didn’t get the part as she was lacking the trademark “Russ Meyer Girl” bust, but with a little padding, she fit right in as Billie, the seemingly ditzy blonde with a dark side.

The fourth woman cast was Susan Bernard, who played Linda, the innocent victim of the Pussycats. She was a high school student, just about to graduate, who thought she was being cast as the lead, rather than as the traumatized kidnapped final girl. According to the Pussycats, she was horrified by the girls and her overprotective mother had to be sent away at Satana’s request.

Satana also admits to scaring Bernard in real life so she would be able to play the part more effectively.

Linda’s boyfriend Tommy was played by Ray Barlow, whose only screen credit of note (?) is an episode of Highway to Heaven in 1988. He’s not in the film for very long before being dispatched by Varla in a fit of anger. The next man to cross their path is a simple gas station attendant played by Mickey Foxx, a Russ Meyer regular, whose character’s sole purpose is to provide the information that there may be a hidden fortune out on The Old Man’s ranch.

The Old Man (Stuart Lancaster) is a hideous, misogynistic, murderer (we discover), trapped in a wheelchair after being hit by a train while trying to save a woman who then rejected him. Lancaster, another Russ Meyer regular from this point on, plays the role to the hilt. He’s crazed and dangerous, a fair match for Varla. The Old Man’s two sons, Kirk and The Vegetable, are played by Paul Trinka and Dennis Busch, respectively. Trinka was a working television actor who would appear regularly in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show from 1964-1968, with Faster Pussycat! being his first feature film role. For Busch, Faster Pussycat! was his first and only film credit. Kirk is the good son, trying not to get caught up in the hatred and hostility of the Old Man, while The Vegetable is a musclebound simpleton, easily manipulated by his father into committing acts of violence, but at heart he’s a decent person. Maybe. When he isn’t murdering women for his dad.

The Smell of Female

The film opens with a bit of narration. I’ll quote it in its entirety to give the full effect:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains… sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy, it creates and molds as well. Let’s examine closely then this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female, the surface shiny and silken, the body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, any time, anywhere, and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist… or a dancer in a go-go club!

There’s a reason that one of the film’s taglines was “Russ Meyer’s ode to the VIOLENCE in WOMEN!” From the very beginning, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! plays like a death knell for masculinity. It’s a primal scream of female anger wrapped up in sexuality, raging against the vilest aspects of mainstream traditional masculinity. Every facet of male toxicity is on display, from the virulent objectification of women by the men at the go-go club, to the casual objectification by both Tommy and the gas station attendant. From the murderous misogyny of the Old Man and offhand violence of the Vegetable, to the passive complicity of Kirk. Though the setting was determined due to budgetary constraints, the blasted landscapes, the sterile desert, the ramshackle house and total absence of the feminine are only a few years removed from the corrupted all-male, post-Vietnam household of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But before we get to the ranch, we have to visit the desert.

Our first introduction to the Pussycats is in the opening go-go dancing montage, but we leap violently from there to the girls racing their sports cars across the California desert, ending with a heart-pounding game of chicken, where Varla (Satana) asserts her dominance over the other two women. Left alone, there’s no telling where they could end up. Most likely drinking and fighting before heading back to L.A. to shimmy and shake for a paycheck.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that isn’t to be. Instead, the Pussycats are interrupted by Tommy and Linda and after a time trial that ends in a fistfight between Varla and Tommy, she breaks his neck, killing him in a fit of anger. Satana literally drips with barely suppressed rage as they drug and kidnap Linda, stuffing her in the trunk of Varla’s car. In this moment, audiences were assaulted by a black-clad, bloody-lipped, multi-racial monster woman symbolically murdering Tab Hunter and stuffing Gidget in her trunk. It’s a slap in the face of traditional America and the first sign that we’re in a very different world.

I’m not surprised that the film tanked at the drive-in. These women had the look of the typical sex kittens an audience would expect on the circuit; busty, wasp-waisted, exotic, and flashing skin. But these women were taking no shit from anybody. Audiences that were thrilled by rape, murder, and revenge didn’t know what to make of this nightmarish Amazon. There hadn’t been a character like Varla before. And there had never been anyone on film like the larger than life Tura Satana.

I Never Try Anything. I Just Do It.

Born in Hokkaidō, Japan, Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi’s mother was a Cheyenne/Scots-Irish circus performer, and her father was a Japanese silent movie actor of Filipino descent. The family moved to America after World War II, and after a stint in the Manzanar internment camp in Lone Pine, California, settled in Chicago. According to Tura, while walking home from school just before her 10th birthday, she was gang raped by five men. It was rumored that they paid off the judge and as a result were never prosecuted. Legend has it that over the following fifteen years, Tura learned aikido and karate, then tracked down each of her rapists and “exacted revenge.”

In her teens she formed a girl gang, “The Angeles,” with Italian, Jewish, and Polish girls from her neighborhood before excessive delinquency got her sent to reform school. Her parents arranged a marriage to 17-year-old John Satana when she only 13, but the marriage didn’t stick, lasting only nine months. By the age of 15, Tura Satana had moved to Los Angeles and, using a fake ID, began burlesque dancing and nude modeling for, among others, Harold Lloyd, the silent screen star. After a declined marriage proposal from Elvis Presley, who saw her perform at Chicago’s Follies Theater, Tura decided to pursue a career in show business.

Faster Pussycat was her first starring role, and she brought her own signature style to the role, providing the costume, makeup, additional dialogue, and stunt work. From her first audition, Meyer and screenwriter Jack Moran both felt that she was “definitely Varla.”

So much so, perhaps, that none of her other roles ever had the same impact. She worked extensively with Ted V. Mikels, another low-budget auteur, starring in The Astro-Zombies (1968) and The Doll Squad (1973), which according to insiders, was the uncredited inspiration for Charlie’s Angels. After making The Doll Squad she was shot by a former lover and left show biz and worked in a hospital, studying nursing. It was during this time, around 1978 or ’79, that Tura discovered the existence of worldwide Varla fanclubs and the cult acclaim that Faster Pussycat had achieved. She was working as a police dispatcher for the L.A.P.D. when she broke her back in a 1981 car accident. After two years in and out of hospitals and a series of major operations, she returned to acting in 2002 in the role of Malvina Satana in Mikels’ super low-budget sequel, Mark of the Astro Zombies, then voiced an animated Varla in Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009), before appearing in Mikels’ Astro Zombies: M3 – Cloned (2010), her last film role.

She passed away on February 4, 2011 of heart failure, survived by her daughters, Kalani and Jade, and her sisters, Pamela and Kim. She was an iconoclastic giant who became synonymous with her Varla persona and lives on in every form of popular culture, from music, to art, to film.

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

Twenty minutes into the film, the Pussycats set up shop on the edge of the Old Man’s land and it’s like something out of a post-apocalyptic film – rusted out husks of cars, a rickety water tower, and nothing but junk and desolation for as far as the eye can see. The Pussycats are an immediate contrast to the landscape, vital and energetic against stillness and decay, all curves against the jagged metal scrap. This can be seen as the central metaphorical image of the film. Femininity transformed into violence set against the desolation of a masculine world left to rot and die.

They quickly hatch a plan to try to find where the Old Man could have his treasure stashed and Varla does some recon, only to be confronted by Kirk and the Old Man. Without missing a beat, the Old Man begins a rant characterizing the forces the Pussycats are set against, blaming feminism for all of society’s ills:

“They let ‘em vote, smoke, and drive – even put ‘em in pants! So what do you get? A Democrat for president, a lot of smoke up your chimney, Russian roulette on the highway. You can’t even tell brother from sister, unless you meet ‘em head on.”

At this point, the speech is simply a declaration of intent. Vitriol against women who refuse to accommodate traditional gender roles, submissive and pliant. Women with intent and purpose may as well be men and this upsets the balance of nature. The masculine world has become empty of compassion. It’s all dead trees, metal scrap, impotence, and rage.

As Varla walks away, he continues: “She’s a cold one, all right. More stallion than mare. Too much for one man to handle, then again you never can tell. She might just gentle down real nice with the right halter.” The feminism that Varla represents to the Old Man is an affront to nature which he de-feminizes and dehumanizes in virtually the same breath. The threat of sexual violence is implicit in his words and while the Vegetable looks on placidly (flaccidly?), Kirk appears shocked but says nothing. He knows what his father has done and what is probably going to happen again.

But he stays silent, and silence is complicity.

This establishes the thematic center of the film as a clash of sexual roles and the breaking down of tradition. And it all happens almost accidentally. Meyer wasn’t political with his filmmaking. He was the quintessential low-budget director of the fifties and sixties, running his sets like a military operation. He was there to make enough money to continue making films to make money to make films, ad infinitum.

With the script unfinished as they began shooting, much of the dialogue was improvised, and since most of the cast was inexperienced, the acting can be stiff or exaggerated. But these elements, what in many cases could have been a detriment, serve to help make Faster Pussycat! greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, watching it from a contemporary perspective, the elemental nature of the conflicts, the staccato shouting of the quips and threats, the absurdly overwrought passions of the characters read almost like the sort of thing we have seen over the past three decades of film by David Lynch. You’d be hard pressed to find any bit of dialogue in Faster Pussycat! that wouldn’t feel at home in Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, or any other work by Lynch that flirts with film noir. The only thing missing is the Lynchian dream logic.

She Was Nothing. Nothing Human. A Real Jekyll and Hyde.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! serves as a perfect example of the “death of the author” when it comes to its impact and influence on pop culture. Intended as a simple exploitation film to make a quick buck on an even quicker turnaround, it failed. But read as a neo-noir crime film flavored with hints of the monstrous feminine of feminist horror film theory, Faster Pussycat! becomes something special. Something that, in fleeting moments, transcends its limitations, staking out pop culture real estate that has never been touched as effectively.

There are simply no other films like it, just like there are no other actors like Tura Satana.

Varla becomes a representative of everything men fear in women. She is the manifestation of what, in her book Powers of Horror, critic Julia Kristeva termed “abjection” – that which does not “respect borders, positions, rule,” that which “disturbs identity, systems, order.” She takes the role of femme fatale from noir but replaces the seductive sexuality of the genre with monstrous aggressiveness and hostility. She takes on the role, for the traditional male audience, of the monster.

Critic Karen Hollinger puts it thusly:

“This conception of female sexuality as threatening to the male in terms of its representation of the castrated female’s weak and helpless state is called into question by the affinity between woman and monster. If the woman is related to the monster in that they both are seen by patriarchy as representing sexual difference and castration fears, then she is allied not to a representation of weakness but to one of power in sexual difference” (“The Monster as Woman”).

She ultimately becomes a rampaging harpy, destroying the already crumbling façade of masculinity that the Old Man and his family represent. She uses her car, the traditional phallic symbol of masculine sexuality, to murder the Old Man (though Rosie is behind the wheel, Varla gives the command) and injure the Vegetable before finally facing off in the desert with Kirk and final girl Linda.

It’s a climax straight from a classic Universal horror film as Kirk and Varla do battle in the desert. There are no stunt performers. The actors role around, punching, karate chopping, throwing each other to the rocky ground, until it is clear that Kirk’s passive masculinity is no match for Varla’s rage. She beats him nearly unconscious and is preparing to snap his neck with the same move she used earlier on Tommy when Linda jumps into Kirk’s jeep and uses it to run her down. Varla falls across Kirk’s body, spitting blood, and dies, allowing the traditional sexuality represented by Kirk and Linda to triumph. But it’s a sexuality marred by passivity and subservience (despite Linda being the one to kill Varla, she does it with Kirk’s metaphorical penis) to patriarchal violence.

Linda cries in Kirk’s arms, “I killed her like she was an animal! Like she was nothing!” and Kirk replies, “She was nothing. Nothing human. A real Jekyll and Hyde.” Then, as the credits come up, they prepare to drive off, leaving her body in the desert. “She’s not going anywhere,” Kirk says. And like any traditional horror film, the abject monster is defeated, and normalcy is restored. Traditional sexuality comes out on top, despite being compromised at its core. But because in its final act, the film has shifted from exploitation neo-noir to full-on horror, the audience can’t help but wonder if Varla is really dead or will she rise up and return like Frankenstein’s unkillable Monster.

This positioning forces us to reevaluate the traditional hero/villain relationship that Meyer’s film unironically forces on the audience. Varla is without question a sociopathic murderer, not Karloff’s innocent monster, but she is still looked on with horror and revulsion for simply existing outside of “normal” society. She murders, not by accident, but with passionate rage and her victims aren’t innocent children, but patriarchal metaphors of masculinity attempting to humiliate, control, rape, and murder.

Varla’s a monster that kills monsters, which is what makes her stand out in popular culture and resonate so vividly with audiences – particularly female audiences. When she snaps a neck, she’s releasing the pent-up anger of all women being catcalled, groped on busses, shoved into the kitchen, paid less on the dollar, condescended to, molested, murdered, and forgotten. She’s Tura Satana tracking down the men her raped her as a child and punishing them. We know that the pathetic and weak survivors at the end of Faster Pussycat! haven’t really won anything. We know that as soon as they drive away, Varla will rise and vanish into the desert, reborn and revitalized for decades to come in music, art, film, television, dance, and every other form of artistic expression we have.

John Waters was right.

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