This terrifying mug belongs, as Meyer Gothic Period aficionados will be well aware, to the actor who I thought was the magnetic standout of this era of Russ Meyer’s career – the great Hal Hopper. Where my Lorna poster was understandably dominated by the gorgeous, statuesque figure of lead actress Lorna Maitland, the lust object of the various collection of creeps, rogues and saps who surrounded her, 1965’s Mudhoney is totally dominated by the manic, mirthless grin of agitator-in-chief Sidney Brenshaw, so the poster should follow suit.
Despite Meyer having said he concocted the film purely as a vehicle for his new squeeze Rena Horten (casting her as a mute, sexually voracious yet thoroughly innocent prostitute – a choice which creates a whole heap of cod-psychologising that deserves exploration elsewhere), the evidence on film very much suggests otherwise. At 92 minutes, it is his longest film, notwithstanding his studio productions at 20th Century Fox or certain cuts of his unsatisfying adaptation of Fanny Hill (during production of which he met and fell for the aforementioned Horten) and without doubt the film that most resembles a ‘real’ drama. This Depression-era dustbowl melodrama sees John Furlong (later a regular face in Russ’ filmography all the way through to Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, who occasionally popped up in such varied fare elsewhere as the Hulk Hogan vehicle Suburban Commando and John Carpenter’s Vampires) as down-on-his-luck ex-con Calif McKinney. He blows in to a small town in Missouri, where he takes up as the odd-job man on old Lute Wade’s farm. He develops a crush on Wade’s kindly niece Hannah Brenshaw, but her despicable, abusive drunk of a husband Sidney takes it upon himself to concoct an increasingly wild scheme to paint this interloping newcomer as a threat to the moral fibre of the town, enlisting oddball preacher Brother Hanson to help stir the pot.
Hopper, so thoroughly reptilian and vicious in Lorna before being humbled and cowed before the film’s end, is totally let loose here. The film opens with Sidney, shown only from the knees down as he stumbles from a rowdy bordello house and in to his car before careening home as the titles roll. Arriving home, he crashes in to the steps of his house to wake his terrified wife – we are inside with her as he breaks through the bedroom door to accost her and the effect, after such a suspenseful build, is chilling. Drunkenly stalking through Lute’s farm, whiling away the months until the old man croaks and he can inherit the farm and sell it off to live a life of lascivious luxury, spending what little cash he has at the brothel of the cackling Maggie Marie, and eventually allowing his jealous fixation on Calif to cause him to spiral in to a deadly obsession, Hopper is the phenomenal centrepiece of a film whose full-throated craziness is blackly compelling. For me at least it’s Meyer’s underappreciated masterpiece – seeing him work without the handrails of camp (well, less than there is in his more cartoony triumphs a little later in his career) and to a more-or-less traditional 90 minute dramatic structure, its surface normality only highlights the inimitable weirdness that suffuses every frame.
I’m dreadful at allowing myself time for this kind of sketching, so this poster will likely see completion some time in early 2022. This is the first element of what I hope will be a panorama of all the major characters.