“This is my happening and it’s freaking me out!”
Despite receiving scathing reviews from critics, the melodramatic Valley of the Dolls still managed to become one of the biggest box office hits of 1967. Fox decided to greenlight a sequel, but struggled to find a script they were happy with. Eventually, the movie wound up in the hands of exploitation director Russ Meyer and film critic/screenwriter Roger Ebert, who quickly decided that they would rather satirize Valley of the Dolls than create a proper sequel to it. The end result – the aptly-titled Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – is one of the nuttiest studio movies ever made: a feverish, go-for-broke, X-rated cinematic freak-out.
Like the first film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls tells the story of three young women who move out to California in search of fame and fortune. Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are members of the up-and-coming rock band The Kelly Affair, and they think they have what it takes to make it big. Additionally, Kelly’s estranged aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis, Day of the Dolphin) lives in California, and Kelly suspects she may be entitled to a piece of the large inheritance Susan recently acquired.
Despite the superficial similarities of the set-up, it becomes clear very quickly that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a much different sort of film (indeed, the movie opens with a disclaimer that it is not an actual sequel to Valley of the Dolls, though that didn’t stop VOTD author Jacqueline Susann from suing Fox for ruining her reputation). The first party the group attends in L.A. is a wild display of Meyer’s particular brand of excess: an enthusiastic and thoroughly sensationalistic display of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
Kelly’s official guide to this strange new wonderland of pills and pornography is Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar, Supervixens), a successful rock producer who quickly shoves Kelly’s manager/boyfriend Harris (David Gurian) out of the picture. Most of the acting in the film is merely serviceable (the three lead actresses were all Playboy models with minimal film experience), but Lazar’s work is riveting. He’s hammy and wildly theatrical, yes, but completely in sync with the film’s tone. He begins the movie as a silver-tongued serpent, and ends it as a comic book-style madman delivering lines like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” as if it were something from Richard III.
The bulk of the movie – the first 90 minutes or so – doesn’t so much offer a story as a shotgun blast of satirical excess. It takes melodramatic movie cliches and turns them up to 11 in order to emphasize their fundamental absurdity (a riff on the abortion subplot from Valley of the Dolls is a particularly irreverent bit of over-the-top skewering). Ebert himself described it best: “It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, cliches and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it’s cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message.”
Watch any fifteen minutes of this, and you’ll likely be riveted by whatever insanity Meyer and Ebert are flinging at the screen. Still, it must be admitted that sitting through the whole thing can be a little exhausting: it’s like listening to a long album filled with nothing but high-energy hits. Thankfully, the filmmakers save their best move for the end. Somehow, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls manages to turn into a whole different sort of insane in its closing stretch, as a bizarre orgy sequence leads to developments that cause the film to turn into a psychotic slasher movie with a generous dollop of Scooby-Doo splashed on top. During this stretch, the film seems to be operating on a combination of fractured cartoon logic and pure, primal instinct. A prime example: the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare blasting onto the soundtrack when one character is beheaded.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Blu-ray) offers a terrific 1080p/2.35:1 transfer offering exceptional detail, vibrant colors, deep blacks and warm, natural flesh tones. The film’s natural grain has been left intact, and the whole thing generally has an intentionally fuzzier, rougher quality than its slick-looking predecessor. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is sharp, too, with crisp, clean dialogue and robust musical selections. Supplements are incredibly generous: two audio commentaries (one with Ebert, one with cast members Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John Lazar and Erica Gavin), a cast and crew Q&A from 1990, a episode of “The Incredibly Strange Film Show” from 1988, a number of archival featurettes (“Look on Up at the Bottom,” “Sex, Drugs, Music and Murder,” “The Best of Beyond,” “Casey and Roxane: The Love Scene,” “Memories of Russ” and “Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley”), some behind-the-scenes footage, screen tests, trailers (including trailers for other Meyer movies) and a booklet featuring essays by Glenn Kenny and Stan Berkowitz. Whew!
In the end, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is less a parody of its predecessor than an orgasmic freedom cry. The movie does what it does not because it’s trying to tell us something, but simply because it can. It mocks an abundance of Hollywood conventions, but also captures a moment in which pop culture seemed ready to embrace reckless hedonism; a moment when film was freshly-liberated from the old-fashioned restrictions of production codes and seemed eager to test every boundary in sight. The film is many things, but it’s never square.