After a few decades in the making (judging by various special features on this release), Russ Meyer’s cult sexploitation flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls finally comes to the Criterion Collection, delivered here on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a high-def scan of a 35mm interpositive created from the original negative.
Though the presentation is certainly more than serviceable I’d say it’s still open to improvement. Looking at it and then reading the notes on the transfer and restoration I suspect this is probably the same one used for Fox’s 2006 DVD. Despite this maybe being the case it still looks far, far better here either way. The image is far cleaner, more stable, and more filmic in comparison. Details are sharper, with patterns and textures on outfits and the various settings coming through quite a bit more, and compression isn’t a concern. Film grain is there, though not very distinct, while the restoration process has been especially thorough, leaving no bothersome blemishes behind. There are some optical effects employed during some montages that look a bit rough and fuzzy, but this comes down to limitations of the technique, nothing really to do with the transfer.
It’s a very colourful film, though this one aspect is a bit disappointing in the presentation. Short of a very trippy, Bava-esque party scene near the end, the colours do look a bit washed, the colours rarely ever popping; Z-Man’s red cape at the end should really pop but it can come off a bit on the dull side. Black levels are also a bit touch and go, with some crushing present. Some day-for-night sequences do look a bit odd, with saturation looking a bit poorer in comparison to the rest of the film, but this could be more a byproduct of that particular technique than anything to do with the transfer and/or restoration.
Ultimately, for what is a very lively and colourful film, its biggest sin is that it is “open to improvement.” It’s fine in the end, and easily the best the film has probably looked on video, but a new 4K, or even 2K scan would have given the film a new dose of life. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Back in 2003, when Criterion first started licensing titles from Fox for DVD, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a heavily rumoured title to be coming from the company because of comments made by Roger Ebert. Oddly, this never came to pass and Fox themselves eventually handled its release in 2006, along with Valley of the Dolls. This release validates those rumours (the notes that accompany Ebert’s commentary do state it was recorded by Criterion in 2003) while also suggesting that this was actually a project that even went back to Criterion’s LaserDisc days. I find that aspect rather fascinating (why did it take Criterion at least 24 years to release this film under their label?) but then at the same time it actually makes this special edition a little disappointing: after all that time it finally comes to fruition, yet it mostly recycles pre-existing material for its special features, with very little new material added.
First up of the previously available features is the audio commentary featuring film critic and writer of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Roger Ebert, which was, again, recorded by Criterion in 2003 (Fox would zlso use it on their eventual DVD release in 2006). This commentary works on a few levels thanks to Ebert’s involvement with the film, along with his knowledge of Meyer’s work and film history in general. He of course talks about how he became involved with the film and shares stories about writing it under Meyer’s watchful eye. He also freely admits that there was no research involved, that characters and situations were based on stereotypes and his and Meyer’s “idea” as to how certain things in Hollywood worked at the time, the parties in particular. And of course, he talks about how the film is a satire, satirizing both the industry and the big budget melodramas similar to the original Valley of the Dolls.
The aspect of the track I wasn’t really expecting, though, was a more academic angle. Ebert admits it would be unfair of him to talk about the film from a critic’s perspective, and I did pretty much expect this, but this doesn’t stop him from talking about Meyer, his career, and the film’s editing and construction. He admires Meyer’s editing and visual storytelling considerably and uses examples from this film to highlight these statements. The background on Meyer and his work, as well as later work—including a failed Sex Pistols film that Ebert was event brought on to work on—really adds a nice academic aspect to the release that is most welcome. Though it clearly may have been beneficial to get another academic who wouldn’t have any bias at all the commentary is still a well-rounded track and certainly one of the stronger features here.
The second audio commentary included was originally recorded by Fox for their DVD in 2006, and features actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John La Zar, and Erica Gavin. This is a far looser, more scattershot commentary, one that I admittedly was tempted to shut off after the first ten minutes or so. It opens with everyone basically talking over one another without any sort of focus, everyone having issues focusing on what the other is saying. As it goes, though, it calms down and the participants begin to focus a bit better on the film and let each other have their turns (with the occasional interruption). It’s not the most insightful track, with the five mostly just recalling stories about the production, sharing thoughts on their cast mates who aren’t there (maybe even judging them for not showing up), and what it was like to work with Meyer. I can’t say it’s the most fulfilling track, though fans will probably love it and it has a few funny parts; I did chuckle at the MST3K moment where Duncan McLeod’s Porter Hall states “I wouldn’t be surprised if they smoke marijuana cigarettes!” and the participants of the track respond with a collective and mocking “woooooooooohhhh!”.
(One amusing bit to both tracks is how neither Ebert nor the participants of the second track can locate Pam Grier in the party scene. She’s apparently there but no one can find her.)
First up under the “Supplements” section of the menu are a number of video features, most of which come from the previous Fox DVD. Above, Beneath & Beyond the Valley is 2006 making-of documentary that just offers a fairly rudimentary overview of the film’s production gathering together various members of the cast and crew, including Ebert, La Zar, Gavin, Read, Myers, Page, and others. A lot of the material is covered in the commentaries, but getting alternate perspectives here from other members of the crew (or general fans) is welcome, as well as a more thorough look at Meyer’s career before Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, from his World War II photography to his early nudie pictures. And though it’s confirmed elsewhere (with Ebert in one feature mentioning Charles Napier may have been the only actor who got that the film was a joke), it comes out the actors were told to take the film seriously. It’s a typical studio making-of, that quickly moves through the material, in this case over the course of 30-minutes, but it is at least an above-average one.
Much better, and probably the best feature on here, is a new exclusive interview with filmmaker John Waters. This is easily one of the funniest director appreciation interviews I’ve seen, while also being probably one of the most passionate. Waters, through sharing a number of personal stories, talks in great detail about Meyer’s work from first discovering it, to what was so appealing about it, to going to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls opening day, sharing his initial thoughts on Meyer’s big-budget studio epic. He also became friends with the director and shares some rather funny stories about the man.
What I found most valuable about the interview, though, outside of how funny it is, is just how insightful and informative it is as well. My knowledge on sexploitation is basically nil; other than the obvious titillating aspects of the genre it’s never really interested me and I haven’t seen a lot of films that would fall under the genre. But after Waters’ interview I came out not only with far more knowledge on the history of the genre and Meyer’s work, but with a far better appreciation for them as well. He admits that these films haven’t aged well and are probably best viewed as “camp” now (which leads to a funny little aside, when explaining camp, where he calls out director Paul Verhoeven and the director’s insistence he purposely made Showgirls campy), but he admires Meyer’s films, specifically their construction, and he defends them quite vigorously, not just as great camp films but great films as well, especially on a technical level. I wish the interview was actually longer (it runs around 30-minutes) but he covers a lot of material in the short amount of time. The interview, on its own (it’s admittedly the first feature I actually went through) also did one very important job: though I admit to finding the film a good bit of fun beforehand, Waters actually got me to come around a bit on it and I certainly appreciate it quite a bit more. It’s a great interview.
After that Criterion then ports over a number of other video features from the Fox DVD. Look on Up from the Bottom (approx. 11-minutes) focuses on the film’s music of the film, from the music written for the Carrie Nations to Strawberry Alarm Clock’s appearance. Sex, Drugs, Music & More is a roughly 7-minute feature that focuses on the end of the 60s (the Manson murders probably clearly marking that point) and the film’s reflection of the period. The Best of Beyond (approx. 12-minutes) is simply the members of the cast and crew recalling their favourite moments from the film, whether it be along the lines of Best Kiss, Best Line, Best Breasts, and so on. And then there is the 4-minute Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene, which simply features Myers and Gavin talking about their love scene.
Of those features the better ones are probably the one on the music and then the one on the period, though they all do feel a bit like filler, particularly the “best of” one. They’re all fairly typical studio features.
A bit better is Memories of Russ, which appears to be an 8-minute compilation put together by Criterion using interviews taken in 2005 with Charles Napier, Harrison Page, Erica Gavin, Haji, and Jim Ryan. I’m assuming these were recorded at a screening of the film. Here the participants speak about Russ Meyer and this film, talking highly of both. It’s admittedly not terribly insightful but I enjoyed watching everyone just talk fondly about the director and the experience (plus it’s nice getting Napier’s participation in some way).
Criterion then digs up a 38-minute episode of a show called The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which was recorded in 1988 for Channel 4 U.K. Its host, Jonathan Ross, crosses the ocean to visit Russ Meyer himself, getting a great one-on-one interview with the man about his work and career, with Meyer even showing a clip from his autobiographical film, The Breast of Russ Meyer. Ross also manages to get interviews with Roger Ebert and Tura Satana, but most surprisingly he also gets the former manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, to talk about the failed Sex Pistols film that Meyer and Ebert were to work on. The real gem to the program, though, may be seeing Meyer’s collection of memorabilia in his home. It’s an informative and fun feature and I’m happy someone was able to track this one down.
We then get video footage from a Q & A session recorded after a 1990 screening of the film. Participating are Meyer, Ebert, Haji, Napier, La Zar, Read, Edy Williams, Michael Blodgett, and David Gurian. In it the performers all talk about getting the role and where their career was before getting to audience questions. Throughout the features found on this disc Ebert pops up quite a bit and in just about all of them he mentions how Fox has mishandled the film through the years, treating it like a black mark on their history. Here he gets especially critical, particularly about the fact that it hasn’t received a real home video release. Interestingly it’s here where Ebert mentions that the Criterion Collection will be releasing the film (“in widescreen!”) on video, and I think I can safely assume he means LaserDisc.
The video quality of the feature is unfortunately poor (it appears to have been filmed using a Camcorder) but it’s a fairly solid Q&A session that manages to offer up some new details about the film and Meyer’s past work that hadn’t yet been covered, plus hearing again From Meyer himself makes the feature a must.
A feature that I originally tossed off as just filler proves to be one of the more interesting: a couple of screen tests featuring two sets of tests of the same scene between Lance Rocke and Kelly MacNamara, one featuring Michael Blodgett and Cynthia Myers, the other featuring Harrison Page and Marcia McBroom. The interesting aspect to this is that the dialogue for the scene being read differs from the finished film and ties it more to the original Valley of the Dolls. This is covered a bit in the features (more in-depth by Ebert in his commentary) but even though Fox had the rights to make a project called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Valley of the Dolls’ author, Jaqueline Susann retained the rights to the characters and freaked out when she heard Russ Meyer was going to be making the sequel; she would sue the studio to make sure this wasn’t a direct sequel to her story. In these test scenes Kelly refers to Aunt Susan as Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins’ character in the original film) with mention of a Miriam, who I am guessing is supposed to be Miriam Polar (played by Lee Grant in the other film). In his commentary Ebert mentions that the original script did have more direct references to the other film that had to be removed but it’s nice getting an actual sample of that original link here.
The features then close with a number of trailers for the film, including a teaser, a theatrical trailer, and a “behind-the-scenes” trailer showcasing Russ Meyer photographing his cast. We also get trailers for Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen for good measure. The included booklet (yes, an actual booklet) features a great essay on the film by Glenn Kenny, covering the changes going on in the studio system that led to Fox looking to Meyer to make the film, followed by a reprint of an article by Stan Berkowitz, which is also a fascinating read.
Ultimately I enjoyed a lot of material on here but there is a disappointment that a good chunk of it is fairly average material produced for the previous Fox DVD. But despite that Criterion still manages to gather some other great material (Waters’ interview probably being the highlight) and overall the features are quite fun. 8/10