Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Russ Meyer's 1970 cult classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" has been described in ways voluminous but always true: "Above all a satirical comedy"; "everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink"; "a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum." That these describing phrases were penned by the film's screenwriter himself, Roger Ebert, show the special effect it has, not just as the craziest studio project or sequel ever made, but as a brilliant moment in film history. It is immaculate trash, and not just a reprieve to the tired argument that critics don't have good taste.
If you've seen "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," perhaps the most widely beloved film from "King of the Nudies" Russ Meyer, then you get it. It's a cinematic orgy of different genres, enlivened by a groovy canvas: a bonanza of sex and death set to an essential soundtrack; a romp orchestrated to simultaneously indulge and terrify. Seeing it once is an unforgettable experience, only to be matched by any opportunity to look back at it (as Roger did when he shared his observations on the film in 1980).
A film critic's involvement with the screenplay (Ebert wrote to the Wall Street Journal praising Meyer's films, the two became friends, as he said in his obituary for Meyer) is only one bizarre chapter to its legacy. "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was a full-on studio project from Fox, and also marked the first time a studio had forayed into sexploitation. With a $900,000 budget and six-week production schedule the movie made $40 million. It's a movie that endures as a cult movie 101 title, appearing spiritually in films as recent as Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon," who says that Meyer's film was "the only movie I could think of that combines everything into this experience."
It was only a matter of time until the Criterion Collection would give their distribution of approval, with new Blu-ray and two-disc DVD editions available September 27 [click here for more information]. The film had previously been on DVD through 20th Century Fox (which is how this writer first glimpsed upon its glory, an experience no budding film buff could forget). "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" will build upon the special features from the original two-disc DVD, starting with a high-definition digital restoration, with the Blu-ray boasting an uncompressed monaural soundtrack (which will be excellent in particular for the film's musical sequences). Carried over from the previous release will be an audio commentary from 2003 by Roger Ebert, along with one from 2006 featuring the actors: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John La Zar and Erica Gavin. They'll be joined by Q&A footage from 1992 with the filmmakers and stars, along with five documentaries about the making of the film. Criterion will be adding new features to the "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" legacy, including a new interview with director John Waters, and a new essay by RogerEbert.com's very own Glenn Kenny.
As the Criterion mission is also about collecting rarities to create a full experience, the package will include some very tantalizing finds. In particular, an episode from 1988 of "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" about Russ Meyer's film, a series that celebrated the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. Another exciting feature in the "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" Blu-ray is its offering of screen tests, namely for the unconventional performances that run throughout the film. It's sure to be a special look into Meyer's ... err, specific casting process, though as Roger said in Meyer's obituary, "He didn't use the casting couch."
To add to the Criterion festivities, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" will be released on the same day as its "predecessor," "Valley of the Dolls," Mark Robson's 1967 film and the story that Roger and Russ were "incidentally" inspired by. As Roger said, "Neither Meyer nor I ever read Jacqueline Susann's book, but we did screen the Mark Robson film, and we took the same formula: Three young girls come to Hollywood, find fame and fortune, are threatened by sex, violence and drugs, and either do or not do win redemption." The "Valley of the Dolls" package will mirror that of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" with an essay also by Glenn Kenny, and will be available in a two-disc DVD or Blu-ray edition. [To pre-order your Criterion Collection Blu-ray or DVD of "Valley of the Dolls," click here.]
Special Features for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"
High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 2003 featuring screenwriter Roger Ebert
Audio commentary from 2006 featuring actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar, and Erica Gavin
New interview with filmmaker John Waters
Episode from 1988 of "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" on director Russ Meyer
Q&A about the film from 1992 featuring Meyer, Ebert, LaZar, and Read; and actors David Gurian, Charles Napier, Michael Blodgett, and Edy Williams, with host Michael Dare
Interview with cast members from 2005
Above, Beneath, and Beyond the Valley; Look On Up at the Bottom; The Best of Beyond; Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder; and Casey & Roxanne, five documentaries from 2006 about the making of the film, featuring the cast and crew
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny and excerpts from a 1970 account in the UCLA Daily Bruin of a visit to the film’s set
To pre-order your Criterion Collection Blu-ray or DVD of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," click here.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...