Valley of the Dolls
dir. Mark Robson
Grand Illusion, Dec 26-30.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
dir. Russ Meyer
Grand Illusion, Jan 1-5.

Sequels haven't exactly brought out the best in cinema. Usually, they just recycle the same characters and central conflicts as the original, and this anemic approach has produced such masterpieces as Jaws 2 and Day of the Dead. But there is a better, rarer kind of sequel, truer to Webster's definition of the word--"a direct consequence, a result"--one that modernizes the first work, taking its themes and breaking them down to build something anew. By this definition, there are few greater sequels than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which, along with Valley of the Dolls, will be playing back-to-back at the Grand Illusion from December 26-January 5.

Directed by Russ Meyer, Beyond is a sequel to Valley like Ecstasy is a sequel to sugar. It takes the essential motivating elements of the original and renders a truer expression of the original's intention. In the case of Valley, which chronicles the downward career trajectories of three women in show business, that intention was an exploration of something that was only beginning to happen: the sexual revolution. Which gives the movie a ghostly bleakness, a heavy quiet before a storm that the characters know is coming. It's a prequel to the tumult that was just around the corner.

Though mainly known as the movie featuring Sharon Tate's biggest role, Valley belongs to Patty Duke, whose performance is one of the great sleepers in film history. Playing Neely O'Hara, the actress whose lack of classic looks is overcome by Herculean drive and a great set of pipes, Duke rips into the role like it's prime rib, showing a feral, courageous, fuck-me-and-leave side, one in direct opposition to the proto-Sally Field persona for which she is generally known. Though the film itself is a sterile melodrama, Neely is a swirl of confusion and righteousness, a simultaneous destroyer and creator, and, when she freaks out on pills and booze, her screams have a visionary quality. While the other characters just smell the strange future to come--in which women can do what they want sexually without being branded demons and sluts--Neely sees that future. Part of the hysteria lies in her sense of being on the threshold of a life where she wouldn't have been just another paper doll. Her sorrow is tinged with prophecy.

Watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one understands Neely's second sight, and feels for her close call. Though it was made only three years after Valley, Beyond feels like it's from another century. The world that Neely was trapped in is gone, gone like it never existed, and a new world is here in psychedelic Panavision. Here, the colors are wild (man), the sex is free (baby), and the clothes are groovy (dig?). All the potential energy of Valley's vague yearning to be free has exploded into Beyond's kinetic bisexual orgies, big drugs, and flashy colors.

Beyond is, in order of appearance, a musical, a nudie film, a comedy, a slasher flick, and a love story for the ages. The movie's inability to decide its identity echoes the confusion of the time, the paralyzing nature of too many choices, the curse in thinking everything is as worthwhile as everything else. Relativism is a great place to start your judgment process, and it beats the '50s any day, but this is just too much. The sense of life as straitjacket in Valley has achieved a comic, scary overcompensation. Though the film starts as a female version of The Monkees and ends as a transsexual variation on The Haunting of Hill House, there is a complete sense of confidence throughout the whole thing. Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) are fearless in their desire to make the biggest, silliest, most disturbing mess of a movie they can, and that fearlessness, though covered in a starchy goop of camp, is what makes Beyond so special. Once you spend the first hour or so wiping the goop away, you can't take your eyes away. It has a unique, almost revolting charisma.

Meyer went out of his way to say that Beyond wasn't related to Valley in any way, but he couldn't have been more in error. Given the perspective of time, it's entirely clear how the hidden truths that started to simmer in the first film came to a full, glorious, grotesque boil in the second.