Friday, October 20, 2006

Viva Tura Satana, Woman's Woman

With the passing of Arthur Lee and Tamara Dobson in the last few months, it's a joy and a relief to celebrate an awe-inspiring pop-culture figure who's still around. And what a figure.

Tura Satana's raven tresses, va-va-voom curves, and animal charisma graced a mere handful of movies in the 1960's and '70's, but she rightfully earned cinematic icon status as a result. Tomorrow night, Seattle's Egyptian Theater will serve as Tura's altar, with her signature movie, Russ Meyer's 1965 pulp-trash classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, screening and the lady herself in attendance.

In his excellent Russ Meyer biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, author Jimmy McDonough describes her as "sexy, proud, and heartbreaking all at the same time." Survivor of a childhood stay in a California internment camp during World War II, juvenile delinquent, exotic dancer, black belt in karate, and reputed paramour to everyone from Billy Wilder to Elvis, Satana's led the kind of mythic life that seems to have leaped straight from the pages of a pistol-hot pulp novel. But it's her film appearances that have leveled a karate chop squarely at the collective consciousness of cult cinema. Her portrayal of the black-clad, thrillseeking badass Varla in Faster Pussycat won devoted worship from throngs of cult film fans, and sources as disparate as filmmaker John Waters and Angelina Jolie (whose icy goth-beautiful persona owes more than a little to Varla).

I must confess a bit of cult-movie blasphemy: Despite owning a Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill! import DVD and a cooler-than-cool FPKK lunchbox, I've haven't actually gotten around to watching Russ Meyer's (and Tura Satana's) magnum opus yet. My love for Tura actually took root in her work with director Ted V. Mikels.

Mikels' 1968 epic The Astro Zombies plays like an extra-lurid comic book, crudely sketched with the loudest crayons in the box. A mad scientist (John Carradine, natch) constructs solar-powered zombies that have a tendency to violently murder young girls. A gaggle of CIA operatives, as well as evil superspies, are in pursuit, and Satana plays the most evil superspy of the bunch. She almost looks China-Doll-sweet in her first scene, until those dark eyes stare up maliciously at the camera: then you know this woman is ten miles of very bad road in a slinky Asian gown. Later in the film she fills one guy full of lead without blinking, then puts out a cigarette on another poor schmuck's face with a look approaching childlike enthusiasm. The whole time she's on the screen, you can't take your eyes off of her.

Tura nets even less screen time in 1974's The Doll Squad, but she's likewise electric as Lavelle, an exotic dancer who joins the titular all-chick crimefighting force to foil the plans of a megalomaniac (Michael Ansara). B-movie sirens Francine York and Sherri Vernon make ace showings in this fizzy precursor to Charlie's Angels (York's team leader is even named Sabrina!), but Tura packs heat with a confidence that's downright scary--and she's one of the good guys.

The woman's calling card to the ages, though, is Varla, and I'm looking forward to seeing Tura's indelible character up on a bigger-than-life screen as God intended. If you're in town, you best be in attendance, and show some respect. I, for one, would never want to be on Tura Satana's bad side.

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