By Laura Dee Milnes

Was Jayne Mansfield’s grisly end the result of a curse, courtesy of Anton LaVey? Let’s cut straight to the chase here, unlike this entertaining but meandering documentary from the people who brought us Room 237.

When I say “meandering” I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. Billed as “a true story based on hearsay” full of talking heads, from cult superstars to obscure film historians, the plot careers around on tangents much like a gossipy speculation between close friends. It’s quite fitting really, as the myth of Mansfield, largely engineered by the woman herself was and is confusing, surprising and absolutely bonkers. Described in the film by actress Yolonda Ross as the first reality star, the blonde bombshell constructed a public persona that perplexed and captivated (NB: let’s come back to why exactly Yolonda Ross and others are in this movie…). Jayne bizarrely balanced her caricature silly walk (think of a jagged version of the slinking female alien-in-disguise in Mars Attacks) and reality defying stats (40 – 21 – 35) with an IQ of 149, 5 languages under her very tiny belt and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show proving that she was also an accomplished concert violinist. Of course, we shouldn’t deny that all of this is entirely possible but in the late 1950s, who knew that an attractive woman was capable of such feats of intelligence and aptitude! Mansfield very wonkily tread the line between empowerment and exploitation, which is thankfully touched upon in this film by queer studies scholars and film theorists alike. And our favourite serial vox-popper, John Waters, praise be!

After a comprehensive and chaotic journey around Mansfield’s life and work, dropping in some cultural and historical pointers here and there, we get to the juicy bit – her alleged romantic involvement with the head of The Church of Satan, our favourite cartoon devil-worshipper, Anton LaVey. LaVey’s specific brand of Satanism – and that’s exactly what it was, a brand – fitted very neatly into the hi-camp cultural and social landscape of 1960s California. He fiercely recruited followers who underwent an initiation into his fold and Mansfield, described by one contributor as “a powerful, natural witch” was welcomed as a follower of Satan/LaVey. Whether or not their connection was romantic is left to speculation, but we are told that her boyfriend and divorce lawyer Sam Brody was jealous of the relationship, and provocations by Brody led to a curse from LaVey condemning him to die within the year.

We probably already know that Jayne and Sam did not end well. In fact, we probably have an idea that she was decapitated in a grisly car crash, which killed them both. We don’t necessarily know, however that according to the gossipy speculation in this movie, she was actually scalped by tractor-trailer. I couldn’t possibly comment either way, as somehow I don’t think the theorizing between those interviewed can really be called gospel truth. This gruesome tale, however, along with archive cameos from LaVey must be what secured the screening of the movie in this year’s Fright Fest.

All in all, it is an enjoyable romp around rumour and conjecture from a range of sources, some fitting (John Waters, king of tasteless, gnarly camp) and some tenuous (80s pop star Marilyn). What perplexes the most, however, is the musical and theatrical element punctuating the pop-doc, present in the form of contemporary dance sequences and hammy sketches. I hardly dare mention the incongruous and tasteless Hanna Barbera style animation depicting Mansfield’s young son being attacked by a lion… I love high camp, I like hearsay, I lap up vox pops from stars of Russ Meyer films but I don’t dig interpretive dance in Primark costumes (spotted this on the credits, which confirmed my hunch). I really hope (but can’t guarantee) those weren’t Smiffy wigs either.

There’s an indulgent and enjoyable gossipy core to this film but why make it a musical? Is it to ramp up the camp to 11, pushing this one through the trashy scale and into orbit? For me, the musical numbers don’t have enough glitter and the dance sequences underwhelm at best. They could have been lanced, leaving us with talking heads, edits of Jayne Mansfield movies we probably haven’t seen and a couple of close up re-enactments that wouldn’t look out of place in a BBC historical documentary (no bad thing, in my book). I like an interesting and creative approach to a documentary and much of this is fitting to the theme, including a mish-mash of pop cultural icons and hangers on giving their two-penneth, but I would have preferred if they’d stayed out of Primark and stuck to the scandalous Hollywood camp.

Horror Channel Frightfest Review: Mansfield 66/67
2.5Overall Score
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