by David Smay

Who needs a Grindhouse when you've got the best Drive-In Director in America living right here in Memphis?

Nobody steals a shot like Mike McCarthy. Shooting permits are or chumps. Watch gape-mouthed as D'Lana Tunnell strolls the width of East Tupelo, Mississippi, in nothing but high heels, lingerie, and the most baroque bouffant since Dolly sang with Porter. She's lashed by a leering soundtrack of grinding sax and guitars, her lips set and petulant as she wobbles through the broken sidewalks. It's mesmerizing, it's cheap, and it's perfect.

While his earliest films like THE SORE LOSERS ("They Wanted Meat So They Ate The Flower Children") and his recent burlesque collection BROAD DAYLIGHT ("Penis Enlargement The Old Fashion Way") have their slutty appeal, he made something weirder than genius with TEENAGE TUPELO. Starting with one of the most potent gnostic myths in rock & roll - "What If The Twin Had Lived?" - McCarthy weaves his personal psychodrama with Elvis lore and smears it with classic drive-in tropes. There's a lesbian girl gang, of course. But less predictably, they're righteous, assisting our heroine. When D'Lana's character Topsy Turvy, gets in a catfight, you recoil in horror as her updo gets mangled. "Not the hair!" you cry out - a perfect Southern sentiment.
It's easy enough to tick off a greatest hits of exploitation scenes. The kind of "wouldn't it be cool" riffs any film geek spins at the video store. But TEENAGE TUPELO anchors that sleaze deep in the South, and deeper in McCarthy's warped little psyche. It's in the details: the tree fort stashed way back in the scrub pine where teenagers smoke, drink and grope; the boarded-up downtown; the store fronts gaping and abandoned; the empty lots overgrown and the brick warehouses with their cracked loading docks. Then, twining through that landscape, you've got McCarthy fantasizing about his biological mother, who put him up for adoption. Is he the long-lost offspring of Jesse Garon?

After TEENAGE TUPELO, you can work through the rest of his oeuvre: SUPERSTARLET A.D. (where men have devolved into cavemen and roaming gangs of machine-gun girls split along hair color lines) or his further inquiries into the King with DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS, and ELVIS MEETS THE BEATLES ("An unpopular movie about the most popular icons of our time"). And, hell, he's even a good citizen, devoting a large chunk of his energy to preserving old Memphis landmarks through his SHAPE OF KINGS website. Who else would try to save Elvis's favorite roller coaster?

But don't dig into McCarthy's filmography out of civic duty. This isn't chamber-of-commerce stuff. Do it because you're a horny, deep-fried, hip-wiggling, butter-bean-eating, hairdo fanatic. Do it because you like your rock & roll filthy and menacing. Do it because you know the perfect Mississippi enlightenment of a hot August day when your brain hums to the drone of the cicadas. Do it because it's the wrong thing to do, but it feels so right.

David Smay, Oxford American Magazine, Issue 57, 2007