Day 160: ‘Sploiting The Cinema – A Primer In Shockfilm

originally published June 8, 2012

As a film studies major, I have watched a breadth of movies as diverse and far-reaching as the numerous jobs for which my future degree will never qualify me. While it has been enlightening, watching Harold Lloyd climb the outside of a skyscraper, watching Mia Farrow get ravaged by Satan, or watching a naked Mick Jagger, I don’t feel my education is complete.

That’s because there are certain film genres that will never be taught at my university. I don’t bemoan the fact that The Hangover will never be considered scholarly material, or that Die Hard will most likely only appear as the tiniest blurb in even the most diverse textbook. But there are a number of culturally fascinating film genres that won’t make the classroom cut.

These are the exploitation films.

Exploitation cinema includes any movie which aims to shock, whether through sex, violence, gore, even through race and nationality. These movies, which date back to the 1920s, operate outside the Hollywood censor system.

Hollywood has famously always tried to cover up its own unmentionables, setting up the Hayes Code, and later the MPAA, either to filter out potentially offensive content or else to slap a rating on a film that keeps it out of certain theatres. This was a necessary sacrifice to prevent government interference, since movies are not considered eligible for first-amendment protection.

It became an industry-beneath-the-industry to deal in films that were deemed too out-there for the mainstream. They were harder to find – the local Rialto or Bijou was not likely to show I Drink Your Blood as a follow-up to It’s A Wonderful Life. In the 1960s a number of old burlesque theatres in New York were turned into exploitation cinema houses, which gave us the term ‘grindhouse’ movies (after the bump & grind of burlesque, I suppose).

So why can’t I take a course in these films?

Probably my favorite form of exploitation cinema is the world of blaxploitation. The music is funky, the afros are spherical, and it’s likely the only kind of film in which one character will call another a ‘jive turkey’. These films seem goofy today, with their placard-size lapels and outdated street talk, but they were created as a response to the vacuum of available leading roles for black actors in the early 1970s.

I actually spoke with the head of my school’s film department about offering a blaxpoloitation course. He chuckled, commented on the poor music in the films (I guess he’s not a fan of the wah-wah pedal), and dismissed the idea. That’s a shame; these movies are great. I’d recommend Superfly, Shaft, Black Caesar, Blacula, and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown for a modern interpretation. Also, Black Dynamite as a parody, but only after you’ve seen a few of the originals.

Mondo films are pseudo-documentaries that focus on extreme subjects (death and sex, of course). This started in Italy (where else?), with the travel vignette style of Mondo Cane. The film hops around the world, showing off aspects of foreign culture which are designed to shock western audiences. You can see dogs being slaughtered, fishermen stuffing sea urchins down sharks’ throats, and bulls beheaded. It’s a delightful romp.

If you’re more interested in watching humans die (first, please get some help), check out the Faces Of Death series. These films didn’t bury the lead – they were all about watching the face of someone dying. Staged scenes were intercut with actual footage of suicides, accidents and autopsies. If you know someone who is really into this branch of the movie world, you may want to consider changing your number and moving.

If you aren’t dark enough to appreciate the unrestrained joy of watching people breathe their last breath in close frame, but you still want to consider yourself among the depraved, check out the offerings in the sexploitation genre. While a feminist argument could be made for some of these soft-core porn, high-octane violence features, I think the one verifiable conclusion that all film scholars can reach is that director Russ Meyer loved boobs.

If you also love boobs, and you really aren’t particular about watching movies that are necessarily ‘good’ by normal definition but yet don’t quite fit into the ‘porno’ category, check out films like Supervixens, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (screenplay by Roger Ebert), Caligula (starring Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren), or for a real treat, Showgirls.

There are dozens of different forms of exploitation film listed on Wikipedia, and I could easily donate a kilograph to each of them. Some of the actual films (like Salo, or the 120 Days Of Sodom) deserve their own article, just based on the holy-fuckness of them. But I’d like to invite my readers to pick their own little niche and become experts on it. You’ll probably meet some interesting people online if you share a mutual interest in stuff like this:

The Nazisploitation genre features a lot of nude women, often being tortured and assaulted by female Nazi officers. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anybody who would want to sit through one of these, but my friends have surprised me in the past. I think it best if I just don’t bring it up in conversation, just in case.

On the flip-side you’ve got the Jewsploitation flick. This can range from the comedic and obviously blaxploitation-inspired Hebrew Hammer to the more somber Jewish empowerment Munich, to the outright zany Inglourious Basterds. Needless to say, I recommend every film in this category.

The Women In Prison genre is great if you’re into girl-on-girl sadism, and who isn’t? Check out Barbed Wire Dolls, The Big Doll House, and Reform School Girls to see why I’m probably going to get in trouble for looking up images for this part of the article on my work computer.

Mockbusters are a great film obsession if you don’t want to start buying up movies that will put you on a government watch list. These are low-level knock-offs of major Hollywood releases, altered just enough to avoid copyright infringement. I’m still not sure if these are designed to trick people who are looking for the real film, or just to glom a bit of coin from a current craze.

The mockbuster trend dates back to the sci-fi movies of the 50s (The Green Slime was just The Blob made for less money and without Steve McQueen), and exploded around the time that Star Wars showed how much people were willing to pay to see a space-based adventure (see Starcrash, or Battle Beyond The Stars for examples). Some attained pseudo-acceptance in the mainstream, like the Mr. Ed rip-off, Frances, The Talking Mule, or Mac And Me, which was an E.T. clone, albeit one that gave Jennifer Aniston her first film appearance.

Don’t forget nunsploitation movies, in which nuns are thrown into action-packed or erotically-charged situations. Having never seen The Devils, School of the Holy Beast, or Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentines, I can only imagine that this is a great niche genre to get into.

The Eco-terror film depicts nature turning against us in weird ways. You have certainly seen a few of these: Godzilla, Them!, Night Of The Lepus (about giant killer rabbits, and starring DeForest “Bones” Kelley), Cujo, Anaconda, and of course the most undeniably awesome of the bunch, Jaws.

There are plenty of other dark alleys of the cinematic world down which we could travel, but I’ve long exceeded my thousand words, and I fear I’m already at risk of developing a new obsession with one or more of these genres.

Mostly the nunsploitation movies. Not like I’ll learn anything useful like that in school.

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