by Michael Draine
"As long as the subject actually was in bad taste... that was an Exploitation picture."
- David F. Friedman, film producer
Reefer Madness (1937)
The essence of the Exploitation film is a simultaneously prurient and moralistic exposé of taboo subject matter, subjects exerting a simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Largely manufactured outside of Hollywood, the Exploitation film ushers the curious into forbidden territory: nightclubs, roadhouses, strip joints and shooting galleries.
An Exploitation program couldn't deliver star casts, Technicolor, or adaptations of literary masterpieces. Instead, it promised revelation, the realities of sex, drugs, birth and violence, sanitized from Hollywood productions. While the major studio adaptations of Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll and Nabokov's Lolita increase the apparent age of the title characters, the disturbing Child Bride (1942) exposed the Appalachian practice of preadolescent marriage, with the salacious tagline, "Where lust was called just!"
The absence of Hollywood gloss imbues the exploitation film with an uncanny immediacy, the sense of looking directly into the past. The street clothes, regional accents, unintentional product placement, the barroom seductress's crooked features, all enhance the verité feeling.
Reefer Madness (1936) is a prime specimen of the Exploitation: an opening scroll promising to part the veils of ignorance concealing an urgent social crisis, threadbare budget, conflicted moralizing, the innocent's contamination by contact with unseemly elements. Though Reefer Madness is likely to be shelved between Pink Flamingos and The Toxic Avenger, the arch camp of John Waters and calculated ineptitude of Troma Productions are worlds away from the authentic Exploitation picture.
Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) reentered pop culture when the National Organization for Reformation of Marijuana Laws acquired a print and screened it at fund-raisers. Despite the laughs the film draws today, the marijuana scare was taken as seriously in its time as today's War on Terrorism. Reviewing the Marihuana/Assassin of Youth/Reefer Madness DVD for Video Watchdog, Richard Harland Smith drew a credible comparison between 30s drug scare movies, in which addiction leads to disfigurement, labor on a Southern chain gang, white slavery and insanity, and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Exploitation emerged as genre in the 30s. Subjects prohibited by the Production Code were the stock-in-trade of the Exploitation industry: the ravages of syphilis, the evils of dope, white slavery, abortion and teenage pregnancy were standard motifs.
Unable to obtain Code approval and lacking the major studios' distribution networks, Exploiteers devised alternative methods of distribution. A vaudeville house or theatrical stage could be rented for the slow summer months and converted into an adults-only theater. The movies were shown in former burlesque halls known as grindhouses, in small-town theaters feeling the economic squeeze of Hollywood block-booking.
Exploitation films were frequently screened roadshow style, a road agent traveling the country with a single print, screening it in a rented auditorium or a tent erected at the outskirts of town. An advance agent would paper the town in with fliers. Films such as Street Corner (1948) or Test Tube Babies (1953), screened separately for men and women, would include a break in which a purported expert would launch into a sales pitch for sexual hygiene booklet. The educational veneer permitted audiences to emerge from their voyeuristic revel with their sense of righteousness intact.
Occasionally, an Exploitation film will strike a chord of cinematic poetry. Jump-cut close-ups of the addict's darting eyes in Reefer Madness vividly evoke the subjective experience of paranoia. Dwain Esper's Maniac (1933), a whirlwind of expressionistic acting, gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, qualifies as a landmark in Grand Guignol cinema. In Doris Wishman's beautifully photographed Bad Girls Go to Hell, deadpan performances, elliptical transitions and dubbed dialogue sustain a drugged, dreamlike eroticism. The slow-moving, black and white Alice in Acidland (1968) unexpectedly climaxes in the ultimate LSD scare story.
A 1957 New York State Court ruling that nudity alone did not constitute obscenity opened the gates for the nudist movie, consisting mostly of footage of middle-aged nudists behind strategically-placed foliage. Russ Meyer, intent on delivering actual eroticism, introduced the "Nudie-cutey" with The Immoral Mr. Teas. Soon grindhouses abounded with carefree antics of skinny-dipping and sunbathing nubiles in films such as Kiss Me Quick, and Dave Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis's Adventures of Lucky Pierre.
The combination of widened freedom of expression and the emergence of the drive-in market in the late 50s and 60s ushered in a new Exploitation era. A new generation of exploiteers realized a changing society required new forms of shock and titillation. When the nudie-cuties wore out their welcome, David Friedman and H.G. Lewis shifted gears in 1963 with Scum of the Earth, a tale of a modeling co-ed's slippery descent into the world of pornography. The success of Russ Meyer's Lorna (1964) marked the death of the nudie and the ascent of mix of sex and violence known as the "roughie." Other exponents of this creepy sub-genre include R. Lee Frost's unsettling The Defilers (1965), Joseph Mawra's Olga series, and Doris Wishman's outré fantasies.
Promising bizarre rituals from around the world, the Italian Mondo Cane (1962, and loosely translated, "It's a dog's world") codified the Mondo movie, an episodic mix of documentary and outright fake footage. Drawing from a form dating back to the silent era, the tremendous success of Mondo Cane inspired Mondo Freudo (1968), Mondo Nudo (1963), Mondo Topless (1966), Mondo Bizarro (1966) and The Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968). The genre torch is still carried by the Faces of Death VHS series and any number of TV reality programs.
Ultimately, the greater freedom afforded by the MPPA ratings system sounded the death knell for the Exploitation film. Exploitation thrived on the taboo, on revealing the unseen, and little was left unseen in the XXX era. Nonetheless, the 1944 sex hygiene film Mom and Dad played theaters in the Northwest as late as in 1974, promising "the secrets of sensible sex!"
Mike Vrany's Something Weird Video continues to introduce a new generation to grindhouse rarities. Producer David F. Friedman, unable to market his old films to cable TV, opened his film vault to Something Weird. An affable raconteur, Friedman has provided entertaining commentaries to a number of DVDs. Even if the feature (usually a double bill) proves a bit logy, every SWV disc includes a treasure trove of extras: burlesque shorts, trailers, concession ads, classroom films and more.
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