The Films That Ate Hollywood
You’ve got to love any movie that’s called I Spit on Your Grave, or Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, or I Dismember Mama. These and a thousand others that sound just as tacky form the legacy of “exploitation” pictures that nurtured a whole generation of moviegoers.
The era that sired these fringe dwellers has vanished, co-opted by the studios and cable TV, but the memories they conjure, and the dollars they made shaking down audiences, are part of Hollywood’s colorful past. Unlike today’s glossy studio fare, none of them was ever meant to be taken seriously; they were just an excuse for 500 screaming kids to get out of the house on a Saturday afternoon, or for 500 cars to park at a drive-in so that the 1,000 people in them could neck.
Exploitation films do not aspire to art; they exist solely to separate audiences from their money. At least they don’t deplete the ozone layer. Here are some of the most notorious that have ever tickled the public’s fancy:
I Drink Your Blood and I Eat Your Skin. This 1970 double feature from producer Jerry Gross (no kidding) was billed as “two of the most horrifying Horror Shows ever presented.” The first was about a kid who feeds hippies rabies-infected meat pies; the second (actually made in 1964) had something to do with zombies.
2000 Maniacs. A car caravan of northern vacationers is sidetracked into a southern town where ghosts of the Civil War dead slaughter them in ways that would make Andersonville look like Club Med. Famed sleazemeister Herschell Gordon Lewis had $80,000 to make this 1964 gorefest, which film historian Richard Meyers has called “Bloody Brigadoon.” Although made before the movie rating system, this was self-labeled “Inadvisable for Children Under 16,” which, of course, meant that every kid under 16 lined up to try to get past the cashier!
Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Producer Herman Traeger and director Don Edmonds thoughtfully dedicated this 1974 romp “with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.” And what “heinous crimes” were they referring to? Well, in just 95 minutes, Ilsa told the story of a medical camp warden, played by Dyanne Thorne, who conducts pain experiments on female prisoners by day, and sex experiments on male prisoners by night.
Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill. Russ Meyer, king of the nudies, created this truly subversive romp in 1966. Ostensibly an outdoor action picture in which a series of male thugs try to ravage a trio of cantilevered women, it turns into a prefeminist revenge movie in which the women vanquish the men in ways that defy physics (not to mention dramatic logic). Meyer is a curious case. He has been vilified by feminists for portraying women as sex objects, yet he empowers his female characters in ways that still make mainstream Hollywood uncomfortable. The fact that the sex is simulated, and that Meyer’s snazzy editing was 20 years ahead of MTV, makes this a film that manages to exploit even itself.
Ms. 45. Home video has done for this 1981 quickie what no rumor campaign ever achieved: it has made it a film classic, and given its director, Abel Ferrara, a reputable career (Bad Lieutenant, Miami Vice, and the 1993 reremake Body Snatchers). Zoe Tamerlis stars as a rape victim who gets a gun and shoots any man who propositions her. Written by Nicholas St. John for Navaron Films, Ms. 45 surprised audiences with its production polish, not to mention its message.
Foxy Brown. Does this sound like Quentin Tarantino’s 1998 homage, Jackie Brown? It ought to; both starred Pam Grier as one tough lady, only this 1974 original—written and directed by Jack Hill—got there first. Foxy is a hooker who goes after bad white guys. Coming amid the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, Foxy Brown struck a cord with audiences who appreciated an action hero who was black, female, and justified.
Last House on the Left. Remember when Lucy met Desi? When Laurel met Hardy? When Abbott met Costello? Similar film history was made in 1970 when producer Sean S. Cunningham met writer-director Wes Craven while making a documentary called Together. When that softcore cheapie took in millions, the releasing company, Hallmark, re-paired Cunningham and Craven to make Last House on the Left. Released in 1972, the slasher movie was sold with the tag line “To avoid fainting keep repeating ‘It’s Only a Movie … Only a Movie … Only a Movie’.” They also affixed a warning that said, “Not recommended for persons over 30!” Since then, Cunningham has begat a money-minting series called Friday the 13th, and Craven has become the screen’s most respected interpreter of dreams with his Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. As for Hallmark Releasing, keep reading …
Mark of the Devil. It’s loud, it’s bloody, and it’s sickening, but that’s not what made this 1972 torture-fest (with Udo Kier, Herbert Lom, and cult actor Reggie Nalder) successful. It’s the fact that Hallmark Releasing gave away a free vomit bag with every admission. The gimmick was both perverse and memorable, but here’s the kicker: original barf bags have been known to sell for $100 at collectors’ shows!
Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a tossup which film is more famous, or did more to establish the trend of Midnight Screenings. Whether George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie epic is gorier or more chilling than Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror fest is something for academics to debate. Suffice it to say that both films succeed because of their delicious aura of “forbidden fruit,” which revved up audiences before the screenings even began. Like people waiting in line to see The Exorcist (in 1973) who got sick out of sheer anticipation, Living Dead and Chainsaw stand as the epitome of the exploitation film in which the group experience overshadows the film itself.
Snuff. Whether this 1976 “event” was what everybody said it was, or was just a huge hoax, is something that hardly matters any more. The rumor started by entrepreneur Alan Shackleton was that Snuff was made in Argentina “where life is cheap.” The imported film was a nominal murder mystery about a Charles Manson–like crime. The U.S. distributor filmed extra footage, however, in which an actress, cast to resemble an actress in the South American original, was shown cleaning up the set while being secretly filmed. Suddenly people crash in on her! The girl is grabbed! Knives are produced! They tear her apart! Blood flows everywhere! Or does it? Educated by two decades of anatomically realistic gore effects, modern audiences would have no trouble seeing that Snuff was a fake. But in 1976 it was cutting edge, so to speak. It was also brilliantly exploited by Shackleton, who hired people to picket the film, then hired more people to play law enforcement authorities who hassled the pickets!
In a tragic example of life imitating schlock, in 1991 the Edgar award–winning mystery writer Gregory Mcdonald (Fletch) wrote a novel titled The Brave in which a Native American named Rafael sacrifices his life in a snuff film to raise money to save his tribe. The book was optioned for filming by a would-be producer named Aziz Ghazal. In late 1993, Ghazal killed himself, his wife, and their daughter after evidence emerged that he had sold the rights to two different companies: Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures and the Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures. In 1997 The Brave was eventually filmed starring, and directed by, Johnny Depp, but it has not been released as of this writing.
Casino Royale Riot
For the 1967 James Bond comedy Casino Royale, Columbia Pictures’ New England PR representative John Markle collaborated with the Boston exhibitor, Sack Theatres, to hold a midnight showing and admit anyone who showed up dressed as a spy. Who would show up for a midnight screening? they wondered. What they hadn’t considered was that the stunt was held in late May, which was the pre-exam reading period for the 100,000 Boston area college students—10,000 of whom showed up at the 2,800-seat Savoy Theatre expecting to be admitted. When 7,200 weren’t, the Boston Police were called in to disperse the crowd, and the event made headlines from Tokyo to Times Square.