This week’s entry: Exploitation Films
What it’s about: Usually lurid and low budget, exploitation films are the pulp novels of cinema, unapologetically portraying “explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion, and mayhem.” Many draw inspiration from a real-life subcultures being ignored by mainstream Hollywood, or a subject considered too shocking or risqué for serious film. Exploitation films were often shunned by respectable theaters, showing instead in grindhouse theaters of ill repute. While nearly always considered B-movies or worse during their time, exploitation films have proved to be widely influential to later, more mainstream directors.
Strangest fact: The same theaters would often show exploitation and arthouse movies side by side. Just as grindhouses were the only place to see tawdry exploitation films, they were also the only theaters that would play art movies that failed to pass the Hays Code, which laid down strict (by today’s standards) censorship from 1930 to 1968. Directors who were acclaimed as artists in Europe, including Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel, were forced to put their movies into grindhouses when they hit the American market.
Biggest controversy: It’s all controversy, baby! But initially, many exploitation flicks tried to skirt censorship by presenting themselves as cautionary tales. This isn’t a film about lesbian biker cannibals, it’s a film that warns the children about the dangers of lesbian biker cannibals! Won’t somebody think of the children? The classic example is 1936’s Reefer Madness, still infamous for its hysterical and laughably inaccurate portrayal of pot smokers. Hollywood wouldn’t get drug users’ behavior right for another 42 years, with the release of the well-researched documentary Up In Smoke.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Many African-Americans were able to break into Hollywood because of blaxploitation. The genre began as a way of reaching black audiences who were more or less ignored by mainstream Hollywood, and in doing so provided work for black actors and directors who were equally ignored. While the genre was often attacked for reinforcing stereotypes, and many of the films are cheaply made, movies like Shaft—a huge hit that saved MGM from bankruptcy—proved that not only was there a large, untapped black audience for action films, but that white audiences would show up to see a film with a largely black cast.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Exploitation films are more than happy to rip off other movies. One subgenre is the “mockbuster,” a cheaply made imitation of a current popular film, either appealing to someone who saw the legitimate blockbuster and wants more, or people who mistakenly buy Snakes On A Train, Alien Vs. Hunter, The Da Vinci Treasure, or Transmorphers thinking they’re getting a better-known film with a similar title.
Turkey in particular has a long tradition of stealing movies outright. Turksploitation is less a genre than a name for that country’s practice in the ’70s and ’80s of blatantly imitating American movies, sometimes even re-using footage without permission. The footage in question often isn’t even of the film being ripped off. The poster for Badi, the Turkish version of E.T., includes an image of the Starship Enterprise, while Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam recycles footage from Star Wars, and uses the soundtrack of that film, plus the original Battlestar Galactica, Planet Of The Apes, Moonraker, Flash Gordon, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Turks also got an unauthorized Star Trek movie six years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Also noteworthy: While America’s censorship laws provided a niche for exploitation films, they’re not limited to America. In the 1970s, Japan began producing chambara, a revisionist take on the samurai genre with gore, nudity, and darker themes. Italy also has a long tradition of giallo films—slasher films that traditionally feature a gruesome crime and then a search for the killer. Terms like Ozploitation, Turksploitation, and even Canuxsploitation have also been used for their home countries’ exploitation film output.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of the most popular styles of exploitation film is the splatter film, a horror movie characterized by extreme violence and gore. For horror fans, the low budget aesthetic is often part of splatter’s appeal, although in recent years, the splatter film tradition has led to the more mainstream “torture porn” subgenre.
Further down the wormhole: In a no-longer-active off-Wikipedia link, Salon talks about rapture-themed movies like the Left Behind series as a form of Christian exploitation movie. The rapture, of course, is a Christian interpretation of the end of the world, in which Jesus Christ’s return leads to Armageddon, the prophesied end of the world. Wikipedia also lists numerous potential secular Armageddons, including World War III. We’ll look at the terrifying possibilities for that conflict next week.