Exploitation Movie Posters

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

These days, everyone loves old exploitation movies — even smart people. In fact, it seems to me that old exploitation movies are to the artsy-smartsy set of today what Hollywood classics starring Bogart and Cagney were to the artsy-smartsy set of the ’60s and ’70s. They’ve become a significant cultural thing, one that’s frequently referenced and reworked by creative types seeking to align themselves with a certain vibe or attitude. It’s funny to think about, isn’t it? Funny to think that hip young people are perhaps more familiar with the work of Fenech and Grier than they are with that of Garbo and Dietrich. But there’s really no figuring the ebb and flow of culture. It just sort of goes where it wants to go, like a finicky cat. And all we can do is diligently follow it around with our pocket video cameras, hoping against hope that we’ll get some good stuff to post on Youtube.

For what it’s worth, I’m often less than moved by a lot of this . . . well, exploitationploitation. Tarantino, for instance, tends to leave me cold. I experience his movies as compendiums of borrowings, clunkily strung together like songs on a mix tape or studiously conglomerated like magazine clippings tacked to a teenager’s wall. QT seems to have little regard for what we’ve traditionally enjoyed in movies — for the delight of sinking into an enveloping through-time experience, one with organically-integrated moods, stories, textures, atmospheres. Most everything in his work comes off as a clipping, an excerpt, a quip. Even his justly famous dialog plays like that — like snippets of monologue culled from the exploitation movie running through QT’s head. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and Tarantino has certainly bent it to some interesting ends, but there’s also something half-formed and persnickety about it, something that never quite coheres or sinks in. It’s as though Tarantino is prevented from really cutting loose by his habit of turning everything into a grocery list of associations.

The newer exploitationish movies I’ve enjoyed the most tend to be more modest — as well as more willing to deliver on a more conventional movie level. They’re things that start with a grotty, anything-can-happen vibe and then build progressively, accelerating through moods and schocks and chunks of plot, all while keeping your senses keyed to the moment. Jonathan Mostow’s nerve-rattling “Breakdown” is a good example. So is “Wolf Creek,” a moody slasher-type thing from Australian writer-director Greg McLean. I also enjoyed Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects,” a flavorful take on the “sinister family” trope that includes one of the great uses of popular music in recent memory — a doomed automobile charge scored to the glorious strains of “Freebird.” I even (god help me) enjoyed the simplistic (and simplistically brutal) “The Human Centipede.” Its director, Tom Six, keeps the movie so clinical and matter of fact that it seems to be daring you to read something into it. (I initially saw it as a metaphor for the European Union, then I realized I’d been had.)

There are also some engergetic freakouts that I think outdo Tarantino in terms of wildness and bravado. Neveldine/Taylor’s “Crank” films spring to mind. They’re wiener-flapping streaks through trash culture that are equal parts Frank Tashlin and “Jackass,” and I loved every awful minute of ’em (especially the second one). There’s also Matthew Bright’s “Freeway,” a lurid, taboo-smashing bit of lunacy which might be the best thing Reese Witherspoon has ever done. And let’s not forget Takashi Miike, the Japanese wildman who is as adept at making upscale period pieces (“13 Assassins”) as he is at sending audiences scrambling for their barf bags (“Audition,” “Ichi the Killer”).

No disrespect meant to Tarantino — he’s a talented and intelligent guy. But I get more of a disreputable rush watching the above-mentioned films than I do watching anything bearing the QT imprimatur. And isn’t that the whole point of exploitation movies? That good old disreputable rush . . .

I guess we should pause here to define “exploitation.” Technically speaking, an exploitation movie is one that exploits a specific element. Of course, all movies exploit something — most big commercial releases exploit the names of popular movies stars. But the exploitation film is special in that it homes in on all that good-n-trashy stuff that tends to get weeded out of respectable culture. Roller derby, for instance. Or Kung fu. Or outré sexual habits. Hey, maybe these films are best seen as the cinematic analogs of the old carnival freak show, the kind that exploited nudity and weird physical deformities — the kind your mom would smack you for even thinking of wanting to see.  That said, not all films I would describe as exploitation are actually exploiting something — or at least not something you can put your finger on. Some are simply in that squalid, sensationalistic vein. Maybe that’s why Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez prefer the term “grindhouse” — because it gets at the general feel of these movies rather than reduces them to a specific set of characteristics.

Still, characteristics are important, don’t you think? It’s always helpful to provide a list of characteristics.

For our purposes, a movie probably qualifies as exploitation if:

  • The title ends in an exclamation point.
  • It features Pam Grier, Roberta Collins, or Sid Haig.
  • Roger Corman had anything whatsoever to do with it.
  • In the pre-DVD era, you were most likely to see it in a drive-in or on late-night television.
  • If features a prison devoted to the rehabilitation of nubile, scantily-clad women.
  • It’s been released on DVD by several different companies, each version featuring a significantly different cut and/or level of quality.
  • The poster warns you that the movie should be avoided if you’re concerned with preserving your mental or physical well being.
  • The movie is known by more than one title.
  • The poster features more than two taglines.

With that in mind, below are some nice examples of American exploitation movie posters. To my mind, they often surpass the movies they advertise for sheer lurdiness of impact. If we return to the freak show analogy, these posters are like the grimy, half-tattered billboards you might see beside the carnival barker or the cotton candy seller — the ones so lustily pimping the wonders of the gorilla-faced boy or the three-titted woman. And if it turns out that the real thing doesn’t quite live up to the advertising pitch — if the gorilla-faced boy is just some schmuck with a nasty fungus on his kisser — then maybe the thrill of the pitch makes up for it. And maybe . . . just maybe, as your disappointment carries you out of that sooty trailer, your eye catches a sign or a billboard advertising another freak, another thrill, and your mind is set back to racing, speeding up to accommodate this new fix of anticipation. Because what if she really does have three tits?

Related:

  • A really good book on the history and art of exploitation movie posters.
  • A nice list of the wildest exploitation movies.
  • A list of the sickest exploitation movies.
  • Tarantino’s favorite grindhouse movies.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Commercial art, Movies, Performers, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Exploitation Movie Posters

  1. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    I seem to remember some sort of gurlz in prison movie with Linda Blair, at least I think she was in it. It was an excuse for girl fights in showers and so on. Best scene was when they were in the kitchen and some chick out of the blue flung a pot of boiling oil at another inmate. Funniest thing I ever saw.

    I totally agree with you about Tarentino. Talented as hell, but it’s all pastiche and not anything more. I don’t get the point, we have the originals, what do we need him for? I suppose younger audiences need the higher production values to get into it or something. But nothing he ever did was a match for that boiling oil bitch!

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  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Don’t think I’ve seen that one. Linda Blair definitely ended up on the exploitation end of things, though. Bless her.

    The women in prison movie is an interesting sorta thing. I’ve always meant to write a mini history of the genre.

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  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    I just realized that, on the Wired link, the photo used to illustrate Zulawski’s “Possession” is from the Neil Labute film starring Gwyenth Paltrow.

    http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/10/wildest-exploitation-movies/?pid=1316

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  4. Toddy Cat says:

    Personally, I think that “The Human Centipede” is a perfect metaphor for the E.U. You had it right originally.

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  5. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    I’m pretty new to the exploitation/grindhouse genre. It’s only in the last 2 years or so that I’ve made any effort to seek out and appreciate them.

    I recently watched these 2 documentaries on Netflix, both of which I enjoyed:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Grindhouse
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1623757/

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  6. chucho says:

    There are a couple of great DVD compendiums out there of trailers of exploitation flicks from the 60s and 70s. They beat the real thing by a country mile. 99% of those movies are unwatchable unless you’re drunk or stoned.

    Just recently I caught “Superfly” on cable. My friends and I watched that one all the time when I was younger. Watching it now, I couldn’t get over how plodding and technically inept it was. I needed a joint (or rather, a gram) by the end of it.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I hear you. I recall not liking “Superfly.” But there’s some good stuff in there. I think Corman, Demme, Jack Starrett, Jack Hill, Russ Meyer, and Joseph Ruben were all pretty talented guys. Even Herschell Gordon Lewis has his charms.

      Actually, one of the things I wanted to get into in this post (and then got too bored to follow through with) is the unintegrated, non-cohesive quality of exploitation movies. You mostly watch these things for the details — a performance or two, a funny bit, something shocking and bloody, some titties, etc. And that’s what you remember and talk about later. I take that to be essential to Tarantino’s grounding: as a young person, he spent so much time remembering and talking about those moments that, when he started making his own movies, they came out as “greatest hits” collections composed of old movie junk.

      (This is kind of what Kael was talking about in her “Trash, Art and the Movies” essay. Tarantino seems almost to have taken that essay as a manifesto — though I don’t think Kael ever really meant to extol the virtues of AIP or kung fu pictures.)

      I don’t think it’s just Tarantino either — the entire culture has become all about isolated details, high points, shock effects, references, LOLs. Some of this is due to technology (digital editing packages, iTunes music enhancement, cut and paste), but I think it’s also due to 1) the sheer preponderance (and availability) of the cultural stuff that’s floating all around us, and 2) the withering of traditional art-making standards and practices.

      You first started seeing this in the ’80s with rap sampling. Kids maybe couldn’t (or didn’t want to) bother learning an instrument, so they started making songs composed of bits of other shit — old movies, old records, etc. The Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” was a big milestone. Then there was “The Simpsons” and Tarantino. At the time, all of this stuff seemed really clever, and it still seems clever in a lot of ways. But it also led to the de-emphasizing of traditional art qualities, like narrative and cohesiveness. Everything became a wink, a joke, a snotty aside.

      Anyway, I think that’s a big reason why exploitation movies have cultural currency right now — because their irregular, jaggy sensationalism and knock-your-socks-off shockingness speak to young people in a way they instantly understand. They get that stuff in a way they don’t get something like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

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  7. chucho says:

    Also food for thought–the guys at MST3k took this genre (and others) and made something unique and lasting out of it. I can’t say the same for Tarantino. Has anyone seen “Pulp Fiction” lately? It’s aged about as well as a Cracker CD.

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  8. Fake Herzog says:

    This is a great post. I’m the opposite of Lawyer Blowhard…I watched all my exploitation movies when I was young and now that I’m older, the father of a couple of young girls, and serious about my Catholicism, I’m not such a big fan of the gratuitous nudity (i.e. I’ve become a prude).

    However, back in the day the women in prison genre was one of my favorites (of course it was!) and the Linda Blair classic is Chained Heat. The movie also had Sybil Danning who was an exploitation regular — there is something hard and nasty about her look.

    I’m also a big fan of the Crank movies and really just about any Jason Statham action movie I’ll go see (although the remake of The Mechanic was bad).

    I couldn’t agree more about QT — my two favorite movies of his are his first, Reservoir Dogs, which I think had less of the gimicks and pastiche feel that he used with his later films and the underappreciated Jackie Brown, because Pam Grier as the main character is compelling and interesting and once again the film has a pretty conventional narrative structure. However, as exploitation action films, I do think the two Kill Bill films are pretty good, although I’d probably rather watch a modern Asian action film (e.g. something with Tony Jaa) most days of the week.

    I love this blog.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Glad you’re digging the blog.

      Yes, “Chained Heat”! I’ll have to catch up with that. How has it escaped my eyes for so long?

      A really terrific (and early) women in prison film is “Caged!,” released in 1950 and starring Eleanor Parker. It’s beautifully made in a very non-exploitationish manner, but it’s also incredibly trashy in its way.

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  9. I got a big kick out of “Piranha 3-D.” Seemed to me to have a lot of trashy, lowdown, dirty/cheap-minded exuberance.

    Do the “torture porn” movies qualify as contempo exploitation films? I can’t stand watching them myself, but maybe they do. Heck, I don’t watch many contempo films generally.

    I always thought that a good way to conceptualize exploitation films was that they started with the hook — basically that they started with the poster — and worked their way back from there to the actual film. “OK, I’ve got kids on a beach, a big monster, and don’t forget the titties and an 18 wheeler crash. Now, go write the script and make the movie.”

    Agree with you totally about the cut-n-paste, greatest-hits-all-the-time quality of contempo pop culture. It’s as though the people who produce today’s popular culture aren’t going to stop until they turn absolutely everything into a highlights reel. Maybe once they’re done with that, they’ll start doing highlights reels drawn from the original highlights reels. Or, for all I know, maybe they’ve reached that stage already.

    Seconding Blowhard Esq.’s enthusiasm for the doc about the Philippines and exploitation flicks. It’s fun, smart and informative. There’s a good semi-related doc called “Midnight Movies” that’s worth searching out too. It’s a history of the midnight-movie phenomenon, and it’s also terrif pop-culture history.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I loved “Piranha 3D”! I think I may have seen it on your recommendation, actually. Laughed my ass off. Thought it was kind of sexy in a trashy sorta way too.

      I don’t know how I came up with my list of “newer” exploitationish fare. Those are just the ones that sprang to mind.

      I guess the “torture porn” stuff qualifies as exploitation. Why wouldn’t it? “Wolf Creek” and “Human Centipede” sort of fall into that class, but I saw more to admire in those movies than just pain and gore.

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