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?