When exploitation goes mainstream: The 70s, 80s and beyond.
With the release (and subsequent banning) of Human Centipede 2 (2011), exploitation films have made a dramatic return. It seems that the human “car crash” interest in seeing the un-seeable is back, and filmmakers are again ready to exploit it for money. The similarities with the 80s exploitation cycle is no coincidence, and many of these older films are now finding an audience on DVD. Low production values and questionable morals often make them unwatchable, but their history is one of the most interesting chapters in the story of cinema.
Exploitation in the movies is nothing new. Even before the MPAA existed (1922) filmmakers were inserting nudity and violence into movies for the purpose of titillation. Even after restrictions were imposed many filmmakers found ways around them. These included documentaries about childbirth, autonomy and nudist colonies - all made with questionable educational value and suggestive advertising.
The phenomena of the 70s/80s cycle of exploitation first hit the mainstream due to the success of Halloween (1978) and (more importantly) Friday the 13th (1980). These films showed the major studios that that a cheap movie ($2M) could be made to turn over a huge profit ($8-20M) on the promises of nudity and explicit violence. At the time notable critics (such as Roger Ebert) saw this as selling out; but these days it can be seen as a precursor to the modern cycle of action and romantic comedies - a form of exploitation in their own right.
Some independent studios tried to turn a profit with X-rated and unrated movies released in pornography cinemas (see Roger Corman), but most films of this period were heavily cut to receive R rated status and a mainstream release. These included such Friday the 13th rip offs as The Burning (1981), Prom Night (1980) and The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) as well as (now considered) classics such as Tenebre (1982) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). These edits often made the plots even more incomprehensible and removed the special effects (such as this now famous scene in the burning) that were their main selling point.
The introduction of the video tape removed this self-censorship, and these films ended up being re-released in an uncut form. Many of these were given completely new titles designed to capitalise on unconnected successful franchises. For example Naked Exorcism (1985) became Return Of the Exorcist and then Exorcist III. Another example is Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) which was alternatively titled Sex Crime Of The Century on video format. Even stranger still – some film makers produced new films (for example, the particularly piss poor Snuff (1976)) by splicing together scenes from older ones. The results of this were often as incomprehensible as you would imagine.
Of all the countries to capitalise on this boom, it was Italy that produced the most misogynistic, immoral and often badly made films. American and Canadian movies (such as I Spit On Your Grave (1978), Ilsa – She Wolf Of The SS (1975) and Fight For Your Life (1977)) were often filled with rape and sadism (as well as being incredibly racist and sexist), but it was the Italian films that took this to even sleazier levels. Films such as The Gestapo’s Last Orgy (1977), Anthropophagous: The Beast (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981) are as immoral and sickening in their execution as their titles promise.
Certain clichés and sub genres started to pop up, all of them designed to maximise the amount of nudity and gore shown on screen. These films often came in (what has become to be known as) cycles. Rape-revenge, blaxploitaion, zombies, cannibals, slashers and women in prison movies were all popular. The sub genre of “Nazi-ploitation” is perhaps the most notorious and bizarre. These films often included large breasted Nazi officers, were set in concentration camps and involved the rape and torture of beautiful women.
The art-form of the trailer was replaced by the art-form of the video sleeve. Most of this artwork was far more interesting the films them selves, exploitation is more about marketing than filmmaking. Great taglines (quite a few films used “Just keep repeating to yourself…it’s only a movie, its only a movie”), promises of genuine snuff scenes (“filmed in south America, where life is cheap”) and of true stories were common. The artwork was often more explicit than the films themselves, a tactic that backfired in the UK as it lead to the banning of many titles.
Despite the shocking subject matter, many of these films now look quaint. Exploitation is mainstream these days. Films such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Human Centipede (2009) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) are as exploitative and poor as the 1980s straight-to-video titles. Despite a few “now-considered-classics” (Texas Chainsaw (1974), Evil Dead (1981), Shaft (1971)) most of the original exploitation cycle were terrible movies. It is therefore surprising that so many them still find an audience. It is an irony that the status of banned “video nasty” is now considered a badge of honour, and this has lead to many should-be-forgotten crap films getting a DVD release.
NOTE: This was mostly written from useless information in my memory and I apologies for any inaccuracies and mistakes.